Zsuzsi Gartner black and white photo of author sitting in dark dress and Doc Marten boots
Canadian author, Zsuzsi Gartner

Busy Women on Writing Books

This is the tenth 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 month, I'm pleased to introduce you to a mentor of mine, Zsuzsi Gartner. (We did our interview on Zoom and it has been transcribed and edited for length.)

Zsuzsi Gartner is the author of the Scotiabank Giller Prize shortlisted Better Living through Plastic Explosives and of the widely acclaimed story collection All the Anxious Girls on Earth

Her fiction has been widely anthologized, broadcast on CBC and NPR, and won numerous prizes, including a National Magazine Awards. She is also the editor of the award-winning fiction anthology Darwin’s Bastards: Astounding Tales from Tomorrow and was the inaugural Frank O’Connor International Short Story Fellow for Cork, Ireland, in 2016.

Zsuzsi has taught in the UBC’s Creative Writing MFA program and many of the Banff Centre’s literary programs, and is the founder and director of Writers Adventure Camp in Whistler, BC. Excerpts from The Beguiling, her debut novel, have appeared in The Walrus, SubTerrain, and Maisonneuve. She lives in Vancouver.

The Beguiling was a finalist for the 2020 Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize.

 

What's your current writing routine? Has it always been like this, or is it different now than it has been in the past?

I don't actually have a writing routine. I've done everything from work every day for six months straight on the revision I did for this particular novel to going three or four months without actually writing a word of fiction. 

When I am writing, what works best for me is to just go and do it–first thing in the morning without engaging with the world. So when I feel really desperate and think I have to get some traction on something, then I'm not allowed to read the newspaper or talk to anyone or go on Facebook until I’ve written at least 500 words. 

So when you work in these bursts, what are they like and how often do you have them? And how do you set that up? Because I love this idea.

Well, I just decide I'm going to work on my project. And then I work on my project until something distracts me, or I hit a hole. So that might be a good three days in a row or three months in a row. 

There's no kind of formula to it. Mostly I have to make myself do it and just stop doing the other things. 

I've gotten much better at saying no to most things. I think you've got to say no, whether it's to your kids, to your spouse, to your family, to the social pressures, to tantalizing work offers. Unless you're starving, of course. 

I mean, there are times when I have to take on more work than I want to. For example, I was just offered a novel editing gig. It sounded really, really good,  an intriguing project. And it’s something I ordinarily could not have said no to, because it pays well. But I find these edits usually take up about two weeks of my life.

So I thought, do I really need to do something that's going to keep me from starting back to my own writing? Which I'm ready to do right now after the copy editing, the proofreading, the COVID, the summer, The Beguiling coming out and all the virtual activity around that… I'm ready. I've got stuff I want to do. So this allowed me to say no and pass it on to somebody else. 

Like most writers, you have a lot of other things happening in your life, including raising a family. How do you see that relationship between writing and raising children?

Something I've seen happen to so many women I know who are writers, friends I did the MFA program with. Everything's hunky-dory: they put out their first book and then they have kids and then they think they're not going to be the one with this traditional relationship. And all of a sudden, who's making the lunches? Who’s at home (because writers work at home) when the kids are sick.And then all of a sudden it's like they're stuck. 

I have writer friends who had one child and had always planned to have another one. Then after the one, it was like, Nope, can't do this again. For me, I love my son to death, but one's enough. I don't know how some people do it with three children. Heard someone the other day say having two children is like you're drowning…and then someone throws you a baby.

I don't actually know any writers who have more than two kids. The only one I can think of who maneuvered it successfully, at least without any rancor on the part of her children, was Carol Shields. Or without her saying anything about how difficult it was. You look at somebody like Mordecai Richler–he had five kids, they all idolized him. And he had a Florence, but you know, how many women have a Florence?

Could you tell me the story of the very first thing you published and what that experience was like?

The very first thing was a story in The New Quarterly. I was sending out stories, post-MFA. I'd sent stuff before that too, but I can now see why they weren't published. 

The story had been rejected a few times. It was called “Listening to Bill (Mr. Bojangles) Robinson Tap Dancing On The Radio.” So that was super exciting! I have a warm place in my heart for TNQ. 

Then I started getting, you know, hits here and there, things like third place in lit mag contests and the usual trajectory. But then I got really lucky. I sent a story to the Eden Mills Writers’ Festival

One day I picked up the phone and heard, “This is Leon Rooke calling from the Eden Mills Writers Festival.” And I actually said, “Oh yeah, right!” I thought somebody was fooling me. He said, “You’ve won first prize in our contest. Would you mind if I took the liberty of sending your story to The Malahat Review?”

The contest prize was 500 bucks. The lesson is just to not give up, and know what a crapshoot these things are.

So The Leon Rooke himself forwards my winning story, “How to Survive in the Bush” to the Malahat Review. I think his wife, Constance, was the editor at the time. 

I had sent another story to them a couple of months back, and they chose to publish that one and rejected the winning story. Hahaha! So my friend Caroline Adderson, who had been publishing some stories with Saturday Night Magazine said, you have to send that Eden Mills story to Saturday Night, I know they're looking for fiction. 

And I said, Oh yeah. Okay. And then I didn't. She said, I'm going to come over with a bloody envelope and send it for you. So she did. And then, after I don't know how long after–two weeks, a week, a month–I get a phone call from Ken Whyte, then editor at Saturday Night Magazine. He says, “We all love your story!” I was doing freelance journalism at the time, but I hadn’t pitched them anything, so I didn't know what he was talking about. It turns out he meant “How to Survive in the Bush.”

He said, “We're going to run it. We're going to arrange a photographer to come do a shoot. We can pay you $2,000.” Oh my God. That's a ton of money for a story. That's what Toronto Life pays or maybe a little less. I had one in published there a few years later. But wow, $2,000. So that was a pretty good life for my little story that got rejected by Malahat. And “How to Survive in the Bush” ended up the opening story in my first collection.

Oh, I forgot to mention. Previous to winning Eden Mills I had sent that same story to the CBC contest–it came back so quickly, it was as if they hadn't even opened the envelope. And that's the one that got me attention. And that led to Toronto editors saying, “Oh, who's this person? Does she have a collection?”

So it's all different tastes, right? One magazine doesn't even like it enough to publish it. And another magazine goes, we like this the best! So people should take heart. Honestly, I cannot repeat this enough. It’s all subjective? Yes, cream rises. But you know, everyone likes a different flavour of ice-cream. 

A lot of times writers will say, I don't have time to write. And what they mean is, there are all these other things crowding me, but we will always have other things. Over the years when other things might've made finding time to write challenging, what strategies did you use to get the writing done?

I was working at Saturday Night as a senior editor in Toronto but [my husband] John was still in Vancouver. So that was about 80 hours a week; my first collection was largely done, except for one, long final story and the editing.

Then I got fired and it was the best thing that ever happened to me because if I hadn't been fired, I wouldn't have finished All the Anxious Girls on Earth

I had always told myself that until my first book was done, I couldn't have a child. I knew it would be a hugely interfering thing.

My first book came out the same year I had my son. And I think that really threw me for a loop because, in hindsight, I had really bad postpartum depression, which at the time I didn't think I had. 

Anyway, I found those first few years as a mother really hard. I wrote this and that, I still did some journalism. I was freelance writing, trying to get back to writing, then the teaching started–journalism at Malaspina University-College and then a little bit at UBC and then as an adjunct professor the Optional-Residency MFA Program at UBC.. 

And meanwhile, about 13 years ago, I finally got help for a really massive anxiety disorder which included OCD and hypochondria, and went on medication. It made a huge difference because within a few months of being on the medication, I got the Darwin's Bastards anthology done, and meanwhile, I was still teaching at UBC. 

One Victoria Day, my friend, the writer, Caroline Adderson was over. I had about two thirds of Better Living in Plastic Explosives done, but it was taking bloody forever. I remember Dexter came out to the backyard. He would have been about nine. 

And Caroline had a son half a year older, a different kind of kid. Dex was very intense on me. And her kid would go off and play with cars by himself for like 10 hours. My kid was kind of like me, super-hyped. 

So Caroline said, “Dexter, come here… what's your favorite chocolate bar? I'm going to buy you an entire box. But every morning, you just get ready for school and leave your mom alone. Don't bug your mom, you let her finish the book.” 

And so she got him these chocolate bars, Twix, I think, and he did. And I did. I also had a very good therapist, a psychiatrist who had gotten me on this medication without me freaking out. 

I’d already been on the medication for about a year. So then my shrink basically said, “Just put a bunch of things in a jar you want to do and pull one thing out and that's all you're going to do until that thing is done.” 

There were all these techniques, little writing hacks to force myself to just focus because if you don't focus on one thing, nothing will get done. Like if you try to do something else: “I'm going to run to the post office or I'm going to answer these five emails or I'm going to…” before you do the thing you're supposed to do, the thing won't get done.

I knuckled down and in a period of about eight months, I wrote a third of that book and boom, it was done. I wrote just over a third of Better Living in eight months. And it had been 12 years between books. 

Does that tell you something? I just decided to do it. I was feeling desperate. I thought, Why have I done all these things for others, all these other things? I’ve written a chunk of this thing, but it's not enough. So there was the chocolate bar bribe. There was the writing jar hack. And the desperation.

There was a 12-year gap between my first and second books. And this time it's a smaller gap, nine years, but I actually finished the book more than a year before that.  So I’m closing the gap a bit. Maybe the next one will be six years. So yeah, teaching, having an anxiety disorder, having a kid, you know, taking on work because you know, you take on work. 

And then just finding the writing doesn't always come. You don't just write because you should and can, you write because you have something to say. At least that’s how I look at it.

Why are you writing what you write and why do you write the way you do? What is the necessity of it? I don't see the point of just writing to write. I'm not one of these people who says, if I can't write, I'll die. I want an audience. I'm not writing for myself.

Have you ever thought about giving up on writing and if so, how did you manage to move past it and recommit?

It wasn't so much giving up on writing, but all those dark nights and days of the soul thinking I will never have another book. It’s just so bloody hard. Some people say there's no such thing as writer's block. I don't care what you call it. It's probably akin to how people feel when they're deeply depressed. 

I know what anxiety feels like, and really bad anxiety can make you almost delusional, but I don't know what a deep depression feels like. I’m guessing that dark, lethargic, hopeless feeling of depression is like thinking you just can't get this done or nothing you write will ever come together again or be good.

So it's just easier to avoid doing it when it just feels like drudge and sludge and puke. And then eventually there comes that point where the not-writing begins to feel worse than the hard reality of writing. So then you have to go and try again. 

I know I can write, but sometimes, it's not like the well runs dry, but more like some of the things I try to do, I don't have the ability to do, and it super frustrates me. I become aware of my limitations and my strengths as a writer. I try to play to them. Although that doesn't mean I'm not ambitious.

No, you're one of the most artistically ambitious writers I know.

But there are things I simply can't do like writers I admire can, and I wish I could be that kind of writer, or that kind of writer, but in my own way. Whether it's the ear for dialogue or the intrinsic understanding of a subculture they're born to. I couldn't be that writer, but sometimes just reading amazing things gets you back to the table, right? 

The opposite of that is reading something and going, “That's fucking boring, this is what people like? I can do better than that.” And that sometimes gets you back to the table. So the two extremes–that and the super-amazing, brilliant, ‘that's why we do this’ tingle-tingle.

I had an idea for a bigger thing a decade ago. I didn't call it a novel for ages. I called it the novel-thing or the novel-esque thing or The Bigger Thing. For me, writing is almost like a collage technique, or like quilting. There has to be a critical mass of understanding and notes on what I want to do before I can commit. I don't say, “Oh, I'm just going to start with this blank page and see what happens.” 

With The Beguiling, I did have the idea of this character, Lucy, who people confess to, but I didn't come up with that whole mechanism of why it happens and how and what it means to her. She was initially going to be a congenital liar, and there was going to be all this stuff about lying worked into it. 

And that didn't pan out. I ended up sifting it out of there. Initially there was going to be a lot more stuff about the climate crisis, but it just felt too inauthentic or artificial. So these different confessions emerged and then I figured out how to stitch them together.

I didn't want to do regular connective tissue. So that's where those interstitial bits come in on mourning and then blessings and curses… stitching it all together. The structure just evolved organically over the eight years I worked on it.

So how are you feeling about your writing right now? What's going on for you? 

Well, I haven't really written anything since I finished my second big revision, and that was a huge revision that took eight months. And then I worked another four months on the next revision. So, a year of revising and I didn't finish that until the spring. 

And then it was just back and forth on that, the copy edit, the proofreading. I have fiddled around with some little things. I want to write this book of contemporary fables, for instance. 

So I've dabbled, but like I say, I can go months without writing. I haven't actually sat down and written more than two days in a row since. I would say working on my revision was writing, but I haven't done any other new writing since probably just before the start of COVID.

I mean, that's why I'm so slow. It doesn't feel like seven months since I've written something, but now I'm itching, I'm ready, but I just don't write all the time. 

I make notes, I read, I have ideas, but I'm not sitting there writing every day. I want to start on something in the next few days, then I'll go and work on it until it freaks me out or I get stuck or whatever. 

What's been your favourite part of finishing and publishing your books? Are there any moments that have come to you where you think, Oh, this was all worth it?

Seeing responses from people, particularly people you don't know at all. That some complete stranger has picked your book up and read it and loved it, I think that makes it really worthwhile. But you know, putting a book out in the year of Covid isn't the most fun thing in the universe. It's not the same.

I had a wonderful national virtual event through Calgary’s WordFest, which was great. And then I did one through a bookstore in Vancouver, Upstart & Crow, also virtual, and I've been at various festivals, including in Ireland, all virtually. So it's been kind of anticlimactic compared to my previous two books. I think I had almost 200 people at my book launch in Vancouver for Better Living

Everybody's in the same boat, though and there are also all kinds of lovely parts of it. There's that part where you say, It's done. I mean, the last two times it was physically putting the mss. in an envelope and sending it off to the agent. This time it was just, press send. 

Then, there's when it goes to an editor and they say, yes, and then there's the contract. And then everybody says gushy things. Those things are all nice. And then, the physical thing coming together, you know, discussing the cover and the internal layout. I just love that. I loved the copy editor guy and the proofreader was so good too.

People wonder if they should self-publish and I say, Why would you want to do that? All these people have a specific job they do really, really well. And you want to do that all yourself or pay somebody out of your own pocket because you think you're going to get more money? Ahahaha.

I think this has been a really good conversation for me because I haven't written for six or seven months, besides this and that.

But you can feel it coming again…

Yeah, totally. There's two sets of things. One is the fable thing I want to work on. And now I'm feeling like I've got to get that other desk set up. 

I mean, that sounds so spoiled, two desks. But I have this book I love, The Writer's Desk. And the photos are all by Jill Krementz, who was Kurt Vonnegut's wife. They were taken for, and the bits are excerpted from, various Paris Reviews over the years. All these writers just talking about what’s on their desk, and their process.

And I think it's Edmund White… he's talking about how, much like me, months and months can go by and he doesn't pick up a pen. And, then he says, “I don't believe these people who say they must write, nobody must write. Then when I do pick up the pen and I write something, I feel like a poor drenched bird huddling under a sodden blanket. I feel so miserable and unhappy until I'm finished. And then I feel good for a while. “

I'm paraphrasing. I just love it. But there are several writers in there who have… one of them has three desks. I can't remember who. And I'm like, Oh my God. 

But there is the idea of the correspondence desk. In old times, a writer would have their correspondence desk because they had to write a lot of letters. We didn't do email, you know, even as recently as the eighties. So writers would have their secretary desk with their correspondence and their bills, and then they would have their place where they wrote. I think I'm at the point where I'm allowed to have that. So I'm creating it for myself.

Do you have any other books you’d recommend on writing craft?

There are two books on craft I love. If I ever did another workshop, I would do it strictly with this book by a retired lawyer in the US, Stanley Fish. It's called How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One

And the other one you probably know of, Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer. It's really good, the way she divides it up: sentences, beginnings, endings. 

I like the Ben Marcus anthology, The Anchor Book of New American Stories. I just love the introduction and find it really inspiring–he says the sentence is the only technology available to us, and it's what you do with it that matters. 

It all begins with the sentence, it's all about the way it's written. Of course, there has to be something in the content. But unless you're doing that in a distinctive, authentic, best-you-can manner, there's really no point in doing it.

Yes! So my last question is about any advice you might have for writers who, for whatever reasons, are having trouble finishing something.

Sometimes you have to ask yourself, am I forcing it? Like, is the thing needing to be finished or…? 

I don't want to insult people, I want to inspire them, but there are those people to whom I want to say “piss-or-get-off-the-pot.” And to those people I want to say, Do you just want to write or is the story important to you?

Cause there's a difference between “I need to finish this because it's really meaningful to me” and “I just want to write things.” Are there other things you want to write? Then maybe it would be good to go write something else or maybe you've outgrown your project depending how long you've been bloody working on it. 

Is it an ongoing process or do you keep pulling it out of a drawer and trying to fix it? Is it fixable? Is that why you can't finish it? Have you finished a draft and it's just not good? Or you just can't find an ending– that's different. I'm not sure what “not finishing” implies for other people. Most of these projects I’ve seen are either memoir or semi-autobiographical novels.

Well, if people only wrote what they knew, what they’d experience,  we wouldn't have two thirds of the books in the world. Right? Like what would David Mitchell write about? Then you get all these coming of age stories, and they could be good if they're good, but . . .

But again, the thing is, do you have only one story to tell or do you like words? Do you like sentences? When I've taken a long time to finish something, I've done other stuff in between. Like I have a bunch of other stories sitting there. I've been working on these contemporary fables. So now I've got to turn my attention to finishing that.

And I have a new, longer thing I want to work on — another Big Thing, ahaha. That's going to take a while. But if I actually am disciplined, it may only take four or five years, not 8 or 9. I'm going to try really hard. Sometimes you’ve just got to force yourself. Ask, okay, what's getting in the way of you finishing? If it's time, what can you cut that will give you your four hours a day?

You hear those stories of people getting up at 4am and writing before they go teach. I'm not one of those people, God bless them. Isn't David Guterson, who wrote Snow Falling on Cedars, one of those guys? I’m in awe of that level of fortitude.

Maybe that's what some people have to do if they can't find those hours. What are you willing to give up? There's got to be some sacrifice involved. I mean, writing for publication is not a hobby, it's work.

Another thing getting in people's way–this isn't my problem, but I have recognized it in people–is a lack of confidence, a lack of belief in self. It's the opposite of thinking everything you write is gold. That's a problem too, because then nobody can help you, tell you what's not right. I think what you have to do is read what's out there and see what your contemporaries are doing. 

But you can't pop out from under a cabbage leaf and say, I'm doing this thing, but it has no relationship to what's considered good or really good or bad in the world. 

And you'd be surprised how many workshops I've done–not Master’s level, but classes for writers–and they don't bloody read. Or the last short story they read was “A Rose for Emily” by Faulkner back in high school. You're kidding me, right? You want to write short fiction and you have no idea what's happened in the last 80 years? It beggars belief. 

Oh, one more thing: there cannot be enough said for just going away somewhere for a few days. I have to tell you, I had some of the biggest breakthroughs, the intense work I got done in these three and five day chunks when I went to a friend's cabin. 

For example, I went to Lummi Island for five days and it was like, holy shit! I worked all morning. Then, I did research for another chapter, had lunch, did research for another chapter, went out for a run, then came back and revised. It was fantastic. 

I went away twice to another place in Roberts Creek for three days, once when I was finishing, and then when I was trying to nail down the revision. It was incredible. There were a few other getaways like that, particularly towards the end, very intensive. I got more done in three days than I would get in two weeks just cause there was absolutely nothing else.

Even though I’m only here with John and the dog, still, my whole world is around me. But in a little secluded place where you don't talk to anybody, don't have to, you can eat cereal out of the box. There's something to be said for that. And all you have with you is the stuff you're working on. 

I had a file box and my computer. It's great if you’re able to do that. And then you get some momentum going, and you come home and say, goddammit, I can do this! Sometimes you just have to tear yourself away from your life for this tiny bit of time. 

 

 

Zsuzsi Gartner’s books, including her novel The Beguiling, are available at independent bookstores and online

Zsuzsi Gartner book cover The Beguiling

book cover Better Living Through Plastic Explosives by Zsuzsi Gartner

If you’d like to take a tip from Zsuzsi and gain some momentum with your writing by getting away for a bit, you can get a free copy of my PDF Guide: Get It Written Already — The Busy Writer’s Guide to DIY Writing Retreats.

Zsuzsi Gartner: Everyone Likes a Different Flavour