5 July 2009
Your back of the book bio:
Started writing while working in theatre as an actor, director and dramaturge. Was Associate Dramaturge at the Banff Centre Playwrights Colony for five years in the 90s, ran the Saskatchewan Playwrights Centre for many years. The usual progression of stories in journals, a couple of small awards, shortlisted for the Journey Prize; first novel Open Arms published by D&M in 2001, shortlisted for Amazon/Books In Canada First Novel award. Second novel, Good to a Fault in the first season of Freehand Books, finalist for the Giller Prize and won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book, Canada & the Caribbean. GTAF will be published in the US, UK and Australia in 2010. Next book, about a sister-trio-harmony vaudeville act touring the prairies in 1911, due out in 2011.
Your playground bio:
Mother of Will, now 15, and Rachel, now 13, both born while we were on Peter’s first posting with the RCMP in Mayerthorpe, Alberta. When Will was one I worked as editor of the Mayerthorpe newspaper for six months, because a perfect grandmotherly babysitter offered to look after him, but I soon gave up on working outside—too much strain on everyone. Because Peter worked shifts (and it seemed like mostly nights) and needed a quiet house during the day, conventional babysitting didn’t work for us. And maybe because we were both quite old to be starting on this, after believing we wouldn’t be able to, we wanted to be with our children ourselves.
So I have stayed at home with them all this time, but have always worked more than full time on a variety of freelance editing and design jobs. Thank god for the interwebs.
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?
Depends on where I am. At school, definitely first a mother, possibly later as a writer (but remaining very wary of volunteer positions on the school newsletter).
Everywhere else, as a writer and possibly later as a mother, after sussing out the situation. I try not to talk about Will and Rachel, or their father Peter Ormshaw, partly because I try to keep their privacy intact, mostly because the danger is that I will talk about nothing else.
Did you always want to be a writer? A mother? How does the reality differ from the fantasy?
Always wanted to be writer, yes—although I spent many years as an actor, director and dramaturge in theatre. A mother, NO. I was the eldest of five and had enough of children when I was a child; I didn’t particularly want to have the chaos and worry, and didn’t think I’d be a very good mother. It wasn’t until I met Peter that I wanted to have children, because I thought our children would be interesting.
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?
Ouch. After a long year of book tours, I’ve been given a solid 3.2 from the Russian judge, aka Peter. As a mother: my children are happy, almost all the time, and pretty stable. They are not worried about money or food or social clumsiness; so we’ve averted my own childhood worries. I’m sure they have plenty of new worries all their own, but they are not in bad shape. Sometimes they are very smart, sometimes remarkably totty-headed. They are kind to each other and to us. People invite them to stay. They don’t eat like pigs; they are good at the things that matter most to them; I like them and love them, in fact I am besotted. I guess those are my measurements.
As a writer the measure of success is all internal, and they don’t give badges for that. A short-list or a win makes you feel okay about the work for fifteen or twenty minutes; digging down into it and working harder and trying to make it better is more lasting—maybe a whole half hour. Sigh.
What's your writing schedule like? What was its journey to get to where it is now?
Now, I write early in the morning until I have to get W & R up and off to school, about 7 a.m.; back to my desk by about 9. (After that break I find it hard to get back to work, and can end up answering email all day if I don’t watch out.) When they come home from school I talk to them for as long as they’ll listen, and then clean the kitchen and start supper, then go back to work until Peter comes home. After supper I bully someone into cleaning up, and go back to work until my eyes cross. And of course I write all weekend. During term time, I teach two days a week and they’re kind of luxurious social days where I don’t expect to get any writing done.
In the old days, I worked at four or five jobs: one big contract that took all my time for four or five months a year, and was dribs and drabs the rest of the year, plus teaching and editing jobs as they came along. I fitted writing in around the edges and in the early mornings, up till 2 or up at 5 a.m., wherever I could.
When the children were little I had an office (well, it was an unfinished concrete basement storage room) right beside their playroom, and I made myself a Dutch door by sawing the ordinary door in half. Then I could have the bottom of the door shut, so people knew I was working, but I could see and hear them in case there was trouble or need. I got used to listening with a tiny portion of my brain to the tone of their discourse rather than the words, and I worked better that way because I wasn’t wondering what was going on.
Has becoming a mother changed how you write? What you write? If so, in what ways?
I suppose it has awakened me to the permanence of writing; to thinking about what they will think of my work when they are old enough; to not wanting to write something they’d be ashamed of. It’s made me cautious of how I exploit them. When they were very small I found Sharon Olds’s work disturbing and wondered how she could do it; now I applaud her bravery in writing that deeply private part of life. But I still wonder what her kids think of those poems about their penises etc.
I hope it has not changed what I write very much, even given all that. I certainly write faster and more disciplinedly now than I did before I had children. (I brush my teeth faster and more disciplinedly than before I had children.)
How aware are your children of your writing?
Much the same way that I was aware of, and disliked, my mother’s obsessive sewing when I was a child, I think. It is the thing that distracts me and makes me hard to reach. They assume that I’ll do well and are unsurprised if anyone likes the books; they are unimpressed by my efforts as far as I can see. Probably because they can’t help thinking I might keep the kitchen a bit tidier and make more regular meals and not work them so hard if I wasn’t writing.
They don’t read my books, even though their friends do. My son kindly says he’ll listen to the audiobook when it comes out. But they are proud of me anyway, I think. They’re more interested in my theatre career, as ancient history, and in their own future writing careers.
Do they both want to be writers? How do you feel about this?
Delighted. It seems to me like the only sane thing to do. And I’d much rather they were writers than actors, which my daughter is also thinking about.
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?
You need a good partner who doesn’t see the house and kinder as your solo field. You need a partner who is a writer, or who understands writing, and who is patient and funny and believes that you are good at what you do. You could manage without this uber-human if you were a writer without children, but if you’re going to be a mama, I think you’d better find a good partner.
If you could go back, what would you tell your pre-children self?
Work faster. Don’t be sad, just work hard, and later on you’ll have wonderful children.
What do you think your pre-child(ren) self would tell you?
Shut up, you don’t know how awful it is being me.
In terms of this topic (motherhood and writing), do you have any regrets? Guilt? Envy?
Guilt yes, ferocious—but not too much for mothering, only for the home-schooling thing. Home-schooling while being a writer is tricky because you kind of think you’re always doing it and then it turns out nobody has done a page of math for three months.
Envy—only of people who have full time housekeepers. Honestly, it’s not the children/writing I find complicated and tough, it’s the housekeeping/writing that’s so miserable. And the housekeeping/children, too. I fervently hope to one day be successful enough to have a cleaner every day.
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?
It was a long dark tunnel for me. The tunnel lightened about the time my daughter turned three—when they were both talking and walking safely and we could begin a serious conversation—but I only crunched off the cinders and emerged from it entirely when they were about 7 and 5. If I had found myself pregnant again then I would have been seriously depressed, even though third children are so often delightful, because it softened or dampened my brain for so long. Couldn’t keep a consecutive thought in my head for years.
On the other hand, the physical pleasure of those early years is profound. I was glad to write about it in Good to a Fault, about what it’s like to love a baby. I don’t anticipate grandchildren for many, many, many years but I wonder if that’s why people seem to like being grandparents, that tender physical response to the beauty of the child.
Birthing a book is like birthing a baby. Way off or right on?
A book is much easier at the end. I think it’s mostly men who make that comparison—but certain men, mostly politicians, are always saying that something or other is like birthing a baby. Nothing else is remotely like birthing a baby.
But it is possible that if I hadn’t birthed two babies I’d have two more novels done by now.
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?
I admire Sylvia Plath for waiting as long as she did; despise her for leaving her children.
I worry that I’m like Mrs. Jellyby in Bleak House with her long curling lists and ink-stained fingers, forgetting her children.
I loved Laurie Colwin’s novels and stories but particularly her wonderful cookbooks (Home Cooking and More Home Cooking) which she wrote with her daughter in mind and in the room.
There’s a writing mother (who might be a portrait of Meg’s own novelist mother) in Meg Wolitzer’s The Ten-Year Nap—I was on a panel with her at the Vancouver VIWF and she read a hilarious passage about daughters in the hall outside their writing-mother’s door debating whether this is a big enough emergency to knock: the youngest girl has just got her first period. ‘Does this count as life or death?’ ‘You could exsanguinate. It’s happened before.’
One of my favourite writing mothers is Mrs Morland in Angela Thirkell’s long series of novels set in pre- and post-war England, widowed and left penniless with four young boys, who keeps them at Eton and Oxford by writing fashion/romance potboilers about an adventurous coutourier. Since Thirkell was writing books that might have been considered light entertainment, I’ve always assumed it was a self-portrait. I love Mrs Morland’s hair full of pencils and her modest estimation of her own work and her friendships with serious writers, and most of all her attitude to her sons, who she loves and despises and cares for diligently, especially her youngest son. One of the novels I’m still searching for is called The Demon in the House; that’s the youngest son, who cannot stop talking and asking questions and demanding her attention to his railway obsession while she’s trying to work. Reminds me of certain children I have known.
More than any fictional mothers, I admire my friends, like Annabel Lyon and Sara O’Leary, who wrote wrote wrote, doing such good work, while their children were small.