Katherine Lawrence is November's Author of the Month. The author of three collection of poetry, Katherine's work has been recognized with several awards. Among other awards, her work has won Best First Book, Saskatchewan Book Awards, the City of Regina Writing Award, and the John V. Hicks Long Manuscript Award. In 19 Questions about Process: An Interview with Katherine Lawrence, she shares a few thoughts about her creative process.
Katherine Lawrence's books with Turnstone Press:
When did you first come to think of yourself as a professional writer?
I became a writer the moment I learned how to read. I love the printed word, the spoken word, the world of language because all I want in my life is to connect and communicate. Every book I open and every book I write extends my concept of a universal and ongoing conversation with the questions, Who Are You? Who Am I?
Do you still submit individual poems to magazines and journals for publication? Why or why not?
I’m inconsistent, though a bit of a sucker for competitions because the price of a submission often covers the cost of an annual subscription and I like to support our literary journals.
What inspires you?
A line in a novel or a poem or a play. Words in a letter, words in a song. For example, the poem “More Than Winter in the Air” was triggered by the line in Wordsworth’s poem, “Lucy,” specifically, “When she I loved look’d every day.” I turned the line into “when he I loved.” But don’t let me mislead you into thinking that most of my sources are literary. Glossy ads, billboards, overheard conversation—it’s all language, all potential material.
Is there a particular time of day at which you write best?
I write best after breakfast when the coffee is fresh and so am I. But I often return to my desk in the evening after dinner because I get my second wind when the curtains are closed for the night. I’m also motivated by deadlines. Pressure focuses my wandering mind. I write (almost) every day.
How has your writing routine changed from that at the time of your first publication?
Once upon a time, I waited for something I thought of as inspiration. I had some romantic notions about how and when to write. But experience has taught me that my job is to show up at my desk every day and to treat writing like a job. Start, write, stop when the whistle blows.
How do you know that a poem is finished? Is a poem ever finished for you?
For me, every poem is a conversation where I do most of the listening. So a poem is finished when I can’t hear it anymore. What I mean is that the voice I hear goes quiet. I can tell the difference between the voice that is stalled and the voice that is silent. The stalled voice needs to be put away for a week, a month, a year. The quiet voice has nothing more to say (to me) and is ready to go out into the world.
As a collection, Never Mind is carefully structured. How much of a game plan did you have in place before you dove into the individual pieces?
Never Mind began as a singular voice, a woman’s voice. The voice was female, ancestral, and mannered. What I mean is that I heard a distinctive form of expression. I listened, I wrote, and I began to read early Canadian history, especially letters written by women. Soon I had a character and I named her Wife. I felt curious about her.
I knew early in the writing that I had a manuscript on my hands. I loved writing the poems. I loved the research, especially paying attention to Wife’s psychological landscape. Her voice drives the entire collection. I eventually mapped the poems so that I could sort out the seasons, the passage of time, and the movement of history without fixing Wife to specific issues. I think that my efforts taught me something about writing into the atmosphere of a poem.
I like every aspect of writing a manuscript – research, writing, revision, and especially the work that arrives when a publisher assigns an editor to the process. Turnstone handed the manuscript to Edmonton poet and editor Alice Major. Our discussions help me to deepen and enlarge Never Mind. I became more conscious of the narrative arc and re-wrote many poems accordingly. It was like a one-to-one master class. My bliss. Alice was also attuned to the sequence of the poems and helped me to realize the overall arrangement.
While editing a manuscript do you ever start writing or working on something else?
Always! My writing practice is crowded. When I lose the sound of a poem I’ll turn to one of my other projects. Just now I’m working on a stage play and a new collection of young adult poetry. Everything is in dialogue with everything else.
Do you only write poetry or do you write in other genres/modes as well?
My job as a writer is to become a better writer. For me, the best way to grow is to read widely, study other writers, and experiment. I’ve written a young adult novel-in-verse, a stage play, and I have another play underway. But always and forever there is poetry in my practice.
Never Mind received some serious accolades before it was even out of the gate (2015 John V. Hicks Long Manuscript Award and the 2014 City of Regina Writing Award), and much more praise since its release. What kind of pressure did the early honours put on you and the collection?
The honours felt like big hugs. I felt encouraged to stay the course and keep writing. It takes all my courage to share my uncommon view of the world with others. So I think that the accolades helped me to feel braver. I sat taller in my desk chair and got back to work with a renewed sense of connection. The work was understood!
The response to the collection continues to delight me. I feel grateful to every reader who takes the time to enter the world of Never Mind. Every response is a gift.
You often write about marriage and family in your work. What is it about this theme that keeps you coming back to it in a variety of different ways?
I’m drawn to the domestic—to all the rooms in a house if you will. Wandering up and down the stairs of a marriage allows me to behave like an observant chatelaine. I feel like I write with a collection of black iron keys clipped to my belt.
The constraints of the domestic world is a way for me to investigate love. I wonder what creates love, what holds love, and what destroys love. I wonder about violence in a place (the home, the family) that is supposed to be safe.
Every family is endlessly fascinating to me. Tolstoy said it best in Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
As a writer, I believe in happy beginnings but I’m suspicious of happy endings.
Do you journal? How does journaling figure into your creative process?
Some women don’t go anywhere without their lipstick. I don’t go anywhere without my journal. I don’t write in my journal faithfully but I do litter the pages with ideas, ramblings, observations, grocery lists, to do lists. I recently cleaned out a cupboard in my office and found twenty years worth of old journals. I flipped through a few at random and was shocked to see that my obsessions, my tropes, my personal symbols, remain unchanged. And no, I didn’t burn the lot.
Do you enjoy giving public readings?
Give me an audience and I’ll give them a performance. I love to read out loud and entertain. I practice everything I write and I feel a huge responsibility to win over every single person in the room. Reading is a fabulous opportunity to connect with readers and have a chat.
What do you think about a writer’s need to be part of social networks?
It’s all about community. Finding your community, expanding your community, connecting communities like one endless paper chain.
And now a few fun questions:
Do you keep any talismans or lucky charms nearby when you write?
I keep a small menagerie on my desk. I don’t regard my collection as lucky charms but I do harbour fond feelings for my mute friends. Perhaps we keep one another company.
Are you a habitual consumer of anything while you write?
Hot coffee with cream in the morning. English Breakfast tea in the afternoon. Tap water.
Just the other day I told a group of writing students that I like to feel wobbly when I write, sort of drunk, I said. Yet I’m a sober woman as you can see from my answer. I think that a deep immersion in process, the complete and total giving over to the task in the moment unbalances me in the way that I love to topple.
Favourite music to listen to while you write?
Silence. The inside of my head is noisy. I block out all the sounds in my house yet I welcome natural sounds. Rain on the roof, wind rattling leaves on the trees.
Do you draft long-hand or do you compose at the keyboard?
I scribble in pencil on big sheets of paper to get random words and phrases on the page and then I study the mess for patterns and connections. But it doesn’t take me long to begin composing at the keyboard.
I was originally trained as a journalist at The Hamilton Spectator so I learned how to race back to the newsroom and write to deadline. The training is muscle-memory. I’m fixed to my keyboard.
If you could not be a writer, what career might you have?
Mrs. Lawrence, high school English teacher.
Katherine Ann Lawrence, lawyer (family law).
Kate Lawrence, actor.
I’d say that writing takes me where I want to go. I teach, coach, mentor, negotiate with language, and perform my own material.
Many thanks for the good questions.