the frost-stiffened grass
in the autumn dawn
The next time you are reading a short story (or novel) you might want to try pausing when you are almost finished to guess how it will end. I like to pause when I am about three-quarters of the way finished. This sort of exercise can teach you a lot about plot - in a fun way!
"Be daring, be different, be impractical, be anything that will assert integrity of purpose and imaginative vision against the play-it-safers, the creatures of the commonplace, the slaves of the ordinary."
~ Sir Cecil Beaton
~ Sir Cecil Beaton
On the weekend I was at a one of those giant used book sales that are absolutely irresistible. It was at the University of Toronto. As I was browsing the Canadian literature table I came across a copy of my novel, The Last River Child. It was a bit disconcerting to see my own discarded novel while searching for cheap treasures. I snuck a peek inside to see if it was signed (it wasn't) and then peeked at what it was priced at ($3). I hope someone took a three dollar gamble and loves it.
West of Wawa is a cross-Canada roadtrip adventure, narrated with wry humour and filled with a cast of engaging characters. A tale of sexual adventure, narcotics, redemption and triumph.
First Line (FL): West of Wawa is your second novel. How did the writing process differ from the first book?
Lisa De Nikolits (LDN): The main difference is the amount and nature of the research that I did for my first novel, The Hungry Mirror. I read up on as many statistics and facts that I could find because I really wanted to inform the reader about the factual side of eating disorders and I worked hard to weave this information into the fabric of the fictionalized world of the novel.
I also quoted from a number of sources, so there were permissions involved – and I had to ensure that quotes I used were approved by the writers.
And now, while West of Wawa has a fair number of facts too, with regards to the buses and distances that Benny (the protagonist) travels, the rest is a complete work of fiction. I researched Benny’s route in the most pleasurable way by actually doing the journey and making careful notes at the time of the scenery. I wasn’t planning on writing a book but I always keep a travel journal and I’m very glad I did.
FL: What is your favourite word?
LDN: An interesting question! If you were to look at West of Wawa prior to editing, you’d be inclined to say that my favourite words, (albeit unconsciously) were, ‘looked’, ‘little’, ‘happily’ and ‘cosy’. They’re actually not my favourite words at all and once I spotted this weak-word trend, I weeded them out vigorously!
My favourite word is ‘serene’. I have loved it ever since I first read it in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – I was so moved by this opening paragraph and I’ve always thought it’s one of the best openers:
“Serene was a word you could put to Brooklyn, New York. Especially in the summer of 1912. Somber, as a word, was better. But it did not apply to Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Prairie was lovely and Shenandoah had a beautiful sound, but you couldn’t fit those words into Brookly. Serene was the only word for it; especially on a Saturday afternoon in summer.”
After reading that, how could serene be anything but one’s favourite word? There isn’t too much call for the word these days but I found the perfect place for it in West of Wawa:
The ruined and the destroyed had always held a fascination for her,even before the devastation of her own world. She liked to stand among the decay and pick through the aftermath of vanished lives, searching for clues to uncover what had made it all go wrong. And finding the perfect images to capture her imaginings, well, those were moments when she felt close to serene.
FL: What was the best advice you received as a writer?
LDN: That there are times when a piece of writing cannot be salvaged. I really struggled with this because I thought that every bit of writing deserves its moment in the sun. But a lot of times that isn’t the case, and you just have to be able to ditch it. Once I get over the initial hurdle of saying goodbye, I have a great time with the new stuff and it’s always better than it was.
FL: What book do you think every writer should read?
LDN: A Feast of Snakes by Harry Crews. I found it powerful, amusing, tragic, succinct, violent, incredibly bizarre and equally inspiring.
FL: If you weren’t a writer, what would you want to be?
LDN: Funny, I don’t really think of myself as a writer! I hadn’t really realized that until you asked that question. I see myself more as a lover of words who is currently enjoying the privilege of writing. And I think if I ever couldn’t write, then I would just accept that and do other things, like try to take better photographs or knit more or find some other creative outlet. But as long as the words befriend me, I say thank you!
FL: Describe your work habits. When do you write? Where?
LDN: I try to write daily. I always keep a notebook on hand in case I’m not near a computer. If I go for a walk, then I use that time to bond with my characters, I imagine they’re with me and I’m chatting to them, getting to know them. Or I try to imagine what they’ll do next. I write most of the weekend – if I wake up early like at 6 am on a Saturday, then I get up and write. Sometimes in a day, if I haven’t written, I find myself becoming agitated, even feeling distressed. Sometimes at the end of a long working day when I’m tired and it seems like an effort to write, I say to myself, “just ten minutes, just ten minutes.” And sometimes it does just end up being ten minutes but that’s okay, that way I don’t lose the thread of writing, the rhythm.
I write everywhere! I move around at home, from the bedroom, to the sun room, living room, back deck, my study, back to the bedroom! It depends on the time of year, my mood and where my cat feels like hanging out – she loves the sun room so I sometimes write there just for her.
I carry printouts of my writing with me so that I can edit them on the subway or if I’m in a coffee shop. When I’m working on a piece, I like it to be close to me in a physical sense. I believe that words read out loud or read from a sheet of paper, have a very different tone and message to words read off a computer screen and I juggle back and forth between them, testing the words as it were.
FL: What inspires you?
LDN: Pretty much everything inspires me. Crowds inspire me, solitary people inspire me, news headlines, snippets of conversations, picking up scraps of paper, imagining what’s going on behind the scenes of other people’s lives, imagining their motivations, their envy, their anger and disappointments. How people dress also inspires me, how we’re all so different and yet we try so hard to look the same, while also fighting to display our own uniqueness.
Life seems to be a constant battle, we’re constantly in a state of discontent, imagining how much better our life would be if this or if that happened… I let my mind wander and I imagine the consequences of the various ‘ifs’. I think the state of our human discontent is what makes life fascinating – our seeking, finding and then abandoning that which we thought we so badly wanted, and setting new goals. Danger, greed, lust, envy and love – studying the nuts and bolts of those emotions never fails to inspire me and it’s the promise of salvation (or the potential damnation of the individual) that makes it interesting.
And I must add that good writing inspires me, I love to read beautiful prose and study it like one would a painting. I am always looking for ways to improve my writing and I also get inspired by workshops and conferences with other writers. You pick up tiny nuggets that make the world of difference.
FL: If you could have dinner with any writer, living or dead, who would it be? Why?
LDN: John Steinbeck. Because I can’t help but think it would a melodious and beautiful experience. And if not him, then Mordecai Richler. Or Miriam Toews.
FL: Do you have any other creative talents? Do you paint? Play a musical instrument?
LDN: I play the classical guitar with a fair amount of dedication – I try to practice every day and I take lessons weekly. I don’t paint or draw but I do knit – a sort of freeform wild knitting based primarily on the yarn I fall in love with. I knit blankets that my father has dubbed ‘the world’s longest scarves’. I also art direct as my day job, so I guess you could say that creativity surrounds me – I also love to photograph, I love infrared and so when I can, I do a lot of that also.
FL: What are you working on now?
LDN: I’m working on a number of projects; I’ve written the first 40,000 words of a new novel called, Between The Cracks She Fell and my goal is to finish that before year end. I am also polishing a collection of short stories and I’m hoping to find a home for my murder mystery entitled, The Corner of the Desert which is about a group of tourists who travel to Namibia and learn about witchcraft, the origins of Nazi theory and practice and how the Bushmen were affected by that. The travelers also start to plot and plan against one another with murderous intent. I wanted the read to be gripping and enjoyable on a fictional level while also being informative about the Bushmen and their traditions.
Thanks Lisa! To learn more about Lisa De Nikolits and her work, visit her website.
To view the trailor for West of Wawa, click here.
For this entire week I challenge you to pick a time during the day (10:00am, for example) to look at the sky and write a description of what you see. It doesn't have to be lengthy, it can just be a sentence or two. I want you to notice how the sky changes, to see some of its endless variations. Don't just accept that the sky is blue. Have a look. Is it?