Natalee Caple is the author of four books of fiction and poetry. She is co-editor with Michelle Berry of an anthology, The Notebooks: Interviews and New Fiction from Contemporary Writers (Doubleday Canada). Her short story collection, The Heart is its Own Reason, was reviewed positively by the New York Times. Her first novel, The Plight of the Happy People in an Ordinary World, was optioned for film, and her book of poetry, A More Tender Ocean, was nominated for a Gerald Lampert Award. Her latest novel, Mackerel Sky, about a mother-daughter conterfeiting team operating out of the Upper Laurentians, was published in Canada (Thomas Allen Books), and in the United States (St. Martin’s Press).
1. What do you want to talk about—which question do you wish interviewers would ask, and what is your answer?
That’s a really hard question to answer unless I have just finished a specific book and then I usually want to be asked about my secret codes, the films that I watched while I was writing it, what the end moral is — things like that. Now (as in today) I think I would like someone to ask me if I ever think about quitting and why and what makes me return to writing. I’d also like to be asked about my process and maybe about the effect that having kids has had on me as a writer and as a human being. I used to ask writers what their greater project was, what they wanted to accomplish with their books if they could only accomplish one thing. I have a tendency to ask for those sort of distillations. I would always say that I wanted to create a series of memorable female characters who defied gender and genre expectations and who opened up to other writers a universe of possible women, tough, difficult, sexy, brilliant, whatever — but new images of women for women. And maybe I have always wanted to find a way to make women heroes. Although I don’t know if I believe in heroes and I don’t know if women can surrender themselves (or should) enough to become legendary figures or if that’s just too kitsch (to paraphrase Milan Kundera — too lacking in shit) to be real for us.
2. What advice do you wish you’d received, but didn’t, when you first started to take your writing seriously?
I think if I could go back and talk to my twenty-two-year-old self I would say, don’t worry so much. Don’t make it the measure of your life. It’s part of who you are and sometimes that’s good and sometimes it’s less good. Don’t read the rags about who is making what and don’t answer questions like, how many books did you sell, or how much is that prize/contract/anything worth. Protect the part of your life where you write as dearly as you protect the part where you sleep. You have a right to your preferences. When you are writing you are being human, nothing more or less. It is, at once, very special and not special at all. This is The Plight of Happy People in an Ordinary World, that your experiences are so immediate and important regardless of how many people before or after you have gone through similar losses or triumphs. Love is better than money and happiness is better than fame. Happiness is in fact your greatest responsibility. Never ever become the kind of writer who needs to be unhappy.
3. What is wrong with the publishing industry, and what are they getting right?
The problem with the publishing industry is that they are concerned with a market that doesn’t really exist or at least changes so often that it can’t actually be predicted. It’s like we are all in love and want to be romanced on the deck of the Titanic so we keep looking at each other thinking are you the one? And then we get mad because most often we are on this really old boat that only ever had a few people on it but it’s a sunny day and it’s really quiet here and it smells clean and it’s not so bad and the lake isn’t that deep and we all figured out how to swim to shore before we got on. You know, we thought everything would change when our name appeared on the spine of a book but we were wrong to think that because you know, super-crap, I’m still me. And OK we’re really hungry and there is one Smartie in the stupid boat but did we come here for dinner or to sail a little bit before the moon rises? Do you know what I mean at all? The real problem is we know when they are lying about how important we are but we don’t know when they are lying about how important our peers are.
4. How will technology change writing?
I will stop losing files when I change platforms. I feel like all my books are packed in valises that get left behind at train stations when my memory fills up and my passport is about to expire.
5. What is your process for a typical piece of writing, from idea to publication? (Give a specific example.)
I usually start by telling a joke about the next thing I will do. With Mackerel Sky I was at Banff with Susan Swan and Patrick Crean after Wordfest. I was kind of excited about having appeared on a panel with real crime writers and Susan was kind of offended by it. She said, Natalee your work is literary fiction it’s not genre fiction. Susan is very protective of me. And I said I thought it was both. She argued that crime fiction was all about plot and I said well, Albert Camus’s The Stranger is a court room drama, a kind of crime fiction. Same with Nabokov’s Lolita, isn’t it a confession? I always want to keep all the tools, even when I don’t know how to use them. I said, as a joke, maybe I’ll be the one to write the young feminist western out of Alberta that responds to French theory. We all laughed and went our separate ways and then at dinner I said, I’ve been thinking about it all day — do you know anything about Calamity Jane? And Susan said, I’ve been thinking about it too. I get shivers. And that’s how the idea was born for the new book. So, often it starts with me thinking broadly about what I haven’t done. I do this a lot with short stories, as you know because of our short story club. I kind of start by saying, oh crap I have to do something what are other people doing and what do I think is fun or even funny about that? Or else I think, well I like science fiction and I haven’t written any science fiction — what is the Natalee version of a Philip K. Dick story? What do I like about the things I like? I recently wrote my first ever ghost story. I had never been interested in ghosts or ghost stories before the recent deaths of three friends and three family members. My friends died and my family died and I understood the trace in a new way and it’s importance. So I wrote a funny happy ghost story and I gave myself permission to fantasize about some impossible return. It really excited me to find something new in my own mind. I have also been trying out fables and fairy tales. It’s really about me thinking outside myself, thinking about things I have enjoyed as a spectator and finding a way to engage as an author.
6. What are your daily habits as a writer, and as a reader?
My habits change based on where I am in a project. At the beginning I spend a lot of time casting about and reading widely and watching films and brainstorming. Then when something starts to take hold I research other works that I might find inspiring. When I’m in the real heat of writing a long project I have, in the past, watched about three or four movies a day that I think have a tone or an idea in common with the work. I will, at that point, read voraciously but only with the hope of masticating ideas and finding a way to nourish the book. I’m not a big talker about projects except when I’ve shown part of it to someone. I’m afraid of accomplishing something by talking about it that I should accomplish in the writing of it. I regularly review what I have and list the things I want to accomplish with the book, even though those change or have to be discarded when they don’t seem — ugh — organic or natural or something in the body of the final work. It’s hard to saw off a favourite vestigial organ and I have a soft spot for the digression but sometimes the bloody thing has got to go. In the final stages I start reading and editing for specific things so one day I might only look at one character throughout the novel or I might only look at the quality of language or only at setting or only at dialogue. I change or note other things as well but I find for continuity it works best for me to do many many passes where I focus on different things. Then I ask myself if there is anything I need to do before I let it go because after this the book won’t belong to me anymore in the same way — it will belong to everyone and they will all read it differently and I do want it to belong to readers but that last goodbye is hard. When I finished writing the first draft of my first novel I was living with my first husband in an apartment in the Annex in Toronto and I didn’t want to wake him up but I had so much crazy energy that I ran around the living room in circles until I exhausted myself and fell asleep. I was so happy, but when I woke up I was so sad because I would never write another new scene as part of that first life with those characters. It’s funny how I come to see them as companions and I miss them when we are done with each other.
7. What is your ambition as a writer—what do you want to accomplish, personally and professionally?
I want to be happy. I want to enjoy writing like I did in the beginning when everything seemed possible and I didn’t know if I could do it but I just wanted to try. I want writing to be part of my regular everyday life and to feel great about that. I want a real life, a private life with my kids and my husband and my family and my friends that doesn’t get publicly examined. I want to get better at what I do with every book and I want to write things that people read and feel affected by. I know that all sounds trite. But I really worry about happiness and how to be a good person and how to be fulfilled. Ideally, I would never have to think about money in terms of my writing or my family. Ideally, I would be able to make decisions based on what would be best for me for my writing, for my kids, and not what we can afford. Ideally, I would show them the world and they could pursue all of their interests. I don’t think I need a lot of money for this. I just would like to make enough that I never had to feel that anything was impossible for us just because of money. Money isn’t real, you know. I want to feel really happy with my books and like I challenged myself with each one and that each one represents a different part of me and my living brain. I want to feel free to move between genres and I guess I want to feel recognized for my efforts and my accomplishments. I would most like to empower readers and other writers and to give them a sense of how yes, writing is hard, but it is a mark of human living and not a superhuman accomplishment. I’d like people to take themselves seriously and to feel joy as well as pain when they read my works. I’d like to know that I made a connection even though I wasn’t there. I’d like to leave a legacy for my kids and grandkids about the things I thought and what I valued. For me writing is being.
8. Why don’t you quit?
Oh my god you did ask it. I’ll answer it tomorrow — my daughter is coughing and I’m not sure how maudlin I have been already. Wine.