We're kicking off our new Writer's Block column with Chad Pelley, author of Every Little Thing and Away from Everywhere, published by Breakwater Books. We asked him some random writerly questions about himself, snooped into where he likes to write, and asked him to get artistic with some advice for aspiring writers. Being the good sport he is, Chad came back with some fantastic responses so read on!
Today we're introducing a new (and hopefully regular!) feature on the LPG blog we're calling Writer's Block, where we'll go behind the scenes with some of the writers who have published with our member publishers. We're kicking off with Chad Pelley, author of Every Little Thing and Away from Everywhere, published by Breakwater Books. We asked him some random writerly questions about himself, snooped into where he likes to write, and asked him to get artistic with some advice for aspiring writers. Being the good sport he is, Chad came back with some fantastic responses so read on!
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Who is your favourite fictional character?
I fall in love pretty easy. I just went to the grocery store and fell in love with the way a young ginger mom was inspecting the apples. She really cared about what apples she’d bring home, and you’ve got to think a woman like that really cares about everything in her life. So it doesn’t take much for me to fall in love, but, to stay in love ... that takes someone as mesmerizing as Audrey Flowers from Jessica Grant’s Come, Thou Tortoise. The kind of girl whose sentences you can’t finish, because you just don’t know what she’s thinking. You don’t know where life’s taking you when you’re with a woman like that. She described Sylvester Stallone as “Bullety,” and I knew it was true love. A lot of readers think Audrey’s lacking marbles and IQ points, but, I think those readers have a lot to learn about life. I’m also drawn to the kind of woman who can love as unconditionally and absolutely as Helen O’Mara in Lisa Moore’s February. I think Lisa captured a good woman’s boundless capacity to love in a way that proves a good wife is all a man needs to find meaning in his fairly perfunctory existence.
Do you have a book that you’ve gone back and read several times?
I’m too slow a reader to re-read novels, and as a freelancer and blogger, I’m always playing Keep-Up with new releases. But Michael Winter’s This All Happened singlehandedly – for better or worse – made a writer out of me. So I’ve re-read that one, to remind myself why I loved it so much. (To understand what I meant by “for better or worse” see this link: http://bit.ly/X88tTy.)
If you wrote a memoir, what would it be called?
Everything I’ve done Wrong and Would do Again
I think life’s about finding yourself by getting lost enough to have to go looking. I’ve been blessed or cursed with the gift of being both indecisive and overly analytical. I’ve stood at my kitchen counter for fifteen minutes, trying to choose between a bagel & brie or a bowl of oatmeal. My problem is I feel like opening one door shuts all the rest. The idea of working one career 40 hours a week forever terrifies me, because what about all the other things I could be doing with my life? So I’ve worked at advertising agencies, publishing houses, biology labs, as a photographer, with tourists, and so on. The fear of commitment, and all that bouncing around, is mildly flippant and financially irresponsible, but, it’s given me clarity on what I really want to do with my life, so I won’t live a life wondering about paths I never took, because I’ve jogged down so many. I’ve stood on both sides of every fence, and the grass has always been greener – like, neon green and flashing. But I’m glad I’ve hopped many fences and un-hopped them, because I’ve learned something valuable from the splinters one endures from a life lived on a fence. I can name the woman who got away, so I know what I’m after; I can articulate my dream job, because I’m living it. Not to sound like I have it all figured out: I’m a 30-something single, and it’s always a mystery where next month’s mortgage is coming from.
Why do you write?
To be honest, it’s because I can’t sing well enough to take my music seriously. Even if I could sing well, who wants to live the touring life, or to be subjected to even more media scrutiny than writers are? But, I grew up playing music in loud bars, and my mother had to sign permission slips so I could play in a bar full of drunks. That love of songwriting has never gone away. I record at least two albums a year. But, fiction is a better artistic fit for my personality. I am more passionate about my writing than anyone reading this sentence could possibly be about theirs. And I write because I don’t want my primary focus in life to be something someone else could do if I wasn’t doing it. For example: If I were a neurosurgeon or an airline traffic controller, I’d be replaceable. My writing though, my books, they exist only because I made them, and the act of writing them comes with a sense of meaning and accomplishment nothing else in my life can muster. And in a way, my stories are a satisfying conversation with myself on life.
What’s the toughest part about being a writer?
There’s always a better sentence than the one I just typed. But how many times can you revise a single sentence until you’re not making it better anymore, just different? Or overwrought. I like that Oscar Wilde quote, “A manuscript is never finished; it is merely abandoned.” As in, it could always be a little bit better, but hey, you’ve got to move on to a new project at some point.
Do you have any rituals that you abide by when you’re writing?
I tend to listen to Icelandic music, like Sigur Ros, because it’s exceptionally powerful, emotive, and visceral ... and because I don’t know the language, the words don’t distract me. I’ve also got an ultra-mellow Writing Playlist with a lot of Damien Jurado, Album Leaf, Springsteen, and Songs: Ohia on there. It’s very depressing, and I think it explains a lot about why I write sad, tragic stuff. The tone of the music affects the tone of my writing, in a way that helps me dig a little deeper with the writing.
Also, I have this ceramic paper crane a friend gave me. It’s small enough that I can close a fist around it. She plunked it on the stand of my computer monitor – which is very shelf-like – and it’s been there for years now. When revising, to keep my idle hands busy, I’ve got that thing in my hands, fidgeting with it, twirling it – I have got some habitual moves with it. It works wonders. I also need to be sipping on something when I write – tea mainly, but also wine, coffee, scotch, a beer, carrot juice. Often all those things in one 4-hour sitting. And I worry about that. The kidneys are like anything – a toothbrush, a windshield wiper; there are a limited number of times you can use them before they fail on you. I’m worried all this fluid intake is gonna send me into renal failure by book 5 or 6.
(Picture Chad writing here)
What question do you wish someone would ask you about your book?
That’s easy. I wish a person or two had asked me, “What was your intention with this novel?” Many readers, and many so-called critics, will read your book thinking you wrote it with them in mind – that you were attempting to write the kind of fiction they enjoy, be it stylistically, plot-wise, genre-wise, whatever. So they judge the merit of your book on how much they enjoyed it, versus how well you succeeded in meeting your own goals and intentions for the novel. Here’s an example. At my book launch, I talked about the origins of my new novel. Most writers start with a story idea, a theme maybe, or a character. The origins of Every Little Thing, my new novel, actually came from doing book club visits for my debut novel. It was amazing to watch all these sisters and co-workers and mothers- and-daughters turning on each other over things my character had done in the novel. So I thought I’d write a novel where my main character keeps getting into scenarios where he has to make a decision that will polarize readers, and make them judge his actions based on their own personalities and morals. I wrote with book club discussion points in mind. That was my intention: is Cohen Davies a good guy or a reckless romantic? Would you do what he did for Allie, for that child, for her father? Days after my launch, one reviewer wrote the headline, “Great writing; too bad about the characters.” She was very frustrated that the main character made bad decisions, and in her mind that meant the book had failed, even though getting a strong reaction out of her, based on my characters’ choices, was my very intent. So, didn’t that mean my novel succeeded? I can’t tell if she’s entitled to that opinion, or if that’s poor criticism. Either way, I wouldn’t change a thing about my character. He’s a good guy, in my mind. Granted I’m a cowboy at heart, and think morality is black and white, and over-rules law and social convention. I’d have done much of what Cohen did in this novel, to get himself in so much trouble, for such good reasons.
Chad Pelley lives in downtown St. John’s, which means he lives in a rowhouse. While tourists like the legendary and colourful rowhouses of St. John’s, their residents, like me, would much rather not be attached to each other. For example, if one house burns, we all go down together. It also means your neighbour is more like a roommate separated by a wall, and on one side of me there’s a retired mathematician who panics when my lawn gets higher than his ankles (how unsightly!), and on the other side, right now, there’s a batch of 8 kids whose moms bought them a house so they’d have a deck to party on (right under my bedroom window). Before they moved in, I suspected my previous neighbour was a classy type of stay-at-home prostitute (she never left her house, but many different cars would stop by for exactly an hour). I wrote a short story based on the suspicion called, “Veronica is or is not a prostitute.” The first line, “She has a mouth like a bitten apple.” I’ve never finished the story, so, I’ve never had to worry about that metaphor being too obscure. But an altered, fictionalized version of her appears in a story, “Abraham in his Chair,” which will be in my forthcoming book of shorts.
While I’m not a rich, six-time Giller winner, I’ve already accomplished my wildest writerly dreams, and they were quite literally shoot-for-the-stars types of dreams just 5 years ago: I’ve signed a movie deal for my first book, university courses are teaching my book alongside novels I cut my teeth on, I’ve shared the stage with Atwood, Giller winners, my favourite writers. I was giddy enough to take a photo of my first novel on a bestseller wall. But the crowning moment came this month, in a bittersweet one-two punch. The very same day I had to choke down my first-ever horrible review, I got the good news that I’d reached double-digits with regards to award recognition for my fiction. I’ve got a story longlisted for Anansi’s Broken Social Scene short story contest, and that’s the 10th jury to recognize my fiction. It’s been a long and hard-fought battle. Seven years ago, when all I got from the industry was unanimous rejection in the key of “your stuff is too intense,” I didn’t see all that coming.
I’ve published two novels, Away from Everywhere (2009) and Every Little Thing (2013), and have a bunch of short stories in anthologies, textbooks, and journals. By June I’ll have compiled my first book of shorts, called Four-letter Words. When not writing fiction, I’m a freelance writer for papers and ad firms, and I founded the surprisingly popular book blog, Salty Ink, which focuses on a certain brand of fresh Canadian fiction and poetry.
Edited from the original post, published on the LPG blog
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