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A Writer Profile: Elisabeth de Mariaffi

Born and raised in Toronto, Canadian author Elisabeth de Mariaffi now makes her home in St. John's, Newfoundland. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph, and has taught fiction and screenwriting at UBC, Memorial University and through the Humber School for Writers. She has recently released her fourth book, The Retreat, about a dancer who must separate truth from lies in order to survive a deadly storm at a remote mountain arts retreat. Her works of fiction have been nominated for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, named Best Books of the Year by the Globe and Mail and shortlisted for the Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Prize. We're delighted to have Elisabeth share her writing process with us on the Journal.

Where writers write.

How important is it to have ‘a room of one’s own’?

I think it’s hugely important, although we make due when we can. When my kids were small, my writing desk was in the living room, so that I could see out the large bay window and keep an eye on them as they played in the yard. Later, when I carved out an actual office in a new house, I posted a sign that simply read “NO” on the office door — I still had a day job then, and my writing time was limited, and I valued it. So that sign was there to remind everyone that when I was writing, the answer to every other question would be ’no’. Can I have a sandwich? No. A ride to the mall? No. Can you find my book/hat/shoes/backpack? Sorry, later. The answer is No.

For the last few years I’ve been lucky enough to have an office outside the home, on the top floor of the yoga studio where I was a member, but like all good things, that arrangement came to an end— I moved my office back home a year ago, owing to pandemic restrictions. Now I have a new home office in the room that used to belong to my daughter— now all grown up and out on her own.

Do you have any favourite quotes displayed in the space?

I have a few!

“One is alone with her in that long and quiet association.” That’s Guy de Maupassant, and he was talking about nature, but I think of it as actually being alone with myself, allowing myself to truly engage with my own thoughts and threads, without judgement or interruption.

Also, this one, from Gustav Mahler: “Tradition ist Schlamperei.” (Tradition is sloppiness.) Here, he was criticizing opera companies that lean on inertia instead of forging new paths.

Last one, and this is over my desk:

— I’m only going to say this once…

— How about NUNCE?

It’s dialogue between Chris Evans and Robert Downey Jr. from one of the Iron Man movies. I keep it there to remind me what fun dialogue looks like.

If you have pictures on your writing desk, who and what are they of?

So many photos of my kids, or things they’ve made, notes they’ve left me. But also cards friends have sent, and— funnily enough, given the timing on THE RETREAT, which is set at mountain arts retreat— a postcard I sent to my daughter when I first went to the Banff Centre for the Arts back in 2009. She found it when she was cleaning out her room and I was moving into it, last year. I was doing final revisions on THE RETREAT and the find seemed auspicious, so up it went!

I also have a mannequin that someone gave me when I was writing HYSTERIA. That book is set in the 50s, so I put an apron on her, but also some chic sunglasses— but it’s also about isolation and loneliness, I think, especially for young mothers. In the book, the main character, Heike, has only one person she comes to rely on, her sister-in-law, Arden. So I named the mannequin Arden and she’s my company while I write. She does the staring out the window for me.

Favourite time of day to write? How many hours a day or words-per-day do you write?

I don’t have a favourite time, but I do find that sometimes if I get caught up on admin jobs, the day sort of disappears. Some days I write in the morning, first thing— other days I need to go for a run, bake something, putter around while my brain works in the background, and then sit down to write later. The best advice I give new writers is to remember that Writing Does Not Equal Typing.

Having said that, when I am working on a first draft, I like to get 1000 words a day. That keeps things moving.

"It’s so easy to get caught up in “productivity” as a word count. But you also need to have that time spent staring out the window, thinking dreaming."

Do you want each book to stand on its own, or are you trying to build a body of work with connections between each book?

So far, all my books are standalone, but I’d love to write a series. I often think about going back and writing more books about the protagonist from my first novel, Evie Jones from The Devil You Know. I’d love to write a private eye series.

How do you manage writing with other demands on your time?

It can be hard sometimes, and especially this year with the pandemic, and everyone home all the time, and the younger kids (we have four altogether) often even home for online school…. but we make it work. My husband is a writer, too, and immensely supportive. To be honest, he really handles most of the online school whenever things have shut down, so that’s made writing much easier.

What were your favourite childhood books?

Harriet the Spy, for sure. Watership Down. A little-known book called Baby Island about two girls who survive a shipwreck only to find themselves beached with all the babies they were looking after for other travellers when the lifeboats were released. (I was obsessed with that one; later my daughter read it over and over again, too, so I felt vindicated!) As an older kid and teenager I read mysteries all the time; I loved Poirot and the Sue Grafton series.

What books have you read this past year that has helped you through the pandemic?

The books I loved the most this year were the ones I sank into completely, or the ones that surprised and delighted me with their originality. Maria Reva’s Good Citizens Need Not Fear, Teresa Solana’s The First Prehistoric Serial Killer, Gil Adamson’s Ridgerunner, Thomas King’s Indians on Vacation. That’s just off the top of my head!

If you were a bookseller what 5 books would you hand-sell to readers and why?

It would honestly be way more than five, haha. But these ones jump to mind immediately.

- Anything by Ann Patchett, but especially Bel Canto, which is really masterful. It’s suspenseful and surreal and funny and romantic and deeply true. What a book.

- My favourite book of short stories by James Salter, Last Night. I go back to this one all the time. The language is perfect and the characters are so particular.

- Alice Munro, The Progress of Love. It could be any book of Munro stories, couldn’t it? She does more in 30 pages than most writers can do in a whole novel. But this one contains many of my favourites, so.

- Poetry: Inventory by Dionne Brand, the book of our era, in my opinion. Brand is a treasure and a genius and this book is relentless.

- Roxane Gay’s book of essays, Bad Feminist. There are lots of other essay collections I could recommend but Gay’s is iconic and varied and a great read both for someone just delving into these issues and for those of us who have been thinking and writing on them for some time.

ELISABETH DE MARIAFFI’s debut book of short stories, How to Get Along with Women, was longlisted for the 2013 Scotiabank Giller Prize. Her poetry and short fiction have been widely published in magazines across Canada. Her first novel, The Devil You Know, was named one of the Best Books of 2015 by the Globe and Mail and the National Post.The Globe and Mail also chose her most recent novel, Hysteria, as one of the Best Books of 2018. Both books were shortlisted for the Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award. Her new novel, The Retreat, was released July 13th. Elisabeth de Mariaffi lives in St. John’s, Newfoundland, with the poet George Murray and their four children.

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