canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Interview: Heather Birrell

Heather Birrell is the author of the fiction collection I know you are but what am I? published by Coach House Books (2004). 

Janine Armin conducted this interview in September 2004.

ĎThat Kyra,í said Dad, Ďyouíd think she was King Shit of Turd Island.í
ĎGordon,í said Mum, unconvincingly, Ďlanguage.í
ĎYouíre right, Iím sorry. Queen Poop of Turd Island.í He kicked me under the table.
ĎDad,í said my brother, Ďact your age.í

(from I know you are but what am I?)

As a writer, do you feel a strong sense of community in Toronto's literary world?

Hmm. Yes and no. I think, as in any community, itís important to find like-minded people with whom to share your anxieties and successes. I had very few connections to the lit community here when I moved back from Montreal, where I was completing my MA at Concordia, and my only real Toronto writing buddies were Susan Kernohan - a fantastic friend and excellent reader/writer I met at Concordia whose sensibilities are similar to my own - and my thesis advisor, Catherine Bush. I didnít go to a lot of readings then; I was in hermit mode, hunkering down with my stories, trying not to get too involved with what other people were up to. That has changed since my book came out of course - itís necessary (sometimes fun, often exhausting) to get out there, talk about what youíre doing, and meet other writerly folk. And that can lead to some fortuitous connections and reassuring conversations, as well as some awkward moments.

Iíve also forged some inspiring friendships in communities outside of Canada, at writersí retreats - the MacDowell Colony in the US, and Fundacion Valparaiso in Spain. Sometimes those who arenít paddling in your own small pond are the people who teach you the most. Plus, I always get tons done when Iím away from all of my daily chores and neuroses. Iím going to a residency in Scotland in November (Hawthornden Castle) to try to finally wrestle down the novel Iíve been chasing for years. I canít wait.

How do you feel it compares with that of Montreal?

Well, I donít feel like I can speak with any authority about the Montreal "scene", especially since I havenít been back there for quite a long time, and I left quite suddenly and unexpectedly. I think what my time in Montreal gave me had less to do with production and craft than starting to believe in myself as a writer. (Really, I learned my best lessons about craft through reading authors whose work excites me.) I had to do a bit of posturing and play-acting - hang out in cafes, pursue anguished love affairs, discuss three lines of poetry for hours on end, stay up all night singing the same Tom Waits song (badly) - before I could actually get down to the real work. Although my parents were always, at root, supportive of my choices, Iím not sure they ever quite got what I was doing. They were both working class immigrants who scrambled their way up to a certain middle class stability. Writing stories seemed a very impractical thing to them. My dad could never remember exactly what I was studying. "Creative what?" heíd say. So I needed that particular Montreal subculture in order to begin taking myself somewhat seriously.

What do you hope the honest sentiments in your stories to achieve?

Hard question. I suppose if youíre referring to them as "honest" thatís half the battle won. Iím most affected and impressed by a piece of writing when it manages to articulate something recognizable in a new and resonant and truthful fashion. Deborah Eisenberg, an American short story writer I admire, is incredibly skilled at tracking tiny intellectual and sensory shifts in perception - a technique to which I definitely aspire. I like to feel comforted and human as Iím being challenged by well-wrought sentences and surprising structures. (Which is not to say I donít, at times, like to read about events or emotions wildly different from my own.) Annie Dillard talks about "writing your astonishment". Thatís what I like to read - other peopleís astonishment at the world, at themselves - and I guess thatís what I try to convey too.

Which stories were in the Journey Prize anthology? What do you feel gave the stories such impact?

My first two published stories ("Machaya" and "The Present Perfect") did make it into the same Journey Prize Anthology - number 13. That was wonderful for me. It was a real boon to my confidence. Iím not sure what gave those stories their impact. I feel like Iíve written more evolved stories since, but I suspect "Machaya" in particular succeeds because it blends a childís point-of-view of some universal themes - sun-seeking vacations, immigration, family secrets - with the narratorís more adult and distanced perspective.

How have magazines and journals helped you develop as a writer ?

Of the nine stories in my collection, five were published previously in journals or anthologies, so I felt like they werenít being bundled off unawares into the world. But long before I ever had a story published I would pour over literary journals both large and small. They represented what seemed like an accessible stepping stone pre-book publication. And there were some great writers in there I knew had gone on to make a real literary impact. I can particularly remember reading stories by Annabel Lyon and feeling first paralyzingly awestruck and eventually motivated to improve on my own efforts.

It took quite a while for anyone to accept what I sent them - although I do recall getting encouraging notes from both Descant and The New Quarterly - but the sense of validation that came from seeing my work in print was worth the agonizing. I think weíre lucky to have as many journals as we do in Canada. Iíve heard the argument that theyíre irrelevant because itís always the same seventeen people who read them, but I disagree. There are so few means of getting your work read when youíre a young writer that any venue, no matter how limited, is important and ultimately, well, what itís all about. If youíre not concerned about reaching other people with your writing, then you might as well just scribble in your diary.

Who are some of your dead influences?

Dead Influences: Jane Austen, because she can pull off a happy ending. Carol Shields, because her books gave me permission to use a certain compassionate, conversational tone in my writing. My dad, because he always sang and told bad jokes at the dinner table. And he forced us to celebrate Robbie Burns day. Um, Shakespeare? PG Wodehouse.

And the living?

Living Influences: Deborah Eisenberg, see above. Grace Paley, because sheís really funny and wears her politics on her sleeve. Lorrie Moore. Haruki Murakami, because I couldnít/canít stop thinking about The Wind Up Bird Chronicles. That book dogs me like a recurring dream. Ian McEwan, because of his complex, clear-eyed sense of right and wrong. Faves: The Cement Garden and Atonement. AS Byatt, cause sheís not afeard of being all smart in her books. Alice Munro, because sheís never caved to novel-pressure. AL Kennedy - sheís Scottish and doesnít write like Alastair McLeod (not that I donít appreciate AM, I just like Kennedy better).

Oh, there are so many more. Iíve recently fallen in love with poets Robert Hass and Maurya Simon. I like Canadian poets Bronwen Wallace and Karen Solie too. This feels like reading an Oscar acceptance speech - Iím sure I forgot someone really important (which is making me sweat through my pricey dress) and theyíre about to drag me offstage with a giant cane.

Janine Armin is a Toronto freelance writer. Her work has appeared in Nylon, Village Voice, Clamor and Bookslut.




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