Gabrielle Volke is a first year student at Mount Royal University in Calgary. Her writing teacher, Micheline Maylor, poet and editor of FreeFall, set up this little interview by email for an essay Gabrielle is writing. I post it here in the usual Numéro Cinq spirit of shameless self-promotion and the vague hope that some other writing student might profit from my animadversions.
Gabrielle Volke: More often than not I will be performing some mundane task, or hear one random phrase, when an idea hits me. They usually just pop into my head out of the blue. Where does your inspiration come from? Do your ideas appear out of thin air, or do they arrive through careful planning and deliberation?
DG: I would have a difficult time categorizing the various ways topics come to me. I also don’t really use words like “inspiration” or “random” or “out of the blue” to describe what goes on in my mind. I am reading all the time. My historical novels and stories obviously come from reading history books. Other stories develop out of a bit of form or technique I have discovered and want to put into practice. Plot develops when you put two characters together in a conflicted relationship. That’s often where I start. I might have no idea what the story is about ahead of time or where it will go once I’ve started it. Though I do have a clear sense that the two characters and their conflict will continue throughout. I don’t write autobiographical fiction, and my characters and situations are never based on real people (except, of course, for those historical fictions). And I don’t waste much time trying to be realistic in a conventional way.
I should add that I sometimes deliberately sit with a notebook and make lists of story ideas, that is, lists of possible character conflicts. E.g. What sort of thing could go wrong between two lovers, or a husband and wife. I write a list and then later on I go back and test the ideas for a) dramatic potential (is there the possibility of extended the conflict through time over a series of scenes?) and b) depth (is the conflict of significant importance? E.g. A conflict based on a lover’s infidelity is going to take me deeper than a conflict over Christmas presents). I think a lot of people run into trouble because they don’t test their story ideas for depth and the possibility of extension before they begin to write.
Gabrielle Volke: I find myself writing in the middle of the night in my room, or in the middle of the afternoon at a park. There is no structure or schedule in terms of when I write, but this often leads to me going weeks without writing down a single word. Do you follow a certain system, whether it be a sporadic system, or a structured one? If you’ve tried both, which system has proved more effective?
DG: I have a job teaching and I have children, so, like most writers, I don’t have the luxury of writing whenever I feel like it. Writing gets squeezed into moments stolen from the other more mundane aspects of life. I don’t write outside or in coffee houses the way some people seem to do. I write at home in my study and try to keep disruptions and distractions to a minimum.
Gabrielle Volke: My English professor, Micheline Maylor, has compared my writing to yours, which leads me to wonder if your work has been compared to another author’s. And if so, do you find yourself consciously or subconsciously drawn towards writing in that similar style? Or, would you attempt to deviate from that comparison in order for your work to be critiqued on its own terms?
DG: Actually, I don’t pay too much attention to what people say about my work. And I definitely don’t think about how my work is going to be received by critics. That would seem to me to be a complete waste of my time. I can’t recall being compared with any other writers. I seem to recall someone saying I wrote in a line of European aesthetics that begins with Cervantes and comes down through Sterne, Diderot, Beckett and Kundera. But I think that person was reflecting on the complex and ironic structures I invent. And, of course, I did write a book about Cervantes so that tends to make people think I might be trying to write like him. But I wrote all my novels so far and most of my stories before I paid much attention to Cervantes. I don’t write like Cervantes or those other people. My reading taste is eclectic. I like Southern U.S. writers like Faulkner, Barry Hannah and Carson McCullers. I like 20th century mid-European writers like Christa Wolf, Witold Gombrowicz, Thomas Bernhard and Peter Handke. And I admire certain Canadian novelists such as Hubert Aquin and Leonard Cohen. I don’t think I write like any of these people. I think that writing like someone else happens in an early stage of a writer’s development when it’s a useful learning tool.
Gabrielle Volke: Naturally my work has changed since I started writing as a kid, from stories with pretty girls and happy endings, to pretty girls with sad endings, to ugly girls with happy endings, etc. How has your writing style and process evolved from when you began writing, to now? Do you think this evolution was a subconscious occurrence based on the mind’s ability to evolve and mature, or did you intentionally make the effort to grow, expand and progress?
DG: First, I don’t use that word “subconscious” the way you do. It’s Freud’s term for thoughts or memories that exist somewhere (in his geographical metaphor) between the unconscious, which is completely beyond us, and our conscious thoughts. Theoretically, we are able to bring subconscious thoughts to consciousness. I have always been confused by Freud’s theory at this point. I really am not sure what he meant. Is the subconscious just the things I don’t happen to be thinking about at the moment?
My stories have become more structurally complicated and more technically elaborate over time because I have learned some new techniques along the way through reading and practicing (and through teaching to some extent). I wouldn’t say my subject matter has changed because it was always quite diverse from the beginning. It was always changing. I don’t see any system. Maybe when I was quite young and before I was getting published, I did write proto-stories that were somewhat autobiographical. But I think most of what I have done in terms of expanding my repertoire of form and technique has been gradual and self-conscious. I have long kept technical notebooks to keep track of new things I learn.
Gabrielle Volke: I have struggled with being able to complete a written work without growing bored with it, and moving on to the next story in my head. Is this a struggle you face, and if so, how do you overcome this obstacle? Or, are you like me and put the story aside and start a new one? (I have to assume this is not the case, otherwise I would not have read any of your published works.)
DG: I have taught enough students (and my own sons) to know that what you are struggling with is developmental. A story has a form. Most people read stories without actually knowing the structure they are reading. Young people start out having ideas, sometimes nicely dramatic ideas, but they don’t understand form. They have a good time writing down the opening scene or scenes of their stories, but then they lose interest because, in fact, they don’t know how to make the next thing happen, that is, they don’t know how to make a continuous plot. I watched this in my son especially. Over and over, he would come to me excited about these wonderful paragraphs he had written. I could see he had a great idea but he would start the idea and then go back in time and explain more about how the dramatic situation developed and then suddenly he would lose interest. One of the hardest things for a person to learn is to push a story forward in time through event after event.
At the earliest stage of development, people get bored with their stories and abandon them. Older students I’ve worked with develop other, equally failed, strategies. They often write bathtub stories in which the character mostly remembers a story that has already happened but without any actual plot or conflict in the present action of the story. Or they write broken-backed stories in which they shift from one new conflict to another (usually about every three pages). It takes a lot of work or luck to crack the code and begin to understand how story form functions. Once you understand it, then you don’t have the boredom issue any longer because story-composition becomes a process of discovery and free improvisation based on the initial conflict idea and certain rules of formal development.
[See rare photo above of the author actually writing, 1973.]