Jessica Grant has more awards than you.
Her novel Come, Thou Tortoise won the Amazon.ca First Novel Award, the Winterset Award, the Ontatio Library Association Evergreen Award, and the Globe and Mail Best Book for 2009. This all comes after her 2003 Journey Prize winning story “My Husband’s Jump.”
When she’s not writing some of Canada’s best contemporary fiction she’s teaching other people how to at Memorial University.
Grant will be giving a reading as part of the 2013 Writers Reading Series Wednesday October 9. Arthur talked to her in anticipation of this event about her writing process and “Literary History,” whatever that is.
Let’s start with the retreat you’re on. Do you often go on retreats like this? What is the purpose of going on them?
The Piper’s Frith writers’ retreat is held annually in Swift Current, Newfoundland. I’m on the faculty this year, which means I work with other fiction writers and give feedback on their writing. It’s a lot of fun.
In what setting do you feel like you do your best writing–on retreats, away from society, or in a more social setting? Why do you think that is?
I’ve never been on a retreat as a participant. I do most of my writing at home. I love writing in airports and on planes. Travel inspires me.
I read online that you used to write intense political music that at this point in your life might be somewhat embarrassing. Does this music ever find its way into the writing you do today?
I was embarrassed at the time, too! But also proud. It takes guts to get up on a stage when you know you’re probably going to mess up. I never was a good guitar player. But I believed very much in what I was singing about. I still do. It’s a valuable lesson: do you care enough about what you’re trying to say that you’re willing to say it (or sing it) imperfectly?
I’m assuming that since you have a PhD in English you know a fair amount about the “canon of English Literature.” How do you manage your knowledge of the way writing has historically been done throughout different periods and how you want to write?
Doing a PhD was a gift because of all the time it gave me to read. But I don’t feel I have a handle on the canon. Does anybody? What is it? I guess that’s why you put it in quotation marks.
When I started writing Come, Thou Tortoise, I didn’t have a title. One of my characters is an aspiring actor with a dodgy edition of Shakespeare entitled Lowering the Bard. I had him reading The Tempest and using a tortoise as a bookmark. One day the tortoise sees the words “Come, thou tortoise!” and her life changes. This is how Prospero summons Caliban. It’s a throwaway line. But to the tortoise it’s tremendously important. The Tempest influenced my novel in ways I wasn’t conscious of at the time. Maybe what you read manages you, not the reverse.
Where do you see yourself within the context of “literary history” if such a thing is even an intelligible concept? Are there any movements in particular that you feel you are a successor to or detractor of?
These are questions I might think about as a reader, but not as a writer. Readers, especially academics, like to see patterns, movements – the big picture. But a writer, while subject to all kinds of influences, doesn’t think about them in the moment of writing. At least I don’t. I have no idea what I’m doing until after it’s done, and even then, I don’t really know.
You’ve mentioned in interviews before that in Come, Thou Tortoise you initially weren’t planning on including the tortoise as a narrator. What made you choose to do that? Do you find that your writing often takes interesting turns like this that you might not have originally intended?
Right, the tortoise was not a narrator initially. Then one day I took her for a test drive and loved her. She provided me with a window onto, or into, my other first-person narrator. I think of the tortoise as doing double duty as both a first-person and a third-person narrator. She’s a character in her own right. But she’s also able to witness the private moments of other characters in a way that a human narrator could not.
What have you been working on since Come, Thou Tortoise has been published?
I’m working on a novel. I’ve also been teaching and travelling.
Grant’s reading is in Scott House at Traill College October 9 at 7pm.