Award-winning author and poet Thomas Trofimuk – most recently of The Elephant on Karlův Bridge (Thistledown Press) – answers our Proust questionnaire. He dreams up his perfect writing day (including a café where you can still get espresso for $1.50) shares his advice on the craft, and tells us all about the magic of an overpriced lavender scented candle.
All Lit Up: What do you enjoy reading?Thomas Trofimuk: Everything from fiction to nonfiction, poetry to store signs, stop signs to coffee cups, and graffiti to scribbles on cubicle walls. I subscribe to the New York Times and Washington Post, and regularly read The Guardian and the Globe & Mail. Mostly I like to read fiction that grabs me quickly – literary, genre, thrillers, even westerns. Once I’m hooked, I don’t mind digressions and loose ends. I also love fiction that breaks rules, or is quirky, or tries to do something in a new way. I wouldn’t say I enjoy all experimental fiction, because often it’s so oblique it’s unreadable. You have to have your eye on communicating, and entertaining, and experimenting all at once, or it can very quickly fail. It’s a juggling act that few can pull off. But the failures are fascinating in their own right. Here’s a list of six books I’m reading now, or am about to read in the coming weeks and months: Ordinary Monsters, by J. M. Miro; Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth, by Avi Loeb; Lorna Crozier’s Through the Garden: A Love Story (with Cats); Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941-1985; Gail Sidonie Šobat’s Lessons From The Greeks; and finally, re-reading Marquez’s Memories of My Melancholy Whores.All Lit Up: Do you have any rituals that you abide by when you’re writing?TT: I have a ritual of writing 1,500 words per day, every day, for three or four months when working on a new book. This helps me get a first draft onto the page. I like to light a candle, specifically, this overpriced lavender-scented candle from Anthropologie – when I write. That scent is reserved for writing. I used to pour a dram of whisky whenever I sat down, but wound up pouring out way more than I drank – I just forgot it was there and this is a terrible waste of good whisky.
Thomas Trofimuk’s workspace.
All Lit Up: What’s the most surprising thing about being a writer?TT: I thought being a writer was going to be romantic! I thought women would swoon (well, at least be impressed) when I told them I was a writer. I thought eventually I would wind up living in a quaint flat in Paris with a beautiful woman named Brooklyn, who would wake up every morning, make me coffee and tell me what a brilliant writer I was. None of this happened, and it’s not romantic at all! The reality is that it’s all about putting your bum in the chair and going to work on your story. Working on your craft. It’s hard work to walk through the world with writer’s eyes, with your sensibilities wide open, always looking for the possibility of a story, or a character, or a situation. You know you’re a writer if in the middle of a heated argument with your partner, she says something and the writer part of you pulls back and thinks – Damn, that’s a good line. I can use that in a story.Once, a couple years back, I was sitting around with my wife (whose name is not Brooklyn) and going on about how good reviews should be received in the same light as bad reviews, and that I wasn’t going to read any of the reviews of the new book I’d just released. “I’m just going to go to work on the next book,” I said. She looked at me and smiled and said: “You’re not that good.” Meaning, I wasn’t John Grisham or Margaret Atwood, or Michael Ondaatje. And she was right. You learn from reading the reviews (at the very least, you learn what one person thought of your book). You learn to be a better writer by going to book clubs and listening in. I can’t remember who said it, but it’s true: if you want to learn how to be a better writer, don’t hang out with other writers – you’ll just get drunk and get into trouble. No. Hang out with readers, listen to readers. Actually, I think it was me who said that – because I’ve done both. Ha!!
Thomas’s (borrowed) writing advice.
I never thought I was going to get rich from my writing, or make enough money to stop everything and just write. So it comes as no surprise that I am not rich and that I have a day job. You have to love writing, all of it: getting a first draft out, revising, rewriting, editing, getting a fiftieth draft out, getting a seventy-fourth draft out, and then working with an editor. You can’t be in it for money or fame. If that’s your goal, find something else to do. But if you love playing with words and sentences, and stories intrigue you, and the rhythm of prose is like music, then you’re good to go. It has to be a love affair.I think my biggest surprise about being a writer was that I loved writing as much as I do.All Lit Up: What are you working on now?
TT: I’m working on promoting the new novel The Elephant on Karlův Bridge (Much gratitude to Thistledown Press for loving this book as much as I do) But, of course you mean what am I working on right now? Well, I just sent my agent a new novel called The Saudade. I’m still tinkering a bit (it’s hard to let go). It’s set at the cusp of the COVID-19 pandemic, and is about a man who has a terrible fear of death, and goes on vacation to Macon, France with his wife. She tells stories to help him deal with his anxiety around death, and so as they drink a bottle of wine in a café, in the middle of a very hot day, she tells her husband a convoluted story. Near the end of her story he looks away for a few moments and when he looks up and across the table, his wife is gone. He waits in the café until it closes, thinking she is playing a joke, pranking him, but she does not show up. He uses the story she was telling when she disappeared as a way to find her – looking for clues inside her story – hoping desperately that he’s following the right clues to find his wife.
Right now, (this morning) I’m working on a new novel called OUM and I’m uncertain about it. It does not have the needed momentum yet. I’m playing with characters, introducing myself – seeing if anyone is going to be trouble down the road, and testing the waters of genre writing. Though, I doubt this will be a traditional speculative fiction novel. As a kid, I loved reading speculative fiction. So this novel is a kind of return to an old love.
All Lit Up: Describe your perfect writing day.TT: A perfect writing day for me would start at 5 am. I would get up, feed the cat, make a jumbo French press of coffee, light that ridiculously over-priced Anthropologie candle, and sit down to write. There’s snow falling past the window and this makes me happy. I am always happy when it is snowing. I might play music, all classical or ambient – nothing with lyrics. And then I will be lost for a few hours – focused and wandering around in my story. Seeing what’s going to happen next. Around 10 a.m., I’ll sweep the snow off the car, drive to Little Italy, and enter a café called La Dolce Vita (yes, like the Fellini film), where the espresso is fantastic and only $1.50. After one espresso, I will open my laptop, or pull out the printed pages, of what I wrote earlier. I’ll make some changes, tidy it up a bit, then order another espresso. The snow falling and the massive elms in the park across from the café might be a distraction. And I might be tempted to keep writing, but it’s important to quit writing for the day when things are going good.And then as I am crawling into bed, I am thinking about any problems in the book that might need solving, or I am making a mental list of my characters and what they want, who they love, and so on – to see if my unconscious notices any connections I’ve missed. Often, I will dream the solution to a problem I’m having with a story-line or a character. The unconscious is a brilliant place to sort things out.All Lit Up: Have you experienced writer’s block? What did you do about it?TT: I don’t believe in writer’s block. Never had it. I always have words and story ideas floating around in my head – sometimes those voices in my head worry me! HA!!Thank you to All Lit Up for the opportunity to be part of this blog. I love this concept, and I loved it that I got to choose the questions. Is this where I talk about my cat? All writers should have cats, so it seems natural that I should talk about my cat. Prada (we didn’t name her – she arrived with this name) is 21 years old and is slowing down in her old age. We feed her whatever she wants, whenever she wants because she’s so old – the internet says (so it must be true) she’s the equivalent of 100 years old in human years. I hope that if by some miracle, I live that long, I will get to eat whatever I want, whenever I want.(Note from ALU: Thank YOU, Thomas!)This interview has been edited and condensed.
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Thomas Trofimuk is the author of The 52nd Poem, which won the 2003 City of Edmonton Book Prize and the Georges Bugnet Award for Novel. Also a poet, playwright and author of short stories, Thomas is a founding member of the Edmonton Stroll of Poets and a Founding Father of the Raving Poets movement. Thomas lives in Edmonton.