Lesley Krueger on how much talent matters in writing
Lesley Krueger has an impressive portfolio. She has worked in radio, print journalism and film, and has written eight books of fiction and nonfiction. Her latest novel, Mad Richard, blends the stories of Charlotte Brontë and Richard Dadd in an exploration of history and art in Victorian England.
Below, Lesley Krueger answers eight questions submitted by eight of her fellow writers in the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A.
1. Billie Livingston asks, "'A work of art is good if it has arisen out of necessity.' Do you think that's true? Do you feel that writing is an absolute necessity in your life?"
Writing has always felt necessary to me. Family and friends say I'm in an edgy, nervous mood if I've spent too long away from whatever I'm working on. I wish this meant that everything I've written is good, but I'm afraid it doesn't. You can feel utterly compelled by something, or I can, and realize later it's garbage. Writing is immensely complicated and I think the need to write is an important part of it, but only part.
2. Pasha Malla asks, "Who is one writer, living or dead, who you wish could edit or critique your drafts?"
I think writing and editing use different muscles and I'm not sure all writers are good editors. There are some I've met who try to nudge other writers to write the way they do themselves, when I think a good editor ought to help a writer write what she is uniquely capable of producing. So I would look for someone with editing chops and from what I've read, Charles Dickens was a very good editor. I'm not sure he particularly liked women and think I'd probably fight with him. But wouldn't that be fun?
3. Dianne Warren asks, "What do you think of the creative writing adage, 'Write what you know?'"
Disagree. I think you have to write what you're passionate about, what absorbs you, what you can't let go of. If you need to do research, do research. Just don't disrespect the cultures of other people you know little or nothing about. That's bad writing and adds nothing to the world.
4. Paul Yee asks, "Do you think writing is a talent that you're born with or is it a skill that can be learned?"
I've taught writing for years and have ended up feeling that innate talent is part of the equation and technique is another and that technique can be learned. I also feel there isn't one level of talent. Some people have more and some have less. However, I don't think the level of talent determines success, whether in the quality of the work or its reception. Technique, determination and hard work are a huge part of it. So is economic opportunity. I've seen students with enormous talent do nothing with it because of money or family issues or because of laziness. I've also seen students with enormous determination face down big challenges with far less innate talent and write wonderful stuff — and either publish it or see it filmed. Of course, luck is part of the equation, too.
5. Karen Solie asks, "At what stage of composition do you show someone a work in progress?"
When I've got a pretty good draft that I think is finished. Then someone reads it and tells me it's not anywhere near finished. They're always right. (Almost always.)
6. Alan Cumyn asks, "Was there a career you didn't pursue so you could be a writer? Is there a career you dream about when writing turns particularly problematic?"
I've only ever wanted to be a writer and I don't mind it when the writing process turns problematic. In fact, that's when I'm most engaged: figuring my way out of a jam. But somewhere along the line, I began to think I might have been a doctor. The whole process of diagnosis fascinates me, which is maybe why I like trying to figure out what's gone wrong on the page.
7. Dominique Fortier asks, "Do you read a lot when you write? Why or why not?"
I always read a lot because I love reading. Often I'm doing research reading while I'm writing, although sometimes I just want time off and pick up a good book that has nothing to do with my subject. I know some people worry about reading novels when they're writing a novel, but that only makes me hesitate when the other novel seems too close to what I'm writing. Then I don't read it so I don't unconsciously copy.
8. Jonathan Auxier asks, "What's the strangest or most obscure word you've ever worked into a book?"
Hmm, that's not something I try to do. I like the word "palimpsest" and have put it in a number of sentences. Then I've taken it out again because it always seems to jump too high off the page. I guess I don't like individual words to jump and scream like bratty kids but get along together in a nice sentence. How Canadian.