Jane Urquhart on fleeting titles and animating spirits

Known for her thoughtful, lyrical and emotionally honest writing in books like The Whirlpool and The Underpainter, Jane Urquhart doesn't disappoint in fielding the questions of her fellow Canadian writers in our patented Magic 8 Q&A.

Below, the author, whose most recent book is The Night Stages, reveals her stringent writing conditions, her ephemeral titles and the hidden inspiration she didn't realize until this moment.

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(Photo: Elsa Trillat)

1. Jack Hodgins asks, "How long does it take you to get back to writing after doing a studio or in-person interview about your writing?"

I rarely do interviews about my writing unless I am on a book tour. It therefore takes quite a while before I can reconnect with the work. I can't write on the road because of the number of

conditions I have set myself for writing at all. I can not have jet lag, for instance, or be in a hotel room, or have a cold. The sun has to be out and shining at the right angle, there can be no construction in the vicinity, and all the bills must be paid. It is best if I am not worried about anything, including whether or not I can get back to writing. Actually it is a miracle that I ever get back to writing. And, by the way, there is no guarantee that I will.

2. William Deverell asks, "How much faith do you put in bestseller lists?"

Not much. That being said, I suppose now that Book Net is in the picture the kind of accounting they do makes the sales figures more accurate. But I find the word faith interesting in this context.

Because, if you mean, do I have faith in bestseller lists guiding me toward the books I should be reading, then the answer is No. 

3. Lorna Crozier asks, "How did growing up with (or without) siblings affect your writing or your desire to be a writer?"

I grew up with siblings, and without siblings: a perfect combination. Because my brothers are so much older (9 and 12 years my senior) I spent a great deal of time alone as a child, imagining and acting out a variety of narratives. By the time I was 9 or 10, I was writing these narratives down. I was also reading before, after, and during school. Books, poetry, and plays were essential to any happiness I experienced as a child. The people I met in books were at least as real to me--in some cases more so--as those in my daily life.

4. Pasha Malla asks, "Who is one writer, living or dead, you wish could edit or critique your drafts? Why?"

William Maxwell, author of Time Will Darken It, So Long See You Tomorrow, They Came Like Swallows. His writing is brilliant--cadenced and clean--his narratives are heartbreaking and emotionally true, and he was fiction editor of The New Yorker for almost 40 years (from 1936 to 1945.)

5. Lynn Coady asks, "What are the common themes (or settings, symbols, etc) you always seem to come back to in your fiction (e.g. bears, wrestling and Vienna in John Irving novels)? Where do those elements come from and what makes them so tenacious?"

I find that there is often a young boy, who has been conceived as a minor character,and who eventually goes on to take over the book. In fact, I hadn't thought about this consciously until now, or I had forgotten. But, looking back, this seems to be true. A young boy is also a primary force in The Night Stages. Perhaps these youths are the animating spirit in my books, and that might explain why they are so tenacious.

6. Andrew Pyper asks,"Authors often speak of an Ideal Reader they think of as they write, a generally sympathetic kindred spirit who understands and endorses the work-in-progress.  But do you have an opposing presence in your mind sometimes too? A kind of Demonic Reader who mocks and challenges and titters at your efforts, and whom, if the finished book is successful, you look forward to seethingly telling to stick it in their pipe and smoke it?"

I might not be able to write at all were I not able to keep the inner critic, the self-censor, and the self-doubter at bay when I am composing my first draft. I am very aware that at that stage no one knows what I am doing and I am inhabiting a judgement-free zone. Later drafts bring out a sceptical inner reader, one capable of giving me advice. But my own truly Demonic Reader arrives on the scene much later, usually just after the book goes to press, when there is absolutely nothing I can do to make things better.

7. Drew Hayden Taylor asks, "Which comes first, the title or the book?"

Seven out of eight times the title occurred to me about the same time as that essential first image. The Night Stages was different, however: titles came and went, each one adding something en route. But when the final title appeared I knew it was absolutely right.

8. Vincent Lam asks, "For you - what does the 'Ultimate Literary Event' look like?"

Going for a walk with Emily Dickinson.


Photo: Mark Raynes Roberts

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