Today I am pleased to welcome to the blog, author of short stories and novels, Michelle Berry. She is here to promote her latest, Interference, published this month by ECW Press, and I was honoured when she agreed to also let me interview her about her books, this one in particular, and about writing. I knew I could use this opportunity to learn something about writing from an expert in her field.
1. Did you always want to be an author? Did you write as a child? I grew up in a house full of literature and art. My mother is an artist, my father is a now-retired English Professor. So I always wrote. I didn’t know I wanted to be a writer. It was just part of me. Part of who I am. I wrote a lot as a child — journals, diaries, stories, even novels. My father and I wrote (and I also illustrated) a children’s book called, “Sailing the Deep Blue Sea” when I was about five years old. It’s quite catchy.
2. What was your first break in your writing career? I would say the first “break” was when Turnstone Press accepted my first short story collection. I was about 7 months pregnant AT the time and thought I’d given birth that second as I jumped up and down screaming. I first published in high school, though (a high school anthology called, “Unicorns Be” )— so that was my first publication. And before Turnstone Press I did publish in quite a few literary magazines (“Perhaps?”, “Blood & Aphorisms,” “The Malahat Review,” etc), so I got a lot of “first breaks.”
3. How do you handle the rejection that goes along with being a writer? I’m still trying to handle it. There is always rejection. Always. No matter how much you publish, how famous you are, how well-received you are, etc.. I’m sure Alice Munro still writes stories that need editing and aren’t immediately loved the minute they are finished. Maybe. I think. I handle rejection by getting first really sad and mournful (“No one loves me,” “I’ll never write again.”), but then I suddenly become angry (“What do they know anyway?”) and that’s what fuels the desire to keep writing, that’s what fuels the work, that’s what makes me a better writer. Writing is all about rejection and loneliness. I tell my students this, but they don’t believe me. They think it’s all chocolates and feather boas.
4. Where did the idea for this novel come from? It creeped up on me. It’s loosely based on quite a few things in my life. My daughter was the same age as Becky and Rachel (characters) when I was writing it, there is a big tree across the street from me, the school had sent home a letter saying that someone was stalking children in the neighborhood, I do play women’s house league hockey, my husband and a friend were going through cancer and treatment, etc.. But it’s one of those things where I combined all that was going on and heightened it, morphed it, faded it, played with it. I wrote around it and through it. Created a story. Used my imagination.
5. What is your daily writing routine? Lately I’ve been teaching so much (I teach online at U of T, online at Humber College and in-class at Trent University), that I don’t have much of a routine. But I usually try for an hour or so a day of good writing — or at least one or two days a week. Last year I rented an office for six months downtown and I would teach Monday to Wednesday and then do nothing but write for eight hours a day Thursday and Friday. It was wonderful.
6. Which character from Interference is most like you? Which one is least like you? Most like me: Maria (sadly, I don’t want to be like her — but she has all my faults — a bad back, kind of ornery to her husband (sorry!), clean freak, worried all the time). Least like me: Dayton (stylish, beautiful, but damaged). Although, to be truly honest, all of the women are a mesh of me — Trish’s behavior when she ducks behind the couch when there is a knock at the door (me!), Claire’s thoughts on death, on cancer. Even Ralph wandering through the snow in his slippers — he has a bit of my melancholy.
7. What is your experience with the Canada Council for the Arts and the Ontario Arts Council? I’ve had a few grants over the years. They do a wonderful service. I’ve been on juries for them. Love them both.
8. I have seen a lot of debate on what makes someone an author and when to call them a writer. Do you see a difference in the two and when would you say it’s appropriate to use either one? Yes, I’ve been hearing a bit about that lately too. I’m not sure what I think. I always thought of myself as both author and writer and used the terms interchangeably. But I think “author” is becoming a hoity-toity thing to be these days (not sure I agree with that). I don’t know. I’m both, I guess. I am the author of books that I have written and the writer of books that I have authored. How’s that?
9. How would you define literary fiction as a genre? Good question. My students never seem to understand what literary fiction is — to me it’s fiction that leaves more to your imagination than any other genre writing does. So things aren’t explained and told and shown with such detail. It is subtle and intelligent and often has underlying meaning all through. But it can also be fun and wild — it doesn’t have to be stodgy at all. I consider my fiction to be literary. I don’t go into detail about scenery and appearances. I don’t tell you that a character is feeling blue (I hope), I try instead to show it through how that character moves and talks and acts. I try to give the reader a scene or situation he/she can interpret in his/her own way.
10. Community is the setting of this novel. What sort of neighbourhood did you grow up in and did that come into your writing of this fictitious neighborhood? This is more my neighborhood now rather than the neighborhood I grew up in. It’s an amalgamation of the street I live on presently and of the neighbors and community around me now. Sort of. But it’s fiction.
11. What does the photo album with the circus postcards in main character Tom’s childhood basement illustrate about Tom and his character or the themes of this book? I debated having actual “freak” photographs in the book. But it didn’t work (too costly to do and might seem gimmicky). Tom learns a lot about appearance and about how we all see the world through those postcards and his interest in them. I guess I was trying to say that we all judge all the time, we have our own opinions and views — but we aren’t always right. There are many sides to every issue. People we think are scary because of their appearance, might not be the scary ones. They might be the good ones. Tom sort of sees this by the end of the book — the old saying, “don’t judge a book by its cover.”
- You teach writing and have had success with short story collections and novels. What would you say to anyone hoping to have a career as an author? Don’t do it! No, just kidding. It’s an infuriating business as you are always scrambling to find freelance or teaching work in order to pay for the time you need to write the book. Because of this you never have time to actually write. But I guess the two best pieces of advice I can give are:1. Be a reader. Read all the time. Read the kinds of books you want to write. And think about how they are written and why they were written and what they do for you. And then write. And, 2, write because you have to. Don’t write to get published or “be famous” or — hilariously — “to be rich.” You might as well decide to be a famous actress at the same time. Write because your story is important to you, because it’s all you can do not to write. Because you need to write more than anything. And then get a paying job!
I thought “Interference” refreshingly unique (letters and emails sprinkled throughout), starting with a letter home from the school to the parents. Throughout the novel more letters and emails are sent and received. A Cease and Desist order from Build-A-Bear Workshop and the women’s hockey team announcements. There are angry and threatening messages from one spouse to another. A question is posed by a son to his parents about the past. A short correspondence takes place to the director of the men’s shelter and one to a woman who volunteers for an organization driving cancer patients to their appointments.
Michelle Berry’s “Interference” is what good literary fiction should be, a gripping contemporary literary fiction story which forces the reader to think about the deeper questions in life and the things that ultimately interfere with the status quo.
She poses these questions in terms such as: “We’re all a little strange. We’re all different.”
“Life is not fair; life and death.”
“It’s good to have something to look forward to.” This line really did sum things up nicely for me.
I pondered all these things as I was introduced to the people and the families living in and around the neighbourhood of Parkville.
On Edgewood Drive the story opens. A man and his wife rake leaves on an autumn day, while their twelve-year-old daughter plays basketball with the neighbour girl across the street. Berry puts us directly in the mind and thoughts of Tom and his prejudices are laid bare almost immediately when a stranger with a hideous scar across his face wanders into the yard, offering to help rake.
Tom is influenced strongly by being a husband, a father, and a son and has seemingly forgotten himself in the process. I was automatically drawn in by Tom’s memory of an old album full of faded postcards of circus freaks, high up on a shelf in his grandfather’s basement. Does this memory mean anything more or is it simply an example of the sort of judgement that goes on by people against others who are different, in neighbourhoods and towns everywhere?
The man with the terribly disfigured face. The creepy bald man in the brown suit. The still stranger in the dark hoodie watching the schoolyard that only Tom’s daughter Becky has seen. The teenaged boy sitting up in the stands every Wednesday evening who watches the women’s hockey league play. The slow boy who acts inappropriately and hangs around the playground at the school after hours.
Pedophile rings and child porn. Someone is stocking around backyards and peering in windows. Kidnapping and cancer scares. The unpredictable and spurned husband who could show up at anytime.
I see it as the kids vs. the adults in a way. Children vs. adults. Men vs. women. Husbands vs. wives. Each group has their own battles, issues, and things going on that they don’t or can’t necessarily talk to anyone else about.
The women of the neighbourhood interact different with one another during their Wednesday night games and in the dressing room than they do off the ice and during their interactions in their homes and with their spouses, children, and next door neighbours, back on Edgewood Drive.
Just off this idyllic street the ones on the fringe peer in on suburbia and can’t help looking in on what they could have had and probably never will. I was constantly on edge to see who would survive through the winter unscathed.
Michelle Berry provides a glimpse into all kinds of people and she leaves me to wonder how things aren’t always what they seem at first glance. I wanted the residents of Parkville to learn something about their neighbours, themselves, and those different, but no less deserving of a little understanding and acceptance and I came away from reading this novel having learned something about those things myself.
That, to me, is the mark of a well-thought-out and touching view of humanity wrapped up in a well-crafted literary fictional package.
Interference Blog Tour Schedule:
Monday, August 4: Laurie’s Not the Worst
Wednesday, August 6th: Obscure CanLit Mama
Thursday, August 7th: Cozy Up With a Good Read
Friday, August 8th: Feisty Little Woman
I want to thank Michelle B and Michelle M for giving me a chance to take part in the blog tour.
Michelle Berry’s Interference is published this month by ECW Press, Toronto. Check it out