Busy Women on Writing Books
This is the 14th 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.
This week, I'm pleased to introduce Canadian author Elisabeth de Mariaffi. Elisabeth is the author of The Retreat, which is out in bookstores this week.
Elisabeth de Mariaffi is the critically acclaimed author of three books: the Scotiabank Giller Prize-nominated short story collection How to Get Along with Women (2012), the literary thriller The Devil You Know (2015), and the 1950s-era Hitchcock-style thriller, Hysteria (2018), both of which were named Globe and Mail Best Books of the year, and shortlisted for the Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Prize. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph, and has taught fiction at UBC, Memorial University, and through the Humber School for Writers.
Her newest novel, The Retreat, about a dancer who must separate truth from lies in order to survive a deadly storm at a remote mountain arts retreat, is in bookstores this week.
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!
Haha, thanks for the opportunity! Where to begin? I was born and raised in Toronto and lived in Ontario, mainly, until nine years ago, when I made the move to St. John’s, Newfoundland.
I published my first book in 2012 – a book of short stories called How To Get Along With Women, that was longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize – a very lucky development! Since then, I’ve published three thrillers.
The first one, 2015’s The Devil You Know, is actually a kind of coming of age novel in my eyes. But I was writing about growing up in a really fearful time in Ontario – through the 1980s, when so many girls seemed to go missing, and then into the 90s, a time that was really marked, for many of us, by the threat of the Scarborough Rapist and the Bernardo abductions.
So, The Devil You Know turned out to be a book about fear—and the thriller genre is perfect for that. The book is set in February 1993, in the weeks surrounding Bernardo’s arrest, and follows rookie journalist Evie Jones as she grapples with the fear and horror surrounding that case—while secretly investigating the cold case murder of her own childhood best friend.
The next one is very different! Hysteria was published in 2018, and it’s more of an Alfred Hitchcock-style suspense. Set in the 1950s in New York’s Fingerlake region, the story centres on Heike Lerner, a young German emigré who is married to a prominent American psychiatrist, and raising their young son in an idyllic country home.
But after a night out at a swank party, the couple return home to find the little boy is gone—and Heike’s husband blames her for his disappearance. I loved writing this novel, which draws both on traditional European fairy tales and the Twilight Zone to set the unsettling mood.
This month, I’m publishing my third thriller, The Retreat. Set in the present day, this is a riff on the Locked Room Mystery – after finally breaking free of an abusive marriage, dancer and single mom Maeve Martin heads to a secluded arts retreat, high in the Rocky Mountains. She plans to get her career back on track and start her own dance company.
But winter comes in early and when a freak avalanche traps Maeve and only a handful of others at the retreat, tensions mount. Cut off from the village below, and with a rogue bear on the loose, Maeve realizes how little she knows about these strangers—and how useless a locked door is, when the danger is already inside.
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?
Well, I guess like everyone else, things changed for me because of the pandemic. I’ve been a full-time writer for about five years – which doesn’t exactly mean that all I do is write, but I manage to balance writing with teaching and some occasional private manuscript work, so it means I get to earn my living through writing, one way or another.
Since about 2016, I rented a little one-room office on the top floor of my yoga studio. The building is only a ten-minute walk from my house, and it gave me a place to go that was truly a room of my own. Plus, I could easily pop down to the studio and do a noon-hour class any time I wanted! I loved the arrangement, but it stopped making sense in the spring of 2020.
Aside from all the Covid precautions, I found that I really wanted to be home with my family, kind of hunkered down for the ride. My oldest daughter was finishing up her degree in Montreal at the time, so we converted her room into an office for me, and I’ve been there ever since.
Of course, I used to work at home all the time when the kids were younger, and also used to juggle my writing time with my day job time. At one point, I shared a home office with my husband, and booked a few ‘banks of time’ per week to have it all to myself.
I also had a big sign on the door that just said NO. We’re a blended family with four kids altogether – I needed everyone to really understand that when I was in that room, writing, the answer to whatever they were going to ask was NO. (Can you drive me to the mall? NO. Can you make me a snack? NO. etc.)
The only thing I try really hard to manage now is my writing time vs. my everything-else work time. It varies a little, but for the most part I try to hold my mornings for writing alone. I quit my email, I put the phone in another room, and I just allow myself to focus on a story.
Tell us the story of when you first got published. What was special about that experience for you?
I had my children when I was quite young, and the result of that was that I put off my writing ambitions through my twenties. So when I started writing again more seriously, and started publishing poems and stories in journals and magazines, it really felt like I was coming home to myself – like I was getting this amazing prize I’d been dreaming of, and also sliding into the most comfortable jeans I’d ever owned, all at once. It felt like proof – like I had solid proof that I could really do this!
It can be really hard to sell a book of short stories, so that felt incredibly lucky, and my book landed with a very generous and wonderful indie press, Invisible Books. They were very good to me.
When did you start “getting serious” about writing and what did that look like for you?
This is a difficult question, because I think I was always serious about it. I was a student journalist, I always wrote poetry, when my children were babies I was on the community editorial board of my local Torstar affiliate, the Guelph Mercury, which meant I got to write an op-ed every six weeks or so.
But I applied and got into an MFA program in Creative Writing when my youngest hit elementary school, so that felt like a real watershed moment. I started the program when my kids were in grade 2 and 4, which is also a high-octane time in lots of ways: I used to write on Saturday mornings, while they were watching cartoons, or sitting at a desk in my front window, so I could keep half-an-eye on them playing with other neighbourhood kids on my front lawn.
It was a two-year program and it felt like my only chance to do this thing, to jump in with both feet, so I absolutely did. I was very ambitious. I wrote a lot.
I realized, halfway through the MFA, that my husband-at-the-time was never going to be able to be supportive of me, so I divorced him. That’s a little-known life hack. Divorce your husband. It was easier to live and write and care for my kids as a single mother than it ever was to keep my head above water in a bad marriage.
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?
Well, children and financial stability are big obstacles, but I wanted to do it all. I had my kids in my early-mid twenties, when really none of my friends were doing anything like that. So, I had a lot of anxiety after making that decision: there I was, a 26-year old with two children under 3, and all my old friends were in grad school or law school or working for UNESCO or whatever, while I was going to playgroup. Also, I never saw my old friends anymore, because our lives were so different.
BUT. What’s interesting is how well it worked out for me. I knew I wanted to have the experience of having my own children, and in lots of ways doing that in my twenties—when, frankly, I had less life experience and writing experience and probably wouldn’t have published the Great Canadian Novel anyway – was actually the best timing.
As they got older, I set new goals for myself, some of which I’ve mentioned. I had a little writing group I met with, I did the editorial board, I kept submitting poems, I applied to an MFA. When I finished the MFA, I was a single mother and I was terrified of losing momentum – so I applied to do a two-week writing residency at The Banff Centre, and got in, fully funded.
So, setting goals and revising those goals regularly is helpful for me. Be Ambitious.
Financial security has been touch and go. I was always looking for jobs that would allow me some flexibility so I could be home with the kids as much as possible, while also allowing me some time to write. I did a lot of freelance work when I was younger: copyediting, proofreading, translation. I could do that from home.
For one crazy year I worked as a flight attendant, because I could bunch all my flying time into a relatively small number of days, and plan around my kids’ weekends with their father, or lean on my parents for child care. That gave me a maximum number of days home with no day job to go to, so I could write when the kids were in school or asleep. I also made notes in the air!
Did you ever think about giving up on writing? Why didn’t you? How did you move past that point and recommit?
I did truly think about it when my kids were really small, like, when I had a baby and a two-year old. I think at that point the demands on your time are just so huge—and not only on your time, but on your identity. People talk about not having time to shower, and that’s true – but you also don’t have time to read or go for a walk alone, or daydream.
Alice Munro said in an interview once that every story begins with her sitting on the couch, staring at the wall. That kind of intense time in your own head? Really hard to get with two babies who need you.
I think I got past it because I honestly can’t imagine myself doing anything else. Because I actually needed that identity to be a real person, and I needed to be a real person in order to be a parent, or a good parent. Does that make sense?
Pretty much as soon as I started getting even a little sleep, I found myself writing again. I don’t know how I’d move through the world without it. It’s how I figure myself out.
How are you feeling about your writing practice right now?
Right now, I have a new book coming out in about a week, and I am feeling really distracted! Which is so frustrating, because I wish I was the sort of person who could compartmentalize better, or care less about social media, but I am not.
However, I put a real push in over the past winter to make good headway on a new book, knowing this was coming. So I have about a half-a-first-draft, that I have mostly taken a break from for weeks, but now, just this week, have managed to settle back to.
I use outlines and story beats and spreadsheets so much more now than I ever did before, and this is frankly saving me. So, when I didn’t know what to do, I decided to map the second half of the book, and then I broke that into chapters, and now when I have a few hours in the morning, I don’t have the excuse of “but I don’t know what happens next.”
I do know. I just need to kick my own ass and write a scene.
What’s been your favourite part of finishing and publishing your books?
I really am shocked and delighted when readers connect with my writing. It’s so cool. I occasionally get invited to speak to university classes, which is always so great. It’s wild, because I remember being a nineteen-year old student, getting my mind blown by my English professor’s rad choices, and I really hope that I can be that writer for someone else.
Recently, my twenty-year old son came home from a shift at a new restaurant job and told me that all the twenty-something women he works with love my books. (He was very charmingly surprised by this?)
But the moment I’ll never forget is that once, after a Devil You Know event at a bookstore in Ontario, a woman came to get her book signed and told me she didn’t usually read thrillers, she didn’t usually like scary books. But she had read my book of short stories, and loved it very much. She handed me her book to be signed and said, “I will read everything you ever write.”
I think about her a lot. That’s a high bar that she set, and I try to make sure that I really deserve it – so that even if my novels are thrillers, they must also be honest, and beautiful, and true.
Do you ever get “stuck” or find yourself avoiding writing? If/when that happens, how do you get yourself unstuck?
Yes! I just went through this. Sometimes if life or other kinds of work gets in the way, I hit pause for a little too long— and then it’s so much harder to get back into it!
It’s a loss of momentum that I think causes a little loss of confidence. Here are my tricks for “getting back in the zone.”
One: Change your goal. If you can’t just sit down and start writing where you left off, could you do another kind of writing job? For instance, could you revisit your outline, revise it, and push it forward? Could you create a story beat spreadsheet for the next section of your story, and break it into scenes? Could you do some research, or dip into some reading – often, reading an author whose work has influenced your story is really inspiring!
The number one piece of advice I give students is this: Writing does not equal typing. Sometimes you might feel stuck, but what you are really feeling is that you haven’t landed on exactly what comes next, or how the scene needs to come together. So reading, walking, and making time for thinking about your story or mapping your story are all valuable activities.
Two: Write on schedule. If you find you are “stuck” because you’re waiting for the divine moment, or the muse, you may spin your wheels for a while. Pull out your calendar app and schedule your writing time for the next month.
I recommend a daily or at least 3x weekly practice – even if it’s only for an hour at a time. You would schedule any other important thing—schedule your writing time.
Three: Work in Bursts. I love doing this when life gets distracting or I feel overwhelmed. Pick a specific goal: it might be, “write a scene where X happens to Y,” or “revise pages 25-35,” or “rewrite scene X, showing a better flow of action-reaction between the characters.” (It can’t be: “work on the next chapter.” That is too general.)
Write your goal on a sticky note, and stick the note to the top of your laptop screen. Set your phone timer for 45 minutes. Forty-five minutes is a scientifically-noteworthy amount of time in the human attention span – we are good at doing focused tasks for that amount of time. Now, put your phone on the other side of the room and work to your goal for the whole 45 minutes – when the timer goes, save your work.
Set your timer for 15 minutes. Get up, stretch, get a glass of water, check your social media, walk around the house – whatever gives you a break. Repeat if possible! (Bonus: This works really well as a group or partner activity. Schedule a remote work burst session with another writer or a writing group. Coordinate your timers, and in your 15-minute breaks, you can go to the group chat and give each other some encouragement and a few laughs.)
Last: Remind yourself you love writing. When I first started writing full-time, instead of a day-job, I had to adjust to this new world where I went to an office and did my writing first, and then filled in with paying jobs like teaching on the side. The only way to make it work was to produce a new novel in a certain amount of time… before the money from the last one ran out.
I was writing on schedule but I noticed I started to drag my feet—the daily goal started to feel like a chore. But it wasn’t a chore, because I was finally getting to live this dream life as a full-time writer! So, I tried a new approach, which was to arrive at my desk each morning, take a deep breath, and say: This is the best part of my day. I get to make up a story.
What’s your favourite book about writing or writing craft?
I am far more likely to read fiction and think about how the author managed to “do that trick,” than I am to read a craft book, for the most part. But I do have a few good recommendations!
– I like Jeff VanderMeer’s WonderBook and I often use it when I’m teaching. VanderMeer writes spec fiction, but his book is truly wonderful and full of diagrams and different ways of thinking.
– Years ago, a mentor recommended that I get Robert McKee’s Story on audiobook, “because it’s really long, you should listen to it.” She was right! I recommend listening rather than reading it, because it’s instructional, because McKee does seminars all the time, and because the book is so long I think you’d get overwhelmed. McKee is an old school story expert, and most of the examples in the book are a little dated, but…. He really nails it. Recommend.
– I also like Ann Patchett’s This is a Story of a Happy Marriage, which is not a book on craft, it is really a memoir of a writing life, but sometimes what we need is to think about our lives as writing lives, and this book is beautiful.
Who do you consider your mentor(s)?
When I was doing my MFA, I worked with Michael Winter and Dionne Brand, as mentor and thesis advisor, and they both really gave me a lot of room to grow into myself as a writer. Since then, I’ve had some mentorship-type relationships with screenwriters that have helped me on a craft level in innumerable ways.
Karen Walton is a mentor, I think, to an entire community of writers in Canada; and Karen Lam, who is also a director, is the one who told me to listen to McKee instead of reading it. (Among other things!)
What are you working on now? How are you feeling about it right at this moment?
Well, I’m about halfway through a novel that is quite different from anything else I’ve ever written. There are more characters, two distinct voices, and a procedural element—all of which feels new.
As with any book, writing the first act comes easily and then every moment beyond that gets just a little trickier. But I’ve got two stories crossing paths at this point, and that feeling of “hey, maybe I can do this!” is really magical.
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?
But also: be careful what kind of stories you tell yourself, about yourself. What do I mean by that? I mean, it’s easy to start telling yourself things like, “Oh, I just can’t get this done. Life is getting in the way. I’ll never figure this out. I just don’t have the time. I don’t know how to do this.” The problem with telling yourself (or others) stories like this, is you might start to believe it. Then you’ve kneecapped yourself before you even got a chance to start.
Instead, figure out what the big goal is (for instance, a finished, first draft novel) and then break it into tasks. Beat sheet, outline, story map, scene plan – any or all of these can help you.
Assign yourself related reading – if you’re trying to write a survival thriller, then read those. If you are trying to write a romance, read three really different books in that genre. Mix it up.
Break your tasks up into the smallest chunks – and now: Schedule. Your. Writing. Time.
Lastly, forgive yourself. We’re living through a global pandemic. Most of us have been pretty stressed for the last year-and-a-half. Maybe the novel is feeling impossible right now—but it won’t feel that way forever. If it seems too big, try setting a new goal, a poem, a micro-story.
Remember to let it be fun. This is the best part of your day.
Elisabeth has a great email newsletter called “No Body, No Crime” — you can sign up here.