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A Writer Profile: Gail Anderson-Dargatz

Gail Anderson-Dargatz's first novel, The Cure for Death by Lightning, was a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and won the UK’s Betty Trask Award, the BC Book Prize for Fiction and the Vancity Book Prize. Her second novel, A Recipe for Bees, was nominated for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and was a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. The Spawning Grounds was nominated for the Sunburst Award and the Ontario Library Association Evergreen Award and short-listed for the Canadian Authors Association Award for Fiction. Her thrillers, The Almost Wife and The Almost Widow, were national bestsellers. She taught for nearly a decade in the MFA program in creative writing at the University of British Columbia and now mentors writers online. She lives in the Shuswap region of British Columbia.

"Gail Anderson-Dargatz has something that no amount of craft can give a writer: She is hopelessly in love with and attentive to her subject, the physical world and all its gifts."

-- The Globe and Mail

We warmly welcome Gail Anderson-Dargatz to this space.

Where writers write.

Photo credit: Mitch Krupp

"I write for the meditative state it brings, for the flow runners talk of, that magical place where we lose our sense of place and time, and of self."

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

Once upon a time, I had the entire top floor of my house for an office, library and storage room. Mine all mine! But when I remarried, I moved into my husband’s small home, and together we had four kids. In our early years together, the back hallway became my office, and there was a steady stream of traffic through it as kids went back and forth from the kitchen to the backyard.

Once upon a time, I thought I could never write unless I had a quiet room of my own. I quickly learned that I would have to find my writing time within chaos, or I wouldn’t write. I tried many things to get my writing time. My husband bought me traffic cones for my birthday so I could put them up to signal that the kids couldn’t bug me. So, they found ways to squabble with each other just in front of the traffic cones. Now my kids are grown.

I find myself once again with not only a room of my own, but a house of my own. It’s both liberating and sad. I find myself missing the noise and bother, and the many excuses not to write and the inspirations my children brought me, like gifts, daily.

"Above my desk I have a note that says, Write Crap! It’s a reminder to allow myself to write badly, to make that first draft a discovery draft in which I find out what I’m writing abo

Describe your writing space.

Over my desk, I have a very large corkboard littered with candid shots of my kids at various ages, and of my husband and I back in the day, when we first met as friends within the local theatre community back in the ‘80’s. The largest photo is one my husband took of my mother just before her death, and just after a major stroke. She was also a writer and inspired my writing in so many ways. I feel comforted having her watch over me as I write.

What does your writing process look like?

When I first started writing, like most young literary writers I suspect, I felt I needed to write “organically.” In other words, I didn’t plan. I quickly learned that writing like this takes, like, forever. So now I start a book by mocking up a synopsis, knowing that it will undoubtedly change and change as the writing progresses. Then I map out that basic story on Scrivener as an outline. Then it’s a matter of roughly sketching out scenes, action and dialogue, after throwing the characters into a given situation (situation always comes first), to see what story they want to tell.

So again, that discovery draft. I then do repeated sweeps through the project, developing conflicts I may have avoided, working out logic problems, adding in the texture, description, beats, interior monologue, bits of exposition, transition and researching through it all. I usually have at least three projects on the go: one in the synopsis or outlining stage, one that I’m actively writing, and one in edits. I fit all this in between my mentoring and developmental edit schedule, work I do for other writers, so it’s a bit of a juggle.

What is the easiest and most difficult part of the process for you?

The juggling. I wear so many hats – parent, teacher, mentor, editor, writer. On top of that, I work in more than one genre. I write literary novels, hi-lo books for both adult and young adult literacy learners, children’s novels, and now more commercial thrillers. It’s sometimes hard to switch gears.

Do you set daily writing goals?

I used to be a night owl as a younger writer, working into the wee hours. But I now write in the mornings when my energy is highest. I try very hard to avoid email, social media and the news in the morning so I can keep my focus on my work. Word count varies depending on the stage of the novel I’m in, but in the discovery draft stage I aim for 1000 to 2000 words a day, or a chapter a day.

What is your most unusual writing quirk?

I used to write wearing my dad’s old mustard-coloured cardigan. I had to wear it. As I grow older, I find I have fewer compulsive habits (outside eating chocolate). I drink tea, though. It’s part of my writing habit as I get up from the laptop to mull things over. And I have to circle my desk a few times, tidying this, doing that, before I eventually sit down to write. Seems to be a thing.

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?

Several of my novels do feature a specific community, Turtle Valley, and share some characters. This has more to do with the location of these novels, though, as I wrote about the Shuswap, the landscape I grew up in and where I now live.

So there is a kind of continuity of locations and themes between them, but not something I consciously try for.

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

That’s a very good question. Sometimes I wonder the same thing. It comes down to compartmentalizing. I try to keep my mentoring and writing days separate and turn off social media and news to keep myself focused.

At times I simply have to leave the house, to go on those walks, to get quiet time to think. And, of course, there is that fine art of saying no.

Photo credit: Mitch Krupp

"After a day of writing I feel calm and that deep satisfaction that comes with mastery."

What does success look like to you?

A calm mind, stable relationships, relatively happy kids, time with friends, a sense of community and belonging (which can be elusive at times) enough money to get by, and purpose and meaning. Everything else is just noise.

Tell us a few things that would surprise us to learn about you: the person, the writer.

I am an absolute goofball and lack a censor button, at least at home. One of my favorite pastimes is cracking up my husband as we sit together in the evening. I love to make people laugh.

What has influenced you the most as a writer?

My mother first, as she was a writer and storyteller. Then mentors, like Jack Hodgins, who taught me not only how to write, but how to live as a writer, and how to teach writing. And then my kids, who love to write, and helped me to remember how to write, not for work, but for play.

Best writing advice you’ve ever been given? The worst?

The best piece of writing advice came from Jack Hodgins who told me not to publish too soon, even if I had the opportunity. If you publish too soon then it’s out there and it will likely sink and that will be that. It’s harder, then, to publish a second time. And you’ve missed the opportunity to develop the work into something truly great.

The worst bit of advice I’ve been given is something of a writing cliché, that we should start our project with character, really get to know our characters before we sit down to write.

I’ve learned that the starting place is, instead, situation, that hot mess we throw our characters into. Does the situation have enough opportunity for conflict? Then throw your character in there. Allow them to reveal themselves to you, the author, by what they say and do in scene. In other words, get to know your characters through the act of writing. Don’t decide ahead of time because that can box you in.

What were your favorite childhood books?

I still have the Golden Book of Poetry that I read, and that my mother read to me over and over. The cover is torn, but I still go back to it to read Wynken, Blynken and Nod.

Who are your favourite writers?

Oh, there are so many! I have a hard time thinning down that list, but I suppose my all-time favorites are Toni Morrison, Alice Munro and Michael Ondaatje. Morrison for her mastery of craft (which I use an example with my students), Munro because she made my Canadian, female experience valid, and Ondaatje because his prose is so beautiful that I can forgive him anything, even his wild and weedy structures.

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

Toni Morrison’s Beloved, again for her mastery of craft.

Michael Ondaatje’s Divisadero for the beauty of the language and images.

Karen Connelly’s The Change Room because Karen made sexuality sacred in this book.

Carla Funk’s Mennonite Valley Girl because any woman living in BC in the 1980’s will relate and so will their daughters.

Michelle Good’s Five Little Indians. Every Canadian should read this book to gain perspective on the lasting impact of residential schools.

This Q&A has been edited for length, and was originally conducted in 2021. Gail Anderson-Dargatz appears courtesy of HarperCollins Canada.

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