The Back Story: where does writing begin?

By Janet Somerville

Yesterday The Walrus‘s Rachel Giese ably prompted The Back Story round table discussion that included Liza Klaussmann (Tigers in Red Weather), Donna Morrissey (The Deception of Livvy Higgs), Robin Sloan (Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore) and Russell Wangersky (Whirl Away).

The conversation began with each considering how place/home shapes their work. Referring specifically to Newfoundland, Wangersky said, “Everything seems large and it bleeds into all you do.” Morrissey suggested, “When I work, I write from a psychological perspective first. But, the geography shapes everything, including dialect.”

Wangersky, Klaussmann, Morrissey, Sloan and Giese at IFOA 2012 © readings.org

Klaussmann seemed a Hemingway disciple when she noted, “Being away from places that I write about helps me imagine the place more deeply. Sloan remarked on the intentional book blurb that insists “he spends his time between San Francisco and the Internet. The Internet is a great city and I’m interested in how to dramatize that.”

Although P.D. James claims the first place she has to come to is setting, Wangersky insisted that for him a character’s voice is his beginning: “I hear something that makes me think and then build frames around it.” Klaussmann said “place acts on your characters,” and Morrissey wondered “if I’d chosen a different setting would the character’s struggle work out in a different way.” Sloan fixed his mind on the Internet, claiming “it has fraught pros and cons as any village graveyard.”

Giese asked if each had always been involved in artistic pursuits, plumbing early experiences and their childhoods. With scientist parents and engineer siblings, Wangersky the reader/dreamer was constantly the butt-end of family jokes. He recalled being a teenager and declaring “Robertson Davies, W.O. Mitchell and Margaret Atwood are old. When they die, I can take their place.”

Both Robin Sloan and Donna Morrissey recalled the world-building impulse of childhood. Sloan “drew maps of fancy kingdoms—folders full—with little stories inscribed along the edges,” while Morrissey used the natural world for creative inspiration: “I was always alone up in the woods. I’d create little towns running down the brook.” Klaussmann admitted, “My first book was a rip off of The Secret Garden.”

Referring to Henry James’s claim that “a writer is someone on whom nothing is lost,” Wangersky chimed in, “I collect a lot of starting points.” Morrissey noted, “my challenge is writing features, so I’m always looking at faces, noticing a crooked tooth, or the way your eyebrows furrow.” Klaussmann said, “I don’t take notes. I trust in the subconscious, the way it churns raw material into something new, but true.” Sloan quipped, “It’s as if I’m listening to three other pole vaulters say ‘I don’t use the pole.'”

Giese closed the conversation with the provocative question, does art trump family? Klaussmann offered, “It’s a selfish profession. All writers are narcissistic.” Wangersky admitted, “I steal time from everyone, even sleep.”

Visit readings.org for more event listings. Follow Janet Somerville on twitter at @janetsomerville or on her blog Reading for the Joy of It.

Robin Sloan on Google, dragons and his favourite bookstores

Robin Sloan, debut author of the enchanting novel Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, took the time for a Twitter chat with us in advance of his appearance at IFOA.

© Helena Price

Our favourite quote?

“I’d say @Penumbra’s Google is one-third fact, and then the rest is playful extrapolation—or maybe satirical inflation…”

For more, check out the highlights via Storify.  Come see Sloan at the Festival on October 24 and 27.