This week Nicole Dixon will be launching her debut short story collection, High-Water Mark in Halifax at The Company House. The Porcupine’s Quill was fortunate to steal a little bit of time with this author to ask her a few questions about her new collection. Have a read below to get Nicole’s thoughts on Canadian literature, the short story, and the ups and downs of being a writer.
The Porcupine’s Quill: What was your favourite book growing up? Do you have fond bookish memories associated with it?
Nicole Dixon: I couldn’t name one particular book, but I loved Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books and pretty well everything by Gordon Korman and Judy Blume. They were all books about regular, present-day kids trying to figure shit out while still being kids. No wizards or vampires, no far-away, historic, war-torn settings. Must be why I read and write what I do now—there’s enough drama and conflict in all of our present-day lives; sadly we don’t see enough of it in today’s (young adult and adult) fiction.
PQ: Who is your literary idol? Why? (If you don’t have one, why not?)
ND: Alice Munro because so much of her success is unlikely: a Canadian pre-feminist era wife and mother, writing short stories about women’s desires. Yet she’s won every award, is published in The New Yorker and is loved and respected by critics, writers and readers. And, of course, she writes fantastic short stories. She’s our best living writer and she earned this reputation by writing short stories.
PQ: What is your favourite work by Alice Munro? What struck you about it when you read it for the first time?
ND: There’s no way I could just choose one book or story. The Love of a Good Woman and Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage are my top two—I always call them her Rubber Soul and Revolver. There’s a confidence and maturity in her writing in these books that’s in the other ones, but it’s as if she’s reached near perfection in the stories in these two books (esp. with “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” “The Children Stay,” and “Jakarta.”) But, I also love, well, pretty well everything by her: “Differently,” “Miles City, Montana,” “Chance,” “Soon” and “Silence” in Runaway…). Jonathan Franzen nails it in his (amazing and absolutely accurate) review of Runaway in The New York Times. On how Munro seemingly repeats the same story in all her stories, he writes: “The same elements recur and recur…. What makes Munro’s growth as an artist so crisply and breathtakingly visible … is precisely the familiarity of her materials. Look what she can do with nothing but her own small story; the more she returns to it, the more she finds.”
What struck me about Munro the first time, and every time, is exactly what strikes Franzen: “Munro’s work is all about storytelling pleasure,” and “Her subject is people. People people people.” Note: not history lessons and quirky gimmicks. Munro tells straightforward, insightful stories about people. She reveals truths; she sees inside people’s hearts. If only we Canadians more often wrote like Munro. If only Canadian publishers published more writers like Munro.
PQ: If you had to sum up High-Water Mark in just a couple sentences, what would you say?
ND: Though the ten stories in High-Water Mark vary widely in voice, character and setting, all the stories consist of contemporary characters examining then accepting, or rejecting the expectations placed on them by themselves, other characters or their society. Each story deals with the consequences, both positive and negative, of these characters’ choices and how those choices and consequences affect and change their relationships and day-to-day lives.
PQ: What would you say inspired you to write High-Water Mark?
ND: I started writing the stories of what became High-Water Mark during my graduate creative writing class that was part of my MA at the University of Windsor. Our prof encouraged us to write in multiple genres; I started the MA thinking I’d complete a thesis of poems and ended up writing a thesis of short stories. I realized I was trying to squeeze a story into each of my poems, so figured I should just write stories.
During my MA I fell in love with short stories—both reading and writing them. Once I was done my MA and left to write on my own, the momentum I’d built up in studying the genre so closely made it easy to stick with the genre.
As for themes and subject matter and characters, I simply write stories I want to read. I have a hard time finding stories about contemporary, active women, especially written by Canadian authors. There’s a dearth of these stories in Canada; one goal of my writing is to fill that void.
PQ: Are there plans for a future poetry collection, or have you gotten hooked on prose never to look back?
ND: I’m pretty well hooked on prose. I’m working on a novel right now (which expands on some of the characters and settings in High-Water Mark). I just don’t get the same satisfaction writing poetry that I do prose. I do have a vague idea to write a poetic accompaniment to the Bras d’Or Collection, which is an archive of Cape Breton historical ephemera I’m currently organizing and digitizing at CBU. But every time I try to write a poem, I seem to not remember how to do it. I have to relearn poetry. I’ve been reading it a lot more lately, but I usually only last a couple of poems before I pick up a story collection or novel.
PQ: Do you have a writing routine? A time of day, particular place, snack, or soundtrack that you prefer to write in/with? Why?
ND: When I was self-employed/working from home/a student, I pretty well wrote Monday to Friday mornings. I really miss those days (though not the low income). We’d turn off the phone and internet and wouldn’t talk to each other till after 12. I’d get up, have breakfast, make a cappuccino, go to my office and close the door. Some days I’d get right to it; other days I’d have to wait for my brain to wake up, so I’d knit or doodle.
Now that I’m gainfully employed (at Cape Breton University as eResources librarian), I have to squeeze my writing in around my schedule, which often means just writing Monday mornings. I’m working on a novel; writing once a week makes the process glacially and painfully slow. I have to relearn how to write at night. I used to—how did I do it?
I write longhand, then type those written drafts onto my laptop. I go back and forth (i.e., I don’t wait to have a completed written draft before I type). I only sometimes listen to music when I write—especially in the summer when the lawnmowers are going. Then I slap on my noise-cancelling headphones and play something instrumental, which ranges from Bach to Chopin to the Waking Life soundtrack to Zoë Keating to Sigur Rós.
PQ: Who is the lucky first reader of your manuscripts?
ND: Darryl Whetter, my partner. I’m also his lucky first reader.
PQ: What do you love most about writing?
ND: Creating worlds and (active) characters to inhabit them. Writing dialogue. Writing funny and sad in the same story or scene. Writing sex. Making connections and comparisons through metaphor. Writing the stories I want to read but can rarely find in bookstores or libraries. Editing—carving out the hidden story from the rough draft. And, the physicality of writing: handwriting first drafts, then typing up those drafts.
PQ: What is the most challenging part of being a writer?
ND: Coming up with new ideas and avoiding cliché. Keeping motivated, especially knowing so many agents, publishers (except PQL!) and grant juries would rather I was writing a novel set in some war-torn and/or rural past or has some quirky gimmick. Staring at the blank page. Avoiding distractions. Fighting the demons that say, “what’s the point?” The glacial pace of everything that has to do with writing: the writing itself, hearing from editors, publishing, etc. The waiting.
Many thanks to Nicole Dixon for agreeing to answer my questions! Stay tuned for my fun interviews and insights here at PQL! Until next time … Porcupette out!