canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Interview: Elyse Friedman

Elyse Friedman was born in Toronto, and raised in North York. She has worked at YTV, penning and field-producing a no-budget kids' show called Rec Room. Soon after, she wrote and produced comedy segments for CBC Radio shows "Brand X" and "Definitely Not the Opera" in Winnipeg. The novel was next, Then Again. It was short-listed for the 2000 Trillium Book Award. Elyse returned to Toronto to study screenwriting at the Canadian Film Centre. Since then she has penned several feature-length scripts. Elyse wrote her second novel Waking Beauty and her first book of poems Know Your Monkey in tandem. She is currently working on a book of short stories. One of these tales, "Truth," originally published in The Malahat Review, was selected for the 2003 Journey Prize Anthology, and also appeared in 03:Best Canadian Stories. "The Soother" was just published in the summer fiction issue of Toronto Life.

TDR conducted this interview in September 2005 through electronic means.

TDR: Tell us how it all started.

My first effort was in grade one--a comic reworking of the children's book, The Whales Go By. I changed the title to The Whales Don't Go By, and proceeded to rewrite each page. For example, on the page that features a whale eating krill, I wrote (in crayon): Whales eat candies. On the page that shows a whale beside an Inuit man in a big red parka, I wrote: The whale is the bride of Santa Claus. Hilarious, in my mind. My next project was in grade two. My teacher "published" my story: The Lonely Little Girl, and put it into the school's library system. My little brother signed it out and brought it home. I still have it. After that there was a long period in which I didn't write much at all, except for the occasional lousy poem. When I was eighteen I started up again with a short film. I haven't really stopped since then. I've written everything from sketch comedy for TV and radio, to an annual report for the Four Seasons hotel chain. I've written corporate communications videos, and a wedding speech for a total stranger. I've written stand-up comedy for an animated character, a pop culture column for two different magazines, and a photo comic strip. Also, two novels, a book of poems and seven or eight screenplays.

TDR: beyond the journey prize which seems to be the forefront of the book/magazine literary publishing world in terms of exposure, how valuable is the role of magazines in a writer's life?

Even if you know nobody is going to read the thing, getting a story published in a magazine boosts your spirit, and encourages you to keep going. If that magazine happens to be Toronto Life, you also get two thousand dollars, which you can blow recklessly on artwork by Balint Zsako. It was nice to make it into the summer fiction issue--lots of people read it.

Are you working on anything right now?

Right now I'm working on a book of short stories. And a new screenplay. It's going very slowly because I had a baby in 2004.

TDR: What are some contemporary writers here in Canada you can recommend to our TDR readers?

Just off the top of my head: Sheila Heti, Stuart Ross, Robert Hough, Mark Anthony Jarman, David Whitton, Gil Adamson, Kevin Connolly, Wayne Johnston, Gale Zoe Garnett Guy Vanderhaeghe, Margaret Atwood. Even though he's not Canadian or alive, I'd like to take this opportunity to recommend Richard Yates, because not enough people know about him.

TDR: Anything out there now that you are really excited about, book wise?

A side-effect of having a 19-month-old toddler is that I have very little time for reading anything but children's books. So I would have to say: The Gruffalo; Something from Nothing; Where the Wild Things Are, and Old Hat/New Hat. In the not too distant past I've also read and enjoyed:  Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs, Break Blow Burn by Camille Paglia; Ticknor by Sheila Heti; Saturday by Ian McKewan. I'm about ten pages into Childhood by Andre Alexis (whom I've never read before), and I'm looking forward to sampling the new Rushdie novel. Also Cloud Atlas if I can find a used copy. And I keep meaning to give Derek McCormack a look-see. But I wouldn't say I'm 'excited' by any of these books. I would be excited if J.D. Salinger decided to publish a new one.

TDR: Have you read The Da Vinci Code? Shopoholic & Her Sister or Blink?  

I haven't and wouldn't read the first two. I would read 'Blink' if I had oodles of time.

TDR: I write about 4 poems a year at the most. I used to write more. But I write prose in much bigger doses. For you Elyse, is the process for poetry very different from the process in which you write prose?

Prose is something I work at. Poetry just happens when it wants to happen.  I never sit down to write a poem. A poem comes along, and then I take the time to put it down on paper.

TDR: Do you think Toronto controls Canadian Literature? Or is it Ajax?

Literature can't be controlled. Yes, there are a lot of writers and publishers in Toronto, but what of all the scribblers from The Rock, what of Miriam Toews, Gale Zoe Garnett? Bloody writers everywhere, if you think about it.

TDR: How has suburbia influenced your writing? How has motherhood influenced your writing?

I was raised in the suburbs, so they are a part of me and my writing. My fondest wish as a teenager was to flee suburbia, but now as I grow old and soft, I think back to certain elements of that life with affection: wandering barefoot in the ravine for hours at a time, making out on piles of coats at rec room parties, getting stoned with Richard Sabsay behind the strip mall, then going to the Chinese-Canadian restaurant for a delicious egg roll. My first novel was set in the suburbs. It was about two siblings--one desperate to recreate the past, and one determined to escape it.  I think I'm done with the suburbs as a setting.

Motherhood hasn't yet influenced my writing. For me, experiences usually need to percolate for at least ten years before showing up on the page.  I have a lot less time to write, of course. And because I'm so sleep deprived and lodged into a routine, I feel less creative. It's worth it though. My son is wonderful and hilarious. He's only 19-months old and he's already telling jokes.

Nathaniel G. Moore is TDR’s features editor.







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