Award winning writer Sarah Klassen is February's Author of the Month. The author of nine books, Sarah's most recent work, The Wittenbergs has received critical acclaim. A versitle writer, Sarah writes both fiction and poetry. In 19 Questions about Process: An interview with Sarah Klassen (below), she shares with us a few thoughts about her creative process and let's us peek into her studio in My Studio: Sarah Klassen. And if you're in the mood for something sweet, Sarah has also shared her family recipe for platz, a delicious type of coffee cake here.
Sarah Klassen's books with Turnstone Press are:
When did you first come to think of yourself as a professional writer?
When I began writing, I was writing poetry. It took a while for me to refer to myself as a poet. Or a writer of any kind. And it didn’t occur to me then that the word “professional” might apply to me. Like for most writers, the first publications in a journal or magazine were terribly thrilling and being published somewhere helped me see myself as a writer. Getting my first book published (Journey to Yalta, 1988) undoubtedly gave me confidence to think of myself as a professional writer.
Do you still submit individual poems and stories to magazines and journals for publication? Why or why not?
Not as often as I used to, but from time to time I do. In between book publications, submitting to magazines and journals provides some kind of feedback—rejection or acceptance. And, in case of acceptance, the poem or story gets circulated and read, or so the writer hopes, since she needs readers. Submitting a poem means particularly careful editing and polishing, and that’s a good discipline. Also, in case of future book publications I always feel that a couple of publishing credits are necessary.
What inspires you?
So many things. Nature inspires me. When I’m walking, biking, or cross country skiing, my mind clears and ideas can float in. As I write this I can see out my window: A blue sky, golden aspen made brilliant by the morning sun, and all of it reflected in the river. Good writing (fiction, poetry, non-fiction) is inspiring, and listening to a poet read his/her work often makes me want to go home and write. Over the years the deia have often triggered ideas, emotions, and I’ve responded to that in my poetry. The key is receptiveness. If I’m too busy with various activities or duties, inspiration and ideas are kept at bay.
Is there a particular time of day which you write best?
Mornings are best for me. But mornings are also best for every other activity, whether reading, doing the crossword puzzle, or cooking. I’m not very disciplined in keeping a writing schedule.
What is your typical writing routine like?
I don’t think I have a typical routine. But I can’t have too many unfinished tasks pressing on me. When working on my novel, I often began by working on a poem currently in progress. Somehow I had to do that first, then segue into the fiction. Also, I begin by going back in the story I’m working on and reading several pages of what I’ve last written. Then I work on that, editing, improving. Sometimes most of my energy goes into that before I move ahead.
In the past you’ve written poetry and short fiction. The Wittenbergs is your first novel. Did you know from the get-go when you started the project that the story you began would eventually evolve into a novel?
Fiction and poetry each have their own charms, which is your current preferred form?
Each is challenging, interesting, and of course sometimes frustrating. I find poetry easier to get into (see above) and I’m more likely to have to urge myself to work at the novel.
Some writers prefer the process of composing a first draft while others prefer the editorial stage of fine-tuning and polishing. Do you have a preference? Why?
In the composing stage, beginnings come more easily to me than endings. Maybe for that reason the editing stage is reassuring because I’m not facing the proverbial empty page: the material is out there ready to be shaped and made better. Also, as I mentioned above, I can’t resist going over yesterday’s work, fine-tuning that and editing it, before forging ahead with the story.
While editing a manuscript do you ever start writing or working on something else?
Not only while editing, but while writing the novel, I was always working on poetry. And yes, by the time a manuscript is edited there’s something else in the works. When I’m working on poetry I don’t think in terms of “manuscript” until I have quite a lot of material, some of which will be set aside for a future manuscript.
What role does research play in your writing?
My poetry collection Simone Weil: Songs of Hunger and Love required research and I loved reading whatever I could find about Weil. I also did some research for Journey to Yalta, but for the rest of my writing, very little. Even The Wittenbergs, though I looked up certain facts, is based mainly on what I already knew (had learned or been told) and there was minimum research.
Do you journal? How does journaling figure into your writing process?
Journaling, though I do it rather irregularly, is ongoing for me. And important. I can’t really say that journal entries have figured much into my writing (except for travel journaling—see below), though sometimes I enter things because I think I might use them.
You’ve travelled extensively. How has travel figured into your creative process? Do you write on the road, or do you prefer to just take it all in and compose once you are “home” in your usual writing environment?
Yes, travel has always provided both material and inspiration for my writing. Being in a completely new place seems to sharpen the senses and build a kind of anticipation. An openness to sensory experience, to landscapes and cityscapes, people, and history of a place. I always keep a travel journal, which is often just a bunch of notes or phrases, reminders. Sometimes I begin a poem during the travels, but mostly the writing happens afterwards, at home at my computer and after reflecting on the experience. I definitely go back to the travel journal for my writing.
What trip was your favourite? What piece of work evolved from that journey?
The Middle East—Palestine/Israel was definitely an eye-opening, unsettling experience, and I’ve written a series, “Water Songs,” about that in Monstrance. Both the history and present conditions and issues made a deep impression, and meeting with people, both Palestinians and Israelis, involved in peace projects, often so very small, was very moving.
What do you think about a writer’s need to be part of social networks?
Human contact is important for writers as it is for everyone and social interaction helps us understand who we are and understand the world we live in. The opportunity to express concerns, questions and ideas and receive feedback, correction and encouragement is important for everyone, and that holds true for writers whose work is so solitary. I'm not in a writing group at the moment but I found such groups especially helpful when I was starting out. I'm not great at using social media though I'm on FB, mainly listening in.
Do you enjoy giving public readings?
Yes, though I’m usually nervous beforehand. Once I get going it’s good. Readings can provide an immediate sense of how others receive the poems.
And now a few fun questions…
Do you keep any talismans or lucky charms nearby when you write?
Are you a habitual consumer of anything while you write?
Coffee, black. Too often I nibble at the computer.
Favourite music to listen to while you write?
Although I like music, I don’t usually listen to it while I write. Silence works well for me.
If you could not be a writer, what career might you have?
I was at the end of a career, teaching, when I began writing. I’m not sure that writers, except a few of our best, can get along without other work or a career of some kind. I’m not sure they should expect that. I’ve sometimes thought I could have enjoyed a career in journalism.
You can visit Sarah Klassen's studio here.
You can make Sarah's Platz with the recipe here.