Note unrelated to the interview: M - You are on my mind and I wish you strength.
So, ages and ages ago (think JULY!) I interviewed Tina Chaulk, author of this much is true with the good intentions of posting the interview right away. Then she was busy, and then I was busy and then kept not getting posted for a variety of reasons. But, now, at long last, I'm posting it.
The night before I had The Little Guy (in November 2004), I received my first fan email. This lovely woman told me how much she enjoyed my writing and how she too was trying to balance writing with being a stay-at-home mom, and she seemed so genuine and so friendly. I was so thrilled that I ignored the 8 minutes apart labour pains and wrote her back immediately. That letter was from Tina Chaulk, and no matter how many times I ramble or how long it is between posts, I know she's out there reading. And boy do I appreciate her! ( not that I don't appreciate all my readers, but Tina is a constant presence.)
So when I found out she was publishing a book, I knew I'd have to give her the same support by reading and writing about it. And that struck fear in my heart. What if I read and didn't like it? Or if the story was good but the writing was terrible. Well, I assured myself that my diplomatic skills would come into play and I'd be able to find something nice to say about it and I dug in.
The book rocks. It absolutely rocks.
Like I've told Tina before, reading her book is like eavedropping. The story is so there, so immediate that you feel like someone is confessing to a friend and you are overhearing it. You feel vaguely guilty for listening but you can't stop yourself from soaking up every last sordid detail.
I enjoyed her snarky, chatty, writing style. I found the characters interesting, yet very familiar. It was just plain good. I read it all in one day. Which for a mother of two small kids is quite a feat.
Now this much is true is not a life-changing novel, you aren't going to come away from it with your world-view forever altered. It won't leave you up all night pondering the complexities of life, the universe and everything. But it doesn't pretend to be any of those things. It is what it is, an interesting, quirky and vivid account of parts of one young Newfoundland woman's life as she tries to make her way in the wilds of Toronto. Oh, and it includes the letter of reassuring lies she tells her parents so they won't worry about their little girl alone in the big bad city. It's fun and you should definitely read it.
I interviewed Tina via email way too long ago and like I said above, I should have posted this before now.
I joked in my email that I should have started the interview by asking that horrible question that all writers hear sooner or later 'Where do you get your ideas?' and I assumed that she would just reply with a 'Oh, ha ha' but she didn't - she's so nice that she actually answered the question.
Here we go:
Mombie: I'm so tempted to start with 'where do you get your ideas' just to be a pain in the ass, but I won't.
TC: I get my ideas from "what if"s. Anything can set me off. This much is true came from a what if. What if I had to leave here and move to Toronto to find work when I really didn't want to? I have one novel in the works though that started with a first line and went from there. That is the only thing I haven't started with a what if. I have a crazy, often sick, imagination so what ifs are easy to come by.
Mombie: One of the problems with writing a book that is as immediate as This Much is True is the fact that people tend to closely associate the author with the main character. Does this make you uncomfortable? Has it caused you any difficulties?
Tina Chaulk: I didn't really realize how much this would be true until the book came out. This book is first person and meant to be very conversational in tone, so it is like Lisa is telling you her story, sitting down having a cup of tea or a beer with you. It is very intimate and I wanted it like that, without pretension or interjections from another narrator. Just a comfortable chat. That means people sometimes think Tina is talking to them since they assume that Lisa is me. This makes me a little uncomfortable because Lisa's experiences are so different from mine. I mean she has a varied history with men while I have been with the same man since I was 15. Lisa uses language I don't use as often as she does and says and does things I would not dream of saying or doing. She is a flawed character (but aren't we all) so I don't think I realized going into this, that people might take her flaws as my own. I guess I always thought readers would understand that fiction is just that, but with things like "creative non-fiction" and "autobiographical fiction", the lines between what is real and not real are so blurred these days. In a way, I just try to take it as a compliment that someone thinks Lisa is so real, she could be me. As for the difficulties, well, it is hard to know that people I know and love are reading these things, especially people who may not approve of some of the racier content. Like my parents. They are very proud of me and they know I'm not Lisa but I still thought this stuff up and, as my mom said, "you don't want to think your daughter thinks these things".
Mombie: Most books on writing tell writers to 'write what you know' but they don't usually explain that they don't mean to limit yourself to only your own experiences, they mean to use your experiences and the associated emotions to colour the experiences and emotions of your characters. Which experiences of Lisa's are coloured by your own?
TC: The main one is Lisa's work in a detox since I worked in one too. The general idea of what it is like to work in a detox and a physical description of the detox Lisa worked in definitely came from my experience but none of the specifics of what happened there were true. I am afraid of public speaking so Lisa took on that trait. Good friends who have read the book laugh when Lisa drinks "The Captain" since everyone who knows me well knows what happens when the Captain Morgan comes out around me. I graduated from MUN (but later than Lisa did) and grew up in Aspen Cove, as did Lisa. I lost friends when I was quite young (in high school) so I know about dealing with death, especially of other young people, before you are really ready for it (as if you are ever really ready for it). Above all, though, I love Newfoundland and Labrador, and so does Lisa. It was the idea of how awful it would be to leave here that led to the book so that is a big one. I'd say quite a bit of Lisa's background is the same as mine but her experiences in the book are not. In hindsight, I think I should have changed some of the background so she would seem a little less like me to people who know me. I just wanted to include some winks and nods to people and also wanted the place that I grew up in to be in a book because I am so happy I grew up there. I just wanted to give a shout out to the people and the place. People ask me now where Aspen Cove is and I think that is great so maybe I wouldn't change it if I could.
Mombie: How long did it take you to write this much is true? (Is this your first novel or do you have a trunk full of manuscripts that you can't bear to look at?)
TC: It took me about nine years, very on and off. I wrote two other novels while writing it: a psychological thriller and a science fiction novel. this much is true was the last of the three to be finished. Plus I started work on at least three more. I write a lot and it is very varied so I can write different things depending where my head is. I have things I can't bear to look at but I don't think any of them are beyond salvation. I have made such major changes in my other writing that I know you can change anything in fiction. In my psychological thriller, I had a completely different murderer but woke up at about 3:00 one morning, knowing that the murderer had to be someone else and knowing exactly how to do it. I got out of bed and wrote about five pages of scenes and notes. First and last time that happened to me. The change meant a lot of work but since then I know that you can rescue something you've written even if you have to make big alterations to do it.
Mombie: What was the most challenging part of the process?
TC: I think letting it go has been the hardest part of the process. It is hard to put something you've written out there in public. You know that at any time someone could be reading your book. They could be loving it or hating it, they could be thinking you are brilliant or crude or stupid or a bad writer or whatever. What people think is very important to me so, although I keep telling myself that it is not possible for everyone to like this book and some people will hate it and some people just won't get it, I am still not good with that idea.
Mombie: Tell me how you go about writing. Do you have any rituals? Any special times of the day? Do you use freewriting or other techniques to warm up?
TC: I either put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. That is about it. I don't have rituals. I write when my brain feels like it will explode with all the stuff in there and I have to get it out. Of course, my son's naptime often seems to be an inspired time for me just because the opportunity is there. I write best at night. Once I get started, I can write for long periods of time and get thousands of words out. I believe in getting the clay on the table first: get the story out there, get the stuff written then go back later to shape it, to make it become what it is supposed to be. About the only specific thing I can tell you I do when writing is that I make sure I leave off in the middle of something. It is usually the middle of a sentence and is an obvious spot so when I go back to it again, I can see exactly where I was going. If I think I won't remember or have ideas where to go once that section is completed, I might write myself a little note: "Tina, make sure she talks about leaving on the gas here so you can kill her later in an explosion" or "Tina, make sure he mentions somewhere here about the car he is going to buy" (made up examples).
Mombie: Writing while wrangling a kid can be pretty challenging, how do you make enough space in your brain (and the rest of your life) to do both?
TC: I guess I am blessed because I have a pretty independent son so he's cool if I am at the computer for a time while he creates dinosaur lands or takes trips to the moon with Lunar Jim. I am a true Gemini so I can do so many things at once and still keep on top of them. Even when I am playing with him, my mind might be dealing with some other conversation I'm writing in my head, but he doesn't realize it. If I gaze off for too long, he'll make sure I come back to him and pay attention. He still naps so I am lucky with that. I do a lot of what I call internal writing. Stories, characters, and conversations are always whirring around in my head. Doing housework (which anyone who knows me can tell you is not something I do well) or clearing away dishes, or driving, or any one of a million things I do throughout the day are all opportunities for internal writing. Then by the time I decide to write the words down, they just flow easily, like they've been waiting for this chance to become part of my work and are finally getting their opportunity to become real.
Mombie: Are you hard at work on another book? Any details you'd like to share?
TC:I am working on three books right now. One is definitely my focus. I'm always nervous about sharing what I am writing because I tend to doubt myself and one wrong "hmmmmm" in reference to an idea I am working on can send me thinking it is the worst drivel ever written and I want to give up. I have been trying to get an Arts Council grant for this main novel I am working on and find it very hard to describe it or to submit writing samples from it because I don't outline and so I don't really know how the book will turn out until it is done. It is like someone painting part of a picture and asking you what you think of it. Maybe there is an eye and some hair and a rusty piece of metal in the painting so how can you judge what it is going to be when it is finished? I can tell you that the main book is a general fiction, first person novel, is more serious than this much is true, and it is set in St. John's. I can also tell you that the other books are a funny, female private detective story set in St. John's (I am having a ball writing it) and a serious book set in outport Newfoundland in the 1930s. This is my "literary" book and writing it is scary because I don't consider myself a literary writer and I love the book's main character so I want to do him justice (and fear I can't). He is so extraordinary and special that he feels real to me. I tend to procrastinate writing that one until the character practically screams at me to get at it. Also, a lot of people have been asking what happened to Lisa Simms after this much is true and wondering if there will be a sequel so an older Lisa keeps talking to me now too. She may have to move onto paper soon.
Mombie: Is there anything else you would like to add?
TC: Just to thank you for this chance. I have been a fan of The Smartmouth Mombie since I first found it online and also your Making Myself at Home columns in the Independent's Home section so it is an honour to be asked to do this.
Mombie: Aww, Tina, there you go again! Thanks so much. You'll be kept on