Busy Women On Writing Books
This is the the fifth 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.
For this week's interview, I'm pleased to introduce you to Kerry Clare.
The Toronto Star called Kerry Clare’s debut novel Mitzi Bytes “Entertaining, engaging and timely,” and noted that it “heralds the arrival of a fantastic, fun new novelist on the Canadian scene.” She is editor of The M Word: Conversations About Motherhood, which was published in 2014 to rave reviews, and in 2018 selected stories for The Journey Prize Stories 30 with Sharon Bala and Zoey Leigh Peterson. A National Magazine Award-nominated essayist, Kerry is also a book reviewer, editor of the Canadian books website 49thShelf.com, and writes about books and reading at her popular blog, Pickle Me This. She lives in Toronto with her family, teaches blogging online, and her second novel, Waiting for a Star to Fall, will be published on October 27.
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!
Humility IS way overrated. I’ve been a writer forever, and have built my writing career on the foundation of my blog, which turns 20 this year and has been mainly about books and reading since around 2007. My first child was born in 2009, and I left my under-stimulating office job to be her caregiver with hopes of eking out a freelance career, and it helped that motherhood proved to be very inspiring.
My essay about my postpartum experience, “Love Is a Let Down,” was a runner-up in The New Quarterly’s essay contest and was nominated for a National Magazine Award for Personal Journalism. This success and my connections in the literary community through blogging were instrumental in the creation and publication of my first book, The M Word: Conversations About Motherhood, which I edited and contributed to, and which came out with Goose Lane Editions in 2014.
By this time, however, while I had long had fiction writing ambitions (I completed an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Toronto in 2007), all I had to show for them were a few published short stories, and a small collection of unfinished and/or unpublishable novel manuscripts.
And then one day in July 2015, I had this revelation that there was such a thing as PLOT, which honestly had never occurred to me before. That night, I sat down and started to write the novel Mitzi Bytes, which I finished by the end of the summer, writing 1000 words a day while my baby daughter napped and her big sister watched Annie on the couch beside me. Mitzi Bytes was published in 2017, and my second novel, Waiting for a Star to Fall, will be released by Doubleday Canada this year on October 27.
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 work at my kitchen table, and these days both my children go to school, so no one is watching Annie. When I am working on a fiction project, I make a point of doing that work first every day, because if I don’t make it a priority, it just won’t be, so I get it done before the work that other people are expecting from me. I have continued to do marathon first-draft sessions with 1000 words a day, which is exhausting, but also exhilarating—and I think years of blogging have taught me to break larger projects up into larger pieces and also how 95% of success is just sitting down and doing it.
Right now, my new novel is in production, so most of the work on my end is done, and I’m not writing much fiction. I launched an online blogging course in September, and have been filling my time with that project for the past few months, instead of fiction writing. I try not to pile too much on my plate.
Tell us the story of when you first got published. What was special about that experience for you?
I won second place in The Toronto Star Short Story Contest in 2006, which was a really great experience, and so many people read that story, which was fantastic. But I didn’t feel like a really real writer* until I had a story published in The New Quarterly in 2007. I still remember rushing outside to our backyard to tell my husband the good news, and how unbelievable it seemed. I was finishing up grad school at this point and my literary future seemed a bit dubious, so to have my story accepted and published was incredibly bolstering. They’ve published other stories of mine since, and it never ever gets old.
*Full disclosure: Any time that I have ever felt like a real writer, the effect has never lasted more than twenty minutes.
When did you start “getting serious” about writing and what did that look like for you?
I think I always thought I was serious about writing, but for me it was becoming a parent that gave me the kickstart I needed to be the writer I wanted to be. Before I had children, I wasn’t that serious about anything, didn’t properly understand the stakes of living in the world, and so I didn’t properly understand the stakes in story-writing either. And of course, there are plenty of writers who manage to be serious writers just fine without having children, but it was a really necessary part of my process. In the years after my eldest was born, I was steeped in the process of figuring it all out, stuck in a kind of creative/parenting limbo, but once her sister arrived four years later, something finally clicked. I was finished having babies and ready to move on into the future, and being a writer was a big part of what that was going to mean.
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?
The best thing that ever happened to me was getting a job with Canadian books website 49thShelf.com, which delivers a steady paycheque and work I can do from home, and this job fits very well into my other creative endeavours and family demands. It means I don’t have to balance writing with parenthood and the demands of a full-time job, which is a lot of ask of anybody—although lots of people pull it off! But this also means that I can’t be precious about my creative process, and that I’ve learned to make maximum use of minimal time. (When my first daughter was a baby, I wrote for twenty minutes at day while my husband gave her a bath in the evening.)
I use what time I have, and I don’t waste any. I am also hugely indebted to whoever invented social media blocking apps, which is how I’ve managed to write my books. I use Selfcontrol on my laptop and the Forest app on my phone. Oh, and I also am always forward facing when I am writing or editing, whereas once upon a time I’d go back and spend ages polishing or rewriting the work I’d already done in order to avoid doing more, which is the perfect way to never actually finish anything. Now I know that whatever is wrong or imperfect about my work, I will have the opportunity to fix it on the next draft, but in the meantime, my job is to get to the end.
Did you ever think about giving up on writing? Why didn’t you? How did you move past that point and recommit?
My blog has been the through-line for me as a writer, through disappointment and triumph, inspiration and stagnation. When I was facing lots of rejection, particularly before I’d had much success at all, my blog was the amazing space that was mine, where I could create and explore, and be connected to the world of books and reading, and that was huge for me. It has meant everything, and it’s not just why I never gave up on writing, but I think it’s how I managed to become a writer at all.
How are you feeling about your writing practice right now?
I am in a weird place—I wrote the first draft of my novel two year ago, and in the time since have been busy with revision and edits, as well the other work I do, so I haven’t been fully immersed in that experience of creation for quite some time. And when I’m not there, I worry sometimes that I might never be, that I’ve forgotten how to start from scratch. But I recall feeling like this when I finished Mitzi Bytes, and I’ve written two more novels since then, so I know not to worry too much about it. I’m trying to write a short story right now for the first time in a long time, as an opportunity to flex those first draft muscles again.
What’s been your favourite part of finishing and publishing your book(s)?
My favourite part of publishing has been learning how the life of a book is long, and that readers are out there. Two weeks after my first novel came out, I spent a whole day lying on the floor in despair, because my book was not a bestseller and here I thought I’d squandered this chance I’d been allowed for success. It was terrible. (Publishing a book is the very worst emotional roller coaster.)
We have these metrics to measure a book’s success, namely sales and awards-nominations, and when I didn’t have either of these, I thought I had nothing. But three years on, I still routinely run into people who’ve just read and connected with my novel, and mentions pop up on social media, and I know that these connections are what really matter, why I wanted to publish a book in the first place. And you can’t even orchestrate these, you just have to wait for the book to find its way (or for the reader to find their way to it) and when it happens, it’s magic.
Another favourite part is the time I saw Mitzi Bytes at Furby House Books in Port Hope, ON, just down the shelf from Margaret Drabble’s The Dark Flood Rises. Margaret Drabble’s an author who made me want to be a writer, and that our books get to exist in the same universe, let alone on the same shelf, is definitely a dream come true.
Do you ever get “stuck” or find yourself avoiding writing? If/when that happens, how do you get yourself unstuck?
I don’t think a person always has to be writing—there are plenty of other things to do with one’s time. If you’re not writing and don’t feel like writing, what’s wrong with that? (If, however, if you do feel like writing and you’re not writing, you should probably just sit down and write. It’s the only trick I know.) Having my blog to return to as a creative space when I wasn’t creating much else has always been helpful and inspiring.
What’s your favourite book about writing or writing craft?
Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh
Who do you consider your mentor(s)?
I have learned everything from the writing communities I’ve been fortunate enough to connect with, and the writers who’ve been part of these communities — Rebecca Rosenblum, Jessica Westhead, and Marissa Stapley are three women who’ve been unfailingly generous to me, and there are so many other examples.
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?
I started jogging the same summer I wrote my first published novel, and the process was exactly the same—just keep going. One foot/word in front of the other, and it’s as simple as that. Except I hated jogging, and gave it up one day after bursting into tears in the middle of Queens Park. And I think that if writing makes you cry, then you probably shouldn’t do that either, but if you’re getting something out of it, then keep on going. The main difference between a success and failure is often that the former never quit.