The Artisanal Writer – Interview with Lucy Black
Author of Stella’s Carpet (and other books) talks to Sabyasachi Nag about her craft and artisanal habits.
“The Marzipan Fruit Basket”, your debut collection, includes 24 stories. How did you go about building this collection? What was your process in deciding what stories belonged to the collection and stories that did not?
Writing is a bit of a compulsion for me, and I had amassed quite a number of short stories. Of the twenty-four stories in the collection, fourteen had been previously published. I was fortunate to have a writing mentor (through the Humber School of Writing), and she encouraged me to pull together a collection for publication. As I was sorting through the body of work, I realized that many of the pieces shared a strong sense of dislocation. I culled the selection to include only those pieces that exposed an underlying element of disturbance or disharmony as the female characters dealt with emotionally significant life changes, including such things as abuse, loss, loneliness, poverty, love, cruelty, pain or grief. Invoking closure has always been a challenge for me as a writer, and in these pieces, I have attempted to present moments in a life only, with a deliberate avoidance of an imposed coda or forced resolution. That then became my initial criteria for selecting pieces. The secondary consideration was whether or not the pieces invited the reader to be reflective and/or contributed in some small way to an understanding of female agency.
“Eleanor Courtown” is a historical novel stretching across continents; it starts in Ireland and stretches into Canada in the nineteenth century. What were your considerations about Eleanor’s voice? What was your process for the research?
I love nineteenth-century British fiction and Eleanor Courtown was intentionally structured to replicate a Novel of Manners. Eleanor’s voice, and indeed the voices of other key characters, were very carefully constructed by utilizing vocabulary and expressions taken from Austen, Gaskell, Dickens and the Brontes, as well as the local vernaculars of the period. I created lists of words, popular sayings, and the phrasing of sentences, in order to reference these things as I refined the language and use of narrative in the novel. I also surrounded myself with primary research sources, such as Godey’s Book for Ladies, and diaries and letters from the period to ensure that the dialogue, the manner of speaking and writing became credible enough for the reader to accept as authentic. I believe that the suspension of disbelief is critical in a work of historical fiction. I worked very hard to ensure that the language was consistent for each character throughout the book, but distinct from the other characters. Dr. Stewart, for example, consistently uses the word “no” for both “no and not.” It is his linguistic signature, if you will. Each of the characters has something distinct in their manner of speech.
In her review of “Stella’s Carpet” Noor Ferdous says the short chapters seemed like “snippets”, sometimes subverting chronological linearity, sometimes offering no backstory. How much of the structural choices are a direct result of the characters’ mental state? Can you talk a bit about the key considerations that drove this structure?
I intended for the mini chapters to be reflective of memory, because each of the characters relies on memory. And our memories don’t often come to us in tidy linear packages. Rather, they seem to appear randomly, in flashes and snatches, sometimes fulsomely and sometimes in small fragments. The other reason for utilizing this structure was that I wanted there to be frequent breaks in the text. Some of the material is hard. I tried not to be too graphic or exploitive, but for those people who read between the lines, some of the scenes will be painful. I have intended to provide some “breathing space” between any strong emotional bits. I hope that by the time the reader completes the first twenty pages or so, they will ease into the narrative syncopation as something natural and not frustrating. I want to add how grateful I was to Chris Needham at Now or Never Publishing who took a risk on the format.
What specific incident incited/inspired your last piece of work?
My parents were both in Europe during WWII and each experienced horrific things. My father was in Poland when the Russians invaded and was taken prisoner and sent to a work camp. My mother was in Holland during the occupation and her father was a member of the Dutch resistance. The deprivation and suffering my parents endured was compounded by the horrors taking place all around them. I grew up listening to their stories and was also witness to the lingering effects of their experiences – behaviours like hoarding food, keeping secrets, not trusting banks and securing the house. Fast forward many years to my work as an educator, in a town that was a port of entry for newcomers. Many of the students arriving from war-torn countries and refugee camps were exhibiting signs of trauma, in addition to the usual challenges of learning a new language and integrating into a new community. I recognized in them and in their families, the same types of fears and issues that were so familiar to me. I realized that intergenerational trauma was far more prevalent than I had previously understood. I wanted to help to draw attention to that as a way of bearing witness to those individuals whose lives had been so deeply traumatized.
In pushing your work beyond your first title what were you most conscious of? What were/are you trying to achieve?
I am surrounded by incredibly creative and dynamic and interesting people, and every one of them has a million little stories. I write to bear witness to lives lived, to people I have known and cared for, and to situations that warrant documenting. I know that my own life, although not wildly exciting or noteworthy, has been, in its own way, a life of privilege. I want to use what agency I have to give voice to those stories that should be told. My collection of short stories focuses on aspects of female dislocation – women who are struggling with new realities, lack of agency and grief. Eleanor Courtown documents the many illnesses that befell women in the nineteenth-century, in addition to highlighting the life of a young widow who is unprotected and is thus susceptible to horrific abuse by a detestable second husband. Stella’s Carpet is a story about intergenerational trauma and healing. These are all stories that I believe are worth telling. I think there is something in each of these works to inform readers and provoke reflection, in addition to providing a type of entertainment.
Would you consider your writing practice as an interdependent activity, something that is sustained by contributions from people around you?
The research, pre-thinking and problem-solving processes that are a large part of my writing tend to be interdependent in nature. I have a small handful of trusted friends that I let in to that part of my writing journey. My partner is a terrific supporter and travels with me on research trips and problem-solving forays. But when it comes to actually writing, the first several drafts tend to be an entirely solitary activity. It’s important to me to get the story out, and to rough in, if you will, the story’s trajectory. But once I’m comfortable with how the drafts are shaping up, I reach out to my writing group, my author friends, and a very close intimate, who generously provide feedback according to the questions I pose. I have learned that it’s important to ask for “specific” feedback from early readers. It’s not helpful to my work to have someone critique the plotline or tension, for instance, when what I’m focussed on is characterization or setting. I have also learned that it is far easier on relationships to keep such discussions very tightly focussed. Having a carefully developed network of individuals who provide explicit commentary strengthens my writing immeasurably.
Can you reflect on any (inescapable) social contexts that might have been inspiring or generative (or conversely, harmful, or inhibitive) to your writing practice at some point?
I belonged to a writing group for several years. We met and workshopped our writing regularly. I found the conversation, the companionship, and the feedback very invigorating and empowering. Gradually, over time however, one of the writers became increasingly competitive and her commentary became quite cutting and harsh. No one felt comfortable challenging her and she began to savage my work and erode my confidence. As a result, I eventually quit the group and stopped writing altogether for several years. So, while the power of the group to support my writing was initially valuable, it also had the converse destructive effect of creating uncertainty about my abilities and the value of my contributions. The group I now belong to is very focussed on providing specific feedback based upon the questions we raise about our own submissions. I think this is very helpful. We are also writers of comparable commitment and skill, with a great deal of respect and enthusiasm for each other’s work. This is crucial. Writing groups can be powerful but they can also be destructive and/or a pooling of ignorance. It is important to build a support network that shares a commitment to the work, rejoices in the successes of each member and strives collectively to make each writer stronger.
Are you conscious about developing a distinctive voice or a narrative style through your work?
The voice and narrative for each one of my writing projects evolves as the characters become more three-dimensional and as they begin to drive the work. By this I mean that the decisions I make about what happens next, how things unfold, or how people communicate, becomes a judgement using my characters as a sort of litmus paper. I find myself asking questions like, “how would Stella really feel?” or “what would Eleanor say?” or “what was true for the period?” The answers to such things, inform the trajectory and build a character-driven richness that scaffolds, for me, the actual writing process. Often when I reference how characters drive my work, people imagine that I have these fictitious beings walking around inside my head whispering to me. And although sometimes it actually does feel that way, the truth is that the construction of narrative and voice is a much more considered and carefully developed production. A contributing factor to my ability to do this is the fact that I am an inveterate eavesdropper. I store dialect, fragments of conversation, a turn of phrase, and colloquialisms like precious finds. I draw upon these scribbled notes when I am searching for voice.
How do you become conscious of the craft in your work?
I am not one of those gifted writers who can ink out pristine lines, page after page, in a single draft. My first drafts are over-written and utterly inelegant. I recently had a short story accepted by a magazine which was particularly thrilling because I had been writing, editing, deleting and re-writing that same piece for NINE years. Similarly, each of my books (three published and one to be released Fall 2023) underwent multiple drafts over a period of years. In addition to the daily edits and tweaks I make as I review the previous day’s writing, I typically write 3 or 4 initial drafts. (One of these drafts will concentrate entirely on the character’s use of language and their particular lexicon.) Then I share the work with my trusted network and incorporate their suggestions into another 3 or 4 drafts. I also hire a story editor to check the trajectory, the tension, and the character development. Another 1 or 2 drafts follow this process. Finally, I hire a copy editor who combs through the manuscript to check formatting, facts, dates, grammar, punctuation and spelling. A completed FINAL draft often brings me to a total of anywhere from 10-15 complete drafts.
What is your definition of a successful piece of writing? Who decides that?
Samuel Johnson is credited with having said, a writer begins a story – the reader finishes it. For me, writing success takes place when something I have written resonates in a meaningful way with a reader. I am always delighted and amused to be approached by a friend who assures me that they KNOW exactly who I was writing about when I wrote a particular character. They insist that character A is an exact depiction of individual A in their life, or mine, when in reality, I had no idea of ever having done such a thing. My characters are constructions and are never based upon real people. But the reason such comments are delightful to me, is because I take it to mean that the characters appeared to be full-blooded creatures. And I view that as a form of success. Anytime my writing encourages someone to reflect upon an important issue or situation, I feel a kind of vindication. Writing can often be a solitary and discouraging pursuit. Rejection from journals and publishers can be punishing. So, I take my wins where I can, and view my small success in terms of the small things. Comments from readers about how the work has resonated with them are truly meaningful to me.
Lucy E.M. Black is the author of The Marzipan Fruit Basket, a collection of short stories (Inanna Publications, 2017) and Eleanor Courtown, a work of historical fiction (Seraphim Editions, 2017). Her novel, Stella’s Carpet (Now or Never Publishing, 2021) is a study of intergenerational trauma. The Brickworks (Now or Never Publishing) will be released in Fall 2023. Her award-winning short stories have been published in Britain, Ireland, USA and Canada in literary journals and magazines including Cyphers Magazine, the Hawai’i Review, The Antigonish Review and others. She is a dynamic workshop presenter, experienced interviewer and freelance writer. She lives with her partner in the small lakeside town of Port Perry, Ontario, the traditional territory of the Mississaugas of Scugog Island, First Nations.