Linda Spalding on why publishers should operate like farmers' markets
Linda Spalding's novel The Purchase won the Governor General's Literary Award for fiction in 2012. The book opens in 1798, when a young Quaker father and widower leaves his home in Pennsylvania to start a new life.
Below, Linda Spalding answers eight questions submitted by eight of her fellow writers in the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A.
1. Gail Bowen asks, "If you could live in the world you created in your fiction, would you? Why or why not?"
But isn't that exactly why we write? I am feeling bereft just now because I can't go to my computer and fall backward into the nineteenth century, into a small place where every action (although invented) is charged with meaning and dramatic importance. And challenges. I miss having to figure out how to snare a rabbit for dinner or catch a catfish or build a chimney so that I can cook what I've caught. Yes. I would go back in a heartbeat. But I would be incompetent and surely starve. And the moral decisions I would have to make would leave me destitute of certainty unless I could give myself a nineteenth-century mind. In which case, I don't want to go back. So I will stick to working from my imagination.
2. Sharon Butala asks, "What do you think of the age-old notion that the best writing comes out of a life led outside the bourgeoisie, where so-called 'rules' of normal middle-class life are deliberately broken and impulse is your guide, rather than duty or convention?"
Many ladylike ladies have written fine and beautiful novels after taking tea and writing proper thank-you notes. In fact, had I a more organized and well-managed life, I've no doubt I'd get a great deal more done with a lot less doubt and agony. I would have to be an entirely different sort of person though; someone more like my mother, who respected rules and personified manners. I have a lackluster reputation in that regard. Rules tend to challenge my need for low fences. Social pretensions bore me to tears and I frequently forget to write thank-you notes. I therefore have time to live in my head and to dream and to write. I have come to a point in my life where I can forgive myself that lassitude. There are certainly greater sins.
3. Zsuzsi Gartner asks, "What role do religion and spirituality play in your writing?"
Since religion has formed so much of our culture's consciousness, it plays some part in most of my characters' decisions. In The Purchase, variations of Protestantism make for differences in values and reactions. One man's Quaker beliefs are tested profoundly. His young wife, who has been raised in a Methodist almshouse, has a very different understanding of the world. This interests me. The things that drive our actions interest me. If there is spirituality in my work, it is probably a watered-down version of something very intense that I felt in my youth. It has mellowed, but it is still there.
4. Todd Babiak asks, "Do you write sex scenes? Answer yes or no and justify your answer."
Yes! I wish there were more! It's wonderful fun to work at putting deeply internalized sensations into words. I believe the best hope is for some form of suggestion, as in: the way the kimono exposes the back of a woman's neck, which is considered the most beautiful and erotic part of a woman's body in Japan.
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'm interested in myths and have included some aspect of myth in three of my novels. It was the Hawaiian myth of Lono in Daughters of Captain Cook. It was the myth of the corn mother and of Quetzalcoatl in The Paper Wife. In Mere, it was the story of Persephone that Esta and I tried to tell. Then there is the struggle between old ideas — traditions — and the conflicts brought about by change. I am attracted to very old cultural traditions, but they also frighten and repel me. Finally, the thing I feel connects all of my books is an interest in why good people do bad things. I see this at the core of everything I've ever written.
6. Zsuzsi Gartner asks, "What are you so terrified of?"
Cockroaches. Cruelty. Any abyss. Closed rooms. Losing my loved ones. Being incompetent.
7. Vincent Lam asks, "What do you think must happen in the publishing industry for the literary novel to survive and thrive?"
When my first book did not earn out its advance, I was told by someone in the publishing house not to worry too much about it. I was told that commercial books were published so that literary books could exist and that books that didn't make money were often written by people who would one day write books that did. This has comforted me. But we are surrounded by so many books these days that it is very hard to focus, to concentrate, to value anything specific. I suppose I wish in my private heart that publishers were less like corporations and more like farmers' markets. And I wish that celebrity didn't matter more than words.
8. Shauna Singh Baldwin asks, "What did you learn from writing one book that you have used/can use/will use when writing the next?"
I've never learned structure, but I have learned to sacrifice what truly doesn't help the story. A lovely paragraph entirely deleted. The best paragraph ever written. Gone. I used to think I could throw all of my brilliant sentences into a pot and bring it to a boil because that's what other writers I admired seemed to do. But I can't pull it off. Write. Stand back. Reread. Cut. Rewrite. Revise. Take all the time necessary to see it through.