“When two tribes go to war
A point is all you can score”
—Frankie Goes to Hollywood, ‘Two Tribes’
We met on the battlefields of Broken Pencil’s Deathmatch this past February. And while being pitted against each other for (maybe) a small measure of literary fame, glory or success had predictably deleterious RealityTV-type effects on some, we four decided to treat each other with decency and respect, in the hopes that we might emerge from the whole affair with some new friendships and our self-respect intact. Lo and behold, it worked.
So, we thought it might be fun to check-in with each other again in the form of a collective blog-post about all things writing related. The only problem is we are scattered all over the continent: Rachel Rosenberg in Vancouver, Rob Onofrey in Indiana, Kaitlin Tremblay and P.D. (Peter) in Toronto.
The solution: we each came up with four questions for one another, and answered at least two from each batch. The result is the following interview in the form of a questionnaire. Enjoy!
And if, somehow, you missed the Deathmatch, here are links to each of our stories:
- Rob Onofrey – ‘The Illuminated Throat’
- Kaitlin Tremblay – ‘Her Shadow’s Bones’
- Rachel Rosenberg – ‘I Want You Around: True Tales of A Relationship in 10 Ramones Songs’
- P.D. Walter – ‘Sick to Death of Stories’
1. Is there anything you wish you could have changed about your Deathmatch story before submitting it? If so, what?
ROB: I wish I had gone about the narrative in a different way. Structurally, it's just kind of bland. I also think I would focus on Dr. Voltala more. He definitely needs more fleshing out. I do plan on doing major revisions to it.
2. What are your writing routines? Pencil, computer, typewriter? Music, no music? Daily goals?
ROB: I try to write at least 500 words a day (usually on a computer while listening to music).
KAITLIN: It definitely changes a lot for me. I write almost always on my computer, and either in Word or Google Drive. I can’t really write to music, unless I’m in a specific zone and then I tend to listen to the same song on repeat while writing. I was travelling from visiting my family over a long weekend, and on the four-hour train ride from Windsor to Toronto, I listened to the same song (I think “Woman, Woman” by AWOLNATION?) the entire time while writing. It was … weird.
I don’t have daily goals, but that’s not because I don’t think they’re useful. I think they are useful, but I write in spurts and sprints. I can write 8,000 words one day, and then zero the next. So I try to be gentle with myself and not beat myself up if I’m not writing one day because I know that’s just not how my brain works. Learning to be gentle with myself for my writing habits has been surprisingly difficult! I want to be writing all the time, and I think, even on those days where I’m not writing, I’m running through lines in my head, crafting arcs, formulating characters, and setting the groundwork for when I do sit down and start writing. It works for me, but it sounds exhausting now that I’ve typed it all out.
RACHEL: I don’t entirely have a routine, and I probably should. I prefer a certain amount of noise, though—so either I play music or else I like to go to a café and have background chats happening. Writing needs to just sort of happen for me, it doesn’t always happen when I decide Yes, now at this exact moment I’ll write. Often I’ll get an idea for a sentence or plot point somewhere really inconvenient like the shower, on the metro (Skytrain, now that I live in Vancouver), etc. I always have a notebook with me to facilitate jotting down ideas (well, not in the shower, which is where I got the initial idea for ‘I Want You Around’).
3. What is your favourite painting? Why is it your favorite?
RACHEL: I like the idea of this question though I don’t know that I really have an answer. I have a favourite painter though, which is Edgar Degas. I love how he uses colour and movement, how his paintings always tell a story: a woman holding a drink while in mid-yawn, dancers with their legs in motion, and even his still life has a skull and open book. What is happening?
PETER: ‘Favourite’ is a tough one. I took art classes all through public school, and have lots of overfamiliar favourites, but probably the painting that struck me the most when I saw it in real life was one that (I believe) is called ‘Joseph Being Sold Into Slavery By His Brothers.’ It illustrates a biblical story. (I am not a religious person at all, but I have an attraction to certain kinds of religious imagery and bible stories.) It’s huge, probably about 12 feet tall, the figures (10 or more of them) are life-sized, and they’re all crowded into the bottom half of the painting, so when you look at it, you are seeing them at eye-level, like real people. The brothers are all looking away or focused on other things, but Joseph – the victim – stares right out at you, almost pleadingly (or accusatorily). It’s quite a haunting image that I’ve only seen once in my life (I’ve never seen it reproduced in a book, and am not even sure of the artist’s name, just that he’s Hungarian), but it has stuck with me for many years.
4. Desert island time: You get 1 book, 1 movie, 1 music album, 1 video game.
KAITLIN: Book = A Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Márquez. I initially borrowed it from my mom when I moved away for the first time, and I remember my mom joking, saying the book would take her a hundred years to read. But I loved it. I loved the mythological feel to the family. I loved the intense bits of humanity, the imagery that still haunts me to this day (the image of the yellow butterflies in the bathroom still breaks my heart). It’s a book I can revisit, over and over, and discover new aspects to explore, new characters to fall in love with. I can grow from reading it, and I can be brought into its fold. It feels like visiting my family every time I flip through it or read it. Familiar, strange, and an avenue for growth and better understanding myself.
Movie = The Babadook. It’s everything I’ve ever wanted to create in horror. It’s sharp, it’s incisive, it’s terrifying, and it speaks about emotions that women aren’t often allowed to talk about it.
Music Album = Ryn Weaver’s The Fool. I don’t know how to talk about music, I really don’t. I just love her voice. And I love the stories she tells. And I love that I can dance to some of it, but I also just relax to a lot of it as well.
Video game = Borderlands 2. There are so many guns to try out, I would never get bored playing it. I’ve played it 6 times already and each time is just as fun and exciting as the one before it (even though I do tend to use a lot of the same guns on every playthrough). If I was stuck on a desert island, maybe I’d actually try playing with explosive sniper rifles instead of just incendiary SMGs and corrosive shot guns.
PETER: Haha, this is a fun question. At the risk of sounding pretentious, if I was really stranded and never able to read anything else, I would probably have to take the collected works of Shakespeare. It’s the only thing I can imagine would remain interesting long enough. As for a movie (and some means to play it?) – argh, this is too hard. Excluding just fun stuff that I have liked since I was a kid (like ‘Star Wars’), it would be a toss-up between ‘Six Degrees of Separation’, something by Miyazaki (‘Spirited Away’, ‘Princess Mononoke’ or ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’ would do), Ozu (‘Early Summer’?) or Kore-eda Hirokazu (‘Like Father Like Son’ is my current favourite). Music: again, a toss-up – David Bowie’s ‘Heathen’? Bjork’s ‘Vespertine’? Eurythmics’ ‘Savage’? Or, if we are permitted ‘Best of’s – either Bowie, The Beatles, or The Cure. Video game: not really my thing, but maybe the app version of a favourite board game?
5. If you could sit down with any writer (alive or dead) for a critique of your work, who would it be?
ROB: Kurt Vonnegut. Not many writers captivate me as strongly as he can.
PETER: Wow, these questions just get harder and harder. I really admire Rohinton Mistry’s prose. He doesn’t rely on stylistic tricks or gimmicks to engage us in his writing; he just creates sympathetic characters caught up in compelling situations and draws us in the old fashioned way. He writes solid, unadorned, realistic fiction of the sort that I aspire to write, and the humanity and empathy in his writing suggests that he would be a good, kind, patient teacher. I’m not attracted to the self-aggrandizing, ‘heroic’, ego-maniacal sort of artists who dazzle in public, but are often privately pretty horrible, self-destructive, abusive people. To me, there’s no romance in that, nor any excuse for it.
6. What inspires you the most in coming up with story ideas? (e.g. real experiences, dreams, people in your life, other books/stories, music, places, moods?)
PETER: I get ideas from all kinds of different things, but my favourite source of inspiration is dreams. My whole first novel was inspired by a quite surreal, illogical dream image that came to me when I was about 15. Entire short stories, some of my best and funniest, have come to me in dreams. And some key elements of my biggest novel (a falling down house weakened by too many renovations; the entire premise of the screenplay my character is writing) were dream-inspired.
I tend to dream quite lucidly, and I can usually remember them, but as I get older I am disappointed that more and more often my dreams are just the cognitive left-overs of the previous day. If I go back and think about what was preoccupying me, what I watched or listened to, or talked about, it’s all there pretty unvarnished in my dreams. It takes a lot of the mystery and romance out of dreaming, but I’m sure there are still some good stories to come from it.
7. Why / when did you want to be a writer?
ROB: I wanted to be a writer once I began to love reading in 4th grade. I hated reading until I read the first Harry Potter book. It was the first time I was truly immersed in a book and I couldn't wait to read them all. After that I knew I wanted to create my own stories and try immersing readers in my worlds.
KAITLIN: A lot of my real experiences are my inspiration. Most of my own writing (be it fiction, poetry, or my independent games) revolve around trying to communicate honest experiences of mental illness through horror. For me, horror is a more honest way of communicating these difficult emotions and experiences because people are always prepared to believe horror stories (and are often less believing of non-filtered stories of depression, of having an eating disorder, etc.). Horror gives me the language and the metaphors to properly talk about what these fears and feelings are actually like to experience in a mundane way.
RACHEL: I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was a child. I wrote my first very elaborate poem, an homage to Dr. Suess, at 7 years old. Around that time I also began to write Darkwing Duck fan fiction. My first taste of validation, though, came in 4th grade. My English teacher, Mr. Rattray, allowed me to write stories instead of assignments and he liked one so much that he sent me to get it signed (and stickered!) by the principal. This was a defining moment.
In terms of why, there’s never been a specific why. I started young and it was always something I had to do, that I loved to do. I wrote because my tiny child head was bursting with ideas and there needed to be a place for those to go.
8. What has your experience of writing courses or programs been? Are you planning/hoping to do more training as a writer?
KAITLIN: I studied creative writing in my BA, and then did less formal training while working as an editor at different publishing houses. I do always want to keep receiving more training as a writer, but I think how that looks is beginning to change for me. I teach writing for video games workshops here in Toronto with the non-profit organization Dames Making Games, and even though I’m co-leading the workshops, I learn so much from the participants and my co-presenter. It’s my favourite thing about leading writing workshops for games. Because games writing is so new and there aren’t many formal avenues for studying it, it’s such a community-focused learning experience, where we talk, we ask questions, we share process, and we learn from each other. Just being with other games writers and other people learning it for the first time is always such a rewarding experience. There’s so much to learn from each other because it feels like we’re all paving a different sort of path through it. I become better by listening to and working with others—experienced writers and new writers—because there’s so much potential and room for growth in this field. And that’s amazing and so cool.
RACHEL: Firstly, I would love more training. The only thing is I would like more training from the types of writers who write how I aspire to write. Writing programs are so subjective; we get professors who don’t necessarily enjoy the same style we write in. My dream class would be with Karen Joy Fowler or David Sedaris.
The other thing about writing programs is that they are essential because it seems like a lot of debut novels are borne out of graduate school. A lot of writers meet agents that way as well.
9. How do you think about genre when you write? Is there a specific reason for writing (or not writing) in a particular genre?
PETER: I don’t tend to write in any particular genre, other than realistic (hopefully popular, accessible) literary fiction. I do sometimes write in a kind of heightened, exaggerated, satirical mode – similar to what in David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen’s writing has been called “hysterical realism” – but I try to keep things pretty close to reality as I experience it, and to seek out the highs and lows of humour and pathos within that, since that’s the kind of fiction I most enjoy reading.
10. How do you think of your characters (as an extension of some aspect of yourself, as friends, or as complete strangers)?
ROB: Depends on the character, but in general I think of my characters as strangers that I'm getting to know throughout the writing process. But I also think of any character as an extension of its writer and/or the people in their lives, but for me it's totally subconscious.
PETER: There are always elements of yourself in just about every character, because you are the person you know best. I do take aspects or experiences of friends and isolate or exaggerate them in various ways, or take aspects of 2 or 3 friends of a similar type (say an activist, or someone with creative ambitions other than writing) and combine them into one character. But there still ends up being a lot of me in them too.
Sometimes I force myself to write about characters that are very different from me (so, ‘strangers’, in that sense) – either much older or younger than me, of a different gender, sexuality, ethnic or cultural background, but I only write about those aspects of their experience that I think I can reasonably imagine my way into. I wouldn’t try, for example, to write about the experience of being a teenage girl (in the first person), because I have no way into that experience. I would have no confidence that it would come across as authentic.
11. If you weren't a writer, what dream would you pursue?
ROB: Probably something to do with film. Either directing or acting.
KAITLIN: Oddly enough, I often think I’d become a nutritionist. I’ve had a lot of difficulties with eating disorders and disordered eating in my life, and navigating healthy eating and learning about the benefits to food has been a huge part of my recovery. Food’s fascinating, because it’s basically all science (and I know nothing about science, to be honest). But it’s like a puzzle for me: what do I need, how can I get it, and where does it all come from?
Socially, food’s also become a huge thing for me, like understanding how our society sets up healthy eating as a class-based resource rather than an universal right, and the inherent political tensions behind how we talk about food. Food is just part of this aspect of myself that I never could consider before, and now that I’m getting there, it’s becoming such an important part of how I see and interact with the world and others around me.
RACHEL: I do have a non-writer job, as writing isn’t the cash-windfall one might hope. So I would say that being a writer is more the dream I would like to pursue, and that currently my day-to-day is wrapped up in library technician-ing. Being a library technician is wonderful though, and doing programs with kids is one of my favourite things in the world.
12. What subject is your favourite to write about? Why? Alternatively, which subject do you think you would never write about?
KAITLIN: I know this was my question, but I’m answering it wrong since I realized that, as a contract games writer, there really isn’t any subject I wouldn’t want to write about. I’m pretty much open to anything because there’s definitely something to learn in everything for me. I also learned that writing for children’s books. I can love any topic, because there is always something new and fascinating to me in every subject. But, that being said, for my own fiction, I don’t think I can ever write about anything in fantasy again for just myself. I tried to be a DM in different tabletop campaigns and just found myself so blocked. I used to write a ton of fantasy—it was the biggest genre in my early writing and it’s how I got to where I am. But I just don’t think I can go back there anymore. Maybe I used up all of my fantasy ideas and don’t have any more resources for it! But who knows, maybe a fantasy game idea will come along that I’ll want to write and that will revitalize the genre for me. I’d actually love that, to be honest. To be reintroduced to writing fantasy, to reignite that spark.
But I do love writing horror because for me, there’s no limit to how we, especially marginalized people, experience fear in our daily lives. So horror is this ever-growing, ever-shifting genre that is constantly offering up new subjects and avenues for exploring those subjects. I don’t think I’ll ever stop feeling fear in my life (not that I’m scared all the time, but fear is such a base human emotion), so I don’t think I’ll ever stop writing about different ways that fear manifests. It’s empowering to me. Like taking control over something that would otherwise ruin me.
RACHEL: Favourite Subject: Relationships, be they friend or family or love. I just find people so interesting in how they meet and bond and maintain relationships.
For the least favourite, anything related to science fiction. I don’t really understand science very well and I would just make a foolish fool of myself, so. I stay away.
13. What was the first 'big' writing project you completed that gave you the confidence that you could really do it? What do you think of it now?
ROB: My first big project was my senior project in college. I wrote a feature-length screenplay about an Elvis impersonator that wants to destroy every clock in his town. I'm actually in the process of writing a novel with a similar premise, but looking back on the screenplay I think it had problems, but was a good start in developing that story. It's changed a lot between its screenplay and novel versions. I kept ideas I liked it and threw out the rest.
PETER: When I was about 13, we were asked to write a ‘novel’ for school, and we got to take computers home to work on it over the spring break (which seems crazy now, because they were quite big, heavy, and expensive!). I had a really cheap, bad computer at home, but for one week I had a Mac, and that was heaven. Until then, I’d worked mostly on typewriters that I fished out of the garbage, but having a Mac was so much fun.
The ‘novel’ (actually only about 50 pages) was the longest thing I had ever written, and I don’t remember having much trouble completing it. (That said, it was pretty derivative – a sci-fi story that borrowed heavily from ‘Star Trek’ and ‘Planet of the Apes’.) But the pleasure of completing a ‘big’ project like that remains the same, whether it’s a 4,000-word short story, a 50,000-word novella, or a 600-page novel. Seeing your work finished and bound up as a book – even if it’s just in a duo-tang folder with a cover you designed yourself – is still one of the greatest pleasures of writing.
14. Is there an abandoned writing project that defeated you, or that you hope to return to in the future? What did you struggle with in completing it? At what stage did you abandon it?
RACHEL: I have a novel that I’ve written and, while it hasn’t been abandoned, I often struggle with how best to publish it. The story is loosely based on the time I spent living in Banff, with a magical mystery turn mid-way through that goes a bit Jack in the Beanstock. What it is though is an exploration of love, sexual identity and even consent. I’ve tried to reach out to agents and to publishers with it, but I just don’t even know how to get anyone’s attention. I feel like the novel is difficult to describe without sounding cheesy–UGH SO THERE’S THIS GIRL IN LOVE WITH A GIRL AND THERE’S CONFUSION AND THEN MAGIC BEANS AND A TREE AND THE WORLD GOES WONKY AND IT’S FOR ADULTS I SWEAR—I honestly just don’t know how to write a solid cover letter for it. The story is well written and the characters are interesting, but I know the plot is a hard sell.
15. How would you say your tastes in stories - as a reader/viewer and as a writer - have changed over time? (i.e. what did you like when you were younger that maybe you don't anymore, and why / when did that change?)
PETER: In my childhood I liked fantasy and science fiction, but I don’t care much about them now, except as a matter of nostalgia, which I try to indulge less and less. In my early 20s, I was attracted to a lot of avant-garde stuff in all art forms (literature, film, visual art, etc.). I liked violent or explicit movies if they were intelligently done, if I thought there was some intellectually valid ‘point’ they were aiming at. Now, I really don’t care about that stuff. I dislike violence in entertainment generally, and I don’t think explicit sexuality (for example) is ‘edgy’ or interesting in and of itself, anymore than brutal violence is.
As I’ve said before, I like stuff that is much closer to real life, that resonates with my real experiences. And, at the risk of sounding sentimental (or preachy), I think certain kinds of tenderness and intimacy between people are still much more threatening to a lot of readers/audiences than explicit violence or sex. A film like ‘Moonlight’ demonstrates that, and I think we need more of those subtler portrayals, not more stuff that exploits our fears, prejudices, and other baser instincts.
KAITLIN: I’ve also been into horror (I was this little girl always hiding in the horror section of Blockbuster, picking through the horror VHS boxes like treasures), but I also used to be really into high fantasy. I started writing D&D fan fiction and then ‘Lord of the Rings’ fan faction, and I painted dragons all over my childhood bedroom wall (my mom was infinitely patient with me and encouraging of all my artistic ideas, including ruining my bedroom with oil paint and Sharpies). Now I no longer feel that connection with fantasy, but have it with science fiction. I think as I grew older and became more enthralled with our own solar system, my tastes switched to more science fiction.
16. What are your reasons for writing other than the desire to make a career of it?
ROB: I'm not really sure why I write. It's just something I feel compelled to do. If I go a few days without creating something, I feel out of sorts.
RACHEL: I struggle with this regularly, to be honest. Mostly, it’s hard to have energy to write when you work a full time job in another field (and in my case spend two hours a day minimum in transit to and from this job). So. Why do I write? I can’t really help it. I write because I think there are valid, under told stories out there and I want to help tell them. The way that I feel when I read Ali Smith or Ann Patchett for instance, like they have found the perfect way to express something wonderful and necessary, I want to make people feel that way too. I keep going because I hope that one day—though I may never reach the skill or prestige of Ali Smith—someone will read my writing and feel that ooomph you get in your heart when you read something that resonates to you, that moment you realize you aren’t alone in the world anymore.
Thanks, Rachel. I can’t think of a better way to end this.
And thanks to all the participants here, who – with their humour, vulnerability and generosity of spirit – prove that we can be allies and friends in the otherwise often lonely, solitary task of trying to create that “ooomph” for readers (and ourselves) that Rachel so evocatively describes.
To connect with the writers profiled here, follow the links below: