Writer’s Block: Theresa Kishkan

We chat with writer Theresa Kishkan about genre (it’s better not to let it rule you), her latest book, Euclid’s Orchard and Other Essays from Mother Tongue Press (it’s surprisingly “math-y” but don’t let that scare you), and her place on the northern part of the Sechelt Peninsula (it’s gorgeous). 


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All Lit Up: Which writers have influenced you or had the most impact on your own writing?Theresa Kishkan: I think of the thousands of writers I’ve read over the years, from my very first encounters with books at the Victoria Public Library on the corner of Yates and Blanshard in Victoria in the early 1960s (building still there but no longer a library, alas), as companions. Many of them are still fine company, the ones that tell good stories, know the plants on the walks I take them with, have theories about the stars, war, human nature, love, and have recipes to share, praise for the world, stamina for the hard parts of the walk, bring delicious dishes to the potluck picnics, often using herbs and vegetables they’ve grown themselves. They know weather, have detailed lists of historical events, could make bread from wild yeasts they’ve learned to culture, and most of them like wine. Homer, Virginia Woolf, Euripides, Herodotus, Pliny the Elder, Rebecca Solnit, John Berger, Jim Harrison (though he’d rather open another bottle of wine than walk), Jorie Graham, Sappho (and Anne Carson to translate her), Robert Lloyd Prager guiding me around Ireland, Robin Wall Kimmerer, John Evelyn, and hundreds of others. I admire the passionate amateurs, the writers who are interested in everything and who have healthy scepticism about experts. ALU: What do you enjoy reading?TK: I’ve always loved to read everything. I learned to read when I was five and I remember the excitement of learning to decode the world in that way. The newspapers my parents read voraciously each evening, commenting to each other as they exchanged sections, the little collection of books I could chose from on the windowsill in my grade one classroom when I’d finished my work (I still remember Blue Willow, by Doris Gates), the signs on the waterfront warning of currents and sewage… I remember riding my bike through Ross Bay Cemetery in Victoria and realizing that even the tombstones had texts. I’ve continued to read widely and value good writing but know that it’s not limited to what the culture generally considers to be literature. A well-written field guide, archaeological reports, a generous history of place-names, the Smithsonian ethnological reports, particular grammars and lexicons that I keep (and use) even though of course I could just hit the internet, cook-books that take me into the world of Middle Eastern flatbreads or South-Asian aromatics—these share pride of place on my shelves, along with novels and poetry and essays.
Theresa’s desk. In her message to us: “I’d hoped to tidy my desk but am in the middle of organizing my papers for a university archive so I suspect it won’t happen for ages. The tidy desk, I mean. And as my husband noted, ‘Your desk is never tidy. That’s not the way your work!’ So be it.” We understand completely.ALU: What are you working on now?TK: I’m nearly finished the first draft of a novella set in B.C. in the 1970s in which a young woman comes to terms with her brother’s death by drowning and also tries to create an alternate cartography of the province by using the texts of Ethel Wilson and Sheila Watson. I’m also working on several essays, including one that takes the structure of Bach’s Partita No. 2 for solo violin; for a non-musician, this is both exhilarating and extremely difficult but I’m drawn to the process of discovery and this certainly provides that. I’m interested in finding things out, about form, about myself, about new territory, so if an idea, a thread, presents itself, I follow. In some ways my work is all of a piece, an ongoing daybook, logbook; the writing-in-progress is part of that continuum.ALU: Describe your perfect writing day.TK: Mornings are best. A perfect writing day begins early, with a cup of dark coffee, a quiet house, maybe sweet birdsong out the open window. (My desk looks out to woods and sometimes elk or coyotes wander by.) I like to spend time simply writing without thinking too much about how things fit together, writing sections or blocks, and then later I sit by the woodstove with drafts and try to figure out the best sequence or pattern of the parts. And although I noted that mornings are best, I have to say that much of Euclid’s Orchard was written in the middle of the night during the Fall of 2016 when I was undergoing a series of medical tests and felt that I needed to use every bit of time I had available to me. And it was wonderful to come down to my desk in the small hours, the window open still but to owl calls and coyote song in the darkness, and find my way into the mysterious world of my grandmother’s life in Drumheller at the turn of the 20th century or else the possible past of my mother, whose unknown parents I was trying to locate, if only in language. ALU: If you wrote a memoir, what would it be called?TK: I did write a memoir! It’s called Mnemonic: A Book of Trees (Goose Lane Editions, 2011) and it uses trees as memory markers. I loved writing it. I intended it to be a series of individual essays but in fact there is a through-line, thanks to a perceptive editor, and the essays correspond with one another, talking among themselves about cultural and natural history, while I trace my own branches of family history and personal obsessions.
Theresa’s writing advice. (For small screens: “Jump in.”)ALU: What question do you wish someone would ask you about your book? Let us know, then answer it here.TK: “Do you think that it’s important to make distinctions between genres?” To which I answer, “No.”Evolutionary biology teaches us that diversity is the result of natural selection, adaptation, speciation, and so forth, and I think there are interesting parallels to the ecologies of literature. To my mind, the most robust writing in recent years is the work that is the result of hybridization, of genetic modification, of a kind of broad and lively intertextuality. What we call the essay is a good case in point. People used to use the term to mean a particular kind of writing, or maybe a handful of kinds: the personal or familiar essay; the analytical or argumentative essay, sometimes rooted in political or philosophical discourse; the narrative or plot-driven essay; and maybe the descriptive or lyrical essay, often used by those interested in exploring the natural world. But the word itself, from the Latin, meaning “to weigh”, through Old French, “to try, to attempt”, to its contemporary meaning, which Oxford tells us is “a literary composition on any subject”, though the definition of its verb form contains earlier echoes: “Try, test, attempt.” My first book of essays, Red Laredo Boots, was very much a trial piece, a series of attempts. And so was Phantom Limb. And maybe if I’m honest, that’s still my focus. If my own work has evolved, it’s because I’m far more willing to include aspects of every other kind of writing I’ve done. There are passages of poetry in Euclid’s Orchard, meditations on time and love, brief arias based on liturgy, investigations into botanical history, and imagined dialogue (which some teachers of what’s called Creative Non-Fiction would surely condemn because I will happily confess to making it up; I think of myself as an artist, not a journalist). I publish novels and novellas too and I’m sometimes asked how much of that writing is autobiographical. A hard question to answer. Everything. And nothing. I’m there, heart-deep in the narrative, but is the persona or main character me? We’re relatives, I think. We’ve done the same things, we love the same music, but one of us can translate Greek (and it’s not me), another is a painter (again, I wish….), one sings (sigh), and so on. Our lives cross-pollinate. The writing is hybrid. My first novella is almost a memoir but crosses a line, or perhaps two, and so it seemed proper to call it fiction. Another novella has a character who is part Roma and just after it was published, I had a phone call from a man who spoke to me in the language of the Romanichal, or English Roma people, because he assumed that Patrin was me. (She is, and she isn’t. We share many things, including people who come from the Beskydy Mountains in Moravia. Our grandmothers lived in the same community but in different houses.) And the strange thing was, I could understand most of what he was saying.I understand the importance of truth. But I also think there are interesting trails that lead to it, sometimes circuitously, and I want my work to include more of the world and not less of it. * * *
About Theresa:
 I live on the north end of the Sechelt Peninsula on eight and a half acres of forest and bluffs. My husband, the poet John Pass, and I build our house in the early 1980s. We knew nothing about carpentry but we had youth and energy on our side and we were willing to live in a tent while we framed and figured out windows. We had one child the summer we began to build and by the time we moved in to our semi-finished house, we were expecting another. Two years later the birth of a third child had John drawing plans and ordering lumber for a second addition to the house and then as the children grew, we added yet another wing.Next to our house, there’s a print shop where we keep a 19th century Chandler and Price letterpress and a small Adana platen press. This is High Ground Press, our small imprint for poetry broadsides, a few chapbooks, and increasingly wedding invitations and birth announcements as our children make their way in the world. As I write this, John is printing a keepsake to hand out at the launch for Euclid’s Orchard.The ghosts of three dogs haunt our land—the shaggy English Sheepdog X we arrived with and the two that followed: a Labrador Wolf cross; and the last, a Golden Retriever cross, who died in 2009 and who was her own cousin or niece or maybe aunt, in the way that these things happen. I still see them from time to time, out of a corner of my eye, moving across the patio, settling down for a nap in the woodshed, or brushing against my legs when I head out for a walk. (When one of my sons was about 4, he said he heard the first dog, who’d been dead for a year, barking underground.) Many cats over the years, with just one in residence now, the sweet Winter who came out of the woods in the coldest part of January and found his way to the rocking chair by the woodstove.I never had a day job, other than bread-making, laundry, maintaining a large vegetable garden, cooking, and all the other tasks associated with raising children. My husband taught at a community college and he told me once that his salary was enough for our family and one of us should be able to devote time to writing and why shouldn’t it be me. So this gift of time (though there wasn’t much of it when the children were small) as well as a house with space has meant that I’ve been able to have a room of my own and a regular writing life. I look out at those woods and a little wren house hangs from the eaves. Some winter evenings, six or eight small birds enter the opening to stay warm, though no bird has ever nested in it. When I turned fifty, I began to take voice lessons, continuing for six years, and if I have any regrets, one of them is that I didn’t begin to sing earlier. I love opera and art song and the challenge of learning how to read music. In some ways, singing is a trail not taken and I have glimpses of how it meanders through willows (“Down By The Salley Gardens”) and plane trees (“Ombra mai fu”, which I wrote about in Mnemonic: A Book of Trees) and try to dream my way into that alternate life. In that one, I’d not only sing arias but folksongs (I love the Child Ballads and the whole tribe of folksingers from Odetta to Dylan to Baez to Griffith) and maybe some blues.Although I live in a wild place, 20 minutes from a small village, and 3 hours from Vancouver, I love to visit cities when we travel. Paris and London. Lisbon. Venice. Quebec City. We like to find small apartments to rent and then use them as a base for explorations of museums, markets (having a kitchen to prepare all the food we buy is a bonus!), galleries, theatres. I remember finding a poster in a window in Paris and realizing that the concert it advertised was that very evening, in the beautiful Eglise Saint-Séverin, where we heard a countertenor sing Handel. The ancient churches of Paris have become our haunts for music and the way time does its trick with light and old stones. A life accumulates. You don’t notice it happening and then you do. You look around the table at Christmas and you see the children you watched grow up, and their children, who are lovely, and the familiar jokes, the food that everyone loves, the Chieftains CD playing over and over again (“The wren, the wren, the king of all birds…”). Is it the life I intended? I have no idea. But I cherish it beyond words.* * *Thanks so much to Theresa Kishkan for this candid and expressive interview, and to Mona at Mother Tongue Publishing for connecting us. Euclid’s Orchard and Other Essays is available now.