The author of seven books of fiction, six of which are available through Turnstone Press, writer Michelle Berry is our inaugural Author of the Month. Michelle, never afraid to tackle challenging topics in her work, shares with us a few thoughts about her creative process in 19 Questions about Process: An interview with Michelle Berry (below) and let's us peek into her studio in My Studio: Michelle Berry.
Michelle Berry's books with Turnstone Press are:
19 Questions about Process: An interview with Michelle Berry
When did you first come to think of yourself as a professional writer?
I’m a professional writer?? Just kidding. I guess when I first got published. Or, at least, published in book form. I was publishing in literary magazines, but it wasn’t until my first book (with Turnstone Press), How To Get There From Here, it wasn’t until the first reviews, the first sales at my book launch, that I felt I was finally “professional” (whatever that means). I felt I finally had the ability to say, “I’m a writer,” and mean it. Before that, the stories published in literary magazines felt like blind luck.
Despite your success, you continue to submit your writing to small journals and zines for publication. Why do you feel it is important to continue to do so at this point in your career?
Lately, I’ve been only submitting when I’m asked. I don’t seem to ever have a story available for lit. mags that isn’t eventually going to be part of a novel or a short story collection. But when I do submit, I love it. I get that sense of excitement and anticipation again. And I get rejected still, so it’s a challenge and makes me work harder each time. It’s easy to get complacent and I don’t want that to happen. I also like testing the water and making sure I stay in touch with what is going on in the writing community and being published in lit. mags makes me see who is out there, who is publishing and up-and-coming.
What is your typical writing routine like?
Changes every day and with every piece of writing I do. Sometimes I write frantically for months, sometimes I don’t write for days. I usually do some sort of “creative” writing at least once every day, though—be it an interview, a book review, a personal letter, an introduction to an anthology or a contest, etc.. Something to keep the juices flowing. I usually have no music on when I’m really into writing (my novels and stories), I usually have coffee (two cups a day) and always have water to drink. I try to clear my desk of all paper so that it’s simple and sparse and I won’t lose focus. I try to let my mind go and forget everything I teach my students and just write. I also try to avoid email/Facebook/online teaching, but that’s harder than it should be.
What inspires you?
The view from my window, my walk to my office, a book I’m reading, clouds, seasons, my cottage, a sign on the street, my children (especially my children) and their stories, their friends, my friends, my mother and father and their stories, the news, TV and movies, radio, my dog, even my cats (although they are mostly asleep when I’m awake and awake when I’m asleep), travel, driving, grocery shopping, playing hockey, biking, laundry. Everything inspires me. The world is full of stories.
Many of your novels and short stories have focused in some fashion on family dynamics. What is it about family function—or dysfunction—that keeps you returning to this topic?
I see the world, I guess, in terms of relationships to others. I don’t see it in terms of the setting or the big picture (I should, I know). I see it in terms of how we interact with others, who we are to others, who we want to be and will become. The world, for me, is people (hence no real description of lovely trees in my writing!) and how they react and behave and communicate and strive and falter. Families are microcosms of society, so if you write about family you are taking the tiny and focusing on the big (if that makes any sense). All families are dysfunctional. I guess I’m just forgiving of dysfunction and intrigued by it. I like to know what makes someone tick. I’m pretty aware that deep inside I’m one of the most dysfunctional people I know and I like myself, so I guess that’s an answer. Or not.
While a novel and short story each has its own charms, which is your current preferred form?
Both. I know, wrong answer. But, seriously. Both. I’ve just finished and sold a novel that is both short story and novel. Each chapter was initially a short story (with the whole arc of a short story) and each short story slowly built upon the next as chapters would in a novel. I enjoyed writing the novel this way, but it was hard to edit it, to pull it together into more of a novel. I guess I like writing novels the best when I’m in a novel, but coming up with novel ideas and dipping your toes in at the beginning is very hard and anxiety producing. Stories are more compact and accessible (i.e., “this story is about this and has these contained characters and is going to progress this way”) from almost the very start of writing them, whereas novels take time to shape. It takes time before you know what your novel is about. So each form has its own interest to me and it just depends on what kind of mood I’m in at that moment in my life to what form I start. Whenever I finish a novel I know so much about it, so starting a new novel always feels stressful because I know nothing about it yet. You need patience to write novels and you need many ideas to write stories.
Do you know at the moment you start to write something if it will be a short story or a novel when complete?
Yes, usually. The first few pages start so differently in a novel compared to a short story. So, by the time I’ve written a paragraph I can usually tell what form it’s going to take. Novels start slower than stories, stories jump right in. Also, I tend to have a bit of a concept (not a huge concept, but just something I want to explore) when I start a novel, whereas a story I always start blind. I start writing and see what happens.
What role does research play in your writing?
I don’t often research before I write anything. I tend to research after, during the editing stage. So, for example, in What We All Want, I wrote all the embalming scenes from what I’d imagine embalming someone would be like. Then, when I was done the writing I had a funeral director read it for me to make sure it rang true. In Blur, the same thing. I wrote the scenes and then had a forensic guy tell me if the blood splatter stains were right and a cop tell me if I got the policing right. I feel that if you research the kinds of novels I write (this doesn’t hold true for other kinds of novels) before you write them, then the research becomes front and centre, not the story. I want to focus on the story first. Too much research too soon can make the story seem didactic.
Some writers prefer the process of composing a first draft to a story while others prefer the editorial stage of fine-tuning and polishing. Do you have a preference? Why?
I like both. I like the initial stages of writing, the discovery of characters and situation. But I also love the editing and fine-tuning and moving things around. I like working with others and so I almost always enjoy my editors and their take on my story. Editing is harder than writing, that’s for sure—at least for me—but it’s also a lot of fun.
While editing a manuscript, do you ever start writing or working on something else?
Yes. I try. It’s always good to have something to work on, especially when a new novel is being sent out, or when something is going to press. You are waiting for responses then, and if you have something new on the go you can distance yourself a little from the old work so that when you have to go back to it (editing it or a review comes out or you are doing publicity) it feels fresh and new again. If you don’t have anything new to work on, then you are waiting, and I hate waiting. Most of publishing is waiting, so I try to avoid it whenever I can. I’m not very patient.
Please walk us through how you go about character development. Do you mine your family, neighbours, quirky people you meet in the day-to-day, etc.?
Of course! I mine everything I see and hear and feel and smell. My characters develop in the same way people make friends. Slowly. Little bits of stuff about them comes out as I write, as I watch them move and talk and think. As I write them I see them and get to know them. And then I disguise them so my family and friends don’t know I’m writing about them.
Of all characters whom you’ve met in your books and collections to date (from Turnstone Press), who is your favourite and why?
This is a really hard question. I love them all, even the evil ones. I guess my favourites are always the last ones I’ve written, but that’s only because they are fresh and new to me. Some of my characters stand out more than others, like Hilary and Dick and Billy and Tess from What We All Want, and Holly Wray from Blind Crescent. I love Maria, the maid, in Blur. I like Mary-Lou and Percy Q. from the story, “Mary-Lou’s Getting Married,” in I Still Don’t Even Know You. I like the characters I’ve written who are complicated but also simple. The characters who are witty (whether they know they are or they don’t know they are), and determined. The characters who have a desire to make things right, even if they don’t ever solve anything. I also like the characters who are a bit more dysfunctional than normal, who have a quirky side to them and don’t care (or realize) who knows.
What do you think about a writer’s need to be part of social networks?
By that do you mean the “Writer’s Tribe" (as in joining TWUC and PEN and such?) or do you mean networks as in Facebook and Twitter and such? I’ll answer both. I think writers are observers of human behaviour and if we lock ourselves in rooms to write, we don’t observe. So we need to get out, feel supported, be supportive. For me that has been with TWUC and PEN and the Writers’ Trust. For me that is now teaching. Facebook and Twitter, on the other hand, don’t give writers that one-on-one, human interaction (so we might eventually forget how to write about facial expression or appearance), but this form gives us a way to communicate with other writers and readers in the best way we know how—by writing. I have a tendency to be Emily Dickinson-ish, locked away in my room, but I know that’s not good for me and doesn’t make me a better writer. It worked for Emily, but it won’t work for me.
You teach creative writing as well—how does instruction about the art of writing figure in for you?
To be honest, teaching writing is the one steady paying gig a writer can get. I teach to have a salary in order to afford the time to write. But I also teach because I know how important it is for writers to be supported, and if they can get that through a classroom of like-minded individuals, then that is good. Teaching can also be bad for writing, however, as I’ve come to realize. Because I’m taking apart the “rules of writing” every day and I’m thinking about the construction of a novel or story during my classes, instead of merely writing it, I’m losing the ability to let go and be spontaneous and simply write. I have to constantly remind myself to forget everything I know about writing and just write. I tell my students that there are no rules to creative writing but sometimes I forget to tell myself that.
And now a few fun questions:
Do you keep any talismans or lucky charms nearby when you write?
No. And I should. Maybe that will make me more successful and productive? Maybe a little voodoo doll of someone who has given me a bad review?
Are you a habitual consumer of anything while you write?
I’d love to be able to drink wine and then write, but whenever I try that, my grammar is atrocious (ha ha). I do drink coffee (espresso with cream or a cappuccino). I have one in the morning when I start writing and then I have one after lunch to give me energy for the afternoon haul. In the winter I may drink herbal tea occasionally. There is definitely water on my desk at all times. I sip continuously.
Favourite music to listen to while you write?
Depends on what I’m writing. When I wrote What We All Want, I kept listening to The Pogues’ song, “Tuesday Morning” —something about the happiness of it mixed with the sad lyrics put me in the frame of mind for that novel. I’m really into Mumford and Sons right now and also love the song “Breezeblocks” by Alt-J. Sometimes I listen to classical music. Or jazz. But mostly I write in silence.
If you could not be a writer, what career might you have?
Neurosurgeon! Isn’t that what some famous writer said to a neurosurgeon at a party? The surgeon said, “When I retire I’m going to write a novel,” and the writer said (this is often attributed to Margaret Atwood, but I’m not sure it was her), “When I retire I’m going to be a neurosurgeon.” I would have loved to have done something in medicine but I wasn’t very good at math and science. I really love hospitals (that sounds weird, but hear me out). I love the setting of a hospital with its nurses who are almost always wonderful (strong and tough and sensitive and empathetic) —at least the ones I’ve met—and I’m inspired by the bustle and hope and fear and strangeness, by the good people are doing and by the bad they do to themselves or others. Of course, I don’t like hospitals when I have to be there, only when I’m there because I want to be. I have many friends who are doctors and they almost always want to write, strangely enough. I could also see being a journalist, if there were such a thing anymore. You know, getting the scoop, rushing a story, being in the middle of the action. I’d love that, I think. But, hey, I’m pretty happy being a writer. It’s all I’ve ever known.
You can visit Michelle Berry's studio here.