canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Interview: Michele Adams

Michele Adams is a writer, teacher and script editor whose stories have been dramatized on radio and published in journals such as Canadian Fiction and The Fiddlehead. Her script Beachbound is upcoming on CBC television and she is on the cusp of finishing her first novel. Her first collection of short stories, Bright Objects of Desire, was recently published by Biblioasis.

In Bright Objects, Adams navigates the breach between curiosity and trespassing in a world that is at once achingly lonely and fiercely private. She explores the broad spectrum of desires born in this space: a fatherís longing for a lost child; a womanís wish to redeem her bully; the class politics of a grocery store flirtation; the terrifying magnetism of an extramarital crush; a teenagerís sexual awakening and her swift retreat to the familiar world of childhood. Instinct and convention collide at times, as Adamsí characters become closer, hearts racing, to the objects of their desire.

Interview by Anne Borden (March 2006)


How did you get your start as a writer?

When I was a little kid, six, seven years old, I wrote something that was like a prose poem, called "The Falls." It had all these present participles at the beginning of it: "sparkling," "shimmering." And my parents were very impressed. Someone came to our house and my parents pulled this out, and they were like showing it to this total stranger. And Iím sure he thought, "Oh my God, this is idiotic," but he was like, "Oh, thatís wonderful!" Maybe this is why I started writing, actually! Writing is kind of a shy-person thing. Itís a way of getting attention and yet you donít have to actually stand up and do a little danceÖ

Are your parents still pulling out your manuscripts and showing them to people?

I hope not!

What do they think of your work?

Well, theyíre very supportive. But Iím not one of those people whoÖ Iím a teacher and I actually discourage my students from running all of their work by their closest friends and their mom and dad and brother and sister because I tend to think thatís inhibiting.

I think itís very important, particularly for a writer starting out, to get a real sense of his or her own voice and get a strength to that. If you constantly workshop everything that you do through all of your closest relations you just tend to censor your material. When youíre praised and you get positive responses you want to do more of that, and when you get a negative response you want to stop. I think particularly when youíre starting out, you need to do some work in isolation.

What youíre saying is so different from what many writing teachers have to say: theyíre always encouraging people to share their work, share their workÖ

Well, each person that looks at your work will have a take. And you can get into a bad spot where you just listen to each voice and keep changing and keep listening and changing and listening and changing, until your work has no true core anymore.

What kind of feedback do you recommend for a writer who is just starting out?

I think certain kinds of writing classes can be very good as long as you have a good facilitator The only problem with a writing workshop environment is that sometimes you can get a strong and negative personality who can have their own agenda and that can be kind of damaging to a young writer. But if you have enough people there, and you have a facilitator who balances things, that can be very helpful.

The thing is, writing is really pretty solitary. You have to be the kind of person who wants to and actually enjoys writing. Writing is something that you do, basically, by yourself.

In terms of your own writing, how do you bounce your work off of people? Or do you just send it out cold?

For the most part, I send it out cold. But I was in the Booming Ground Writers Workshop [University of British Columbia] a couple of years ago and found it wonderfully empowering.

One person in the group,Ö it was quite fascinating actually,Ö he was attending like, 18 residential workshops over the summer. He was going to write an article about it. His name was David Tippet and he spent about four or five months at all these residential workshops. For me, I think that would actually kill me. I donít think I could stand that. But he sounded very stimulated!

Stimulated! As a writer or as a people watcher?

He said as a writer. He was a very serious writer and his work was really interesting. He was intrigued by comparing and contrasting how different workshops worked.

Thatís a good idea for a book.

Yeah, thatís what I thought. Or, a hilarious movie, like Waiting for Guffman or something. Although itís almost too ripe for satire.

Thatís for sure. Youíre close to finishing your first novel. And is there another in the works, too?

Yes. Iím working on two different novel manuscripts. One Iím quite advanced onÖ itís supposed to be funny, a lighter piece in a goofy diary format.

What I often find with my writing is I start off with something that I think is an amusing idea, and then as I work on it, it gets incredibly depressing. As I work on it more, it often comes back around to being what I think is more entertaining. What I think is that everything really is both. So itís not surprising that it moves through these cycles and these modes.

This makes me think of your story "Op Art Bikini," which moves through a similar cycle through the course of the narrative.

"Op Art Bikini" is kind of a backwards coming of age story. The girl goes forward towards something but her idea of what sheís seeking is actually quite abstract and childlikeÖ she doesnít really know what sheís going after. She canít really know what sheís going after until she gets right into the middle of it, and then itís too much and she pulls back from it. But she comes back into a different kind of child self. She has moved forward and sheís empowered in a way by the whole process.

In "Op Art Bikini," and in several of your other works, adolescent sexuality figures heavily. How do your audiences respond to this content?

The stories that people seem to like the best are the adolescent ones. They have always been easy to sell and when Iíve given readings people have been very responsive to them. The whole coming of age thing is relatively easy for an audience to connect to. Weíve all experienced childhood and this sense of surprise as the body changes and our consciousness changes, as we start being pushed to reach out for people in a different way. Itís so profound and itís also so universal.

But the thing about the sexual [content] is, I donít think of my work that way. When I was at the Booming Ground workshop, it was funny because me and one of the other students were identified as the "dirty writers"! Itís so strange because I can also be kind of prudish. Like when Iím reading out loud, Iíll vet my stories in advance to make sure there are no bad words in them!

Several stories in Bright Objects, like your screenplay Beachbound, are centred around cottaging. Whatís the inspiration for the setting?

Are you in Toronto? Do you know where Sauble Beach is?

Yeah, totally.

Our family used to go there and that landscape really got imprinted on my mind.

Beachbound will soon air on CBC, what was it like seeing your work developed visually?

With Beachbound, a lot of the story material was coming from that same place as "Op Art Bikini." That made it particularly weird because it took all this stuff out of my head and splashed it up on a big screen with all these saturated images of beaches, bright sunlight and blue water. Even though I should have been totally prepared for it, I found it somewhat startling. Ö Beautiful at the same time.

Letís talk about Lady S., your screenplay adaptation of the Jane Austen novel, Lady Susan.

The view that I take, and that a lot of critics take, is that Lady Susan is Jane Austenís first "adult work". And on the surface, itís so different from her other novels, but deep down it deals with the same concerns about who a woman is. It has a really "old" protagonist: sheís 36 and sheís very "bad," sexually experienced, sheís been married and has got an adult daughter who sheís trying to marry offÖ. Sheís really struggling all the time to survive because sheís widowed and sheís lost her reputation, but she doesnít want to do the obvious thing, to trade on her beauty and charm to find a wealthy old guy to marry her and give her some security. I find her very strong, almost martial; she just doesnít want to do that, even though thatís the obvious thing for her to do.

Itís also intriguing because I see Jane Austen herself, at that age, is just coming to grips with the limitations that her society is placing on her. If you look at Austenís juvenile writing, itís so incredibly spirited and kind of crazy. The energy, including sexual energy thatís in the work: people stealing peopleís fiancťs and breaking up marriagesÖ stealing food and just, stealing all kinds of stuff and getting into boats and making war on peopleÖ itís so different from her adult work.

But if you think of Eleanor: sheís that same kind of person deep down. Sheís full of volcanic passions, but itís held in total abeyance. This is what she and Jane Austen have learned about the world they lived in. There are ways to try to make your best deal. But exploding with your emotional demands is not the best way to make your deal.

Where is Lady S. at, in terms of development and production?

It was under option for five years to a fairly big Canadian production company, but that company got into some financial problems and the option came to an end. So now Iím looking for another company. A period piece like that is so expensive to make, and it has to be done beautifully. It canít be done in thrift-store mode. It would have to be a co-production, and there would have to be millions of dollar to do it. But, Iím hopeful! I think it will happen.

What are you reading right now?

I just finished John Updikeís story "My Fatherís Tears" in the New Yorker. I love his rich, beautiful prose, so Iím always happy to see one of his stories pop up in the New Yorker. Iím quite enamoured of fiction as a form.

Do you prefer fiction?

I wouldnít say that necessarily, but I think fiction is a really good form because, since itís fiction and itís not you, you have that sense of privacy and distance from it. It allows you to feel free to work with it.

You know, even if you are trying to write a memoir youíre always being selective and it is just your memory, which is full of holes that you fill in. And of course you can remember things that are totally untrue. I donít think the truth comes from the accuracy of accumulated details. It comes from something deeper, separate from that.

I guess thatís one reason why I love fiction, even though some people are saying, "Oh, fictionís dead and nobody wants to read stuff thatís not true". Because I really do think that fiction is true. Truth is in art.

Anne Borden lives in Toronto.







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