1. You travelled to Brazil to research for The Naturalist. I understand you spent seven days in a boat, navigating the Rio Negro. Can you describe how the story came to you and how you went about your research?
AY: The Naturalist began when I was applying for a fellowship that requires writers to challenge themselves to grow as artists. I asked myself what such a challenge would look like, and the answer came back: write a novel set in the Amazon (a place I’d been fascinated by since childhood). As always when faced with an overwhelming prospect, I began to read. The narratives of nineteenth-century naturalists piqued my curiosity, and the symbiotic relationship between research and the imaginative process began. It wasn’t until much later that I travelled to the Amazon to get a feel for the place firsthand.
2. You have said before that the idea of Effigy came from a newspaper article about the FLDS Church. Can you describe how the story developed and how you went about outlining the novel and how you went about the research?
AY: An article in the Globe about Bountiful, BC (home to the Canadian branch of an offshoot Mormon sect) got me thinking seriously about polygamy for the first time. There was a buzz there, which got me reading about Mormon history, including a notorious event during which 120 men women, and children were murdered. Only the very youngest children were allowed to live. Most sources reported that seventeen children survived, but one gave the number as eighteen – a discrepancy that made space for the character of Dorrie, a fictional survivor of a real-life massacre. The rest of the novel grew up around her.
3. What were some of the principles/ideas/ questions you explored in shaping Any Given Power? How did you want the characters inhabiting the twelves stories to interact with each other in the reader’s mind?
AY: Three of the stories are linked through the narrator/protagonist, Robin; we meet her when she’s fourteen, sixteen, and eighteen. Otherwise, the stories interact with each other across central themes of wilderness without and within, and people trying/failing to love.
4. In Fauna, the city of Toronto comes across almost as a distinct character influencing the story, and, in some places, it provides a backdrop. What was your intention for the specific setting in this novel to convey?
AY: Fauna is the only novel I’ve written set in the time and place where I currently live. I suppose I was interested in looking beneath the city’s surface, finding another way to see. Even before I moved to Toronto in 2005, I used to visit friends in Riverdale, so I was always taking the subway across the Bloor Street Viaduct. I love the moment when you leave the tunnel and shoot out over water and woods. The Don Valley was an endless source of questions for me, starting with what and who lives down there, and how do they survive? Before long a series of strays, both animal and human, began to populate my mind. Then came an informal refuge in the shape of a wrecking yard.
5. Since Mercy was your first novel did you spend more time outlining the work in comparison to later novels? How specifically did your writing process evolve over time with subsequent novels?
AY: I didn’t start with an outline for Mercy or any of the following novels. That said, I do a great deal of preparatory research and associated structural imagining. I write the scenes in whatever order they present themselves; when I have most of a draft, I print it up in small font and start moving the scenes around on the floor. Each book requires adaptations to the process, depending on its internal structure. I try what I’ve done with past novels; if it doesn’t work, I try new approaches until I find the one that does.
6. What made you a writer?
AY: Stories made me a writer – stories inside me that wanted out. Sentences and fragments, images. Then hours upon hours of the hardest, most rewarding work I know.
7. How did you come to write your first book?
AY: My first book, Any Given Power, was a collection of short stories. I wrote them as they came to me over seven or eight years, sent them out to journals and anthologies, found homes for some and not others. In 1999, my husband pointed out that I’d written enough for a collection; I was delighted and terrified.
8. In pushing your work beyond your first title what were you most conscious of? What were/are you trying to achieve?
AY: I’m always taken up with the book at hand – the characters and their world, what they need, and whether they get it or not. More than anything, I’m trying to get every sentence right.
9. Do you remember any experience around learning to write that became formative for you in the later years?
AY: I remember the day when I was working on my third book, Effigy, during a storm of family crises, and I thought, How can I write when this is going on? And then I thought, I have to write. There is always a disaster, near or far. There are always thousands of disasters. I have to write.
10. What specific incident incited/inspired your last piece of work (of any form or length)?
AY: My new novel, Far Cry, started with a shadowy notion of a west coast salmon cannery. I started to read and look at archival photographs, and the characters began to take shape.
11. What was the most satisfying aspect of your recently completed work?
AY: Far Cry is due out in 2023, but my work on it is done. I know the novel is complete because it has become mysterious to me – something beyond the boundaries of my understanding, not to mention my self.
12. Do you have a writing routine? Or writing rituals? Or patterns you must follow regularly? Or rituals that you practice say when you are writing in certain forms, say a longer piece of work like a novel, as opposed to a shorter piece, say a poem?
AY: I write best in the early morning – not every day, but every day I can. First-draft work finds me with pen in hand; the delete key tempts me to start editing too soon. My novels begin with images/ideas that lead to research, which gives rise to new scenes, which lead to more research, and so on. At some point, the characters start to drive.
Alissa York’s internationally acclaimed novels include Effigy (short-listed for the Scotiabank Giller Prize), Fauna and, most recently, The Naturalist. Stories from her short fiction collection, Any Given Power, have won the Journey Prize and the Bronwen Wallace Award; her essays and articles have appeared in The Guardian, Brick magazine and elsewhere. In 2018, she won the Writers’ Trust Engel Findley Award for a Writer in Mid-Career. Alissa has lived all over Canada and now makes her home in Toronto, where she teaches at the Humber School for Writers. Her new novel, Far Cry, is due out in 2023.