Friday, June 5, 2009

An Interview with Shawna Lemay

Susan Olding interviewed Shawna Lemay for her blog. Part of the interview is posted here. You can read the entire interview at Http://susanolding.com/site/interview-with-shawna-lemay/

Q: What inspired you to write this book? Why did you choose to use the essay form instead of poetry, since you have already written a great deal of ekphrastic poetry?

A: I’m fascinated by all the ways there are to write about art, to approach painting, to translate pictures, what we see, into words. So in many ways this was a natural progression, the move from poetry into prose. I had been reading a lot of travel writing beforehand, and I remember feeling very unsettled and wanting to reconcile this with the circumstances of my life, and also this desire to learn to be alone in my room, to sink into that, to learn how to be present in exactly the place I found myself. A good friend had travelled to Africa and had begun writing some excellent essays (A.S. Woudstra) and I started wondering what would it be like to write travel essays about home. Just looking at things with the fresh and curious eyes of a traveller.

As luck would have it, I had written one essay the summer before I began grad school at the U of A. I had signed up for Greg Hollingshead’s graduate seminar in creative writing fully intending to write short stories. Most of the people did write short stories but he was very open to the essay form, and encouraging. I remember him saying, ‘this is great material.’ The book really started in that class, then – my confidence in the possibility of writing a collection of essays came from that experience.

Q: What, if anything, do you feel distinguishes the personal essay as a genre?

A: I think it’s another possible mode of telling truths. The genre draws on other genres – poetry, fiction, journalism or reportage, and so for me, it’s the openness to these permutations, the possibilities inherent in the form, that distinguish it.

Q: What was the biggest challenge you encountered in completing this book?

A: There is some pressure, when you begin shopping your book around to publishers to revise the entire work, the single essays, into one larger book with a narrative arc. Originally the book had included essays on other subjects besides still life, and though I couldn’t envision the book as a single piece, I could see the sense in narrowing it to only those essays about still life. It was very difficult to excise those essays, but I’m glad I did, because one of them has turned into a much larger piece that I’ve been working on in the several years since.

Q: What was the greatest reward?

A: There have been many! Having written poetry for so long, my writing community is filled with wonderful poets – but the essays have also introduced me to others in the community that I might otherwise not have met.

I had long been interested in the idea of writing a short book, and had read an essay by Kristjana Gunnars on the topic in her book Stranger at the Door which solidified this yearning. There was a time in my life, when my daughter was young, that I sought out short books. Anything else seemed extravagant. So there was some pleasure in having accomplished this small feat without really setting out to do it.

Another reward is hearing so many people say that after they read the book they were inspired to paint or write, or head back to the studio...

Read the whole interview at Http://susanolding.com/site/interview-with-shawna-lemay/