First ‘Firsts’, Nerves & Board Games: A Gchat interview with Heather Jessup

What’s it like to be a first-time novelist? Poet? Short story writer? Non-fiction newbie? Is it like being the new kid in school? Strange, exciting but also terrifying? The old guard are revered and widely publicized for a reason: they’ve written a whole lot of books and they’ve been around the biblio-block. But what does it feel like to have that first book published?

Each month I’ll explore what it means to be an emerging writer. From the big guns to the small presses, I’ll review and profile new books by newly published authors. I’ll interview and discover what these writers are reading, writing, watching, listening to and maybe even eating–their diversity of influence. Writing is hard. Publishing is hard too. But new voices can be awesome and inspiring and surprising. I’ll explore the innovation and invigoration emerging writers are bringing to the Canadian literary table. I can only hope that something here will entice literary admirers to enter into new fulfilling reader-writer relationships that will last for a real long time.

My first ‘first’ is the lovely Heather Jessup. Her debut novel is the gorgeous The Lightning Field (Gaspereau Press, 2011). The story centres on Peter and Lucy Jacobs as they fall in love in post-war Toronto, marry, move to the suburbs, have children and go to work on the Avro Arrow where they are both struck by lightning respectively. In her beautiful prose she details their lives, from small moments that speak to big emotions, to the huge events that mark their story irrevocably. I got on the old Gchat on one of the last days of 2011 to chat with Heather about her novel, her nerves and board games.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Ms. Heather Jessup

Heather: Hi Dina, I’m here in my PJs with a coffee. Ready when you are.

Dina: I’m also in my PJs with an empty pot of tea. Thanks for agreeing to do this.

Heather: My pleasure!

Dina: You’re my first first-timer!

Heather: Firsts are the most fearful and the most exciting, don’t you think? And then to be a first first-timer. Thank you! I really am so glad someone is writing about this.

Dina: Firsts are exciting. And there’s also that element of putting so much importance or anxiety on ‘firsts’ that you can’t enjoy the good parts about it. Are you enjoying your first book publishing experience?

Heather: Yes. After initial anxieties, I have to say this has been a delightful experience. Last night [Dec. 29th] I got to read with Warren and Matthew Heiti in Sudbury. Warren’s first book of poetry, Hydrologos, also came out this year. The Fromagerie, where the reading was held, was packed with so many people from his life. The same happened to me in Vancouver: high school English and Drama teachers; elementary teachers; family; friends. So sometimes it can feel like the best part of a wedding (until death does one part with a book seems apt). But also the anxiety of putting something very private into the hands of the public–I found this extremely nerve-wracking, and I wasn’t entirely expecting to be so nervous.

Dina: That’s really interesting because as a writer you want people to see your work, but also once it’s out there, it can be judged. You’ve opened yourself up to the good and bad.

Heather: I felt when Andrew [Steeves] at Gaspereau said yes to my book that a lot of questions I hadn’t even thought of asking before came up in my mind. Why publish at all? Why do we do this? Why wouldn’t I just make this book by hand (as I’d done as an editor of Delirium Press with Kate Hall in Montreal, sewing books with friends on a living room floor) and just give them to the people I love?

I had always thought that publishing was the aim of writing, without really questioning it. But when I finally realized I was going to be published, it felt like I was sending a child off to their first day at school. I’d known I’d done what I could, I knew that the book’s teachers were incredible (Michael Winter, Jack Hodgins, Kate Stearns, Andrew Steeves, Lisa Moore), but there might be bullies in the playground. How would my book fair on the playground? I felt nervous.

Dina: (I go on a long tangent about Louis CK and his recent comedy special that he sold on his own website with no middle man for $5 per download.)

I like that there are people out there with that kind of DIY attitude, but in a way that actually works.

Heather: My friend and fellow writer Sarah Selecky just launched a downloadable writing course called Story Is a State of Mind. It’s totally DIY–no publisher, no middle-person. And the students go through the course at their own pace. I like that people can take an idea of what publishing is, what story-making is, and stretch it.

Dina:I think it’s great that people are seeing options instead of feeling hemmed in.

Heather: Jane Siberry did this with her music after her label didn’t produce an album. She just put the album up on her website with pay- what-you-can. I love this kind of thing, just seeing what they can do and who else in the large world is interested.

Dina: And obviously marketing has a lot to do with it. If you’re not going through the right channels, creating interesting ways to get people interested, then they won’t be interested. I just used the word “interested” a whole lot there.

Heather: Well, it’s interesting. It takes a bit of the power away from an industry and lets it be about individuals. Although you’re right that you have to be good at marketing–and that kind of work feels so completely antithetical to me than the work of being still and listening that writing requires. So I worry, too, that the more writers are expected to do the work of business, the less attending and stillness and reading and quiet they might have: the less birds they might notice, the less poetry. That aspect of the drive to DIY makes me a bit sad.

Dina: Do you think marketing/social media interferes with your writing life?

Heather: Yes. Absolutely.

Dina: It can be a great distraction.

Heather: For me I find it important to keep the space I write in quite separate from the space where I post to Facebook and check out people’s tweets and “like” things. I don’t have the internet at my house. My office feels so much more cozy and inviting since doing this. I have better conversations at breakfast. I take the time to cut flowers and put them on my desk. I feel so much more relaxed at my work within the space of my home, knowing that it is cleared of these distractions.

I think both are important (being a part of a broader writing community, and a broader community more generally), but I want my writing time to be as sacred as possible. Call me Romantic, but I think language deserves this. I even sometimes think that words think better with a pen and paper … if that makes sense.

Dina: Some might consider it a luxury to have sacred time, but also it’s good to take any opportunity to put some words together.

Heather: I think the idea of time taken to observe the world as some kind of “luxury” is a mistake. I actually think that taking the time to really taste our food, and really notice our surroundings can change the world.

Dina: Luxury is a dangerous word.

Heather: Yeah. I feel like a writer’s “job” is to attend to the world. And this requires time. And this time is not a luxury … it may well be a mental and environmental necessity. I can’t imagine my life without books. This is why, in the end, I realized that publishing wasn’t crazy–it was the beginning of a conversation. A conversation that can happen in a longer space and in a different time than a Twitter post opens up.

Dina: OK. Time to talk about the book. I had a lovely winter afternoon reading session with The Lightning Field. We had a moment. It was delightful.

This is the book. Its called The Lightning Field. It’s swell.

Heather: Oh. I’m so pleased you had a moment.

Dina: Your writing is beautiful, very poetic and it’s also very tender. There’s something akin to Richard Yates’ broken American dream, but much less hard, less bitter, grotesque. The broken Canadian dream is a bit different.

Heather: Hmmm … interesting. I guess like most things, Canadians tend to be more modest in their existence than Americans are (at least in the clichés of the two countries). Maybe Canadians are even modest when it comes to broken dreams too.

Dina: Not to say that there isn’t darkness in the book. As a writer you seem unafraid of light and dark which is admirable and also makes reading your work enjoyable. You need that balance.

Heather: Exactly. But I feel like sadness can come from unreasonable expectations, and then it can also come out of the blue. I guess I wanted the book to be about the everydayness that happens after these big moments take place that we don’t always have control over.

Dina: And also in contrast to the big event of the Avro Arrow project and the squelching of that project.

Heather: Yes. I said that even Canada’s broken dreams are modest, but that plane wasn’t modest. It really was an incredible feat of engineering that many men and women in Canada worked extremely hard to build. To have one’s government then shut something this exciting down; to have so many young, intelligent people unemployed. The blow of that must have felt tragic, but the dailiness of it would have been just trying to get by and that seems like the story to me. What the shopping list was like after the cancellation: no bananas, bulk cereal, powdered milk. The reality of these huge political decisions that are felt in the sphere of a kitchen, or felt by a kid.

Dina: If you Google ‘broken Canadian dream’ the first thing that pops up is about the Avro Arrow.

Heather: Hmmm … wow.

Dina: And now people will know that I Googled that. I’m not ashamed of my Google search history.

Heather: My Google search history would be crazy … man, that would be a fun thing to list: last ten searches.

Dina: That should be another column. The Google searches of authors.

Heather: Totally!

Dina: You have a familial connection to the project as well. Do you want to talk about that a little bit?

Heather: Sure. My grandpa worked on the Avro Arrow. When I was growing up we would go to plane shows and aerospace museums with him, and I totally did not understand why. My dad suggested I interview my grandpa about his work on the plane. I recorded an interview on a tiny cassette recorder I’d bought at Canadian Tire. I asked things like “did women work there?” “what did your office look like?” I even asked, “what did you do each day at work?” But really, that’s sort of a hard thing to answer. Work is cumulative, I guess.

Dina: But I think those kinds of simple, pointed questions give you a picture of what it was like. It might not be the intricacies, but it’s a sample.

Heather: Yes, and I think the questions weren’t really about the plane. They were about what a job like that would have looked like. I got most of the details about the plane from non-fiction books and technical manuals. From my grandpa, I just got a conversation about his life.

Dina: That sounds awesome. Did he enjoy talking about it with you?

Heather: I think so. I did! His last room had a painting of the plane up on the wall. He was proud of it–and being proud of something in one’s life is important, I guess, at any age.

Dina: The Lightning Field has been a book club pick. How does that feel? Was it some Oprah-level action?

Heather: Oh man. Oprah! With hand-printed letter-pressed covers. I can’t even imagine. No, I’ve spoken with a few book clubs about the book. It’s a very strange experience for both writers and readers to meet like that to talk about a book. Because the book isn’t actually in either the reader or the writer. It’s sort of in-between them. So how do you talk about something that exists in all of these different ways for different people?

Dina: OK. So, not Oprah-level. Any rock star-like moments/experiences as a first-timer?

Heather: Some of my favourite moments have been at readings with other writers that I might not have gotten to know or speak with otherwise. I read at the IFOA in Toronto, and Nancy Huston was in the greenroom with me, and I said “Do you get nervous before these sorts of things?” And she said “No, not any more. Is this your first book?” And I said, “Yes.” And she said, “Oh, god. Yes. I was nervous then. And they put you last? They should know better than to put a first-time writer last. It’s nerve-wracking the first time.” And I thought, ‘Oh wow. Okay, here is a practiced writer who has read all over the world, and won France’s most prestigious writing award leveling with me about stage fright.’ I was so grateful.

Also, my first reading from the book happened on Gabriola Island, and Shelagh Rogers interviewed me that night for CBC. She came into the cafe where it was taking place and said “I’m a bit nervous … are you?” And again, I kept thinking ‘pinch me’ this can’t be my real life. And all of these marvelously talented people are putting me at ease with their honesty and brilliance. I don’t know if that’s exactly rock star, but it was pretty incredible.

Dina: That is total rock star.

You’ve been a part of a lot of readings and events. Do you usually get nervous or is it just the big ones?

Heather: Oh … just once sec. Someone is asking about afternoon board games. Hang on one moment?

Hi again … Big readings … Yes. I get really nervous. I think this is something else that a lot of first-time writers don’t talk about, or maybe don’t experience? But I think mostly they don’t talk about this.

There’s a great essay in Jared Bland’s collection Finding The Words by Stacey May Fowles about the nerves of a first-time writer. What to say to people. How to act. How to be on stage. How to deal with both kindness and criticism. These are very different skills than sitting at your desk thinking up stories and words.

Okay … I should go play some board games.

Dina: Board games are important. Is there one you’re particularly good at?

Heather: Hmmm … I love anything that involves charades or drawing or humming or basically acting like an idiot. So Cranium? Pictionary? Balderdash? You?

Dina: I like all of those too. Also Clue, because it’s fun to solve fake murders. Apples to Apples. Oh and Trivial Pursuit. I love trivia.

Heather: It’s the best time of year for board games, when it’s snowy and rainy and wearing PJs long into the day is a socially acceptable practice. I love the holidays.

Thank you so much for this delightful conversation.

Dina: Thanks so much to you too. And I hope you win at all the board games, champ. More pajama time in 2012!

Heather: Yes! 2012: The Year of Pajamas!

Heather Jessup’s interview with Shelagh Rogers aired Monday January 16th and will replay on Saturday the 21st at 4:05 and 4:35 in Newfoundland and Labrador. Her book The Lightning Field is out there in the world and you can buy it wherever you buy books.

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