Poet and novelist Lydia Kwa is April's Author of the Month. The author of 5 books, 2 of which are with Turnstone Press, Lydia Kwa's work spans oceans binding time and memory to the things which haunt us. In 19 Questions about Process: An interview with Lydia Kwa (below), she shares a few thoughts about her creative process and lets us peek into her studio in My Studio: Lydia Kwa.
Lydia Kwa's books with Turnstone Press are:
19 Questions about Process: An Interview with Lydia Kwa
When did you first come to think of yourself as a professional writer?
When I published my first book, The Colours of Heroines, in 1994 with Toronto’s Women’s Press. I joined The Writers’ Union of Canada shortly after.
Do you still submit new work to magazines and journals for publication, or do you stick to full-length manuscript submissions? Why or why not?
I occasionally submit new work to magazines and journals, although I certainly have been doing it far less than when I first starting submitting work—feels like that was eons ago!
Back then, I was much more aware of making some inroads and creating a presence. I guess you could call it trying to gain “street cred.” I am more focused on writing projects that are book length these days—I am working on the prequel to The Walking Boy. I have just completed a short story that will become a chapbook for this year’s upcoming Powell Street Festival.
What inspires you?
Lots of things. Usually it’s another book, a movie, music, reading about certain historical details. Looking at art inspires me.
Is there a particular time of day at which you write best?
Usually it’s late afternoon until midnight. But it also depends on what kind of writing project I’m doing. I don’t write every day. I might take a whole day or week to focus wholeheartedly on starting and/or finishing some writing. I also have a day job as a self-employed psychologist in private practice, so I find that I need to be flexible with creating my writing times.
What is your typical writing routine like?
Haha, nothing very typical about my writing routine. I would say it’s very atypical and dependent on other needs, as I mentioned in the previous answer. Sometimes I find myself able and willing to spend a few days almost completely immersed in a creative project; at other times, I have to “steal” minutes or a few hours here and there.
You write both fiction and poetry. Do you work on each form independently, wait for one mode to be completed before starting the other? Or do you dabble in both forms simultaneously, drafting a poem while working on a novel, etc.?
I used to think I was a simply marvellous single tasker!! But now, I am finding that I am able to do several kinds of creative work. For a long time, I couldn’t bring myself to write poetry while I was writing fiction. That’s partly why sinuous took so long to finish, because I kept going from writing one novel to the next, and whenever there was a break in the process, then I would be able to return to writing poetry. After I finished writing Pulse, I promised myself I absolutely had to dedicate my attention to finishing the poetry manuscript that eventually became sinuous.
These days, I have been alternating between writing short stories for a collection I’m planning, and poems.
Do you have a preference between fiction and poetry?
It’s like two different kinds of food or music. I prefer each for certain kinds of torture and reward it allows for. With fiction, it’s a painfully long process that involves a headspace that must be recalled, reactivated, and sustained across many pages of writing. For poetry, it’s a different kind of mental demand—of drawing ideas and images and lines together for bursts of mood or atmosphere, while having to reflect on the language in a more highly charged and condensed manner.
Some writers prefer the process of composing a manuscript while others prefer the editorial stage of fine-tuning and polishing. Do you have a preference? Why?
No preference. Each stage has its exquisite pleasure and satisfaction.
While editing a manuscript do you ever start writing or working on something else?
Sometimes I do, but rarely. The exception was last year—when I was editing sinuous, I began to create art which resulted in 12 visual images.
Do you journal? How does journalling figure into your writing process?
Used to journal. Now I have a “pen pal” whom I email with—have been doing this for coming up to 10 years now! Having someone to regularly correspond with is a nice way to decompress in terms of daily events, but at times, the correspondence also allows me to think aloud about whatever creative work I’m doing, and sometimes, my pen pal gives me feedback which is also useful. Even if she doesn’t, simply writing about my process allows me to see things from a healthier perspective and perhaps come up with solutions to what had been creative impasses. And if not, well at least I can vent!
Your work is popular in two very different regions of the globe—North America and Southeast Asia. How do you balance living literarily between the two?
Is my work popular? Haha, we can only hope so. Okay, there is no such thing as balance in terms of living literally in two regions. I am still trying to figure this out, because the equation has got to be flexible according to changing needs. I am open to seeing what needs to shift, or what might work better. Every year might be different. Typically I’ve been visiting Singapore for about four to six weeks every year for the past five years.
What do you think about a writer’s need to be part of social networks? (Do we need to be “on” all the time? In your opinion what’s the best way to network?)
You’re talking to someone who only joined Facebook in June 2013!! I am no longer the total hermit in the cave, but I am nowhere near the totally “on” person.
I really don’t know if there’s a formulaic “best” way. I am a flexible and fluid problem solver. I like to follow my intuition and also check out what’s happening in my current environment when I am needing to make decisions.
In your opinion, what are the benefits of participating in writing retreats, either in a formalized setting or on one’s own?
Love writing retreats, whether it’s for a day or week. I haven’t done an extended writing retreat of more than a week. I am open to a longer writing retreat, maybe when I am ready to let go of my private practice. I just love working with my clients too much! When I’ve been away in Singapore, I am more focused on connecting with people, being with my mother, attending literary events, etc. And not much writing happens, unless I escape, like I did last year, to a place like Malacca, where I know no one and force myself to sit down and write!
Do you enjoy giving public readings?
Yes, yes, and yes. I love being adored and listened to. :)
And now a few fun questions:
Do you keep any talismans or lucky charms nearby when you write?
YES! There’s a photo that accompanies the My Studio piece that shows a few of my favourite desk companions.
Are you a habitual consumer of anything while you write?
Depends on the time of day! Chinese tea in the morning—for example, Pu-erh tea. Evening: chrysanthemum tea with goji berries.
Favourite music to listen to while you write?
Jazz, usually, but sometimes I need some crazy ambient music like the kind on SomaFM: Secret Agent.
Any hobbies you wish to share?
Cooking for friends, ki aikido, taiji, photography, being funny, and making people laugh.
If you could not be a writer, what career might you have?
Comedienne, cook, or artist.
You can visit Lydia Kwa's studio here.