If you could have a superpower, what would it be?
To be a fast writer. I’m so slow, this truly would feel like a superpower. And just one more: in cold weather, to snap my fingers and make a bus appear.
What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Read. A lot. And carve out a regular writing time, even if it’s just once a week. Make it short enough that you won’t feel daunted, but long enough to settle in. Turn off the Internet.
What advice would you give anyone?
Work with others toward a larger purpose—a community garden, a political campaign. Make time for solitude. Do both of these even if you’re too introverted for one or too extroverted for the other. Sometimes, turn off the Internet.
Did you always know you'd be a writer?
No, but I did show signs of it early on. I loved books so much that I sometimes thought of myself as a character, in third person. “Susan is sitting on the swing now. Susan is moving to the slide.”
Have you had other jobs?
Most of my jobs have involved writing—newspaper reporter, etc. But I’ve also been a library assistant and a documentation clerk at a container pier. At the pier, we sometimes worked 24-hour shifts, 8 a.m. to 8 a.m. That’s not quite time travel, but it does make time feel wonky and less linear.
Why did you decide to write teen fiction?
I read about Lady Jane Grey when I was 10, and never forgot her. I wanted to interweave her story with a present-day one. Since she died at 16, Namesake just presented itself as teen fiction. And that got me hooked.
Is writing poetry much different than writing fiction?
With poems (generally, at least), you describe the world as you experience it. To various degrees, you re-create the world, by, in Emily Dickinson’s words, “telling it slant.” In novels, you build a cast of characters and get them to do stuff. Or, in the best of times, you sit back and describe what they’re doing.
I want to fall in love with poetry, but sometimes I just don't get it. What do you suggest?
First, love what you love and don’t feel intimidated about the rest. If you like only one poem in a book, that’s fine—savour it. Maybe pin it on your fridge—something you can’t do with a novel! Or copy it into a notebook.
Fiction can provide escape. But poetry doesn’t. It’s less like watching a movie and more like looking at a painting, or under the surface of a lake, or through a prism or a highly polished lens. Turn to poetry for this.
Try reading just one poem, or a few, at a time. Try reading out loud to enjoy the sound and feel the beat.
Look for anthologies in bookstores, libraries or online. Some of them cover specific topics, such as poems about sports or dogs or parenthood, or poems by new young writers. The list goes on. If you like some of the poets in an anthology and want to find their books, interlibrary loans can be your friend.
What are your three favourite novels?
My answer for today at least:
For teen fiction, How to Change a Life, by Sara Zarr. A generous and loving story with vivid characters, especially Mandy. For adult novels, Brick Lane by Monica Ali. A rich, fully detailed story about a Bangladeshi immigrant in London. And The Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys, is a strange little gem. It relates to Jane Eyre in a spine-chilling way. So, best if you’ve read that first.
What are your favourite movies and tv shows?
For movies—Milk, with Sean Penn. The story of a hero who is far from perfect and a powerful depiction of a moment in time.
For tv shows—I should first note that I don’t like gratuitous violence. I seriously feel it’s bad for the soul. So friends were shocked that I liked Breaking Bad. It was all because of Jesse—hoping for Jesse to, on some level, survive.
What's your favourite meal?
A good vegan brunch. One of the best spots is Toronto’s Mythology Diner.
Name three things you're grateful for.
Public libraries—since they’re there for everyone. Beaches—one I love to walk on is Martinique Beach on Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore. Independent businesses—for making neighbourhoods great. In my own Plateau Mont-Royal ‘hood, a special thank you to those who let me bring my dog in.
Name three places you love.
What is your personal goal right now?
Améliorer mon français! (See the question above.)
What's your favourite quote?
“Do not adjust your mind, there’s a fault in reality.” It’s an anonymous quote that I saw in an Oxfam store when I was a teenager. Suddenly I thought I might be sane after all. And that reality could be changed.
If you weren't a writer, what would you do instead?
My dream would be to travel the world, mostly by train, taking photos of things that obsess me: clotheslines, stone angels, people and their pets.
Are the characters in your novels based on real people?
No, although most of them borrow bits and pieces.
In the book I’m writing now, Slow Dancing at the Revolution, the teenage Will was inspired by a man I once knew who disliked his own upper class background. But Will quickly found his own voice and personality.
Do you think writing courses are useful?
Yes. And so are writing groups.
For one thing, they keep you writing. It’s like you’re going to a potluck, so you have to bake. You can develop your skills, get inspired and find “your tribe.”
But if you’re ever in a place where you, or others, aren’t being treated well, leave. If it’s a writing group, you can find—or start—a better one.
If you were in Guinness World Records, what would it be for?
For taking so long to finish my degree (an undergrad in Women’s Studies and English at Mount Saint Vincent University, where they let you take your time). I started it at 32, and life was busy—raising my daughter, earning a living. I graduated at 47.
Not that I didn’t love it (I did), and one of the very first courses I took was what started me writing poems.
Which kind of writing is harder?
In an interview, Patrick Lane said poetry is harder because you need inspiration, but with a novel you can just keep working. That’s so true. But with novels you have plots and subplots to manoeuvre, and the characters can be demanding. Some of them want daily attention or they’ll fade away.