1. Chekhov has appeared in your works The Sky Is Falling, Ellen in Pieces, and finally in your latest work. Can you describe the process of arriving at the POV for A Russian Sister?
I struggled with the POV for at least a year. First or third? Whose? Initially, I tried to write from Chekhov’s point of view the way Colm Tóibín wrote from Henry James’ in The Master. It was leaden. Just awful. Naturally, I was curious about that steady presence in Chekhov’s life—Masha—not only his sister, but his amanuensis, housekeeper, secretary, bookkeeper, and confidante. Though Masha never married, she did receive four proposals in her lifetime, offers she refused when Chekhov made clear his disapproval. It’s easy to jump to the conclusion that he wanted to keep Masha close so that he could have a “wife” without the emotional complications of one, but given their difficult childhood, I think there was something more complex going on. Ultimately, my interest in those complications won out and Masha took over the novel that became A Russian Sister.
2. Having written five novels, do you have to deal with any structural uncertainties at all when approaching new work in the long-form?
Unfortunately, every novel brings with it its own challenges. Every time I have to return to the structural closet and try on everything hanging there until I find something that fits. And I still end up standing in front of the mirror consumed by uncertainty and wondering, “Does this work?”
3. You write for children as well as for adults, in both the short and long form. Could you say something about how the forms might relate to and/or feed each other?
I’ve learned a lot about writing for adults from writing for kids. For example, I doubt I would have come up with Ellen McGinty, the protagonist of Ellen In Pieces, if kidlit hadn’t taught me the absolute necessity of an active protagonist who solves problems on her own (in Ellen’s case, usually after she creates them…). The primacy of language in the short story form (which I consider cousin to poetry) keeps me sentence-focused in my novels.
4. In one of your classes I heard you say (I am paraphrasing) “truth” gets challenged the moment one starts to write about it? Can you elaborate that?
I think I was trying to reassure memoir writers, or fiction writers who worry that someone in their life might recognize themselves in a character. Or I might have been speaking of writing fiction that is based on historical fact. No matter the case, the idea is that a narrative builds its own truth which only mirrors actual events. It follows rules which rely heavily on character motivation and what the writer is trying to achieve in the language. For example, in real life people have multiple motivations, many of them conflicting, while in fiction, especially in novels, there is usually one overarching driving force. (Douglas Glover calls the novel a “machine of desire.”) Furthermore, too many things happen in real life to ever make it into a novel or a memoir. The writer has to select events and shape them into a coherent story with profluence, a narrative arc, and a point of view. By necessity this alters the truth.
5. What specific incident incited/inspired your last piece of work (of any form or length)?
My most recent book, Sunny Days Inside and Other Stories, is a middle-grade collection of linked short stories about a group of kids living in the same inner-city apartment building during the COVID-19 pandemic. I live a block from an elementary school. At the start of the pandemic, when we were all hunkered in our homes, terrified, I would watch the kids skip happily past my window and think, “Don’t they know the world’s falling apart?” Then the schools closed and I started reading stories in the newspaper or on social media about the ingenious ways kids got through those frightening months. The resilience of children became the inspiration for the book.
6. What elements/aspects of writing give you pleasure?
The most pleasurable part is the visitation of the idea. It’s always so perfect! So intruiging! So regrettably fleeting! Because then the hard part comes: trying to translate the idea onto the page. With every word, the idea itself shape-shifts and becomes a different idea. First drafts are a torment for me. I only get through them because the second most pleasurable aspect of writing awaits me at the end: revising.
7. How do you know as a writer if a piece of work that you have been labouring on is finally completed?
I’m not sure anything ever is finished. There are certain signs that it’s time to put something in the file cabinet for now–namely nausea, or boredom. Getting some time away from a writing project is, in fact, the writer’s most useful tool. If you can possibly forget about it, or at least detach emotionally from it, you can more clearly see what’s not working. In my case, I do ten or so drafts, the last few of which involve working on the sentence and word level. Not until it’s a close to perfect as I can make it, do I send it out. Then the editor has a go at it, which in turn prompts another round of changes I initiate myself. The same thing happens in the proof stage when every ill-chosen word suddenly leaps out at me. Finally, it goes to print. But it’s still not finished because when I do readings, I end up rewriting again. Three of my books for adults have been republished. In two of those cases, A History of Forgetting and Sitting Practice, I substantially rewrote parts of the novels. The only one I didn’t touch was my first collection of stories, Bad Imaginings, reissued in 2018 a quarter-century after it was first released. It read like the work of another person. In fact, there was probably not a cell in my body that was the same as that 29-year-old writer’s.
8. Who is your work in conversation with?
My characters. I’m in their service.
9. Outside of plot and character what primary internal or external engines do you usually end up choosing for you stories?
For me it comes down to personal interest. If I’m going to commit years to a piece of writing (and it usually is years, even in the case of short stories), there has to be something about the situation or characters that intrigues me, or an aesthetic or technical puzzle I feel compelled to solve. Sometimes, though, it’s just plain stubbornness. I’ll read a draft and see it’s not working. As soon as the sense of failure lifts, I’ll dig my heels in and try again. (This especially happens if someone else tells me it’s no good.) But if I reread and find I’m not interested any more, I will happily abandon it. If the writer isn’t interested, it’s unlikely any reader will be.
Caroline Adderson is the author of five novels, two collections of short stories, as well as many books for young readers. Her work has received numerous award nominations including the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, two Commonwealth Writers’ Prizes, the Governor General’s Literary Award, the Rogers’ Trust Fiction Prize, and the Scotiabank Giller Prize longlist. Winner of three BC Book Prizes and three CBC Literary Awards, Caroline is also the recipient of the Marian Engel Award for mid-career achievement. She teaches in the Writing and Publishing Program at SFU and is Program Director for the Writing Studio at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity.