canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Interview: Lisa Foad

Toronto-based writer and performer Lisa Foad’s creative writing has appeared in Matrix, Exile: The Literary Quarterly, and Red Light: Superheroes, Sluts and Saints. She has contributed cultural commentary to such publications as XTRA! and NOW Magazine. The Night Is A Mouth (Exile, 2008) is her first book.

Faye Guenther talked with Lisa Foad about The Night Is A Mouth in March 2009.


Faye Guenther: In your interview with Mariko Tamaki for the Toronto launch of your book, you said that you had been working on this debut collection of short stories for three years. I wondered what the writing process was like for you?

Lisa Foad: It’s not so much that I spent three years working on this collection, but that I spent three years working through material – stumbling and fumbling, feeling things out, experimenting. Exile initially tabled the idea of book publication back in 2006. I didn’t feel like I was ready, but the idea was exciting and it gave me a sense of "someday" – though I had no idea what this someday-book would actually look like. I just kept writing – teasing out certain stories, trashing others, trying to find my voice.

In February 2008, the book question came up again. Despite my feelings of trepidation, it was time to let go and move on. Already, I’d moved on from much of the writing with which early drafts of the collection were comprised. To that end, much of what appears in the book was written over the last year-and-a-half. Only a couple of early pieces survived and even then, they’ve been completely reworked.

I’m glad that I took my time publishing this collection, however, it’s made me very aware that the longer I sit on material, the more apt I am to feel I’ve outgrown it, to trap myself in the quest for something better, these mythologies of perfection and readiness. If indulged, that cycle is endless. There’s this idea of permanence with print that can feel really frightening. But ultimately, it is what it is – a moment. A book is just one book. You can always write another one.

The nine months pre-publication were intensive – terrifying, grueling, amazing. I struggled with indecision – ten, sometimes fifteen, versions of the same sentence, each with a slightly different rhythm and feel, minute shifts in implication and signification. When I write, content alternately comes in bursts – things that I couldn’t have possibly predicted or imagined or planned – and this really technical dissection of language, this process of running threads until I actually confound myself. Barry [Callaghan]’s skilled editorial eye was invaluable. Nonetheless, it’s a real challenge to be honest with oneself – to determine whether particular elements are servicing ego or the story in question. I’m not sure how I fared. More than anything, I feel like I’m only just learning how to write.

FG: When you were working with the material, did you first discover some central concepts and themes you wanted to explore throughout the collection, or did the stories more often take shape individually and independent from one another?

LF: At a certain point, I noticed that particular themes were emerging – abjection, monstrosity, obsession, aversion, desperation, beauty. This discovery directed the last stretch of writing, the editing process, and the shape of the collection.

I realized that I was most fascinated with those parts of ourselves that so often, we disavow because they feel shameful and inhospitable – be it physical abject, like urine and vomit – or emotional abject, like insecurity, vulnerability, desperation, and obsession. I wanted to explore those parts of ourselves that we don’t always know how to live with, let alone love – these things that we often attempt to deny or thwart because they feel so fucking uncomfortable. And I wanted to look at the impact of that refusal to acknowledge – how it necessarily leaves us saturated in the very thing we’re attempting to separate ourselves from.

Most of the characters in this collection are stuck in this space of refusal that’s saturated with refuse. And they’re restless. There’s a constant push-pull happening – negation versus affirmation, inertia versus momentum, hesitation versus resolve. During our This Is Not A Reading Series interview, Mariko noted that most of the characters go nowhere. Physically, she’s right. But there’s actually a lot of movement – in this quest for, as K in the title story calls it, "release and relief."

I think that the things we often consider monstrous or grotesque about ourselves are so fucking beautiful – they’re tender, they’re honest, they’re raw. In the collection, I did my best to avow these things.

FG: Your characters are so vivid. I was wondering if there were times when they came to you first and then the story emerged from them?

LF: Most often, the characters come first. But I don’t always know what they look like. They’re silhouettes, vague outlines. They’re a feeling or a sound, a sensory collage.

Names are extremely important to me – it’s what allows me to inhabit characters, understand the way their bodies take up space. If the name is wrong, I feel it so violently that I can’t continue writing – I draw a blank. I can’t make sense of the character; I don’t understand what she’s doing or why. When I began the title story, I didn’t initially know Gold’s name. I knew that it was one syllable and that it was aggressive (that it began with a hard consonant), but it was also malleable, precious, rich. Without warning, her name hit me over the head and everything unravelled from there. With "The Words," I couldn’t find Adelaide’s name for quite awhile, so I actually had to shelve the story for some time.

Once I know my characters, I move in with them. I lived with Gold and K ("The Night Is A Mouth") for a year. I fashioned angels out of the trash with K; I hung my head over the toilet bowl and romanced the waters alongside Gold. I was obsessed.

FG: You grew up in Niagara Falls. Did you feel as you were writing these stories that they needed to be set in a large urban environment? Are there relations to Niagara Falls in these stories in terms of their sense of place and space?

LF: During our This Is Not A Reading Series interview, Mariko noted that in my writing, space is a "creature." It’s this living, breathing, heaving thing – whether it’s the city and the quirks of its landscape, or the interiority of a home.

Throughout the collection, I tried to use space to convey feeling, to make visceral the internal architectures of my characters. This was especially important given that most of my characters are ultimately living within their own emotional refuse. To that end – space is both its own character, and an extension of the character in question. It’s an antagonist and an ally; it’s a source of suffocation and a source of inspiration.

Each story demanded its own kind of clutter. Certain stories – the title story, "Lost Dogs," and "The Words," for example – demanded particular kinds of urban muddle. Of course, the cities that reside in the collection aren’t cities I’ve ever seen – they’re fantastical composites, these extravagant mash-ups – within which, Niagara Falls definitely exists.

FG: There is a passage in the first story in this collection, "Between Our Legs," that seems to configure desire felt by two girls, Sophie and Glo, as potentially self-deceptive. At one point in their narration, the girls say: "After all, it’s easy to fall. The difference between the things you want and the things you don’t want is slight. You can have anything you want. You just have to believe that what’s happening is what you want. You just have to believe that what you want is what is happening. Or else entire landscapes lift at their edges" (9-10). What does the term "fall" mean in this story?

LF: The notion of "falling" gestures to several things: cultural mythologies around romance and love; the notion of the "fallen woman"; the Biblical "fall from grace"; and of course, ideas around collapse, wounding, and loss – of power, value, sense of self. I could go on.

In this particular moment, Sophie and Glo are assuming ownership of a sexual experience that they thought they wanted yet couldn’t possibly have anticipated; a fucked-up sexual experience that they don’t understand how to understand, let alone articulate; a fucked-up sexual experience that they don’t know how to acknowledge.

This "falling" is juxtaposed against an earlier reference that gestures towards acknowledgment: "And we fell. Over swirling blue drinks in highball glasses. They caught us. They caught us by the necks. At first it felt so good we didn’t feel a thing." I wanted to capture that way in which desire burgeons in teenaged bodies – that hopeful naivety, that exhilaration, those jitters, that want – and its radical shift into equally unknown – moreover, unknowable – terrain. Sophie and Glo’s "refusal to fall" is their attempt to recognize themselves within a landscape that, despite their best efforts, has already begun "to lift" at the "edges."

Also – there’s this cultural myth that girls talk about everything. More often than not, however, there are gaps and silences – particularly around crises. These silences aren’t about secrets; they’re about shame. More troubling, is that often within these silences, there’s a tacit understanding between girls – this knowledge that goes unacknowledged. What do you do? You lock arms. You walk home. You wonder what to say. Nothing. It’s mind-boggling, really. I wanted to explore this isolation, this alienation. And I didn’t want to name it – I wanted to work exclusively with the characters’ experience of the experience.

FG: Sex in your writing is philosophical, vital and violent. Can you talk about how these stories depict experiences of being both a sexual subject and sexual object at once, and how this creates a sense of conflict and/or simultaneity for the characters?

LF: I’m so exhausted with the continued circulation of cultural ideologies regarding female sexuality – what’s acceptable, what’s expected. There’s still this idea that women aren’t sexual subjects – that women aren’t actively invested in getting off, in fucking, in experiencing and pursuing desire – and if they are, then they’re sluts (how is it that this word still carries pejorative currency?). But, as Gold puts it, quite simply: "The toilet is clogged. The drains are clogged. The building is sinking. It feels good to come" ("The Night Is A Mouth").

That said, I do think there’s a real tension between the ways in which we experience our desire and the ways in which we experience being desired. Being an object of desire can feel fucking amazing; it can also feel shitty – and I think that sexual subjectivity can be experienced through a similar kind of ambivalence. When desire runs contrary to cultural expectation, it often gets configured as monstrous and shameful – yet another source of abject.

When I was working through this collection, I was interested in exploring and troubling these spaces of disjunction. I wanted to engage sexuality and desire as vividly and vitally as possible. All of the characters in the book are very active in terms of their sexual experiences – even if those experiences are problematic or fucked up. I don’t see any of my characters as victims, as complicit, as casualties. They pursue, they apprehend, they complicate. Even in stories like "Between Our Legs," "Lost Dogs," and "June," the characters do their best to make sense of where they are, and what’s happening – and though the understanding may not always be reflective of the experience in question, it’s an active engagement that, for the characters, is about strength, not powerlessness.

FG: Where is the reader positioned within these stories for you as a writer?

LF: In every instance, I did my best to put the reader in the room. I wanted the reader to feel the same sense of saturation that the characters are experiencing. This was especially important given most of the collection’s content – it’s troubling, it’s uncomfortable – it demands witness, close encounter, endurance. There was nowhere else to put the reader.

In "Lost Dogs," the reader actually gets hailed – "you" – and interpolated into the narrative; the reader becomes Darling. This was necessary – I wanted the reader to engage as acutely as possible; I didn’t want to leave room for sensationalism or detachment.

FG: How do dreams, memories, fantasies and nightmares operate within these stories?

LF: For the most part, every single character is negotiating some sort of fantastical story through which they’ve come to understand themselves – and to some degree, these personal narratives are horror stories, laden as they are with distortion, confusion, self-doubt, and fear, a kind of inadvertent plotting against oneself.

In "Grey," for instance, Cherry interacts almost exclusively with inanimate objects that are very fucking animated – the fire bell, the couch, the grey. Whether the ceiling is actually a "bully" or not is irrelevant. The only thing that matters is this space of excess within which she lives – it’s the landscape through which she simultaneously recognizes and misrecognizes herself.

In "Lost Dogs," the scope of story is multifarious. Here, we have an unnamed narrator relaying the story of a character known only as Darling – in synchronicity, we assume, with Darling’s own recollections/revelations to the narrator. The story is extraordinary and disturbing. Given our propensity to revise and reconstruct as we recollect or recount (despite, perhaps, our best intentions), what’s extravagant? What’s missing? How has the narrator further storied Darling’s story? How has Darling storied herself? Again, however, attempts to ascertain "truth" are irrelevant. All we have is the story we’ve been told, however subjective or provisional.

FG: Can you talk about the relationships between women in your stories?

LF: I wanted to explore the intimacies that unfold between girls and women – and the ways in which these intimacies vary according to what’s at stake for a given set of characters. I was curious about the complexities and tensions that emerge when conflicting emotions manifest – jealousy, envy, anger – even while characters simultaneously feel intense adoration or love or support for one another. And, as I’ve said, I was really interested in the gaps and ambiguities that these relationships yield. What gets talked about? What doesn’t? What’s implicitly understood? What’s confused? What, ultimately, matters?

Mothers and daughters don’t fare well in this collection. Nor do fathers, for that matter. For the most part, family is a space of fracture. As such, the characters in this book have found their elsewhere in the friendships that they’ve forged.

I was also interested in the manifestation of sexual expression – not as a site of experimentation or definition, but as yet another thread of intimacy – it is what it is (whatever than means) – between two given characters. Take Gold and K ("The Night Is A Mouth"), for example. Are they in love? Sometimes. Do they fuck around? Sometimes. What does that mean? My guess is as good as yours. As much as their relationship may contain elements of obscurity, however, it’s fiercely palpable.

FG: Some of the commentary about the book has described it in terms of bleakness. But you’ve talked about the presence of hope in these stories – or another element that is different from bleakness. Can you say more about that?

LF: While I understand how the material might be considered bleak, I’ve never conceived of it as such. Certainly, there’s a darkness, and in some cases, a real sinister feel. But I find the collection incredibly hopeful – even invigorating. It’s about possibility.

In each of the stories, the characters find their own sense of resolution. It might not be the resolution that the reader wants, but it’s resolution nonetheless – whether it’s a particular kind of alliance that gets forged between characters: "You look to me, eyes narrowed, wet. And you reach. This is called home" ("Lost Dogs") – or an apocalyptic climax wherein "the night" actually "looks like new" ("The Night Is A Mouth").

And, despite the severity of some of the content, there are a lot of breaks and fissures through which light streams – be it the surrealism, the language play, the humour, the peculiar details, the vivid colour scheme. I think that these elements counterbalance the oppressiveness, and infuse it with a sense of optimism.

Faye Guenther is a writer, a grad student, and editorial assistant at




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