canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Interview: Deborah Willis

Deborah Willis is a writer based in Victoria, BC. She studied English and Creative Writing at the University of Victoria. Her short fiction has appeared in Grain, Event, and the UK's Bridport Prize Anthology. She has been nominated for a Western Magazine Award, and in 2005, she won the Prism International fiction prize. Willis's first collection of short fiction is Vanishing and Other Stories (Penguin Canada, 2009).

Interview by Ashley Little

May 2009


A recurring theme in these stories is the instance of someone disappearing, someone being abandoned. Was that a theme you intended to explore in a collection or did the individual stories point you in that direction? Can you speak to this condition of being left and leaving?

I wrote the stories over about seven years, and in the beginning, I wasnít thinking at all about how they might fit together. So thematically speaking, the collection developed in an unintentional way. In reading over my earlier stories, thereís a darker, sometimes gothic tone that Iím less engaged with now, but the idea of people vanishing and reappearing in each otherís lives still fascinates me. Itís a sort of ebb and flow of everyday life, not necessarily heartbreaking in any expected way, and I seem to be drawn to that kind of story.

Once I realized what I was doing, or settled on this guiding idea, I began to be more direct and purposeful. When I wrote "This Other Us," I said to myself, "Okay, Iíve got these three characters living happily in the same house. But what would happen if one of them left?" The story wrote itself from there. And when I wrote "Sky Theatre," I wanted to talk about a different kind of disappearance, one that has nothing to do with one person and more to do with a loss of faith or trust in the future. I donít mean that I knew how the story would end when I began itĖĖthat has never happened to meĖĖbut I knew from the beginning that I wanted to talk about a certain kind of vanishing, as well as the beauty that can come from loss.

Your book is dedicated to your parents. Do they encourage your writing or do they "serve their purpose" as one of your characters says, and "disapprove of what you do, so you can enjoy doing it"?

My parents have been angelic about this whole thing! They probably worried about my determination to be a writer, but they were always very supportive. They also encouraged me to read a lot when I was a kid, which is partly why I dedicated the book to them. My family really appreciates books and art of all kinds, and as far as I remember, I was allowed to read anything and everything I wantedĖĖLucy Maud Montgomery, Elmore Leonard, whatever. Itís important, I think, to have a period of innocently devouring whatever books you can find. My parents gave me the freedom to do that, probably without even thinking about it.

The other thing, and this must be true for almost everybody, is that the first stories I heard were from my parents. My mum is an insatiable storyteller! She has a real gift for making connections and seeing the narrative of peopleís lives. And my dad used to invent bedtime stories for me that I loved. So in dedicating the book to them, I wanted to acknowledge that my love of stories is, at least in part, inherited.

If you could be invisible for one day what would you do?

What does it say about the poverty of my imagination if I have no idea? Iíve never wanted to be invisible (maybe because I often felt that I already was). Remember being a kid, and hanging out with other kids, and having that very serious discussion about which super power youíd most like to have? Some kids wanted to be invisible, some wanted to fly. I always wanted to be able to manipulate time. I wanted to be able to pause it, and move forward and backwards within it. To me, that seemed like the ultimate super power, and it still does.

If you could invite six people (living or dead) to a dinner party, who would be on the guest list?

This question is impossible to answer! Everyday I think of some other brilliant/goofy/fascinating person that Iíd love to have over. Like the characters in "This Other Us," I would invite Vincent Van Gogh and Leonard Cohen. Iíd certainly want Chekhov and Virginia Woolf there too. But hereís where my social anxiety kicks in. With so many mad introverts at the table, Iím concerned that there might be long, awkward pauses in conversation, so Iíd want to invite someone very talkative. Fidel Castro would do, though his lecture would take up the whole evening. Maybe John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester; he could probably be counted on to supply amazing gossip during any quiet moments. Also in the interest of surreal and lively conversation, I might invite both Britney Spears and the extraordinary Ani Difranco, then mischievously seat them next to each other (wondering if, secretly, they might find each other sweet and amusing). And itís always good to have a charming outlaw at the table, so Iíd invite Billy the Kid, even though heíd probably just want to play cards. And I know Iíve gone way over the six-person limit already, but Iíd also invite the beautiful musician, Omara Portuondo. That way, she could serenade us after dinner, and we could all dance.

Your stories take place in Quebec, Ontario, the prairies, Alberta and BC. As a writer you seem to have an intimate knowledge of these places and landscapes. Where have you lived? Where have you travelled? Do you identify as a BC writer?

I grew up in Calgary, and worked for many summers near Red Deer, so thatís how I know Alberta. Most of my mumís family is in Toronto, so Iíve spent a lot of time there. And I know BC pretty well: I lived on Salt Spring Island, have family in the Okanagan, and have lived in Victoria on and off for the past nine years. But I donít think of myself as a BC writer specifically. I just think of myself as a writer whoís from Canada. And I feel more Canadian since Iíve had more chances to travel outside the country (which seems like a very Canadian thing to say!). Iíve lived and worked in France, and recently spent time in Russia, Israel, and Cuba. Iíd probably use any excuse to go anywhere.

Are you Jewish? How does the Jewish experience inform your writing?

My mumís family is Jewish, so yes, Iím Jewish in that sense, though Iíve never really practised any form of religion. But the stories of Judeo-Christian tradition interest me more and more. They form a sort of scaffolding that a writer can try to climb, and thatís something to be grateful for.

What is the best advice anyone ever gave you on writing? On life?

A line I often repeat to myself is from "Anthem" by Leonard Cohen: "Forget your perfect offering." This is good advice for any artist, I think, because many have a tendency to be obsessive. And youíll never get anything done if you wait for the perfect phrase or the perfect time to write it down. Thatís so obvious, but sometimes I need to remind myself of it.

Can you offer any advice to a new writer trying to get her own short fiction collection published?

One thing that helps is being able to shrug off rejection. Iíve kept my rejection letters, and try to think of them as some sort of hilarious accomplishment. Unfortunately (or fortunately) getting published seems to have a lot to do with luck and timing. But I think it has something to do with blind faith and hard work too. So doggedly reading and writing seem to be the only ways to go about it.

What is on your recommended reading list?

Everything by Alice Munro. The short stories of Chekhov, Flannery OíConnor, and Mavis Gallant. The Great Gatsby seems to me to be a flawless novel. Iíd also recommend One Hundred Years of Solitude, for its inimitable gorgeousness. Lolita for its dark, disturbing humour and the joy Nabokov takes in language. The King James Bible, for all the obvious, writerly reasons: its narrative, poetry and vast influence.

Winning the 2005 Prism International Fiction Contest was a big break for you, do you often enter contests and do you recommend entering literary contests?

Iíve entered several contests, winning some and losing some (as they say). Winning that award from Prism was actually one of the first times I experienced that kind of outside validation that I mentioned before. Prism offers a fairly significant cash prize, and when people found out that Iíd actually made some money as a writer, they started to take me more seriously. That was a revelation to me (I know! such innocence!), and I found it both disturbing and convenient.

But to answer your question, yes, I recommend entering contests, regardless of what the prize might be. Why not? Winning is wonderful, and losing isnít so bad.

What is your writing routine? What keeps you motivated to write?

I write in the mornings, usually for about four or five hours. I try to be very disciplined about it, and when Iím not, I get antsy and weird. As for motivation, I think it changes all the time. Sometimes itís a book that Iím reading, which is so brilliant that it reminds me of why I love books and want to write them. Sometimes itís the elation and amazement that comes when words flow smoothly. Sometimes what motivates me is less private, and has more to do with what I guess you could call ambition or desireĖĖwhatever it is that makes a person toss herself out into the world to see how sheíll measure up. And sometimes I donít know what motivates me, and the whole undertaking seems insane.

Do you write with music on? If yes, what?

Very rarely. I need quiet. Sometimes, though, Iíll listen to a song or a certain kind of music before I start to write. When I was working on "And the Living is Easy," I listened to a lot of jazz.

Do you ever write in long hand or with a voice recorder? Do you ever write in invisible ink?

I write in long hand all the time, especially when Iím just starting to work on a story. The computer is too intimidating for beginnings. As for invisible ink, what a fabulous, terrifying idea! That would be perfect for a collection called Vanishing. Though book sales might suffer.

Where do your stories usually start? With a character? An idea? A situation? A landscape?

Itís different for every story. Sometimes itís just one image that I canít shake out of my head. Usually I have a clear sense of a characterĖĖa personís name or voice or something about their dilemma. The setting usually arises naturally and doesnít require much thought.

Do you work in any other forms or do you write only short fiction?

Like everybody on earth, I used to write poetry. I also used to work as a reporter, and I really enjoyed it. It was good to work towards deadlines, and to write things that didnít quite belong to me. Lately, Iíve written a few non-fiction essays, and I hope theyíll be published one day. Now Iím trying to write a set of linked stories. I say Ďtryingí because theyíre very new; Iíve still got my fingers crossed.

Do you anticipate your life changing at all after the release of Vanishing and Other Stories?

Not really. I just want to keep working and writing and traveling when I can. But what has changed for me in the past year is that I feel more able to admit to people that Iím a writer. When I signed that book contract, I began to feel more confident, and less freakish and silly. Or maybe I just felt validated for being freakish and silly.

Will you be doing a reading tour? Where and when can we see you read?

Iíll be signing books in Munroís Books in Victoria on Saturday, May 16th. Iíll also be doing a reading in Calgary later in May, and Iíll be in Ucluelet and Tofino on the weekend of May 30th. Iím not sure of exact dates yet, but theyíll be posted here: (My very own website! People who are acquainted with my severe techno-phobia understand just how funny this is!)

Ashley Little studied Creative Writing at the University of Victoria and was fortunate to be in a fiction workshop with Deborah Willis. Her work has recently appeared in Broken Pencil Magazine (online featured fiction), in 2008, she won the Okanagan Short Story Contest. Ashley is at work on a novel and searching for a suitable publisher for her first short fiction collection.




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