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Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Margaret Clark - Author Profile

I have the pleasure of knowing Maggie (M.L.) Clark for a number of years know. She has been a section editor and editor in chief that I reported to at Imprint. She is a dedicated lifelong learner. Her published short story, Saying the Names; and novella, Children, both amazed me buy the skill and talent shown and the maturity of her voice as an author.

1. If you had not become a writer what do you think you would be doing for a living?

I'm still on the path to a career in academia; I don't see writing as an either/or game. My passion to teach cannot be fulfilled by the printed word alone, and a desire for life-long learning goes hand-in-hand with university communities. It also bears noting that my generation is one of routinely free creative enterprise-the sharing of extraordinary skill and time through craft exchanges, pay-what-you-like downloading, and all manner of for-love-of-the-art gifting to larger audiences (i.e. through publicly available videogame mods, fan-fiction, short films, and web-comics). In such a rapidly shifting artistic landscape, it would be very nice, in the long-term, to be able to offer my writing for free, while paying the bills through a related community that supports my artistic enterprise. I recognize that in the marketplace of ideas some people will still value that which has a price tag over that which does not, but gaining a reader's interest means more to me than their cash.

2. When did you know you wanted to be a writer and how did you nourish that dream?

Writing has always been a part of my life, but I was quite leery of adopting the title "writer" too quickly. In part, this is because I understood early on that writing was by no means a lucrative profession, and great writing an unrealistic one: as such, though I wrote and read tirelessly, I suspected I would be deemed frivolous and arrogant for setting this difficult label pre-emptively upon myself. It also didn't help that I encountered many who use the term solely for its romanticism, and without matching high ambition with day-to-day discipline. These persons routinely remind me that how one self-identifies does not necessarily correlate with who they are or what they do. As for myself, I kept my nose to the ground, wrote extensively, made friends the world over who were equally interested in honing their art, submitted work without balking at the prospect of rejection, and over time have allowed my results, such as they are to date, to speak for themselves. Some days I do feel like a writer; on others, I'm not so sure-but on these latter days, when the need to prove to myself that I have earned this title is greatest, I tend to find the work improves.

3. How did you determine to make the switch from journalism to fiction?

I love the ethos of journalism, its rigours and need for human mindfulness, but the brevity of news cycles always seemed an impediment to certain kinds of discourse about the human condition. In particular, I remember a period in which stories about women kidnapped for years, then suddenly returned to their families, flooded the airways: it struck me then that these were stories that necessarily couldn't be covered properly if they were to be covered ethically (e.g. the victims did not owe anyone else a single moment of their precious new freedom; yet their very existence as survivors of long-term trauma posed difficult questions news anchors could not adequately resolve on their own). I therefore turned to other forms of writing (some new to me, like playwriting; some old, like short fiction and poetry) to fill in the gaps in contemporary themes like these. Put another way, for me form necessarily follows function, and as my "function" by and large has been to create work with an interest in lost narratives, I will always move to whatever form best serves that need at any given time.

4. What advice would you give to teens today, to other readers, what gems of knowledge have you gleaned in life that you would pass on?

I grappled for many years with severe depression, anxiety, and an exceedingly low sense of self-worth. In the course of those experiences, I found that the most terrible part of any low period is the fear that the pain you're feeling then will never end-for that fear can lead you to do even greater and more lasting harm to yourself than your low mood ever could unto itself. Recently, an "It Gets Better" campaign emerged in response to the devastating rate of queer teen suicides across North America, but those three words should really hold sway over all youth suffering: It gets better. It gets better. It gets better. And if you have trouble believing that, please, give yourself the gift of professional and community allies in the struggle for your one and precious life: seek help.

5. You have a great passion for books and literature in general. To what do you attribute this?

My father gave me an incredibly early boost in my education, meaning that I learned to delight in the notion of learning long before TV programs and peer groups were able to perpetuate the stereotype that all children hate homework and school unless they're "teacher's pets." I also learned from my father never to limit myself to one discipline, but rather to follow all points of curiosity as far as they would take me. This almost necessarily meant that I became a voracious reader-though I do wonder if the same will be true for future generations of polymaths, with Wikipedia and Google always so close at hand. The clincher for me, though, was probably the only required reading I was given by my father as a child: At the age of eight I started reading On the Origin of Species at the glacial pace of three or four pages a day, with daily reports made to my father on my thoughts about the content therein. In consequence of this assignment, I've never taken kindly to the notion that children should be made to adhere to "reading levels," for the express reason that exposure to more complex sentence structures and new words from a young age on does wonders for vocabulary-building, and certainly the quality of one's own writing over time. If anyone here hasn't read On the Origin of Species, let me summarize what it looks like to a child: sentences as long as paragraphs; paragraphs that go on for pages. But when I finished that work, at nine years old, my father told me, "Congratulations! Now you'll never fear another book; next to this one, nothing else will ever seem impossible again." To this day, it's proven true; and on the off chance I do pick up a book that looks dauntingly dry, those words invariably come back to me, challenging me to be as diligent and open-minded as I was at eight years old. It is my strongly held opinion that children are fearless creatures of great, raw intellect, and deserve to be challenged as such.

6. What does your writing process look like? Takes us through the steps from idea to publishing?

Honestly, the process is different for each work. When I wrote a longer piece a couple years back, it started as a short story, but I quickly became dissatisfied with the expositional style and started over. The moment I did, I realized the work needed to be much longer to do justice to the premise, and the characters. Sixteen days later, I had a manuscript of 80,000 words. That said, I'm not usually fortunate enough to have that much time to write, so my typical approach is more adaptive to constraining circumstances. I get my ideas from all over-non-fiction interests, general conversation, the news-but I intentionally let them stew first. I don't just want idle words spilling out: I want the ideas inside to be backed by such an intense build-up of pressure that they can't help but spill out. In consequence, I tend to write in short, controlled bursts-though never ever fewer than a thousand words a day. My editing process is fairly rigorous and meticulous, as might be expected of someone with a history in professional editing (though I can't wait to get a new printer so I can catch further errors the old fashioned way as well). A story is likely reread no fewer than ten times (and most often, closer to twenty) before I submit it; with longer works, I read the chapter preceding the one I'm currently working on ad nauseum, so I also get plenty of editing done while I go. I imagine I must drive a few fiction and poetry editors crazy-not because I believe my work is perfect when it arrives in their hands, but because I have a genuine thirst for meta-conversations about grammatical idiolects, and the editors I work with sometimes just want to get the job done. (Shocking, I know!) Currently, I'm working on a longer piece for which I wrote a full book synopsis first. I've been known to complete synopses first when I feel, at the time of inspiration, that I can't tackle the project properly just yet. However, those synopses are never set in stone, and I still find that my characters and plot take on a life of their own in the writing itself. This is quite relieving, because it means the writing process is always a bit of an adventure (read: mess!), no matter how detailed my initial plans.

7. If you could live in any alternate world from a book, which one would you live in why?

Neal Stephenson's Anathem depicts an ascetic order of secular scholars that has one tremendous benefit over religious depictions of the same (for instance, as seen in works like Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose): women are equally permitted to partake in lifelong quests of the mind. That's quite a difference from this world, where the lone wolf archetype is still one of romantic weight for male writers, yet female writers who seek that same measure of isolation for their work and minimalism in their lives by and large earn themselves more negative valuations. On a personal level, I still feel immense and explicit pressures to validate myself as a woman first and foremost-say, by entering into a formalized partnership and producing children of my own-while the mere fact of my gender has also exposed me to instances of sexual harassment in the pursuit of my writing goals. It would therefore be a thing of surpassing joy to be given leave to study and write in the structured peace of Anathem's distinctly cloistered world, where men and women are considered equal participants in the pursuit of greater collective knowledge.

8. If you had to pick 10 books to recommend to someone who is not a big reader, what books would you pick?

I find the best gateway for any non-reader is through their personal interests, so a blanket list is rather tricky. Here are some that have worked for me with others in the past: Dispatches - Michael Herr (For anyone who thinks Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness is boring.) The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle - Avi (Young girl.) Call of the Wild - Jack London (Young animal lovers / outdoorsy types.) Watchmen - Alan Moore (Jaded/disaffected youth.) Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov (For anyone who thinks writing can't be beautiful and hideous all at once.) Midnight's Children - Salman Rushdie / Things Fall Apart - Chinua Achebe (For anyone who thinks novels have no relevance to our understanding of history.) The Night in Question - Tobias Wolff / For the Relief of Unbearable Urges - Nathan Englander (For anyone who thinks the short story is a dead form.) Slaughterhouse Five - Kurt Vonnegut (For anyone who doesn't understand the purpose of science fiction in the face of terrible, incomprehensible realities.)

9. What were some of your favourite books and authors as a child?

I adored the classics as a child: The Complete Works of the Brothers Grimm, The Adventures of Pinocchio, Peter Pan, The Chronicles of Narnia, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver's Travels, The Water Babies, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Journey to the Center of the Earth, and anything depicting Greek or Nordic mythology. Contemporary works included Lois Lowry's The Giver, Gary Paulsen's Hatchet, Avi's The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, Benjamin Hoff's The Tao of Pooh, Agatha Christie mysteries, William J. Bennett's The Book of Virtues, Lloyd Alexander's The Chronicles of Prydian. T. H. White's The Once and Future King, Shel Silverstein's Where the Sidewalk Ends, and science fiction by Madeleine L'Engle, Monica Hughes, and Diana Wynne Jones.

10. What were some of your favourite authors in your teen years who helped shape you?

The beginning of my adolescence was marked by some rather fearless forays into non-fiction, whereupon I became a great fan of Richard Feynman and Stephen Hawking. (Give a child a book like QED, and with more certainty than any adult they'll tell you they understand at least half of it.) Science fiction and fantasy also had their place in my heart-anything I could find by Piers Anthony, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Frank Herbert, Arthur C. Clarke, William Gibson, and David Eddings, I read-but I still keeled hard towards literary fiction, too. To that end, for a while Ernest Hemingway and Anton Chekhov were just about tops for me (though George Orwell, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Iris Murdoch, and Leo Tolstoy made for valiant competition). But when I read The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, no other work could even hope to compare. Russian literature has reigned in my personal library ever since.

11. Who are some of your favourite authors or books now?

Certainly, to my mind no single text has yet bested The Brothers Karamazov in depth and breadth of human experience, but Dostoevsky is by no means the lone authorial love of my adult life. I also greatly appreciate the works of Cormac McCarthy, Tobias Wolff, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Andrei Platonov, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Salman Rushdie, Vladimir Nabokov, Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Yukio Mishima, Nathan Englander, Bill Gaston, Flannery O'Connor, and Ursula K. LeGuin. Graphic novels like A Contract with God, Watchmen, 100%, and Y: The Last Man, as well as poetry collections by Wislawa Szymborska, Richard Siken, Dorianne Laux, and Jack Gilbert, also occupy a vital place in my literary life. Very recently, I was also deeply humbled by Best European Fiction 2010, a collection of short fiction and novel excerpts that serve as emphatic reminder that there are other, profoundly different ways to write than the ones we hold supreme on this continent.

12. I once heard Madeleine L'Engle state that her characters were real to her and almost an extended part of her family, she said once that at the dinner table she sat up and stated "Meg just finished her PhD." One of the great strengths in both your novella Children and your short story Saying the Names are your characters. Are your characters real to you in the way L'Engle's were?

I found this question the most difficult to answer, as the accepted writer's mythology underpinning such a topic seems to allow for only two modalities of author/character interaction: either characters are distinct beings, or else they're fragments of the author's own character, and that of other people the author already knows in real life. Yet I can't help but struggle for a third way of looking at this relationship: At the outset of any story I'm working on, I always hold to the desire to create distinct beings in my characters, but by the end of each work-if it's a good work, at least; a work I'm proud to call my own-they grow so kindred that the lines start to blur, even if our ethics and circumstances and desires and weaknesses are completely different. Put another way, I know a work is finished when I've reached a humanistic understanding of all its characters; at that point, though they may well be distinct entities, I feel immersed in them, and they in me. (Alternately, I know a work is not ready and/or inferior if this moment of compassion does not arise.)

13. In many ways you are a modern renaissance woman, philosopher, educator, researcher, student, author and more. Very few people today are as well rounded as you are. To what do you attribute this?

Truly, my early education (care of my father) in the joy of learning takes full credit. During my youth, no subject was pitted against any other in terms of relative value: what mattered first and foremost was rather that I follow any point of curiosity to its fullest. In this way, I came very quickly to understand the interrelatedness of many disciplines, and grew as much with the maths and sciences as I did with English, history, and philosophy. Being in the gifted program, I learned to rank lateral thinking skills above and beyond the needs of any one discipline, so it was really no surprise I then moved on to an International Baccalaureate (IB) program in high school: that program's emphatic focus on well-rounded learning across six core subjects only enhanced certain educational values I already held, and continue to hold today.

14. One of my goals in life is to find balance between body, mind and spirit. And even though our primary philosophies and worldviews are different. You seem to have achieved that balance in both your work and your life. What do you do to maintain your balance?

Scientific consensus currently puts the age of the universe at 13.75 billion years, and its diameter at 28 billion parsecs. Within that vast expanse, we orbit one of three hundred sextillion stars on a planet 4.5 billion years old, against which the age of our species-around 200,000 years anatomically, 50,000 years behaviourally-is a drop in the bucket. Yet against even that one, piddling drop, our individual lives are even more minute-the merest fraction of an eye-blink apiece in the great, ongoing march of the universe, which will continue to exist for billions of years more after each of us has died and returned to dust. Against such staggering facts, I understand why we, as a species, are used to shrinking our sense of the universe into something much smaller, more fanciful, and eminently more personable-not just because of how long it took us even to become aware of the universe's size and age, but also because day-to-day life on this planet, with all its nuances and pitfalls, is often hard enough to comprehend without also keeping in mind the tempestuous goings-on beyond our upper atmosphere. But when all that shrinking of the universe clouds our sense of how rare and how precious our one and only life truly is, my adult recourse has necessarily been to step outside of it all-to remember the size and the age of the cosmos, and just how incomprehensibly much had to occur from the very beginning of time just to arrive at me, and my scant few years on this planet. Put in this light, how could one dare to waste even an hour pursuing a line of thought or action harmful to oneself or others? How could one think to pursue anything in our mere decades on this planet but the most heightened state of self-awareness, communal enlightenment, and readiness to explore?

15. Completely off topic but what TV shows or movies do you enjoy?

My all-time favourite TV series is Babylon 5, for its tight, complete narrative of increasing and pointed complexity. I also have a sentimental attachment to ST:TNG, The Shield, and Summer Heights High (three more wildly disparate programs, you will not find). For casual enjoyment I cycle through well-wrought fluff like Community, Bob's Burgers, and Dexter, and no one can wrest me from my love of cooking shows-but these last are guilty pleasures, all. By and large, film is the more serious medium for me. My favourite film is Ikiru, an exquisite and lesser known work by Kurosawa set in post-war Japan, and which follows a middling bureaucrat given a six month death sentence from stomach cancer. After spending his whole life as a glorified paper-pusher, he's now desperate to make some kind of a positive impact before it's too late, but many avenues are already closed to him forever. A close second is The White Diamond, a documentary by Werner Herzog that depicts-in his very distinct and gentle way-the dual capacity for human beings to be mesmerized by dreams and curiosity, and weighed down by grief and the past. The Story of the Weeping Camel, The Bridge on the River Kwai, and, yes, Alien round out my top five. (I already feel guilty for all the other films I love but haven't mentioned here.)

16. Do you read eBooks? If so do you use a specific reader? What percentage of books that you read are in electronic format?

I do not own an e-reader, so the eBooks I read are in PDFs on my laptop. I'd say about five percent of the books I read annually are e-books, but that's in large part because I like to use reading as an escape from the online world-so having to read a book on a device that is always a right-click away from an internet window is extremely dangerous business.

17. I once had a university professor state that the true goal of a university education should be to teach one to learn how to think. What would you state should be the goal of higher education and why?

I agree with your past professor's statement, but must also pose a caveat, for learning how to think only provides one with a reactive toolset. I think there must necessarily be a proactive component to post-secondary education as well, and it should take the form of student recognition, at the culmination of his or her degree, not just of what he or she has learned to date, but also of just how much remains to be explored. (Put another way, a student cannot hope to know the full shape of his education upon entry into a proper post-secondary program; but with a little luck and a great deal of personal motivation, the successful post-secondary student will surely leave with his curiosity further piqued, not whetted, by the experience.)

18. If you could pick any one book to be made into a movie what would it be? Who would you like to see star in it?

Boy, that's a tough question. I think books and films are markedly different media, and what works well in one often does not work well in the other. I will say, though, that I'm surprised William Gibson's Pattern Recognition hasn't become a box office sensation yet. As possibly the first quality science fiction novel set in the present (by which I mean the book uses current technology in ways we hadn't yet explored when it was first released), its commentary on branding and identity formation could be of exceptional use in renewing social discourse around our generation's current commercial impulses. I'm not big on actors' names, but protagonist Cayce Pollard would require a serious, brooding portrayal (with a touch of ass-kicking incarnate) so I'd propose Helena Bonham Carter for the part.

19. If you were stuck on a desert island and could only have 10 books to read again and again, what books would you want with you?

First and foremost, David Quammen's Song of the Dodo-if I'm trapped on a desert island, what better work than one that plots a history of evolutionary biology against extreme cases of island speciation, to better aid me in cataloguing my new environment?
But in time, of course, I'll long for some reminder of human happenstance, so Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov will stand me in good stead next. Upon completion, though, the book will likely make me long all the more for the world I've lost. After much bitter gnashing of teeth I'll thus remember Herman Melville's Moby Dick, and find some solace in the shared futility of my grief and the protagonist's inner plight. After that, I'll require light-hearted reprieve, and consequently turn to The Collected Poems of Wislawa Szymborska, for all their slyness and their wit. After this, though, I'll want to devour a more substantial poetic screed, so The Iliad (as translated by Robert Fagles!) should be close at hand. From there I'll want a more personal, contemporary epic, so Iris Murdoch's The Sea, The Sea, about a man struggling to find the next big adventure in his retired life in a remote coastal town, would be the next book out of my satchel. By then, bored and starved for conversation, why not give myself over to Finnegans Wake? (How terrified any potential rescuer would be, if I were found while babbling that bit of Joyce aloud!) So fortified against communal life by Joyce's particular flavour of linguistic madness, I'll probably next go through a hardened period in which Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago would allow me to believe myself better off without civilization. But eventually that attitude will break, at which point I'll pull out Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude and follow that mythical city from creation to destruction, wedding my remembrance of human suffering with memories, too, of its fleeting triumphs. Finally, though, it will occur to me that no cycle of trial and tribulation in any book will ever change my fundamental circumstances. On a voyage all my own, I will reach then for Frederik Pohl's Gateway, and imagine myself as one of the daring, lonely space explorers who take to one-person space shuttles on an alien space station, and let unknown, predetermined courses carry them to riches or oblivion. What better way to go, than in the throes of ceaseless exploration?

20. What advice would you give to young aspiring authors and artists?

Never compromise on the things that matter most. You will be told you have to. You will be told this is how the game is played. And indeed, it will seem like you're losing shot after shot if you try to go your own way-but there will be other chances, other avenues; and when they arise, if you've held your own to get there, you'll be able to take them with full confidence in the value of your integrity. This world is rife with people who participate in the arts for the acclaim, the social positioning, the networking and the glam. I don't begrudge them, either-not unto themselves, at least; not when a tremendous amount of work is still required to maintain their lot in the system-but inasmuch as they impede the process of those who care primarily about their work, and not their own status in any one community, I encourage you to part ways as soon as possible. You will only do harm to one another if you don't. That said, learn what matters most. If constructive criticism upsets you, your priorities are wrong. If fear of rejection limits you, your priorities are wrong. If the possibility of failure is keeping you from even trying, your priorities are wrong, wrong, wrong. So by all means, when dealing with people trying to decide your future for you, pick a hill to die on, but pick the right hill. As an artist, you are your own boss first and foremost: be a good boss to yourself, and the rest will follow.

Thanks you Maggie for taking the time to answer some questions for the readers at Book Reviews And More.

Books by M.L. Clark:
Children
The Bitter Sweet Here and After - Short Story

K-City Kink Sisters:
Lacing Up To Reality - Short Story
One For The Team - Short Story

Author Profile Interview with M.L. Clark


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