26 April 2009
Interview: Laisha Rosnau
Your back of the book bio:
Laisha Rosnau’s first novel, The Sudden Weight of Snow, was published by McClelland & Stewart in 2002 & was an Honourable Mention for the Books in Canada First Novel Award. Her first collection of poetry, Notes on Leaving (Nightwood Editions 2004), won the Acorn-Plantos People’s Poetry Award, & her second collection, Lousy Explorers will be published by Nightwood in April 2009. A former Executive Editor of Prism International, her prose & poetry have been published in Canada, the US, the UK, & Australia.
Your playground bio:
Laisha Rosnau is the proud mama of Jonah Alexander, born June 2007, & is currently gestating “Perogy,” due June 2009.
Do you identify yourself as first a writer and then a mother, the other way around, or something else? Why do you think this is?
Most of the time, it doesn’t feel very polarized. I’m thankful that I had already published two books before Jonah came along. I identified myself as a writer before I became a mother. I still identify myself as a writer as well as a mother, though a different times of the day or week, I can feel like one more than the other. Our next door neighbours have been taking care of Jonah twice a week since he turned one. On those days, in those hours, I am a writer first. Sometimes in the evenings when he’s asleep & I’m writing, I’m also a writer first. Whenever I’m with him, I’m Mama first & foremost. When walking or driving, I can be both. I can contemplate a line or a scene or character while he provides me with a running commentary of the world around us: “Truck, bird, bus, tree, truck, girl, bike, dog, truck…” (if up to him, all future work would feature trucks as central motifs.) Being a writer doesn’t stop when I’m not writing. Neither does being a mother stop when I’m not with Jonah. I’m thankful that I don’t feel like I have to make a choice of being one over the other.
Did you always want to be a writer? A mother? How does the reality differ from the fantasy?
Yes to both. I always wanted to be an artist, though not always specifically a writer. My mom saved a copy of a letter I wrote to Katherine Paterson, the author of Bridge To Terabithia, in grade 2 or 3 which I ended “P.S. What’s it like to be an author? I’d like to be one when I grow up.” At different points I have wanted to be a painter, a photographer, or a dancer. I didn’t have enough of the right kind of talent for those things--or enough interest or passion to sustain a practice--but writing has always been a constant. I can’t say there’s been anything else that has topped the list of things I wanted to do when I grew up--writer & mother.
I never went through a phase in my life when I questioned wanting to have kids. I loved babies when I was a girl, loved babysitting as a teen, & worked in childcare as a young adult. I thought I’d have kids by the time I was in my mid-twenties. Then I got accepted to grad school, broke up with my long-term boyfriend & no longer had a future father for my imaginary offspring. I lay awake in my single bed in my graduate student dorm room & thought, “Okay, I’d better write a novel now because that’s all I have left.” Nine months later, I had a draft. A year after I started, I had a book deal. My first book came out a month before I turned thirty. I met my husband at a book launch a year & a half later & our first child came out the day I turned thirty-five.
Though the first book publication was a really heady time, the reality of being a writer differs more greatly from the fantasy than the reality of being a mother does for me. People can tell you over & over again how unglamorous the writing life is but it is difficult to imagine until you experience it first-hand. Even then, writers like me are so easy to please that all it takes is a tiny travel fund & the hospitality suite at writers’ events every few years to make up for years of monotony, solitude, & crippling self-doubt on the job.
Even though I always wanted kids, I don’t think I harboured many fantasies of what it would be like. Working in childcare (as a nanny, in a daycare, etc) helped. I stopped in my mid-twenties because I was already getting burned out of other peoples’ kids & wanted to save some energy & enthusiasm for my own, knowing then I’d need every reserve I had. If anything, I expected to have a more difficult experience of early motherhood than I have so far. My son brings me more joy than I ever could have imagined possible. I credit part-time childcare with some of my capacity for joy. I would always love my son as much, regardless of whether or not I had a few hours away from him each week, but childcare – & the time it allows me to write--allows me to love motherhood even more.
What are your measurements of success as a mother? As a writer? Have these evolved and, if so, can you talk about in what way and why do you think this is?
Having a curious, engaged, happy (for the most part) child & being a curious, engaged, happy (for the most part) woman alongside him. No small task as it takes the right balance of sleep, food, exercise, fresh air, social activity, quiet time, etc. for both of us-- & every day is different. I found it challenging enough to find the right balance before Jonah came along. Now to keep both of us in mind each day? It’s not strenuous but it is constant-- & worth the daily effort. Sometimes success means simply getting from one end of the day to the other. If I can laugh about it at the end of the day, it’s been a good day. If I’m crying, maybe not so good but part of the process.
I am learning to measure success in the process of both parenting & writing. Success in motherhood cannot be measured in one final “product”-- & neither can it in writing. Feeling a measure of success in the process of writing takes just as much juggling as does parenting to find the right balance in any given day or moment. If I am curious & engaged in what I am writing, researching or editing, I consider that a huge success. Oddly (or not?), I have less of an expectation of happiness while writing as compared to while parenting. Moment to moment, parenting gives me a lot of happiness. Moment to moment, I often find writing hard--it’s fulfilling & it can be sublime at times but a lot of the time it feels hard (in a “good” way, though not necessarily a “happy” way, if that makes sense.)
There are days when living with a toddler is like living with a tiny drunk person--joyful, clumsy, clinging to me saying “dub you, Mama!” then pushing me away in protest of some perceived slight. Other days, it’s like living with a mini Dalai Lama & I get blissed-out off his joyful fumes. Living with a book in progress is similar, I think, though my manuscripts rarely tell me they love me & they seem drunk way more often.
What's your writing schedule like? What was its journey to get to where it is now?
Uh, writing schedule? It used to be the thing of daily quotas, weekly goals, monthly milestones, of hours & words a day eventually adding up to become, ta-da, manuscripts! Now I fly by the seat of my pants & try to apply said pants to chair to write when I can. Nap times, evenings, weekends – though many of those times devolve into a flurry of email/Facebook/internet-lurking procrastination. I tell myself, “I just need little break” then I wonder if I should nap. Sometimes I attempt to nap & as soon as my head hits the pillow, the wee wonder awakens--& that’s it for my “writing” for that day! Nonetheless, somehow, it gets done. I feel no less productive than before I had a child--I clearly am less productive in terms of solely writing but when I think of everything else I get done in a day and a week--& still find time to write – I feel sometimes feel like an icon of productivity. If I don’t, I tell myself I should!
I also went through a period, pre-baby of course, when I was working with daily quotas and monthly goals. How I write has changed so much that I doubt I'll ever return to that model. Do you long to return to that way of approaching your work? Is it a goal of your to do so, or have things changed so much you're on your way to another model?
Actually, I’ve found it liberating no longer be writing within the parameters of words and hours per day. Since Jonah was born, my goals have seemed more holistic somehow. Instead of thinking I should write 2000 words a day or a poem a week, I’ve thought, “Let’s see if I can gather these poems into something resembling a manuscript” then “Ohhh my, these poems need some serious editing” then “I think I’ll send some of these poems out,” etc. I’ve done what I can in the time that I’ve had and somehow a book came out of it.
I’m working toward another model but I don’t know what it is. I’m inspired by the anecdotes of other writing moms, like Carol Shields who says she started out writing one hour a day, between 11 AM and noon when her kids came home from school. More recently and closer to me, Annabel Lyon set a goal to write 200 words while her two young children napped and she has a novel coming out this summer (granted, she started it before the kids came along). Goals like that seem manageable (although I know when it comes down to it, that one hour & 200 words will seem difficult!) and I’d like to find ones that fit with my own life and family.
Has becoming a mother changed how you write? What your write? If so, in what ways?
I’m still able to think of novels & characters & scenes. I’m still able to do research “toward” a novel. I can even write notes on file cards! But to write a novel? Umm. Even with two days of childcare, I haven’t been able to find a way to sustain the kind of focus I need to write a novel. That said, I didn’t get those two days of full-time care until I was already pregnant with my second child and had just signed a contract for my upcoming book of poetry, on which I’ve been working on until a couple of weeks ago when it was sent to the printer. Perhaps I should cut myself some slack.
Writing poetry in Jonah’s first year was a God-send. I could write or edit a draft of a poem during nap-times. Unlike writing fiction for me, it seemed like the times I was away from poetry increased my focus when I returned to it. When it came down to the last few weeks of intensive editing, it was exhausting. Parenting a toddler and editing poetry are such different ways of thinking and focusing--one no less challenging or stimulating than the other but each so different. To have my brain so stretched each day was exhausting. When I think back on the intensity of editing my novel, I can’t image attempting that while parenting a baby or toddler, though there are women who do it so it is possible. I still harbour fantasies of writing scenes of a novel during nap-times with the next (in these fantasies, both children nap at the same time, for the same length of time, each day) but I realize this is wildly optimistic/unrealistic. I also realize how much I loved spending the first year of my son’s life with him full-time & how quickly it passed. My writing career isn’t going to disappear, but my children’s first months & years will.
With a new book and a new baby arriving at around the same time, do you have any goals for your next writing project--poetry or novel or? Or are you going to just try to survive the first year and then see what unfolds?
Mostly the latter. Since we’ll be moving cities within three months of the new baby’s birth, I’m really only aiming for survival and perhaps even sanity in the first six months--dare to dream. Moving with a newborn & a toddler? I’ll be lucky if I can return email.
I’ve been incubating another novel since I was pregnant with Jonah. I’ve daydreamed about it, made notes, done research, even sketched ideas (literally drawn little pictures) of what it will look like. I plan to keep doing those kinds of things and I think that novel will keep living in me until I have the time, means and focus to write it but I don’t think that will happen until the next baby is at least a year-old or more.
How aware is you child of your writing?
Jonah is still too young to have much awareness of it all. I recently thought to take my books down and show him my author photos on them. “Mama?” he said, and “book?” Yes, I said, mama writes books. I’d like to keep instilling this knowledge in him and our next child.
Virginia Woolf famously wrote, "…a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write…." She never had children. Is a room to yourself enough for a writing-mama? What do you need?
A room is nice, yes--but even more important to me is a supportive partner & part-time childcare. I’d take both of those over a room, if I had to. It’s ridiculous but sometimes I feel guilty about having p/t childcare, thinking about how other writing moms were able to navigate their way through early childhood without the “luxury” of any childcare. But then I remind myself that that plays into the whole “mother as martyr” thing, in which despite having full lives, degrees, & careers before children, we are expected to somehow embrace motherhood so completely that planning toddler activities & play-dates will fulfill us. Not so for this mama. To forgo time set aside specifically to write would also play into the whole “art as a hobby” thing, something else I want to avoid.
As it is, I only have fourteen hours a week of childcare & when I have another child in a couple of months, while I’d like eldest to go to care part-time, I’ll probably be with the youngest full-time for the first year. During Jonah’s first year, I wrote during naps & in the early morning between nursing. With a two kids, I’m not sure when the writing will happen. I may be happy to take a full year “off” (ha, ha!) or I may be bleary-eyed with lack of sleep & batsh*t with not enough writing. I really can’t tell.
It’s very important to me that my work as a writer isn’t perceived as less valid because it’s “part-time” (in practice – in spirit it’s a full-time passion) & the financial remuneration from it is sporadic at best. Thankfully, I have a partner who has never doubted how important writing is & has always supported me in finding the time & ways to write. I want to instil this kind of respect for what I do in my children as well & the way I can see how to do this is to have things like specific times to write, child-care to make that possible, & a room or a space that is reserved for my writing – things that say, “What Mommy does is important.”
If you could go back, what would you tell your pre-child self?
Get over yourself! Do you really need to go out for coffee, drinks, dancing so often? Stop staring into middle space & plot out a novel or two that you can bang off during future nap-times (ha, ha!). I wouldn’t really – I’m glad I did all that & had the time to do so.
What do you think your pre-child self would tell you?
You should go out dancing more often! Take your husband! You’ve forgotten how much you like it! Also, a closet full of clothes purchased at Superstore does not a wardrobe make.
In terms of this topic (motherhood and writing), do you have any regrets? Guilt? Envy?
When I worked from home before being a mother, not once did I wonder why I didn’t bake muffins more often (read: ever). Since being at home as a mom, thoughts like that often cross my mind. Though I spend a lot of time at home (either with Jonah, or writing, or both) & I can’t stand clutter, I’m not a super-domestic person. This didn’t bother me when I was a work-from-home writer – why should it bother me now as a work-from-home mom?
In terms of writing & motherhood, no regrets or guilt so far. I feel envious in a hypothetical way of people with more time (& more time to sleep) but when I think of what I have--a supportive partner, a beautiful son, a writing career that finds it way into whatever space & time it can--I can’t feel envious for long.
The early years of motherhood have been described by various writers as a haze or as an incredibly creative time. How would you describe it? Are you still in it? When did you leave?
I’ve found it to be both a haze & an incredibly creative time – in more ways than one: I’m about to publish my third book (end of April) & about to have my second baby (mid-June). I feel like my mind, heart, capacity for empathy, adaptability, sense of humanness & sense of humour have all been expanded gazillion-fold since having a child--& this has left me feeling more creative than ever. Yet while I feel incredibly creative, actually getting to the page requires stumbling through a haze of interrupted sleep, loads of dirty diapers and days of being a constant event planner/personal chef/chauffeur /educator/nurse/comfort for a toddler. And this is just with one child. Will I feel even more creative with two? Will the haze thicken? Will I need to wield my will-power like a machete to get any writing done? I don’t know--you tell me, Marita!
To answer you: Yes, yes, and maybe. I had to use my mad machete skills to carve time for me to write. It wasn't a matter of will power, but creating opportunities for me to write during the times of day that I could write. By the time my boys are in bed I'm so spent all I can do is drink tea and watch Mansbridge and sleep is so precious to me that I refuse to get out of bed before my children do!
Have you found that your times when you can have creative output has changed at all? I remember that you used to be an early-morning writer. Is that still the case?
I’m still a night owl who wakes up early in the morning with the urge to write – not the most practical combination! When I was pregnant with Jonah, I’d wake at 4 or 5 AM and often get up to write then nap later. With this pregnancy, I still wake around the same time but most often I stay in bed (sometimes sleeping, sometimes not) knowing my toddler will be up by 7 AM and it will be game on, Mama, game on. If I could manage to get to bed early, I might be able to use this time. However, evenings are the time I spend with my husband, friends, connect over phone and email, the time I read for an hour in the bath…and then it’s 11 PM. I feel like I hardly have enough time to sleep now with one child, I can’t imagine how it will be with two, or what writing will take place when. I may figure something out, become adept at “creating opportunities” as you put it. Some things may have to go to create those opportunities--less bloody Facebook for example (the long baths stay)--& I’ll likely be begging you for toddler-sized morsels of advice from you soon!
Birthing a book is like birthing a baby. Way off or right on?
Somewhat off? Conceiving of, writing, & editing books has taken more sustained effort over longer periods of time. The act of creating a book requires inspiration, will, persistence, motivation, discipline, research, etc. The act of creating a baby requires one lucky roll in the sack followed by nine months of accepting that your body is now out of your control. I found it very strange in my first pregnancy that I was creating something by doing very little with my mind--my body had taken over &, apparently, knew what it was doing. I joke with friends, “That book isn’t going to write itself,” but those babies--they seem to know exactly what they’re doing in there & they do seem to grow themselves.
I don’t even know when the moment of “birthing” a book would be--upon finishing a first draft? Upon publication? Both of those things are on a continuum from the first ideas that form a book to the writers’ events & promotion that follow publication--opposite ends of the spectrum & neither are like birth to me. Giving birth was the single-most profound, extreme, intense, difficult, beautiful, all-consuming thing I’ve ever done. While I am incredibly proud to have conceived of, written, & published books, it just doesn’t compare to me.
I wanted to do this project because I found so few satisfying examples of the writing-mother. It was either the mythology of Alice Munro writing while her children played at her feet, the writer who resented and neglected her children because she was so consumed with her art, or someone like Sylvia Plath who ended up with her head in the oven. Which writing-mothers do you admire and why?
Until having a child, I didn’t think much about which writers were mothers or not. At some point, I became curious about the writers I knew who had children & asked them lots of questions about how they balanced writing and parenthood (or, acknowledged that “balance” might be the wrong thing to aim for!) but it was still theoretical, of course. Now having just one child, I have to say that I admire all mothers who write & all writers who are mothers. I know, that’s not a very specific answer but I really can’t narrow it down much. Knowing how challenging both writing and parenting are, & in very different ways, & knowing how much time each takes, I think anyone who does both is worthy of admiration. I admire most the friends I know who do both-–Jill Wigmore, Betsy Trumpener, Annabel Lyon, & you, Ms Marita! There are others, of course, but I mention friends who are also in the thick of raising young children while writing.
Someone else mentioned this in their interview--I read an interview with Margaret Atwood years ago in which she said something to the effect that she thought a person could write and raise a child/children, write and teach, teach and raise children, but not all three. I took that to heart. For a few years, I focussed on writing & teaching, & I loved both & the perspective each brought to the other. Now, while I’d still like to teach for a few days a year (yes, I said a few days!), what I really want is to write & raise my children. And that seems huge to me--it seems like enough, in the fullest, most fulfilled sense of the word.