“[W]rite to please yourself, to be true to yourself …”: Interview with Author Alexandra Leggat (Part 2)

 

Alexandra Leggat at Turquoise Waters Writers' Retreat (Photo: Mary E. McIntyre)

Alexandra Leggat at Turquoise Waters Writers’ Retreat

Alexandra Leggat delighted participants as guest speaker at my Turquoise Waters Writers’ Retreat in the Kawartha Lakes, July 29 to August 2, 2013. Her passion for writing was palpable and her advice to writers encouraging and motivating. This is Part 2 of my interview with her. Photos in this post are by Mary E. McIntyre unless otherwise noted.

Read Part 1 here.

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Alexandra, where is your favourite place to write? And do you write every day (or almost)?

I like to write in the comfort, quiet, and space of my home. Not always in the same place. It depends what I’m writing and how I’m feeling. The couch is good, sometimes in bed, at my desk for editing, but I need to feel at ease and relaxed in the creative process, so on the couch, knees up, bare feet, a cup of tea or wine depending on what time of day or night I’m hitting the page, and out back is good too, listening to the birds and the sounds of voices around me. Sound is huge to me as a writer. And I need my dogs to be with me — they are my muses, my company.

I do write every day, every day, be it on scraps of paper, the back of my hand, a word here and there, into my phone, pr notebook, or in my head. I am always thinking in story, vignettes, scenes, and of books.

Do you feel there’s a different quality to writing longhand versus writing on computer?

Yes, longhand all the way! Until something is done, then it goes onto the computer. The physical element of writing by hand is vital to a piece of writing, I believe, your whole body goes into longhand writing and writing should be a complete body experience and out-of-body experience. It should be physical not just cerebral

What aspects of your environment provide the best writing inspiration?

Well, my part-time-job work environment provides a lot of inspiration. Outside of teaching and writing, I work for two amazing chefs at Ruby Watchco in Toronto. I love working in restaurants because they encompass so many brilliant elements of life, society, people. Not only are Chef Lynn and Chef Lora brilliant woman but they are incredible artists; they live and breathe food and cooking, wine, and the whole restaurant culture is synonymous with writing to me. Working there, I get to observe, listen, and interact with people in an environment that brings all types of people together, over food, wine, conversation. And Leslieville where I live inspires me, the East End where I live feeds my work, it reminds me of Brooklyn a little now, and visiting my family in New York always inspires me. And being in the woods or at the beach with my dogs.

I always need to keep a job that has nothing to do with writing that immerses me in real life. I feed off everyday life stuff. A writer needs to live, to continuously experience real life no matter how mundane or profound, to create great fiction, I believe.

When you’re not writing, how do you like to spend your time?

With my dogs at the beach, or in the woods by the river. I love being with my friends, my folks, reading and watching movies, going to plays and playing with my band, which I don’t get to do enough. I have some amazing, talented friends who I adore and I love being around them and their talents, listening to them talk, and watching them do what they do. And I love to paint when I can. But my all time favourite past time is writing, reading, and being with my dogs!

Are you ever stuck? If so, what do you do to get unstuck?

I’ve been stuck twice. It’s awful. Once after Meet Me in the Parking Lot came out. I was tapped out and it was shocking; that was one of the times the music stopped and the screen in my head was blank and quiet. It was like my power went out in my psyche and my imagination. So I decided to try writing poetry, but nothing came, so I went one step further to the most finite perfect package I know, and made a pact to write one haiku a day for 365 days. The tapping out of the syllables on my fingers kept my left brain occupied, which freed up the right side of my brain to create these little stories. There was no pressure to write long because I could only use 17 syllables. I completed something every day, every hour for a bit there, so I felt a huge sense of accomplishment and before I knew it Animal began. My husband did put a stop to it before the 365 days were up when he got tired of me tapping on his back in my sleep!

The second time, I was in a situation when I was working with the wrong person on my work and my process was being forced and compromised and it shut me down. So I withdrew my work from their hands, took it back to a place where I could be myself, and continued to revise it in the way that I naturally write.

What’s the biggest mistake you ever made in your writing, and how did you correct it?

Hmm, to be 100 percent honest, the biggest mistake I made was thinking I needed a major publishing house to bolster my career. I was tempted by a dream after Animal was nominated for the Trillium Award and the powers that be came knocking at my door. With all due respect to those people, I learned that realm of things is not for me. I’m a very natural writer, I follow instinct and the craft of writing is utmost to me. I was good where I was and should never have left my publisher, Anvil. Luckily when I took my work back into my own hands, Anvil took me back, and everything felt right again. But I had to go through that experience or else I would always have wondered if that was the ticket for me. What I believe now is that it is the book that makes the difference, not the big houses.

What would you advise beginning writers that might help them banish their pesky inner critics?

I tell my students all the time that writing is the one place we can truly be free, creating, making things up. Your inner critic comes into the game way too early, before you’ve even completed a first draft of something, so what the hell does it know. It speaks up way too soon and has no authority. I’d ask yourself who the heck the inner critic is, whose expectations are you driven by, and if it’s not your own in the creative process, don’t listen. Don’t write to please an audience, write to please yourself, to be true to yourself. So have fun, experiment, don’t think about spelling, order, anything, just write, enjoy it, laugh, cry, allow for surprises — let go! Then when you’ve evaluated your ingredients and determined what the heck it is you’re writing, bring your inner critic back in. Or don’t write — why bother, because writing should be adventurous, treacherous, invigorating, titillating, like being on the back of a horse when it’s running full speed. You may be scared to death but you secretly hope the beast never stops thundering on!

Alexandra signing copies of “Animal” for some of the writers at the retreat. (Photo: Allyson Latta)

Tell us about the book you have coming out this fall, The Incomparables.

It is a novel, the first one I didn’t drown. Others I wrote in the past were so bad I drowned the computer they were on in the Niagara River, me and my dad. It was so liberating!

This story started when four characters in full Kabuki makeup, kimonos, and getas walked across my vision when I was stopped at a traffic light. At first I thought it was the characters from The Mikado, then as I wrote and wrote and the story started revealing itself to me, it was not that at all. The main character is obsessed with fabric, the texture, weight, and drapeability of fabrics. When she loses her job as a costume designer in the city, she goes back to the house she grew up in and meets these spiritual counsellors, the people I saw that day in the car, who lure her into helping them with a friend’s wedding. She swore she’d never pick up a needle and thread again but through their special program the counsellors devise a plan that satiates her need to feel through the texture of fabrics and inadvertently sew her life back together. I hope that makes sense. I’m trying not to give too much away!

Not at all — I can’t wait to read it . . .

Who are some of your favourite writers, and why?

Virginia Woolf, Ma Jian, Philip K. Dick, John Wyndham, John Steinbeck, Per Petterson, Margueritte Duras, Albert Camus, Kafka, Beckett, Janet Frame, Tove Jansson, D.H. Lawrence, Graham Greene, Dickens, Shakespeare, Yeats, Kerouac, Dostoyevsky, Sartre, Sylvia Plath, John Berger, Flannery O’Connor, Charles Portis, Hemingway, John Cheever, Grace Paley, George Orwell . . . I know I’m leaving a lot out. These are my favourites because their work surprises me, moves me, makes me think, they all have energy; the work breathes, scares me, amazes me. They are masters of the great sentence, wordsmiths, imaginative, witty, clever, incredible technicians, have strong ears, are empaths, fearless, talented, brilliant, honest, natural.

And last, if you could go back in time and tell your younger writer-self something that would help or reassure her, what would it be?

Trust your capabilities, always.

Comments

  1. Mary says:

    The time spent with Alexandra at Turquoise Waters Writing Workshop at Sandy Lake was a treat. Such honesty about the process, the ups and downs of being a writer. Alexandra’s passion for writing is evident in every word she says.

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