ALU Book Club: Interview with Cherie Dimaline, author of A Gentle Habit

August 17, 2016

We had a lot of feelings about the stories and characters that make up the collection A Gentle Habit by Cherie Dimaline (Kegedonce Press). If you've been following along with our book club, you would have gotten a glimpse into our thoughts during last week's staff discussion. But we're lucky enough in our position at All Lit Up that our deeper look into the book didn't have to end there: we were able to ask Cherie, the author of A Gentle Habit, some questions about her characters and settings.

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We had a lot of feelings about the stories and characters that make up the collection A Gentle Habit by Cherie Dimaline (Kegedonce Press). If you've been following along with our book club, you would have gotten a glimpse into our thoughts during last week's staff discussion. But we're lucky enough in our position at All Lit Up that our deeper look into the book didn't have to end there: we were able to ask Cherie, the author of A Gentle Habit, some questions about her characters and settings. Check out Cherie's answers below – and if you need a primer on A Gentle Habit, don't miss our introductory post.

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GentleHabit_Intro

ALU: There is a very diverse range of characters across the six stories in A Gentle Habit. Was this a deliberate choice? How do you put yourself in the shoes of such a wide variety of characters so successfully?

Cherie Dimaline: I definitely sought to bring together a very different gang of characters for this book. I wanted the central theme of Habit to truly reflect the Bukowksi quote for which the book is inspired, and to do so, I felt I had to bring it to life in a faceted and layered universe.

I didn't want this to be a book about/for women only, about/for Indigenous people only, about/for the disenfranchised only. I wanted it to be about the beauty of jagged tears in paper, wrinkled sheets pulled up from the mattress, the perfect cookie in a hungry afternoon, the way a reflection in a puddle can bring you to stillness. And everyone has the capacity to notice, so I tried to pick the kookiest and most interesting representatives from "everybody" and to bring them to the page.

ALU: Your descriptions are very vivid and specific, really bringing the characters to life in the limited space available in the short story format. As someone who has also written two novels, is your writing strategy different for short stories versus longer format writing? What do you find easier?  

CD: Truthfully, the majority of my work starts out as short stories. I tend to get an idea and mull on it until it is bursting out of my head, and then I scramble to get it all down. (That doesn't happen all time time. Sometimes I'm dicking around in my journal and a near perfect sentence accidents itself onto the page and I build on it, selfishly unwilling to let it go.)

With the book I am working on right now, it started as a short story that was commissioned for a collection of Indigenous science fiction. Once I established the main character, I couldn't let him go. I needed to know how he slept (on his side? did he drool?) I needed to know if he had ever tasted a chocolate bar that has gone a bit stale and is dusted with that greyish coating they get when they sit too long on a shelf, but if he'd still eaten it whole. I needed him to fall in love. I gave him a motley family in an unkind world and then I worried about them. I couldn't stop writing. So even though the short story worked, it was really a preface to a larger tale that I had to write.

I do love short stories. They're like portraits, ones that are highly personal to the viewer. I like the neatness of them but the messy way they can slip inside your head and force you to change and think and make them your own. Novels are a beautiful indulgence that entertain and consume and force you to take time out. Short stories are tiny ships that sail into your days and entice you to distraction as you try to go about your regular old life - taking the subway, avoiding the gym, grabbing overpriced coffee....

ALU: Like your characters, the settings for each story are quite different and yet you manage to capture the essence of each place. Do you have first hand experience with most of the places you write about?

CD: I definitely prefer to write about places I have been. With A Gentle Habit, each story was based on actual neighbourhoods, towns, cities, and houses I have been in. That's not to say they are intact. For example, the property from "Heave" is a combination of my parent's retirement home in Leading Tickles, Newfoundland, the islands of the Georgian Bay, and a cool tiny home I saw on HGTV.

I guess that the writers who become authors are the ones who can observe the best; we're sensual pirates, stealing smells, pocketing visuals, replaying sounds, until they are ours.

ALU: Waubgeshig Rice has written about your writing: “Cherie Dimaline has strongly established herself as a gifted, essential voice in the vibrant realm of global Indigenous literature.” Does this positioning of your work make you feel a certain pressure to write about certain topics or write in a certain way?

CD: I am an individual writer, and author with a unique imagination and worlds of my own—like any author. But when I write, I cannot help but to approach everything from an Indigenous perspective, even when I am not conscious of it. Much the same way a Canadian writer, even if they have studied Japan and lived there for a summer will write a Japanese story with a Canadian perspective, because its who you are, you are the filter. I'm fine with this; in fact, I think I have an advantage because I am lucky enough to come from a people who collect, preserve and hand down stories.

There is pressure when I write about Indigenous people, communities, and histories. I feel a tremendous responsibility to be honourable and as truthful as I can be, which is difficult since our communities are diverse, vibrant, layered and, in many ways, esoteric to the people who breathe life into them. This is why I tend to naturally write about the community I am from—even when it's not immediately discernible by name or geographical indicators.

I write about the Metis, Anishinaabe half-breeds, and urban Indigenous communities with much more comfort because these are my worlds. That's not to say others are closed off to me and cannot show up in my stories, its just that I take much care when they do and try my hardest not to infer or superimpose my cultural nuances onto the characters' or settings' unique realities.

BC_Quoted_GentleHabit

ALU: We know this collection was influenced by the Charles Bukowski quote “In between the punctuating agonies, life is such a gentle habit”. Did the quote inspire you to turn your pen towards personal obsessions, or did you find the quote after you became interested in the idea of writing about quirky habits in a mundane world?

CD: Bukowski is one of my favourites. The man could be crass, vulgar and with a tendency toward misogynistic outbursts when the mood struck him, but his words are the poetry bricks would speak if given language. It is the curved bones that scaffold the alleys. It is the naked form of an undressed scream. When I came across the quote about life being a gentle habit, it was one of those moments when the written word just punches you in the gut and you have to sit down. Maybe you have a drink while you're sitting, maybe you just cry, but it does force you to be quiet for a moment. In that quiet moment I decided to try to write the truth of those words.

I am fascinated by the extraordinary ordinary, by the shuffle and cough of life that goes largely unnoticed even to those who own the feet or throat. We are so tied up in analyzing yesterday and anticipating tomorrow, waiting for something to come or change or explode, we tend to forget 'now'. Trying to write the moments that collect together to build a day became an obsessive endeavour. It brought me to those obsessions found in a group of extraordinarily ordinary lives.

 

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Thank you Cherie, and to Allison at Kegedonce Press for connecting us. Catch up on our entire summer of Book Club here.


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