Q&A with Julie Paul

This is your first foray into fiction. How did you come up with the idea for this work?

The stories were written before I actually realized that they had some sort of thematic link. I’ve been writing short stories for years, always with the idea of creating a collection, but I never set out to write “about” something in particular. Generally, I begin a story with a character and his or her problem. Without a problem, there isn’t much of a story.

What was the creative process like for you?

Writing is fun for me, no matter what stage I’m at. Otherwise, I don’t think I’d still be doing it. I love trying to get the exact word, fitting the pieces together, honing stories until they pack the most punch. I enjoy stretching the language. I sometimes call writing a sort of affliction; if I don’t write, I don’t feel so good.

The “oldest” story in the collection was started in 2002. Normally a story takes a couple of years from inception to being ready to send out for publication. This includes leaving it to mellow or ferment. After many months, you can tell what parts of it stink. Occasionally there are “gift” stories that come and don’t need a lot of revision, but those are rare. And a cause for celebration when they do come!

Who did you read as a kid, and how did these first forays into reading fiction affect your sensibilities as a writer?

I read whatever I could find; the one-room library in our village was a familiar place for me. I read a Nancy Drew a day in the summers, at the cottage; old Trixie Beldens and Bobbsey Twins of my mother’s, Judy Blume, the usual suspects.

One book that affected me deeply was a book by Madeline L’Engle, called Camilla. Strangely, it’s one from a romance series she wrote, and not in print any longer. I recently re-read it, and I still love it. It’s like a gentler Catcher in the Rye with a female protagonist. Its New York setting was so completely foreign to me in my Canadian village of 800. I was given a new way of seeing the world, and an escape from rural Ontario.

As a teenager I was drawn to short stories. I still remember that classic story by Carl Stephenson, “Leiningen Versus the Ants.” I read it in Grade Nine, at the same school my father read it, when he was in the same grade. “Pell-mell the rabble swarmed…” A fierce old plot-driven story that hooked me. And I was deeply influenced by Mavis Gallant and Alice Munro, but I didn’t write much fiction until later on. I also read and wrote a lot of poetry. Most of my poetry was rather maudlin, but that’s a necessary part of growing up. I also loved song lyrics, and wrote my favourite poems and lyrics on my window’s vinyl roller blinds—everything from The Smiths to William Carlos Williams.

What are you reading right now?

I’m reading The Poisonwood Bible right now, because I’m looking at books with multiple POV. I’m writing a novel that has more than one voice telling the story. I’m also reading TC Boyle’s collection “Tooth and Claw.” He’s one of my favourite story writers: his premises are so fraught with tension and possibility.

How and where do you write?

I write at home, when it’s quiet, and occasionally at coffee shops. I also write once a month with one of my writing groups. I like doing this: writing in the same space with other writers, and then reading our fresh work aloud. I’ve also written a lot on weekend retreats to Salt Spring Island with a group of other women who write. A fantastic, fruitful and flavourful process. We always have the best food and books to sustain us.

I don’t have a dedicated office space, but we’re moving soon and that will be an essential part of our new home. I like being at home, though, being comfortable and close to my books and computer. Although email is a bad distraction.

Do you write with a certain audience in mind? Who is your “ideal reader”?

I write with myself as my audience, and ask myself this basic question: what kind of story would I like to read? My husband is the first reader of most of my work, and he calls himself “the average reader.” If it passes his inspection, then I carry on, knowing I’m on the right track. My ideal reader would be someone who loves character-driven short fiction, someone who can appreciate the multiple possibilities a story’s ending can open up.

Name one person in your life who profoundly influenced your work, and why did you choose this person?

My daughter, because mothering has played a huge part in my stories, and without having had this experience, I could never have written about families in quite the same way. Of course, having a child has influenced my work in other ways: the way I work is dictated by school pick-up times and PD days and lunches. But it’s made me work harder, in a more focused way, when I do have writing time.

And since I can’t keep to the instructions, I’d have to say two of my high school teachers: Mrs. Munroe and Mrs. Mason, who encouraged my love of writing and reading in the last years of high school.

Who is your favourite protagonist in a work of fiction or poetry, and why?

I can’t limit myself to only one.

Rose in “The Beggar Maid” by Alice Munro. Lionel Essrog in Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem. Ruthie in Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. Max in the story “Green Fluorescent Protein” by Neil Smith. The tree in The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. Catherine in Wuthering Heights. Rhoda in the Rhoda stories by Ellen Gilchrist. Almost everyone in Sharon Olds’ poetry. And so on…

In your own work, which character are you most attached to, and why?

In my collection, I am attached to Maddy in “Staking the Delphiniums,” because she is such a strong woman and yet caught in a tricky, human situation. I also really sympathize with Leah, in the story “False Spring,” who displays similar characteristics. Interestingly, both of them have been unfaithful to their partners… And then there’s Drew, in “Antidote,” whose wife has just left him for their house painter. I think I like all my characters, especially at their crisis points.

Tell us a little about the overarching theme of your work, and why you felt compelled to explore it.

All the stories deal with jealousy in some form. It felt compelled to come through me, since I didn’t even know this was what I was exploring until I took a step back and scanned the stories as a group. But I think jealousy is something we don’t talk about much, and it can be quite destructive. It is also a very human emotion. I tend to think of myself as someone who isn’t very jealous, but I think we’re all capable of it in the right (or wrong) situation.

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