Interview with Arthur Slade

Jaclyn Morken interviews Arthur Slade


Arthur Slade, mentor for the MFA in Writing program and prolific genre writer

Jaclyn Morken: Why do you choose to write YA books? What is it about the genre that attracts you?

Arthur Slade: Simplicity. And by that I don’t mean YA books are easy reads, with nice characters and a perfectly unfolding moral. YA is none of those things! YA novels can and should have a great depth to them and be just as challenging as “adult” books. But the simplicity comes in the whittling away of all the extras. In an adult novel you’re allowed to disappear into the prose and descriptions whereas in YA (at least the way I write) my goal is to streamline all of that and find the most effective way to tell the story without anything extraneous. It’s a challenge. Often the shorter something is the harder it can be to write. The same with the idea of writing a “simple” story that gets to its core parts without wandering.

JM: 2019 has been a busy year for you already! Your new novel Death by Airship, and the first two instalments of your monthly Dragon Assassins series have already been published, with the third to be released in March. How do you balance your projects?

AS: I put each project on a plate and then attach a pole to each plate and turn them into a magic show. Joking aside, there are several different contracts and projects on my desk and the only way I can balance them is by being very consistent with my writing time. I write in the mornings, so I never book appointments or look at Facebook in the morning (well, I try not to). I find I accomplish quite a bit more if stick to this pattern. My brain realizes that 6AM is writing time. And it also realizes that 1PM is the time to do less tiring work like checking which ads are working, clicking “like” on Facebook, and reading my research material. The monthly instalments project (where I release an 120-page “episode” of my Dragon Assassin series every month on Amazon) means that I really, really, really have to stick to those deadlines. I like the challenge of that. Though I may have double the grey hair by the time the year is up.

JM: Which of your works thus far have you found the most challenging, or the most enjoyable? Why?

AS: My most challenging novel was Flickers. Instead of my usual 8 or so drafts and a year of work, that book stretched out to at least two years work and far too many drafts (and a cavalcade of edit letters). It was an example to me of how you can get that “great” idea (a 1920s Hollywood director who makes such a perfect horror movie that it opens up a new dimension and something walks through) but not be able to find the right way to execute the idea. Even though I had plotted out the book (which I rarely do) it kept on sprouting different tangents and, generally, the tone of the book was off (tone is so important in horror novels because you’re attempting to get people to believe in the unbelievable and you don’t want the “scary” parts to be laughable). The fix was to rewrite it down to the bones, throw away the extras, and focus in on that original idea. It worked in the end. People who read it say it’s genuinely terrifying. It was terrifying for me, but in a different way. Compare that to my most enjoyable novel, in terms of creation: Dust. The idea of a rainmaker coming to a drought stricken town and bringing rain (but the children disappear) was perfect. And from the moment I wrote the first chapter (with no outline of the rest of the book) to when I reached the final chapter, everything fell into place. The tone. The prose. The story itself. It’s what I would call a moonshot. It only happens once in awhile that a work unfolds so easily. I wrote Dust in 2000 and Flickers in 2015. You’d think I’d get better at writing in those fifteen years. But sometimes your skill doesn’t matter. The book just needs work.

JM: During our mentorship, we discussed the changing writing industry, and the new platforms authors are now able to explore. What is one new development in the writing industry that you find particularly exciting?

AS: Self-publishing. It is both a horrible black hole that we writers can disappear into and manna from heaven. Or maybe ebooks are from heaven. What it allows us to do is explore our creativity in different ways (be it ebooks on Amazon or poems on Instagram or a YouTube channel about punctuation) and earn income from a variety of sources (and I’m all about being paid for work). The self-publishing world is especially lucrative for genre writers, but open to anyone who can find their niche. For me I make income from publishers, but also from my self-published ebooks, print on demand books, audiobooks and associate fees from Amazon. Having success in that part of the publishing sphere means you have a bit more leverage with traditional publishers. The dark side is how much time it takes to figure out how to self-publish (which involves learning advertising and trying to read the minds of the various algorithms).

Interview by Jaclyn Morken, a fantasy and speculative fiction writer from Outlook Saskatchewan. She has a BA Honours in English, and is currently in her second year of the MFA in Writing program at the University of Saskatchewan. Her first published works can be found in the inaugural issue of The Anti-Languorous Project’s antilang, with which she currently serves as guest editor.

Interview with Barbara Langhorst

Allie McFarland interviews Barbara Langhorst

Barbara Langhorst, mentor for the MFA in Writing program and award-winning author

Allie McFarland: The USask MFA mentorship program is (as you know) unique in Canada, but what do you think it brings to the program? Or, what do you think about the practice of mentorship more broadly in relation to writing and emerging writers? What does mentorship entail in your mind (both for giving and receiving)?

Barbara Langhorst: The mentorship program in the MFA in Writing program at the University of Saskatchewan is first-rate, in my experience. The mentors bring professional experience as working writers to the students, revealing another dimension of the writing life as it exists outside academia. This year, this is especially obvious, as the Director of the MFA Program (Jeanette Lynes) and several of the mentors in the program have been shortlisted for a variety of Saskatchewan Book Awards.
One of the strongest aspects of mentorship is the connection between generations of writers—the construction of a network of writers and writing that supports both mentors and emerging writers. The mentors have a wide variety of approaches and interests, and help the students develop individualized reading lists that broaden the experience for both parties. As a mentor, I draw on my own experience with my supervisors in grad school, both of whom were very supportive but practical—they advised me to expect a lot from myself, especially about the amount of reading and writing that needed to be done in a limited time, and so I have high expectations for my students, too. However, the relationship in the MFA at the U of S is also beneficial to the mentors, who revisit problems they have dealt with (and some they have not), and learn from their students, as much as the other way around. I have had the great opportunity to work with two brilliant students, and learning how to help them has helped my own writing. 
I have had the enormous good fortune to be mentored by fantastic writers, such as Robert Kroetsch, dennis cooley, Lorri Neilsen Glenn, Sandra Birdsell, and Guy Vanderhaeghe, and in all cases the experience was extremely helpful in developing a sense of myself as a writer. Kroetsch and cooley, in particular, tended to say, “You’re the poet,” and give support with relatively little technical advice. As a mentor myself, when some practical advice about craft is expected, I try to leave the work in the writer’s hands as much as possible, only identifying areas that need to be rethought or worked through, rather than offering my own solutions. 

AM: Thinking about the advice from your mentors and your approach to mentoring, what do you consider ‘writing’—the physical act of sitting down and putting new words to page, or do you include the revises / redrafting / editing processes as ‘writing’? And what is the most exciting part about writing to you?

BL: All acts of putting words on the page and moving them around is “writing” to me. Composing the first draft is the most exciting, dangerous type of writing, I find. It jolts the adrenaline like nothing else, especially when I feel like I’m channeling a story that is begging to be told, but it can also be terrifying, because pursuing the wrong intuition, following the wrong choice in plot or character, can mean months of rewriting.
I try to keep the joy of composing when I revise by looking at scenes (or even the novel as a whole) and seeing whether the piece needs to be retold from another perspective or a different point in the action, and by looking at the entire novel as a poem, where pieces can be moved around as I do words in writing poetry. Sometimes I go back, as I did in Want, and completely rewrite several chapters right at the beginning. I also use a headset to dictate sometimes, if I want a new perspective on the work. With Want, when I wasn’t sure about the structure, I wrote out the plot, cut it into scenes, drew the paper slips of scenes from a hat, taped them down in that order, and then cut and pasted the novel into that order, smoothing as I went. In the end, I reordered the book again, but that randomization helped me to see which scenes were necessary and where they needed to be. I also changed the point of view to first person on the third draft of Want, and moved it from present tense to the past. In my current novel, I think I am working much more confidently with the structure—but I do hope that confidence is justified. Time will tell.
Perhaps the form of writing that seems least like real writing is the synopsis, yet I wrote three synopses for Want, and the process showed me the characters’ motivations in ways that I hadn’t realized before. I enjoy responding to editorial suggestions, as they, too, show me the novel in ways that are new. Time at the keyboard is happy time for me—all of it—even when I can’t write as well as I’d like. The goal is to become better, and that only happens by doing.  

AM: Your novel Want was shortlisted for a Saskatchewan Book Award. And your collection of poetry, Restless White Fields, won both the Robert Kroetsch Poetry Book award and the Saskatchewan Arts Board Poetry Book award. These are amazing accomplishments, and I’m curious what you think about the role of these types of awards / recognitions in relation to the community aspect of writing that your mentioned earlier? 

BL: I am tremendously grateful for the awards offered in SK and AB…as Doug Barbour at NeWest has often said, being nominated is as much an affirmation as winning. Many good or even great books miss being nominated simply because there are so many good books published, and thus being nominated is a truly heart-lifting gift. I always enjoy attending the awards, and am really looking forward to seeing old friends and meeting new ones. Many of those nominated this year for the Saskatchewan Book Awards are writers I’ve known and admired for almost twenty years—and many of them are part of the MFA in Writing program at the U of S. It’s fabulous to be among them. SK writers are so generous with their time, energy, humour, and friendship. I would never have written if I hadn’t come to SK, I know that. It’s a phenomenally supportive community.

Interview by Allie McFarland, RVRB editor, co-founding editor of The Anti-Languorous Project, and reluctant poet.

Interview with Sylvia Legris

Jaclyn Morken interviews Sylvia Legris

Sylvia Legris, mentor for the MFA in Writing program and award-winning poet.

Jaclyn Morken: How do you typically approach writing a poetry collection?

Sylvia Legris: I’m a big believer in trusting where your current preoccupations or obsessions want to take you. You have to write what you’re passionate or excited about, otherwise you run the risk of producing work that, though it might be competent and might even very likely be publishable, lacks spark and heart, and, sadly, is ultimately unmemorable. I’d much rather read work that’s perhaps less polished, rougher around the edges, but that feels distinctive—like nobody else could have written it—and that leaves you with the feeling that the person who wrote that piece really got a kick doing so. You have to love your writing; you also have to love it enough to ditch it or chop it up when it isn’t working. How does this relate to how I approach writing a poetry collection? Putting a collection together, trying to determine what shape it will be, what its poems, perhaps its sections will focus on…well, much of that happens after I’ve written enough poems that surprise and excite me, that make me think, ah ha, I nailed that! It’s part instinct, part believing that what excites me might excite a reader. The much bigger part of putting together a collection, of making any successful piece of writing, is sheer determination, hard work, revising and revising until your head and your gut and your ear tell you it’s right. I think it’s also crucial to allow for accidents, for the unexpected. If you feel obliged to stick too closely to a project description or thesis, you might paralyse yourself. Projects change as you go along, often for the better. Writers have to remind themselves (constantly) that everything has to serve the writing; no matter how much you love a particular line, image, paragraph, or whole section, if it isn’t benefiting the work, remove it. Doing so might initially be agonizing, but soon after you won’t even remember what you removed because you’ll have a stronger piece of writing.   

JM: What do you consider most challenging in writing poetry?

SL: I get the sense that your question assumes that “challenging” is equivalent to “painful” or “unpleasant,” something to be avoided. When the writing is at its most challenging, when I’m struggling to make something work on the page, is also when it’s the most enjoyable and, ultimately, the most rewarding. Why do it if it isn’t challenging? The whole point, for me, is to challenge myself, to push myself, to see what I’m capable of making out of language. When writing poetry ceases to be a challenge, I’ll quit. I’ve spent many years of my life working at mind-numbing, unchallenging jobs—the work of poetry (for both the reader and the writer) should be the extreme opposite of mind-numbing. Mind-electrifying? Mind-exhilarating?

JM: What do you consider most delightful in writing poetry?

SL: When I write something that both thrills and surprises me and I’m left thinking, “that came from me…how did that come from me?”

JM: Who are some of your influences/favourite poets?

SL: Though I have always been a voracious reader, I’d say that my poetry, certainly my development as a poet, was influenced as much by work in other disciplines as it was by literature. I had/have several visual artists in my family, and as a kid/adolescent/etc., I encountered many visual artists. From an early age I acquired the habit of looking at art, as reproductions in books and by visiting galleries and museums and even artists’ studios. Particularly in my earlier work, I viewed the page (despite its inherent limitations) as a space or room in which the borders were potentially more fluid, more expandable than is allowed by conventional margins. My key advice to beginning writers (other than read as if your life depends upon it) is “pay attention.” Developing the practice of looking at artwork (in its broadest definition: painting, sculpture, installation, performance, film, etc.) honed my ability to look at things closely, from different perspectives, to pay attention to minute detail and to how changeable one’s perceptions can be depending on elements like light, sightline, etc. Music and sound both clearly play a huge role in my poetry as well. While I can’t listen to music when I’m writing, the music I listen to in downtime has to jibe with what I’m working on. For example, during the several years that I was writing Pneumatic Antiphonal, I listened almost exclusively to recordings of 17th-century music for the viola da gamba—this sounds pretentious, but there was something about the deep, visceral pitch of that instrument that meshed with all those “lung” poems.
It’s hard to pin down which writers (poets as well as writers in other genres) have directly influenced my work—my reading has and continues to be all over the place. Standbys for me, writers whose work I return to, include: Emily Dickinson, Phyllis Webb, Rilke, Gwendolyn Brooks, Susan Howe, Thom Gunn, Geoffrey Hill, Will Alexander, H.D., Virgil, Christopher Dewdney, Rachel Zolf, Cormac McCarthy, Miroslav Holub, E.L. Doctorow, Camilla Gibb, Robert Walser, Joan Didion, Haruki Murikami, Dr. Seuss…

JM: Finally, at the Kloppenburg Award presentation, you mentioned that it was here in Saskatchewan that you started figuring out how to be a poet. What is it about Saskatchewan and/or its community that helped you come to poetry?

SL: I grew up in Winnipeg and moved to Saskatoon when I was already writing and just starting to publish poetry, so I’d say that whatever it was that informed the sort of poet I’d become had already happened before I arrived here. For me, figuring out how to be a poet meant finding a way to have enough money to survive and time to write—often the two don’t coincide. When I moved to Saskatoon it was, compared to other cities, fairly inexpensive to live in. When I realized I wanted to focus as much as possible on writing, I concluded that time and quiet and privacy were more important to me than owning stuff. I’ve often lived in one-room apartments, barely scraping by—I’ve never had a vehicle (it was a huge luxury when I reached the point that I could afford a monthly bus pass), I don’t own any property, I’ve tried to keep my belongings to a minimum. When I moved here, my entire life fit onto a 4-cubic foot shrink-wrapped pallet…since then I’ve really scaled back (at one point, I gave away nearly two thousand books).
One thing that Saskatchewan has is a history of supporting its artists. Thank goodness for the Saskatchewan Arts Board! I’ve been very fortunate in receiving grants over the years, which always buy you some time to breathe and to write. When necessary I’ve taken whatever work I’ve had to in order to survive (as I told one poet I know, I’ve never had any snobbery about jobs…a job’s a job.).  And then of course there’s the arts community, the friendships I’ve had with other writers and artists. Every artist, whether established or emerging, struggles at some point (many of us chronically) with doubt and lack of confidence. Often what keeps me going is having conversations with other writers and artists I know who, despite making really wonderful work, experience the same doubts. We all necessarily work in isolation, but in many ways we’re all in this together.

Interview by Jaclyn Morken, a fantasy / speculative fiction writer from Outlook, Saskatchewan. She has a BA Honours in English, and is completing her second year of the MFA in Writing program at the University of Saskatchewan. Her first published works can be found in the inaugural issue of The Anti-Languorous Project’s antilang., with which she currently serves as guest editor.