Shelly Kawaja (SK): Congratulations on your debut novel! It was a joy to read. I think this book explores the idea of trying to find the right way to love. Or what the right way to love might look for different people, the “Big Feeling,” and how hard it is to not just find that big feeling, but to then live up to it. How close am I? Was this the driving force behind your novel?
Aley Waterman (AW): Thank you so much! I think that the “Big Feeling” is intentionally a bit opaque because it’s meant to point to a feeling that the protagonist has surrounding intimacy and desire before she really has the language to name it, though it persists through the story in later years when she starts to figure out what it is for her. The idea of “living up” to love, I think, is key here, especially as the characters undergo difficulties. Sometimes living up to love, for these characters, means accepting the flaws of those they love and learning to work with them rather than giving up or becoming overly judgmental. The driving force behind the novel was, in some ways, the idea that love is sacred and rare and to give up on it easily can be really tragic. I wanted to see characters push past the giving up, and see where they might arrive as a result.
SK: The writing in this story, particularly for the main character, Sophie, was very introspective, but the book is also quick-paced—a tough combo! Did you work with this intention, of wanting to balance internal musings with action?
AW: I’m not sure how much intention I had when I wrote this book, haha. At least not beyond my desire to consider certain themes and characters. I’d never written a novel before so balance came and went as I wrote. I think that a lot of introspective stuff got cut because it maybe got a bit myopic or digressed really heavily at times, so the result is some combination of the two. It’s possible that I’m more interested in thoughts and ideas than plot and action just generally, so coming back to introspection through plot movement was not only a natural progression for me, but arguably an unavoidable one that I want to try and learn how to balance more in the future.
SK: I really enjoyed how Sophie moved from Corner Brook, to St. John’s to Toronto and back around again. I particularly enjoyed how people from her past in Corner Brook would pop up and play a role in St. John’s and Toronto—the character, Bobby, for instance. I wonder what motivated you to move people around this geographical triangle in such a way?
AW: I was living in Toronto when I started this book (and when I completed the first draft of it), and as a Newfoundlander, I was interested in bringing at least one of my characters back there, in part because I feel like I understand place so much better here than I do in Toronto, and in part because I wanted to write something that had Newfoundland identity and culture in it but also veered elsewhere and considered more urban spaces. I hope this isn’t offensive to anyone, but in my experience of Toronto vs. Newfoundland (and I love so many wonderful people from Toronto!), there’s just such a strong sense of place and identity in relation to place in people, I know from home in Newfoundland, probably in part because I relate to them, but also probably in part because Newfoundland is so specific and unique that it really does have a pretty notable series of cultural markers, whereas Toronto felt more like this big and exciting, diverse landscape where most of the people I met weren’t from there, so it was easier to write specifically about Newfoundland and NL characters.
SK: You also utilize flashbacks to not just deepen the story, but to move it forward. These flashbacks usually move us, again, around Corner Brook, St. John’s and Toronto, like pieces of ourselves always exist in the different geographies we’ve inhibited. What role do geography and memory play in this book, or your writing generally?
AW: Oh cool, thanks! That’s a nice insight. I may have answered some of the geography questions in the last response, but in terms of flashback and memory, I think that flashback is an excellent way to build characters through narratives that offer formative experiences that shaped them, rather than having them appear all at once in front of the reader. Writing the present moment feels more challenging for me. It’s a fictional novel so I can’t say exactly how my own memory ties into this specific story, but I will say that I wanted to ground Alex and Sophie’s relationship and show how enduring and special it was as they underwent present-day challenges, and flashback was a helpful way to do this. If I could write a full book of flashbacks with no present-day action, I probably would.
SK: What about geography and your writing practice? Do you find you write best in one place over another?
AW: I like to write in places where there’s a lot going on but I’m not involved in it. It’s helpful to feel the energy of the crowd with no expectation to be involved in it; this made writing in Toronto pretty accessible. In Newfoundland, everyone knows everyone! So, I’m trying to learn to write in solitude, here. Though I do find more inspiration here for writing in terms of character.
SK: You present every character in this book as beautifully flawed. Can you speak to your process of character development? Do you discover who your characters are through their flaws, or do you learn their flaws later after you get to know them in other ways?
AW: Thank you! I wanted to write in a way where the flaws are relatable and the characters are loveable despite them. I think part of character development has been pulling the characters through conflicts and difficulties, with the idea that they start somewhere a bit more naïve or generally inexperienced, and then grow through experience, and land in places where it’s still clear that they’re trying to figure things out but don’t assume to know everything. Part of character development for me was having a sense of the general qualities of these characters, and then imagining how they might move through scenarios based on those qualities. Some of those moves felt obvious, and some others felt surprising to me until they came to fruition, but then made sense afterwards.
SK: How have other people contributed to your writing practice?
AW: I have so much support and so many people in my life who are writers and creators generally. I’ve been so lucky to be surrounded by insightful and sensitive friends and family members, and that’s been hugely helpful. I’ve borrowed “vibes” (I’ll call them) from some people close to me in the writing of this book, though usually those essential qualities help to form character and I don’t often use direct plotlines that have happened in my life or in their lives. It’s funny how people will read something you wrote that carries some semblance to your own life and be like “When did THIS happen????” but then in reality, most of the plot stuff is made up. I’ve always wanted to be a writer, so being surrounded by talented writer friends has been a huge uplifting and exciting part of my life in recent years, something I’ll always be so grateful for.
SK: Who would you say your work is in conversation with? (i.e., other authors/artists, specific people, audience, peers, etc.)
AW: Definitely peers! I think young people who are curious and soulful but a bit uncertain. Sheila Heti mentored a draft of this novel which I was very lucky for. When I read her book How Should a Person Be? when I was like, 22, it made me feel excited to write a book one day, not just because it was great but also because it was messy and the speaker didn’t pretend to have it all figured out. Before that, maybe I had thought I’d need to know so much about the world to write, and then I realized a book can also be full of question marks and still do something for its readers. Maybe this book is one that is in conversation with other books full of question marks (?) (!)
SK: What is your definition of a successful piece of writing? Who decides that?
AW: I think any given reader can decide if something is successful for them, and that’s going to vary a lot depending on the reader and their context. I don’t really believe in a canon or some predetermined set of ideas that go into an expectation for writing, because often those standards are set by oppressive heteropatriarchal systems etc etc. I won’t go on about that, but maybe, for me, a piece of writing feels successful if it’s thoughtful, vulnerable, and exposing of one’s fears and desires in a really honest way. Metaphorical callback and a good ending can really make something, too. I remember reading My Year of Rest and Relaxation, which I really didn’t like, until the very last couple of lines, which pulled the whole thing together so brilliantly that I was then convinced that an ending can do everything.
SK: If you were to give a new writer a piece of crucial writing advice, what would that be?
AW: Maybe two things. My past creative writing prof (and totally incredible author for whom I’m a huge fangirl) Lisa Moore once said in class that a good ending should be both surprising and inevitable. I loved that and have felt it reverberate in the past ten or so years since she said it. Otherwise, it would be this: pick a writing time and place, take a book with you that you love whose voice reflects something you want to do in writing. Open it to any given page, read for 20 minutes, and then put it down and start writing. Don’t start at the beginning or read consecutively, because this will make you want to copy that writer (either consciously or subconsciously), but instead put it down after 20 minutes and start writing, before you get too into the plot. Whether you’re lit up by inspiration, vaguely fomo-ey about wanting to put something out there that hits someone the way that writer’s work hits you, or whatever, I’ve found this exercise really generative for writing. Optional third thing: tequila.
Aley Waterman is a writer and musician living and teaching English at Grenfell University in Corner Brook, Newfoundland. Her first novel Mudflowers is out in the fall of 2023 with Dundurn’s imprint Rare Machines. Her work has been published in The Brooklyn Review, Horseshoe Magazine, the NLQ, the Hart House Review, Bad Nudes Magazine, Metatron’s OMEGA, the Vault Zine, the Trampoline Hall Podcast, Riddle Fence, and elsewhere. She soft launched her novel at Writers at Woody Point in the Summer of 2023 and is currently working on her second novel with support from an ArtsNL grant.