canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Interview: Andrea MacPherson 

Andrea MacPherson is the author of four books: two novels, When She Was Electric (Raincoast, 2003) and Beyond the Blue (Random House, 2007) and two poetry collections, Natural Disasters (Palimpsest Press, 2007) and Away (Signature Editions, 2008). When She Was Electric was listed No. 6 on CBC Canada Reads: Peopleís Choice. Andrea completed her Masterís of Fine Arts with the Creative Writing Department at the University of British Columbia. A past editor of Prism International, Andrea now acts as Reviews Editor for Event. She teaches Creative Writing and English with University College of the Fraser Valley and Douglas College.

(October 2007)


TDR: Tell us where you started out as a writer, before you were published.

I started writing at a very young ageómaybe six?óbut it always seemed to be a hobby, something that interested me but little else. I knew that I wanted to write, but it wasn't truly realized until I started college and took some creative writing courses. The moment, though, when I realized that this could actually be my career, would be the only thing I really wanted to do, was when I started in the Creative Writing Program at UBC.

TDR: what is your approach to starting work on a large piece of writing?

Itís always the characters first, for me.  I might hear their voices, have a glimpse of one of their gestures, and imagine them in motion.  But it always begins with the characters. From there, I go with them on the journey that becomes the novel.  Most often, Iím interested in historical elements, so I also have to do a lot of research.  So while these characters are taking up residence in my imagination, I'm also reading a lot of non-fiction work as research.  It could be about an era in general, or about specifics pertaining to the novel.  For example, with Beyond the Blue, I read a lot about Dundee in 1918.  And I read a lot about the manufacturing of jute.

Where do you write? How often, what is your schedule like?

I write wherever I can, whenever I am inspired: in my office, in bed, on the back of a napkin, in a quiet moment in class.  I try ó try being the optimistic, operative word ó to write every day, but some days are better than others.  I definitely go in heated cycles of productivity, but I am always thinking about a poem or a character or the arc of a story.

Do you think in the wake of James Frey that the categorical distinction is necessary more than ever between fiction and memoir?

I think it's always been a strong distinction.  I might take elements from someone's life as inspiration, but, ultimately, I'm not interested in writing a non-fiction piece.  I want to see where the inspiration leads, what sort of story unfolds, how it all transforms. Certainly, I am interested in the impact of true events - wars, movements, politics Ė but I'm always most taken with the characters I imagine faced with these elements.  That's what is interesting to me. (And I have to admit: I've read nothing by James Frey.)

What is it like going from prose to poetry? What is that process like for you? Do you ever find yourself writing something, starting out with prose for example and then cut and pasting a line and thinking; that will be a good line of poetry?

My first novel, When She Was Electric, started out as a poem. Then a scene for a screenplay.  Then a short story.  And, finally, a novel.  So, obviously, for me there is a lot of interconnectedness between form.  I tend to get fairly immersed in a topic that interests me, and then see it crossing those genre boundaries and appearing in every form.  When I was writing Beyond the Blue, I also worked on a suite of poems that dealt with Dundee. Often, some details are just a better 'fit' for poetry than prose, and vice versa.

How has being an editor for both Prism and Event and teaching influenced your work?  Is creative writing all you ever think about? How do you find a perfect balance, so to speak...

It's made me more aware of how precious time is!  I'm acutely aware of the time I have to spend writing, as compared to that time when I am getting a lecture ready or marking stories or reading reviews.  But, for me, it's perfect to always be in that creative headspace - I wouldn't do as well if my day job was, say, accounting.  I need to be thinking about books and words and language in different ways.

Does your family buy your books? Are they supportive? I know some writers who are ashamed of their writer children. I mean, who are afraid to read their work. For example, Chuck Palahniuk at a recent reading said his mother hates his books because she thinks they are all about her.  Though he could be lying to make himself sound counter culture or cutting edge.

There is always that worry - that possibility - that someone in your family or friends won't like what you have written.  After all, as writers, we 'borrow' (a much nicer term than thieve!) a lot of material as inspiration.  But I try to always be clear that while there may be some factual details littering the page, in the end, it is fiction.  It's a story and characters and a situation.  Not a biography. My family and friends have always been very supportive - coming to readings, buying the books, recommending them to others.  I've been really blessed in that way.  I'm sure sometimes they might bristle when they see a flicker of themselves, but it's never been a real issue.  In fact, I have friends requesting that I write about them!  It's the magic of appearing in print, I suppose.

You are working with a large publisher and a small publisher in the same year. I think a lot of consumers don't know the difference, but do you find there is a huge gulf between those two entities?

Of course there are differences - touring, PR, readings - but I think you will even find that between publishers of the same size.  I've been lucky, in that I've had a wonderful experience with everyone at Random House for Beyond the Blue, and I've enjoyed every minute of working with Palimpsest Press for Natural Disasters. Part of it has to be expectation; you have to know, going in, that there is a huge gulf between fiction and poetry to begin with.  

Where were you born?

I was born in Vancouver, at the Heather Pavilion at Vancouver General.  I always thought it sounded like a lovely place.

Where is your favourite piece of land?

Anywhere by the ocean.  I was known to claim, when I was little, that I wanted to die at the Royal Hawaiian in Oahu.

What is your favourite food?

I love seafood - being a West Coast girl - and also anything Greek.

What is it about history that inspires you to work with it? What do you think you are adding to it? What are some of your favourite sources for historical accuracy or inaccuracy? Does the mystery, the unknown inspire you to build ideas about what might have happened?

Part of my interest is in the mystery of the unknown.  What was it like to weave jute for 14+ hours a day?  To fight with the suffragettes? To live in a two-room house in the interior, unhappy?  It's the re-imagining of these lives that interest me.  There's always the undercurrent of the universal - grief, depression, keeping your family intact - but mostly I'm reexamining a time with specific characters in mind.

I'm also deeply attracted to times when it seemed secrets were more possible, were better kept.  We live in an age where almost anyone can discover anything about you.  I like the sense of mystery in times when information was not so readily available, when you could reinvent yourself and your own history. When I was born, my great-great aunt from Scotland declared I had "been here before" and I was an "old soul".  I often wonder if this could be true, and explain why I am so drawn to the past.

Do you feel compromised or the need to be true to the times you decide to write about, or is that part of your skill as a word/craftsperson?

It's a fine line: I want to be as accurate as possible, but I also want the freedom to tell the story as I envision it.  But that's part of the fun of working with historical matter - finding out if they had gas stoves, so could a character actually commit suicide by putting her head in the oven?  Often, my research will take me down new and exciting avenues in the characters' lives.  For instance, Wallis in Beyond the Blue became much more political than I had at first imagined.  And that was because of research.  When you find out that, at the time, women were joining in the suffragist movement, were unionizing, were actively trying to change the shape of the landscape around them, you think: how can I not use that?






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