Busy Women on Writing Books
This is the sixth 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 one of my favourite writers, Elyse Friedman. Elyse has written for screens large and small, radio, magazine and the stage. She is the author of five books, most recently The Answer to Everything (HarperCollins Canada). Her work has been shortlisted for numerous prizes and awards, and she has won the gold National Magazine Award for fiction and the TIFF-CBC Screenwriter Award.
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!
Ha! Well, I’ve written three novels (Then Again; Waking Beauty; The Answer to Everything), a book of short fiction (Long Story Short) and a book of poems (Know Your Monkey). I recently wrote a proposal for a middle-grade humour book (my first book for kids), and I’m slowly working on a new novel, a book of short fiction and another book of poetry. I also have a couple of screenplays in development.
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?
In the past, I would get up at 6:30 a.m., get my son ready for school, go to the Y, then come home and write for five hours. That’s assuming I wasn’t teaching, marking assignments, writing corporate copy, working on a manuscript evaluation, story-editing someone else’s script, or doing some other kind of gig to pay the rent (which is what I do most of the time).
Now, I tend to sleep in because I’ve likely woken up in the middle of the night with my heart doing a mad timpani for at least an hour. When I manage to haul my ass out of bed, my son is usually still sleeping. I make tea and read every piece of terrifying Covid19 news that’s been printed. Then I do a clumsy version of exercise in my living room or bake something to try to calm down. Then I eat too much of whatever fat/sugar combo I just concocted. After that, I write for a while, since there’s no paid work right now.
Tell us the story of when you first got published. What was special about that experience for you?
My first short story was published in a tiny zine out of Ottawa. I think it was called Black Cat 149. I was beyond thrilled. I always knew I’d be a writer, but to see my words in print for the first time was a kick.
When did you start “getting serious” about writing and what did that look like for you?
I started early but got sidetracked. I went to Sheridan College when I was 18 to take filmmaking. I wrote and directed a short that was shown on TV and glowingly reviewed in the Toronto Star. But I couldn’t afford to stay in the program, so I started freelancing in the world of corporate communications. I got sucked into that for far too long. A dark decade.
I was in my early thirties when I decided to abandon the soul-pinching work I had been doing to survive. My now ex-boyfriend and I moved to Winnipeg where I had scored a gig as the comedy writer on a new CBC radio show called Brand X (which later morphed into Definitely Not the Opera). I was writing fulltime and making about four-hundred bucks a week, which went a surprisingly long way in Winnipeg. We decided to rent the world’s largest apartment just because we could (apparently, members of the Winnipeg ballet used to practice in the insanely huge living room), and it was only 700 bucks a month. I did the CBC gig for a couple years, then returned to Toronto to write my first novel and my first feature length-screenplay.
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 had a child when I was forty, so obviously there were a lot of years without much time to write. Stupid of me not to have a spouse with a job. I still envy writers who have that. But somehow, I’ve always been able to squeak by, mostly because of screenwriting, I guess.
I’ve never made much money with book advances or sales, but I have optioned almost all of my novels, and have been paid to adapt several of them into screenplays. I also sold two original screenplays that were turned into films, so I received paycheques that I could (very modestly) live off for a while. I’m perpetually in debt, but I somehow manage to chug along. If I’d had a spouse supporting me, I would have at least four more books written by now. My last novel came out in 2014. Sigh.
Did you ever think about giving up on writing? Why didn’t you? How did you move past that point and recommit?
I have never considered that. I will always write. Even if I mostly have to do low-paid freelance work to support my habit.
How are you feeling about your writing practice right now?
Since we’re in the midst of a horrifying pandemic, not great. The novel I’ve been working on suddenly seems irrelevant. But I’m hoping to not feel that way on Monday.
What’s been your favourite part of finishing and publishing your book(s)?
It’s fun to release a book into the wild. You get to leave your cave and connect with other authors at festivals and readings. I’ve met lovely people along the way—Miriam Toews, Sean Michaels, Simon Rich, Joshua Ferris.
Of course, it’s not all great. I remember one reading I did with someone who was quite famous at the time. It was in a large auditorium, and after the reading we sat at a table signing books. Well, he signed books. I just sat at a table. My co-reader had a very long line of people waiting; I had nobody. Not even one human. After a while I saw an old lady in the distance, making her way toward the table, her eyes locked on mine. She had a walker, and seemed pretty decrepit so it took a while for her to hobble over to me. Eventually, she made it, caught her breath, smiled widely and said: “Are you going north?” She wanted a ride home. I gestured to my co-reader and said: “No, but he is.”
Do you ever get “stuck” or find yourself avoiding writing? If/when that happens, how do you get yourself unstuck?
I have never had writer’s block. I have too many ideas, actually. I have ideas from ten years ago that I’d still like to write. I just rarely have the time to work on my own stuff.
What’s your favourite book about writing or writing craft?
The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri has been the most instructive book for me. In many ways it’s very dated, and it focuses on playwriting, but the fundamentals of narrative craft are all there. I still use it as a guide when I teach creative writing.
Who do you consider your mentor?
Paul Quarrington. He was my mentor when I took the Humber correspondence course a million years ago. We used to fax each other, so that’ll give you an idea of how long ago it was. Everyone in the Can-lit community knows how wonderful Paul Quarrington was, but I’ll say it again. He was terrific, extremely supportive and kind and funny and great.
After the course was over he encouraged me to try a novel. When I finished it eight months later, he handed it to his agent who instantly got me a book deal at Random House. He paved the way and made it all very easy. I’m extremely grateful to him. I wish he were still with us.
What are you working on now? How are you feeling about it right at this moment?
I have a bunch of things on the go. A novel, a book of short fiction, a middle grade humour book, a book of poems, a couple of screenplays. But right now I’m just trying to wrap my head around the Covid19 isolation. My son is home with me, so I don’t have my weekday alone time. I’ve been doing some writing, but I’ve also been zoning out a lot (due to interrupted sleep and not feeling great). I’m hoping to get back to work in a more focused and serious way next week.
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?
Win the lottery. Then you’ll have time. Failing that: sit your ass down in front of the screen whenever you can. Read what you have so far. Even if you don’t write new words, it’ll trigger your subconscious to keep the thing brewing in your mind. Someday you’ll have time to continue.
Elyse's books are available at your local independent bookseller, and online.