Books·Magic 8 Q&A

What motivates Robyn Sarah to write? Puzzling questions and haunting images

Award-winning writer Robyn Sarah's poetry has been collected in the volume Wherever We Mean to Be.
Wherever We Mean to Be collects poetry that spans 40 years from celebrated Canadian writer Robyn Sarah. (Biblioasis/DR Cowles)

Robyn Sarah won the Governor General's Literary Award in 2015 for her collection My Shoes Are Killing MeHer new book Wherever We Mean to Be collects 40 years of her poetry across 10 acclaimed collections.

Below, Sarah answers eight randomly selected questions from eight of her fellow Canadian writers.

1. Hoa Nguyen asks, "What is your writing area or desk like? Please share a description."

It always surprises me that anyone would care to know where I write. I can and do write anywhere — in cafés, on trains, at the kitchen table, outdoors on the balcony. Officially my work station is a built-in, L-shaped desk in my study.  One half faces a wall and holds my desktop computer, on which I do business, manuscript preparation and the literary editing that is my bread and butter. The other half faces a window. It is supposed to be where I do my own writing — sometimes on a laptop, sometimes longhand.  But I like to write in a sunny room, and the sun only comes in to my study in the very early morning.  So on days when I'm free to work on my own projects, I sometimes follow the sun through the house, carrying my laptop from room to room.

2. Barbara Gowdy asks, "How old were you when you knew you would try to become a professional writer?"

"Professional" was not a word in my vocabulary at seven, but I knew by then that I wanted to be a writer. Composition was always my favourite school subject, and my writing got attention from teachers right from the start. When I was nine, two of my poems were published in the Ottawa Citizen (thanks to my Ottawa grandmother, who submitted them without asking). A poem I wrote in Grade 7 was read aloud by the principal in assembly, performed by the class at a school concert and published in the school board newsletter. It was pretty clear to me even before I entered high school that I had a calling. 

3. Molly Peacock asks, "Do you examine your motives as a writer? Do you want to know why you have taken a certain subject or why you've avoided one, or would you rather remain ignorant of your inner prompts?"

I'm entirely intuitive as a writer. I rarely even know what my subjects are until I'm well into the writing. As a poet, I begin with words I like the sound of, or an image that has haunted me. With short stories, I usually begin with an enigma, something that has troubled or puzzled me. The story doesn't solve the engima so much as recreate it, leaving it for the reader to puzzle over. I seem to be incapable of a more deliberate approach to writing. 

4. Kate Cayley asks, "What is the oddest setting you've ever used?"

I'm known to stay very close to home in my writing. I rarely get beyond my own backyard or balcony (current or remembered). Though maybe these days that's considered odd?

5. Drew Hayden Taylor asks, "Other than writing novels, what other art form (i.e. plays, movies, music, visual art) do you wish you possessed or had a better grasp of?"

I have never written a novel — that doesn't mean I never will, but it's not high on my wish list. I consider myself a poet first, though I've published short stories and essays too. I'm also a musician — a one-time professional-track clarinetist, long-time amateur pianist. I would like to write a play — I think it would help me learn to advance my stories by action and dialogue, rather than relying so much on ambience, innuendo and description. I would love to write a screenplay. I would love to write songs. I would also like to learn to draw and paint. Too bad there are only 24 hours in a day.

6. Pasha Malla asks, "Please quote one egregiously stupid criticism — either specific or general — of your writing, and address, refute or mock it."

I don't save or brood on egregiously stupid criticisms of my writing, so I can't quote one. I try not to pay attention to them.

7. Esta Spalding asks, "What was your favourite book as a child? Has that book influenced the way you write as an adult? If so, how?"

Heidi was one of my favourite books as a child. I don't know that it has influenced the way I write, but its themes, settings and characters have remained vital to me — the power of kinship and friendship; the contrast between worlds — rural and urban, nature and culture, the gifts each has to offer.

8. Emil Sher asks, "What roles have editors played in shaping your narratives?"

Virtually none. Unless you count my inner editor — a tyrannical nitpicker who usually gets her way.

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