Q&A with Shari Lapeña

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

When I started Things Go Flying, I had no idea where I was going with it. I just sat down one day and started writing about this depressed, middle-aged character, afraid of death. But I knew a man whose mother was a medium, and he could remember, as a kid, things flying around the room, and having to duck. I loved that as a background for my character, but I had no idea how it would play out. In fact, I called the book my “plotless wonder” for a long time, and it was amazing to me how it all came together in the end. Since then, I’ve had a lot of respect for the unconscious mind.

I was well into the book when I discovered that Harold wasn't afraid of death, but of life going on forever, because he’d had all these ghosts growing up. A depressed person doesn’t want to hear that there is no out, ever, so Harold had a real problem. I got the idea of his seeing a philosopher to help him with this. I had a lot of fun with that. How are we to find meaning in this world, and what, in this day and age, are we to make of the human soul?

What was the creative process like for you?

I wanted to write a novel, so I sat down one day and started, with no idea what I was going to write about, or the kind of book it would be. It’s funny now that I think about it, because I’m a planner — I plan everything, but in my writing I don’t plan much at all.

I started writing Things Go Flying when I was home with two young children. I wrote it in two-hour stints, during their nap time. It may have contributed to the novel's fast-moving feeling — I had to get my thousand words done before the baby awoke! I didn’t have a lot of time to sit and think about it, but maybe that was a liberating thing for a first-time writer.

I had the draft done in about a year. Then I did the Humber School for Writers correspondence program with David Adams Richards as a mentor. I got an agent right off the bat, which I realize was really lucky. It took a year to sell the book. Brindle & Glass got me Lynn Coady as an editor. She is talented and committed, and has a wonderful gift for comic writing.

I tend to write the first draft quickly. That’s the part I enjoy most. I love to be in a scene that takes off and surprises me. I don’t find rewrites to be as much fun. It’s more analytical, more like work rather than play. Of course, as more of an organic writer, I do spend a lot of time in rewrites.

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

I was a huge Nancy Drew fan, and I loved pony books. I loved to escape into the world of whatever I was reading. I read voluminously as a kid, and a lot of stuff I read was way over my head — like Camus. I’ve always loved those big thick books like Dr. Zhivago that take on the scope of history. I could never write anything like that, so I really admire anyone who can.

I still love to escape into a book, so I tend to prefer books with a strong narrative point of view. I don’t like writing that is self-conscious, precious, or affected. There is nothing wrong with being entertaining, either. I suspect that comic writing is not valued in Canada as highly as it is in the UK for example, or in the US. We seem to like our Canadian literature to be serious.

What are you reading right now?

Robert Hough’s The Final Confession of Mable Stark. A very good book. I don’t have time to read nearly as much as I would like, which I think is a universal problem these days—not enough leisure time for reading.

How and where do you write?

I have a very small, wiggly desk I got at IKEA and it sits in front of a window in my bedroom. It has a computer monitor on it, there’s room for a cup of coffee and not much else. I used to work in the basement, but the kids took that over as a play room. I’m better in the morning, but to be honest, I’ve had to change my writing schedule around constantly depending on what my kids were doing, so although I’m best in the morning, with a clear four hours of time, I can also write in the afternoon in short chunks if I have to. I’m no good at night though. And I have to go weeks at a time for school holidays when I don’t write at all, but then I get right back to it when I can. I’m very disciplined. It helps that I enjoy it, and that I write fun books. I often wonder if I’d enjoy it if I wrote a really depressing book. I might try it to find out.

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

I don’t write with an audience in mind. I start with an idea, and it goes where it goes, and if I’m enjoying it, the book just takes off. I’ve written the first draft of a second novel, and I started out with the idea of an economist who loses her mind and tries to find the mathematical equation for happiness, but her husband turned out to be a frustrated poet, and he was far more interesting, so it’s more his story. It’s tentatively titled The Poets’ Preservation Society.

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

That’s a tough one. I guess I’d say Dennis Bock, because he was the first one to ever read any of Things Go Flying and he basically told me to come out of the closet. I was writing secretly at home, and he was writer-in-residence at the Toronto Public Library. I submitted the first chapter — I was very nervous about it — but he was very positive about my writing, so I started to admit to myself that I could be a writer, and that’s probably the most important thing.

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

Characters that have really stuck with me—one would be Nomi, in Miriam Toews’ A Complicated Kindness. Also Chip, in Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, was absolutely brilliant. With both of those characters you get very deep into their point of view, and although both are handled with great humour, you get the darker side too.

I tend to not focus so much on the protagonist of what I’m reading, but more on the book as a whole, whether it really engaged me. I think Nick Hornby is very good — very clever and funny and his dialogue is bang on.

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

Things Go Flying is comic, but it does raise some important questions. How are we to find meaning in our lives? And what if life goes on forever? Most of us don’t know what happens after that big leap, if anything. But there’s really no way to find out either, until the time comes. In my story, Harold “knows” life goes on indefinitely—he just doesn’t know why.

I’m interested in exploring that question because as I get older, I’m having to face the idea of mortality. I think it’s important to be open to the mysteries of life. We can’t know everything. I guess I’m a bit like Harold — an incrementalist. (If that’s a real word. If it isn’t it should be.) Small changes can have tremendous results over time—with the environment, for instance. But there’s that caveat that you can’t do it alone. Sometimes you feel you’re the size of a bug in an ever-expanding universe.

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