In Conversation with Claire Caldwell
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 14/03/2015 (2885 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Claire Caldwell is a Toronto writer. She writes poems, teaches poetry workshops for kids and edits Harlequin romances. She’s currently touring Invasive Species, her first book. She recently took the time to talk to Ariel Gordon.
FP: What do you want people to know about Invasive Species?
A: Well, as the cover and title suggest, the book is populated by both animals and people, including urban cougars, a dead whale, multiple bears, brothers, New Mexican moths, medical students and a psychic. There are some vegetables and minerals, too.
FP: Tell me about that strange object/phenomena called ‘the first book.’
A. People keep asking me how long it took me to write the book, and my best answer is, “my whole life.” Obviously, none of the poems I wrote in Grade 7 made it into the collection (RIP Song of the Licorice Tree), but it does feel like all of my writing efforts from childhood until now led to or culminated in this final product. Which makes writing a second one daunting!
Another thing I’ve found interesting — though it might not be a first-book phenomenon, exclusively — is that I don’t feel done with a lot of the themes I tackled in Invasive Species. I felt like I only truly understood what the book was about in the final phase of writing. I still feel motivated and invigorated by the question of our place in the natural world and what it means to conceive of the “natural” world as separate from humanity/society. I’m still writing poems about the relationships we have with animals and the spectre of climate change.
FP: How do you approach writing poems about animals? Do you start with field guides? With first-hand observations? Do you have an ethics of writing about animals?
A: I tend to start with anecdotes I hear or read about animals and humans coming into contact in bizarre or unusual ways, or sometimes I’ll come across snippets of biological/zoological research that will be the jumping-off point for a poem. I’m not sure I have an ethics of writing about animals, but that’s really interesting to think about: How do you ethically represent subjects that have no way to access or conceptualize those representations (as far as we know)? I guess my general goal is to interrogate the lines we draw between ourselves and animals, to explore both our fundamental differences and where those lines begin to blur.
FP: Also, can you write about nature these days without talking about climate change?
A: I don’t think so. Even if you don’t address climate change explicitly, I think any nature writing today is going to have a shadow hanging over it — a sense of loss/dread/urgency that’s informed by what’s happening all around us.
FP: According to your bio, you edit “wholesome romances and action-adventure novels” at Harlequin. Tell me about the constraints of romances versus poetry. Tell me about moving between commercial and so-not-commercial genres.
A: My approaches to editing and writing are very different to begin with, so it’s hard to say how much of the distinction comes from the genre versus the work itself. I’m often asked about the Harlequin “formula,” but I swear there is no such thing! There is definitely form and structure, though, and I find it very rewarding to walk that fine line between fulfilling certain promises to readers (the heat level for example, or the happy ending) and developing compelling, motivated characters and fresh plots. I love rolling up my sleeves to help authors shape their stories, and I enjoy how collaborative that process is.
Writing poems is quite solitary, by comparison, and it still feels a bit alchemical to me — so many conditions have to almost magically fall into place for me to feel like I’m really in the writing zone, whereas I can sit down and start editing without a second thought.
FP: To people on the Prairies, who rarely spend more than 30 or 40 minutes in transit, Toronto’s hour or more commutes seem like mythical spaces. (People in Toronto talk about their commutes, whereas people in Winnipeg talk about the weather… ). Do you bus-write?
A: My commute is a bit too hectic to write — getting a seat can be dicey, and I have to transfer subway lines/buses. Sometimes I will jot down an idea or image in my phone, though. Commuting is actually my prime reading time. Though we all complain about public transit, I’m grateful that there’s a mostly reliable mode of transportation that allows me to get lost in a book every day. Of course, there are moments when the intimacy of reading can be a bit awkward in such a public space — you wonder if people are judging your book choice, or you start crying or laughing at a particular passage.
(This interview has been condensed for space.)
Ariel Gordon is a Winnipeg writer.