Busy Women Writing Books
This is the the second instalment in a new interview series 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 Leslie Vryenhoek.
Leslie Vryenhoek’s fiction, non-fiction and poetry have been widely published in Canada and internationally. Her writing explores the landscape of intimate relationships, what it means to belong to a place and time, and how the uneven hand of fortune plays out across lives. Her 2015 novel Ledger of the Open Hand was shortlisted for the Winterset Award, longlisted for the international Dublin Literary Award and won a silver medal from the Independent Publisher Book Awards. Her second novel, We All Will Be Received, was released in October 2019. Based in St. John’s, Leslie also works as a communications professional and editor.
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!
A thousand false starts on this question. Amazing? I’ve certainly had an amazingly lucky life—lucky by birth, lucky to have been able to make a living writing, even if…. Amazing? I just write stuff—the truly amazing people, people I’ve had the privilege to write about … Amazing? I never cease to amaze myself, the way I…)
Truth is—like everyone, I think—I’d like to amaze myself more often. But you’re stuck in your own skin, carrying around the memory of every glass you ever chipped, every plate you ever dropped. So here, in short order, a few things about me:
Born and raised in Pittsburgh, USA, I moved at 18 to my ancestral home (wow, that feels heavy-handed, but it’s where my people were from, in varying degrees). There, I completed a BA and raised two (truly amazing) daughters and worked and worked to support us and started writing in earnest. Short pieces at first—essays and stories, which eventually came together in a collection called Scrabble Lessons (Oolichan Books). Kids grown, I hauled a U-Haul to Newfoundland (that U-Haul trip—now there’s an amazing story) and took up poetry. Published a collection called Gulf (Oolichan Books), and then two novels—Ledger of the Open Hand in 2015 (Breakwater Books) about debt and our emotional obligations, and We All Will Be Received (on the presses as I type this), about the impossibility of leaving the past behind in the Internet age.
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?
Routine just doesn’t seem to be in my wheelhouse. It implies more control over the minutes of my life than I’ve ever had. Family crises, work urgencies, power outages, Mormons at the door … these are the kind of things that have derailed every routine I’ve ever tried to establish. And failed attempts at routine, it seems to me, make it too easy to say never mind, providence is against me.
Or else I’m just not good at it—at routine—because I crave upset and change. That might be closer to the truth. I’m always rearranging the furniture—a time-consuming distraction, to be sure. But I have tried to cultivate good writing habits that work for me. These include:
– Grab every opportunity to write—there’s no such thing as “a day with nothing to do.”
– Put on the bright yellow chainsaw headphones (they make a lovely hushing, rushing sound in my head, and block out the neighbours’ dogs).
– Establish parameters with those near and dear to you. My husband sees the headphones, he knows not to talk to me—not a peep—unless the house is on fire.
– Scribble it down the minute it hits you—even if (especially if) it’s not related to that project you’re working on right now. Don’t let that flash of brilliance blow off in the everyday grind of things. It will. You will go digging around in your brain for it later and it will have gone out with the recyclables. I have a folder of scribbles. And lately, because I’m more likely to have my phone than a pen, I thumb clumsy notes and email them to myself.
Tell us the story of when you first got published. What was special about that experience for you?
First published? That was a handful of poems with a particularly anti-establishment bent, in my American high school’s lit mag, “The Montage.” It was a blind submission process, names kept separate from the work until it was selected, so I was very proud—until my mother read them and admonished me to knock it off: “You are going to get us kicked out of this country!” I was 16, and especially pleased to have sparked that reaction. I remember this, all these decades later, because my mother was never a fan of my poetry—but after her death a few months ago, I discovered a carefully-preserved copy of that long-forgotten Montage among her things.
When did you start “getting serious” about writing and what did that look like for you?
I was very serious about it while in university. So serious, in fact, that I didn’t have a fallback plan for when I finished my English degree. As graduation loomed, and I hadn’t yet written anything that would pay the bills, I did the only thing I could think of: I got pregnant. It seemed a sure bet—he’d pay the bills, I’d raise the kids (how much work could that be?) and write books.
I went into labour during my convocation (no, I didn’t attend—though that would be a better story). The day my degree arrived in the mailbox of our shitty apartment block along the highway, I wrote a poem that ended with the line “she’ll have to be my poetry for now.”
Then I didn’t write anything but a grocery list for years.
Fast forward 15 years. Mid-thirties, long divorced, on my own with two kids. Working long hours (communications, lots of writing but none of it truly mine), volunteering, managing a house, so many balls in the air and everything going fine until one day I was sick. And then really sick—my insides falling away, pounds melting, doctors shrugging, telling me to see a counsellor, no one believing that something dire was happening. Months of this, until I was too weak to work, and then to get off the couch. My daughters terrified. My mother flew in to help out. Dragged me back to the emergency room—and this time, finally, they realized how dire it was. Admission, emergency surgery, so many drugs feeding into an IV. A full month in the hospital being tube fed. Staring out the window at the bare January trees. A rare chance to just think.
Everyone should be this lucky at such a young age.
By the time I left the hospital, miraculously recovered, I had written what would be my first nationally-broadcast radio piece and sketched out stories and essays and poems. And become, again, a serious writer. Because I finally understood the urgency.
I thought it would last forever, that blessed sense of urgency, the clarity about who I was and what mattered most. But life has a way of distracting, and every few years I find I’ve gone off-track and then I have to recommit. I have to say, “If not now, when?”
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?
So many people who want so many things. And always the letting somebody down. I thought by my 50s, my kids grown, I’d be over this, but it’s endless—the time that family and friends require, the conversation that your husband needs to have right now, the requests to sit on committees. The clients’ annual report that has to be written before you can get to the work that matters to you. The endless stream of people who want something, who ping in at all hours through the magic of an ever-connected world. Oh, and the money you should be salting away for retirement—that’s a big one now. I’ve been self-employed for the past decade, and it’s so hard to turn down paying gigs even if they get in the way of my aspirations.
I had more courage when I was younger, more ability to say no. Less guilt. There’s a cost to neglecting what others want in favour of your own dreams, and sometimes, I’ve discovered, that cost can be quite steep.
But I think there’s a steep cost, too, to squandering finite time, to wasting the days answering one more email, agreeing to one more request, attending one more mediocre event.
Did you ever think about giving up on writing? Why didn’t you? How did you move past that point and recommit?
Giving up? I have a Lorna Crozier poem called that very thing, “Giving Up,” framed by my desk so I can enjoy it while wallowing in those all-too-frequent self-aggrandizing, soul-on-fire moments when this time, finally, I am done with writing. When I just feel so pathetic. When I can’t bear the rejection, the pointless and embarrassing pursuit of putting my words out there, the frustration of first-draft clumsiness.
And I’m sincere, every time I give up. But it won’t leave me alone. I can say I’m done, and five minutes later I’m noticing a detail, jotting a note, catching myself saying—sometimes out loud—“Oh, that would be a great story. And imagine if…”
How are you feeling about your writing practice right now?
I’ve been on a high lately—excited about the release of We All Will Be Received. Still surprised that I got it done, and I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever written.
I had to get very focused and very selfish to write it. I had a contract but had neglected the book in favour of client demands for a year; suddenly I had just a few months to write the damn thing. But I’d been jammed for so long, uncommitted to the project because I couldn’t see it clearly.
Panic, of course, is the mother of invention. So I took over a room in the house, stocked it with a kettle, a microwave, food and lots of wine, and told everyone (family, work, friends) to leave me alone. Sequestered myself and then the juice (and wine) started flowing. The ideas gelled; the book came together. Five weeks to a solid draft.
Still, it was hard to do—the writing, but also the disappointing everyone else. I’m terribly behind on everything, still apologizing at every turn. Neglecting, now, the promotion of the book—and that takes time. But I’m also feeling damn proud, and confident that I can do it again. That I can ponder and gather for a while, and then when I’m ready, clear the decks and make something good come together.
What’s been your favourite part of finishing and publishing your book(s)?
I love connecting with readers (readings, book clubs, interviews—all of it), and especially discovering how very different the reactions are.
When Scrabble Lessons, the short story collection, was published, there was that initial excitement of holding my first book—so shiny and special, with all its fingers and toes! But then it’s out in the world, and you can’t control what happens, what people will say.
This was 10 years ago, when (professional, published) book reviews were far more common. And that book got good reviews—but what was fascinating was how very different they all were. One reviewer said, “Story A is the best and Story B is the worst” and the next reviewer had the exact opposite opinion on the individual stories. The same thing happened at book clubs I went to, and whenever I talked to people who’d read the stories. It was very enlightening for a first-time author, to see how different readers had such different takes on good and not-so, because it taught me that no story or book is going to satisfy every reader. It made my first really negative review (of my first novel) easier (though not easy) to swallow.
Do you ever get “stuck” or find yourself avoiding writing? If/when that happens, how do you get yourself unstuck?
I get stuck so often, especially when I’ve deliberately set aside time and said, “today I’m going to write xx words.” Paralyzing, but it usually passes if I just start something. If it doesn’t, I walk away—literally. I put on my boots and I walk down by the river, or up into the hills—somewhere that no one else is, and I natter away, out loud, and usually the log jam breaks and the words flow and then I have to hurry home and get them down.
What’s your favourite book about writing or writing craft?
The War of Art. It’s not artful, but it’s great for how it knows there’s always that voice in your head saying, “Who are you to write this?” It gives you permission to say shut the hell up, to get out of your own head and out of your own way.
What are you working on now? How are you feeling about it right at this moment?
I’m all over the map, trying to decide what gets my focus next. In the middle of writing this last novel I said, quite emphatically, Never Again. No more novels. But you know, there’s one I’ve been thinking about for a long time, and already it’s knocking at my brain. Already bright yellow Post-it notes are starting to proliferate on the wall beside my desk. I think I’ll let it gather for a while and work instead on finishing the TV series bible and pilot I started a few years back. It’s a very long shot, but also the most fun I’ve ever had writing.
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?
Imagine you’re tied to the train tracks, and the locomotive is looming (because really, it is—it is!). From that vantage point, how sorry are you that you didn’t write that novel?
Clear the decks, even for a day. Go for a long walk, or check into a hotel, or whatever you need to do to get that cushion of space around your head. Then ask yourself some hard questions: why do I need to write this book, and what is it about this book that I need to write? It either matters or it doesn’t, and only you know. Maybe what’s holding you back isn’t fear, or obligation, but a lack of clarity around what you’re writing. Maybe you need to find the essential grain of the thing that will grow into the book (a subtle shift, or a whole different book). Because when you’re writing the right thing, a thing that really matters to you, it’s easier to find the time to get it done.
Give yourself a deadline. Take it seriously. Stand your ground against those who will try to convince you that their thing, their deadline, is more urgent.
But give yourself a break, too. Children are young for a short period of time. Parents are dying for, if you’re lucky, a short period of time. You have to make your priorities—and hope that there’s time, ultimately, to do all the things that matter most.
Leslie's latest novel, We All Will Be Received (Breakwater Books, 2019)l is available from Canadian bookstores or online.