canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999


TDR Interview: Leo Brent Robillard

Leo Brent Robillard: novelist, poet and short story writer was born and raised in Carleton Place, Ontario. He was the founder and editor of the literary journal Backwater Review. Turnstone Press published Leaving Wyoming, Robillardís first novel (2004). He is currently working on his third novel about the Boer War. 

Meghan Hurley interviewed him in March 2005. 

See Robillard's website.


Have you done any traveling that has inspired your writing?

I have traveled a great deal. I am an educator right now and one of the things I tell a majority of my students is that you have to get out there and see the world. I think the first time I traveled overseas I was seventeen and it was on a school trip to Spain, Portugal and Morocco. I have probably been back to Europe seven or eight times since then. Life experience in general informs everyoneís writing. Research will take you so far, research is wonderful, but if your writing depends solely upon research than basically its art imitating art. Getting out there, and living, and having a story to tell is really important. Also, a writer generally has to be removed from the subject to a certain degree. You have to write about something coldly and be in a position where you can look at it as objectively as possible.

How did growing up in a rural town influence your writing?

Certainly a lot of my poetry is about place, the environment, the effect of environment. I think that if you live in an urban centre you donít necessarily experience the influence of environment and place quite as much as you do if you are from a rural area. Everyone can go to the city, but very few people decide to go and hang out in the country on their day off. I love to write and I think the reason I went into journalism was because I thought if you are looking for a career in writing that is one of the most viable options. But, a lot of writers write in isolation and I think that suits my personality. Whereas, journalism calls on you to be a much more social animal than I am.

Working midnight shifts as a security guard was where you got a lot of writing done. How were you able to produce some of your best work while trying to stay awake late at night?

I keep a notebook and I am a big proponent of that. I always had something like that and when I worked twelve-hour shifts as a security guard it wasnít like being a bouncer. You have to sit in the building through the night and you have to stay awake and writing is a great way to stay awake. With writing your mind is active and you are really engaged in what you are doing so I got a lot writing done. It was a very fruitful period of time for me.

What processes do you go through to develop your story ideas and to write your novels, poetry and short stories?

Quiet and solitude are pretty important when it comes down to actually writing. Everything comes from my notebook and it is like a muddy farm field and I hope that something springs to life every now and then. I plan to have entire days to write and the best time for me is in the morning. I used to go to Carleton University even after I was not a student and I would sit in the library, in a cubicle because it is quite an anonymous space where no one ever hassles you. I would sit in there and I would write from eight in the morning until closing at night. A lot of Leaving Wyoming was written that way. If not writing at the library, I would be writing at my house. My wife would take the kids away for a few days and I will have three solid days where I would get up, make coffee and write all day and never change out of pajamas. I always draw a plan up when Iím writing, a very detailed plan that helps me focus. I donít think that I have ever experienced writerís block when following that process.

How long did it take to write your first novel?

It probably took eight to twelve months to get a first draft that I was satisfied with. That includes a lot of research. I didnít research and then write it, I did both at the same time. For another twelve months I was in the editing process with an editor from Turnstone Press for a portion of that time. It was probably about two years from start to finish to get to a polished draft.

What kind of anxiety or feelings do you go through while waiting to see if your manuscript will be accepted?

There is a wait time and itís a necessary wait time no matter where you send your work, whether you send your work to a Canadian magazine or a Canadian novel publisher. There just isnít the people power to give you a quick turn around and if you expect them to treat your work with respect then you have to expect them to take a while to get back to you. That is the hardest part to deal with. I think it was nine months before I heard from Turnstone the first time, and that was just for them to say we like your stuff, send us the rest. Then, I had to wait another three months before they said they would accept it. You are on eggshells at all times because as much as your write for yourself you also hope that what you have done is appreciated. Ultimately every writers dream is to have an audience. I always go through stages with my manuscript because there are periods where you love what you are doing. Since the novel writing process is so long, you can go through many ups and downs. There are times when you read it over and think you might have missed it, and you arenít really sure and want to get other peopleís opinions. You go through these phases over and over, one day thinking its great and the next day youíre not so sure.

What is your advice to budding writers that want to pursue a career in writing?

I teach creative writing and I have for the past eight years and my advice has always been the same: you always have to write. There is a big difference between a dreamer and a writer. A writer may dream, but a dreamer doesnít write and someone who wants to write has to have a steady regiment, some sort of schedule for writing. I do believe that there is a basic education that is required. We need a liberal arts education so you get a flavour of what is out there in the world and you can actually form your own opinions and train yourself once you have the legs to stand on. The best thing we can do for young students is to give them the right foundation and then just point them in the direction and let them go off and do their own discovering.

What inspired you to write Leaving Wyoming, which is a western novel?

This could be the first and last western I even write. Thatís not because I donít love it entirely, it is because I never planned to write a western. I just had this idea of a cowboy and I guess I never looked at it as a western that I was about to embark upon; it was kind of an accident. I had this character and I wanted to tell a story about him and I never really thought of it as a western until someone told me that they never pegged me as a western writer. Then I realized that it is a western in some respects. For me it was just a novel, it was just a story about a great character, a guy that I liked, and it happened to end up as a western. My novel is episodic and is put together the way a film is put together. That is reflected in the language because it is poetic and metaphoric. Like western films, it is visual and heavy on imagery.

Can you think of any distinctive highs and lows that you have experienced throughout your writing career?

Writing for me has always been a high. I am always so geared up and so crazed during the writing process and afterwards itís a crash. When I am done the writing and one of the three-day periods is up or that day-long marathon is done, afterwards there is a euphoric high for a little while and then there is this down period. The down period is a crash where I wish I was writing all the time and I wish I didnít have to wait until the next time. The periods where you just canít get to the writing because your life gets in the way, thatís the downtime. I have definitely experienced periods where I just canít get at writing, and that bothers me.

What is your opinion on the state of fiction in Canada or throughout the world right now?

When I used to publish this magazine called the Backwater Review someone asked me why I would want to produce another Canadian magazine. I said to him that it didnít matter how loud the voice of Backwater Review ever became, but just the fact that it was another voice. I think the more people that are writing and the more voices that are being heard, published and promoted, the better because the last thing that you want to happen is a monopoly on voice and a monopoly on culture. I really have a firm support for the arts for that reason and support for the publishing industry because not everything is commercial. A lot of the things that arenít commercial need to be heard and need to be sustained.

Meghan Hurley is a journalism student at Ryerson University. She has done freelance work for various publications across the province and is very interested in political reporting. Last year she was an Editor for McClung's Magazine, Ryerson's feminist voice for women. She has also produced a "Medical Minute" for Rogers Television, but decided to stay in print media. She currently lives in Whitby, Ontario with her family and two toy poodles. 







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