Sharron Arksey is September's Author of the Month. A journalist by training, Arksey's turned her eye to fiction in her debut novel The Waiting Place. In 19 Questions about Process: An Interview with Sharron Arksey, she shares a few thoughts about her creative process.
Sharron Arksey's books with Turnstone Press:
When did you first come to think of yourself as a professional writer?
If by ‘professional’ you mean “earning a living at”, I guess I have considered myself a professional writer since I graduated from Ryerson all those years ago. I worked full-time at newspapers before I married and then supplemented the farm income by freelance writing for various publications. While I had many other jobs along the way (I worked in a bank, several schools as a secretary, librarian and teacher assistant, for example), I always considered writing as my ‘career’. However, I am only just beginning to think that I could possibly be a professional fiction writer. I won’t be giving up my day job, though!
What inspires you?
Oh gosh, you ask hard questions. The seasons inspire me—spring, summer, fall, winter— and repeat. Their colours and smells and sounds as background for human activities. Other people’s stories inspire me. I know that once somewhere a farm wife really did phone a stress line because the cows got in her garden. That piece of information inspired me to imagine a scenario leading to that phone call. Obituaries can inspire me. Some of them tell such interesting stories or at least hint at stories that could be told. Notes tucked inside an old book. Snippets of information that make me ask questions.
Is there a particular time of day which you write best?
I am a morning person, definitely. That applies to everything in my life, not just writing.
Please describe your typical writing routine.
I don’t have a typical writing routine. I fit my writing into the day where it best fits. I spend a lot of time thinking about my characters, their motivations and backgrounds, jotting down notes along the way. Then when my schedule permits, I spend time at the computer. Ideally though, I would get up in the morning, brew the coffee and spend the next three to four hours writing.
Before turning to fiction you wrote a nonfiction column for a number of years. For you, do these different disciplines function to inform each other? How?
Of course they do. I wrote a column “Rural Routes” for a number of years. It began as a weekly look at events on the farm and in the area where I lived. Over time as our children were born and our lives changed, the column became more focussed on The Man, The Girl and The Boy. I introduced dialogue to make it read like a story. I used humour whenever possible. I took real events that happened in our lives and made them into stories. Now I am employing similar techniques to write fiction, using my knowledge of what has happened in the real world to people a fictional world with characters who act and react as they would in real life. That is my goal, anyway.
When you did turn to fiction you wrote short fiction before turning to the novel format. What is it about this format that you like?
I enjoy reading short fiction because one story is an entire world in fewer pages. You can read a story over a coffee break and let it simmer in your thoughts for the rest of the day. Naively I thought that writing a short story would be easier because of its length. But there is actually less room to maneuver within its pages than with a novel. I used to think of short stories as self-contained— sometimes circular—with the content digging deeper and deeper rather than spreading out beyond the walls of the story. My ideas on that have changed over time—a story needs to have an open door to the future. A ‘what if’ question that can live on in the minds of the reader and keep the characters alive. I still enjoy short fiction for the same reasons I always did, but I have a whole new respect for the skill they require.
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?
I am not sure that I have a preference. The two stages are different, but I enjoy them both. My kids gave me a fridge magnet that says “Write drunk edit sober” and I have seen it as a Facebook meme as well. It does rather encapsulate for me the difference between the two stages. Composition is a ‘big picture’ experience, lots of room for experimentation and imagination (with or without the assistance of a glass of wine). It is more exciting to me. Editing on the other hand is more about the detail—not as exciting, but satisfying in its own way. One process uses the left side of my brain; the other the right.
What role does research play in your writing?
It depends on what I am writing. In The Waiting Place, for example, there was not as much need for research. I did search out baby names and their meanings, the contents of 1945 National Geographic issues, and uses for a placenta, for example. But most of the book came out of my personal knowledge of farm life. I was writing about what I know. But research ensures or helps to ensure authenticity; if I move outside what I already know, it is imperative. Research is another example of a skill used in non-fiction that can be transferred to fiction.
While in the editorial stage do you ever start writing or working on something else?
I might, if I felt the need to get away from detail. Time away from a project can lead to a clearer perspective when you get back to it. And competing deadlines sometimes demand it. On the other hand, it can be difficult for me to forcibly remove myself from the fictional world in which I am living. All my focus is there.
Please walk us through how you go about character development.
I try very hard to stay away from family and close friends; it is safer that way. But other people, yes. I think it is an advantage that I have held jobs in different sectors and that my recent jobs have involved a lot of travel, taking me to communities outside my own. Not only do I meet a great many people, but I can better see and understand different perspectives. My original concept of a character may be based loosely on someone I have met or know about. Then I introduce fictional scenarios and imagine how that character, given his or her personality and experience, would react.
What’s your favourite moment in the life of your work? And why?
When it all comes together. The Waiting Place is perhaps not a good example of process for novel writing, because it began as a collection of short stories, not as a fully-formed larger story. My task here was to assemble all the parts, assign stories to particular characters and move the pieces around until they fit. It was rather like doing a jigsaw puzzle with the wrong number of pieces. I had to discard some that didn’t belong and add others to hold the puzzle together. My favorite moment in the life of this particular work was when I realized that I had something that held together on its own. It wasn’t finished, not by a long shot, but I had a sense that this was going to work.
What do you think about a writer’s need to be part of social networks?
I think it is increasingly important since social networks seem to have replaced other means of communication. That said, I am old enough to remember when electric typewriters were a big deal. Social networks are a learning curve for me.
Do you enjoy giving public readings?
I do, actually (although I am always nervous beforehand). I often read my work out loud to myself to hear how it sounds. If the words don’t sound right to my ear, I rearrange them or find new words. And I enjoy the opportunity to present the story the way I imagined it, which may or may not be the way the reader interpreted it.
What are you currently working on?
“Working on’ is probably a bit premature, but ‘thinking about’ definitely. Since thinking about is part of the process, perhaps it’s not so premature after all. I am thinking about a novel in which the main character runs away to a Scandinavian country to escape some fairly catastrophic life events. You cannot run away from yourself, of course, but it is never too late to learn new things about who you are.
Writing The Waiting Place has given me the confidence, I think, to begin a new novel. I wrote short stories because an entire novel seemed too huge a task. It’s still a huge task, but I know it is doable.
In the meantime, though, I am doing some memoir writing, mining the reams of family history documents I have accumulated. It will be a gift to our children, not for publication.
And now a few fun questions:
Do you keep any talismans or lucky charms nearby when you write?
A framed postcard from Carol Shields. Carol read the book Rural Routes: The Collection, a selection of excerpts from my column. She sent me a post card that said “I’ve recently read your Rural Routes with great pleasure. Thank you so much.” When I look at it, I am reminded that a skilled writer found something to enjoy in my words. I am also reminded that kind words and generous acts can have long-lasting positive effects. I don’t carry the postcard around with me, but it is a treasured possession.
Are you a habitual consumer of anything while you write?
I drink coffee— plain, ordinary coffee, the stronger the better.
Favourite music to listen to while you write?
I listen to a fairly eclectic mix of country and western, old rock and folk music. But when I am fully immersed in what I am doing, I don’t hear a word of it.
Do you draft long-hand or do you compose at the keyboard?
I compose at the keyboard. Years ago, when I attended Ryerson, I and other journalism students who had no typing experience were required to take a course that would bring them up to a minimum 35 words per minute typing speed since all stories had to be typewritten. I learned to think at the keyboard and I have never gone back to longhand.
If you could not be a writer, what career might you have?
An educator perhaps? I had also applied and been accepted for education after high school graduation and had to make a decision between education and journalism. Or a librarian maybe. Someone who reads to people. Even if I couldn’t write stories, I would still want to tell them.