Busy Women on Writing Books
This is the eighth instalment in a new interview series on writing, profiling women writers who’ve written and published books while also working, parenting, volunteering, caring for family, attending school, and ALL OF THE THINGS.
I'm pleased to introduce you to Canadian author, Carrianne Leung.
Carrianne Leung is a fiction writer and educator. She holds a Ph.D. in Sociology and Equity Studies from OISE/University of Toronto. Her debut novel, The Wondrous Woo, published by Inanna Publications was shortlisted for the 2014 Toronto Book Awards. Her collection of linked stories, That Time I Loved You, was released in 2018 by HarperCollins and in 2019 in the US by Liveright Publishing. It received starred reviews from Kirkus Reviews, named as one of the Best Books of 2018 by CBC,
That Time I Loved You was awarded the Danuta Gleed Literary Award 2019, shortlisted for the Toronto Book Awards 2019 and long listed for Canada Reads 2019. Leung’s work has also been appeared in The Puritan, Ricepaper, The Globe and Mail, Room Magazine, Prairie Fire and Open Book Ontario. She is currently working on a new novel, titled The After.
I know how amazing you are, but please let everyone else know a bit about yourself and the books you’ve written thus far. Own it and brag a bit for us!
It’s hard to brag! It’s against my upbringing. 🙂 What can I tell you except that I am a writer. I have done a great deal of other work, but at this moment, i suppose this is the title that fits. I am the author of a novel, The Wondrous Woo and a collection of linked stories, That Time I Loved You.
I also have a PhD in Sociology and Equity Studies and co-edited an anthology titled, Critical Inquiries: A Reader in Studies of Canada.
I’m also a mom to an awesome kid who I can brag about with ease.
What’s your current writing routine? Has it always been like this? What about it might be different for you now than in the past?
I struggle to have a routine. Mainly, this is due to my life not being amenable to a regular practice. I am used to writing when I can. I wrote the first two books while working full-time and raising a kid. I carved myself time and space intentionally and protected these opportunities.
Now that my life has shifted to a place where I can prioritize writing, I am still trying to find my way. I envy writers who know themselves and their processes and stick to them.
I do not have a regular daily practice although when I am in the throes of a new story or meeting a deadline, I will write every day. I also have a broad definition of what “writing” means. I am constantly registering things around me, and when I am working on a new story, the details from my day-to-day show up in the writing. I always have half a mind on my stories and characters no matter what I may be doing, and my “real” life and my imagined one blur and spill onto the page eventually.
Since the pandemic, I have found it very challenging to write at all. I had a toe-hold on a new book idea and added to it through the weeks. I didn’t really feel like I was progressing, but when I looked at it in totality, I realized I had close to 30k words. They were fragments and lacked coherence, but I could see the book emerging. It surprised me!
This is a very circular way to answer your question, but I guess I still don’t have a routine. Every book was written in a different set of conditions, and I have adapted accordingly. In this moment, I am still finding it challenging to write while there is so much uncertainty and suffering in the world. I also find it difficult to write from home where I have been spending most of these last few months.
Tell us the story of when you first got published. What was special about that experience for you?
When I set out to get The Wondrous Woo published, I had no clue about publishing and the industry. I sent it to many independent presses where the manuscript sat on slush piles for a couple of years. Finally, my friend Farzana Doctor introduced me to Luciana Ricciutelli of Inanna Publications, and it was accepted. I was THRILLED. It was a lifelong dream to have a book on a shelf.
If it all ended there, I would have already been satisfied. I was not prepared for the reception it would get, the engagement of readers, the nomination for the Toronto Book Award in 2014. All those things were really icing on the cake. Books always served as friends, teachers, confidantes. I was able to find books that helped me grow and discover the world, articulate my own desires, to seek to understand. So to be part of such a world was so meaningful to me.
My maternal grandmother was also a writer who worked under a pseudonym and wrote stories that were published in a serial format in newspapers in Hong Kong before WW2. I dedicated my first novel to her. It made me proud to continue her desires as a writer.
When did you start “getting serious” about writing and what did that look like for you?
I had wanted to be a writer my entire life. I did many things aside from writing, but when I was 40 years old, I had just finished my PhD and had a child. This was a huge change for me. I was terrified of parenting and missed having an intellectual project. Some people would think this was the worse time to start a novel, having a newborn, but for me, it was necessary. I decided to finally sit down and write a novel.
In retrospect, writing the novel helped me be a parent. I needed those in-between times lost in creating my own world to help me gain confidence in taking care of my child. I needed to not completely lose my identity at that time. I was happy to be a new mother, but I also needed to remember myself. Writing the first novel really helped me do that.
What have you had going on in your life over the years that wasn’t writing and may have made finding time to write challenging? What strategies did you use to overcome those obstacles and get the writing done?
I’m a 1.5 generation immigrant. I didn’t read my first novel by a Chinese Canadian woman until I was in my undergrad. It was Sky Lee’s Disappearing Moon Cafe, by the way. The idea that I even COULD be a writer was not within the realm of possibility when I was younger.
But I loved writing. My favourite thing was to be assigned creative writing homework. I was the secretary of the Library Club. haha. While I never “took it seriously” to be published, I always took writing seriously and continued it through my life.
In some ways, you can say that I wrote myself into being. Through journals, poetry, short stories, I was able to articulate myself. Even as a graduate student, I loved academic writing. To make something appear through language is still something like magic to me.
You asked me for obstacles, and so the obstacles were structural ones. Once I was able to understand I had something to say, the most important barriers were removed. All other obstacles are minor.
Did you ever think about giving up on writing? Why didn’t you? How did you move past that point and recommit?
No. Writing to me is as much a fact of life as breathing. If I never get published again, I will still have writing.
How are you feeling about your writing practice right now?
I need another space to write! Before the pandemic, I wrote in cafes and libraries. Sometimes I have been lucky enough to have an outside office. Being at home and not having alternatives has made me a little stir crazy. I imagine many of us are feeling this frustration.
I am starting in the role of the Barker Fairley Distinguished Visitor at University College at the University of Toronto in September, and I will have office space there. I hope that this will still be possible for me to use. Having this separation from home and writing space will hopefully enable me to have that writing routine that has been always evasive!
What’s been your favourite part of finishing and publishing your book(s)?
There are many great parts about finishing and publishing. Once the last edits are done, I feel a great satisfaction knowing it’s the best book it could be. I also am happy to let it go. There is a sense of relief in releasing a world that you have created for so long.
When it finally reaches readers, that’s another level of excitement. At this point, I don’t consider the work mine anymore because the reader is now the co-creator of the experience. I love doing readings and events because I am able to have direct engagement with a reading audience. I am often moved by how readers embrace my characters into their own lives.
I have had the honour of having my books assigned in curriculum and have been invited to speak to classes. It’s quite something to go into a room where everybody has read the book so carefully. I often ask as many questions as I receive because it’s wonderful to hear how readers take up the stories and characters. Often, their reading takes the text in directions that I had never intended or thought about. It’s a lovely thing to have a text be the way we can talk to each other and reveal our vulnerabilities.
With The Wondrous Woo, I am always thrilled to meet other women of colour who identify with the protagonist, Miramar. She is someone who may appear invisible to others, blending into the background, not considered remarkable. Meanwhile, her interior life is vivid and full of desire and passion.
With That Time I Loved You, I always ask readers what story they liked most and why. I have never had consensus on one or even two in any group. The diversity of responses is fascinating to me. I feel so lucky to be part of something greater than my work or even the book that I created. At the end of it, It’s all about connection to the human experience. When I was younger, as I mentioned, books made me feel more seen. If my books are able to offer something similar, then I am beyond happy.
Do you ever get “stuck” or find yourself avoiding writing? If/when that happens, how do you get yourself unstuck?
If I feel stuck, I don’t push it. I walk. I do other things. Some writers push through and keep writing until unstuck. I have to put the laptop away and move.
I trust that even when I am not putting words down, the story is still working itself out. I have to have faith that it will come to me.
Perhaps writing a doctoral thesis was my greatest lesson in writing fiction. I have learned that sometimes, ideas need to breathe. I am happy that it has worked every time, and I return to the page.
What’s your favourite book about writing or writing craft?
The first books that I ever read on writing were Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones and Annie Lamott’s Bird by Bird. More than craft, they offered scenes from a writer’s life. This was key for me in understanding the special kind of attention and awareness I must have to the world around me and to the worlds inside of me.
Other than those two, I read essays on craft or literary theory. I think there is a lot to be gleaned from a well-written review. I also learn a lot from listening to other writers in conversation. I love reading about ideas and less about practice.
Who do you consider your mentor(s)?
When I was writing the first novel, I took a course on creative writing with Jenna Kalinsky at Humber College. Jenna is so smart, and I later worked with her as my coach while writing both The Wondrous Woo and That Time I Loved You. I consider her my mentor. She now runs One Lit Place offering workshops, editorial services, coaching.
My editor, Jennifer Lambert at Harper Collins Canada is my rock star. As writers, we learn so much in partnership with a strong editor. In terms of others, I look to writer friends who make up my community. David Chariandy, Catherine Hernandez, Jenny Heijun Wills, Lindsay Wong and so many BIPOC writers are family and friends, but also my mentors in the ways they guide me.
What are you working on now? How are you feeling about it right at this moment?
I recently signed a contract for my third book! It’s a novel with the working title, The After. I can’t talk about it much! HAHA. I am in that delicate formation phase when everything feels very fragile.
I feel ok. I feel exactly as I should – nervous, full of trepidation and excitement, sick to my stomach, elated! I feel all those emotions that come with birthing a book!
What advice would you have for writers who do really want to finish a book but just haven’t been able to get there yet?
This is a hard one because there are many reasons that one may be struggling. I don’t really believe in this generic “writer’s block” idea.
It could be many blocks. It may be that you are so busy with the business of surviving, and there is no time and space (physical but also mental and emotional) for the book to be written. It could be that you don’t truly believe yet that you can do it. Or it could be that the draft needs to sit for a few days or weeks or years first before you are in the place where you are ready to finish it. All these things are valid.
It’s difficult when we think of creating art as capitalist production. Sometimes, these things can’t be forced and won’t follow the timeline you expected. Other times, you just want to get it done so that you can move on to the next!
Whatever is holding you back, be gentle on yourself. The valiant thing is that you are trying and you are doing it. It’s also important for the perfectionists among us to know that it’s not the only thing you will ever write. Finish, let go, move on. This is also part of an artist and writer’s work.
Carrianne Leung's books are available online and through your local bookstore.
Curious on how you can become a more consistent writer? Grab your free copy of my PDF Guide: Six Steps to Become a Consistent Writer.