Interview: Théodora Armstrong

writerfest

The Vancouver Writers Fest (formerly the Vancouver International Writers and Readers Festival) is one of the largest annual festivals in Vancouver. It brings writers from across the world to Granville Island and turns the tourist spot into an even more eclectic jumble of arts and culture. This year, the festival runs from October 22-28.

Every year, the Writers Fest allows over 5,000 students to see and hear great writers, in both French and English, through their ‘Spreading the Word’ program. “This brings the written word to life,” said Judith Walker, Media Relations Manager of the Festival, “When you put a ‘real’ author in front of students who can then ask that author about the writing process, or why characters did certain things in the book, you open up the idea that writing–and of course reading–is fun and imaginative.”

There have always been writers of nonfiction at the Festival, but this year there is a series of events featuring some of the most important non-fiction books of the year.  Eric Schlosser (author of Fast Food Nation) will be there with his new book, Command and Control, an illuminating investigation of the risks associated with nuclear weapons and the near misses we have already experienced without even know it. George Packer, an esteemed writer for The New Yorker, will support The Unwinding, which journeys through the lives of several ordinary Americans to create a lyrical requiem for a troubled nation. Finally, Alan Weisman, author of The New York Times bestseller The World Without Us, will be at the Festival with his new book, Countdown.

As well as hosting a plethora of international authors, the Vancouver Writer’s Fest will also feature authors from Canada, and many from Vancouver.

One of them, Théodora Armstrong, released her short story collection Clear Skies, No Wind, 100% Visibility this year. She will be speaking at three events during the Festival: 50 Years of Stories, This Place We Call Home, and Celebrating 25 Years of Journey. LotusLand tracked her down for an interview at the comfortable Cedar Cottage Coffee House, where she appeared very at home with a cup of tea and a smiling face. Having just escaped from her busy life, including the chaos of raising a four year old daughter, Théodora chatted about the upcoming festival and her experiences writing Clear Skies.

A full transcript can be found below.

***

LotusLand: Who are you?

Théodora Armstrong: My name is Théodora Armstrong. I was born in Hamilton, Ontario but I’ve lived most of my life in North Vancouver. My parents were actually born in BC as well, so I’m a BC girl! I did my BFA at UBC in Creative Writing and Visual arts with a focus on photography. Then I took some time off and afterwards went to Japan and taught English for a couple years.

LL: How was that?

TA: It was incredible… for all sorts of reasons. I was ready to come home by the end, but then once I got home I wanted to go back. [Laughter] You’re never happy. Anyways, I did a bit of travelling and then came back and did my masters at UBC.

LL: You call yourself a “fiction writer, poet, and photographer” in your bio in Clear Skies, No Wind, 100% Visibility. Is that the order you would rank those titles?

TA: I would say right now I do mostly fiction and photography, but it kind of changes. When I was an undergrad student I kind of considered myself more of a poet than a fiction writer and it wasn’t until my masters that I started to really consider myself more of a fiction writer. The photography just sort of comes in whenever I have time, and also to make money.

LL: On your photography website, you talk about photographs telling stories. Do you find that photography is really similar to writing?

TA: You know, it is. For me it is, at least. I think generally for the way I approach photography there are a lot of similarities. I try and tell a story with the picture, and have a narrative within the photo. When I was an undergrad, because I was doing both the creative writing and the visual arts at the same time the two would kind of play off each other. Maybe if I had an idea and it didn’t work as a photo I would try it as a poem instead, or vice versa. I don’t really have time to do that so much anymore.

LL: And you have a daughter now.

She’s four. That certainly takes up a lot of time. But I still try working that way even with less time. What I’ve found in the past is, and I don’t necessarily believe in Writer’s Block, but if you don’t feel it anymore you want to try something different. You’ve been working on, say, a long short story so you’ve been working for many months and you’re getting tired of that. I like being able to switch it up and do some poetry or creative writing. And then I can come back to the work refreshed and able to move forward.

LL: Now, your photography business is called “Frances Elizabeth” Photography, but on the website you appear to be the only photographer. Who is Frances Elizabeth?

TA: [Laughter] Frances is my middle name and Elizabeth is my daughter’s middle name so I just kind of put the two together. Actually, that business is more of a commercial business so I wanted to keep it separate from the writing aspect at that point. Some day I would like to do a website that has both the writing and artistic side of my photography on it, but that is many years in the future.

LL: Let’s talk about your book for a minute. It’s called Clear Skies, No Wind, 100% Visibility and it is a collection of short stories that you wrote. When did you start writing the stories that now make it up?

TA: I started one of the stories, Whale Stories, as an undergrad student but it was completely rewritten when I was a grad student. That’s the earliest story. The first story in the book, Rabbit was what I felt was my first successful short story and that was the first story of grad school that I wrote. I had written fiction in the past, but not so successfully. I guess that was when I was 25.

LL: What is your writing process like?

TA: Oh…. it’s really messy. It’s not a process I would recommend to anyone, but for me it works really well. I start with some little seed of an idea (a character voice or a situation or something) and I don’t give myself any rules when I start writing, I just pour everything out onto the page. I usually write very very quickly in the beginning because I usually think about it for quite a while before I sit down to write. Sometimes I won’t even finish sentences, I’ll just jot down ideas so it’s more of a brainstorm. At a certain point I collect up the mess and try and think of it like a collage. I look at what fits together, where the stronger imagery is that might work thematically throughout the story and then I’ll just start to try and figure out where the story actually is. Then I start to build a plot out of those pieces. Some people start with a plot and outline the story, but for me to get to the heart of what I’m writing sometimes the process is how I discover the story. It’s a more organic way of going through the process. I always reach a panic point in my process where I’m like “Oh my god! I’ve been working for weeks and this doesn’t make any sense!” That part is hard.

LL: How did you decide compile them into an anthology?

TA: Well, the thesis for a grad student at UBC is a book length work, so I knew I had to do that. I knew I wanted to write a story collection and the only parameters I set out for myself was that they would all be set in BC.

LL: I thought that was an interesting theme in your book. Why did you decide to keep that consistent?

TA: I write about other places in the world as well, but I love writing about BC. When you grow up in a place you draw a lot of inspiration from it anyways. I like the polarity of the landscape here, with this awesome beauty but a danger to it as well. I write a lot about the Okanagan a lot and I went up there as a child and still go up there every summer. It’s sort of like a vacation place with the lake and fun stuff to do but also there’s always the danger of forest fires and rattlesnakes, and the desert landscape is harsh, which creates a sort of tension. I liked that for this book. How it can be beautiful one moment and dangerous the next.

LL: So, would you say a lot of your stories are based on your life?

TA: No, not a lot. It comes from so many different places. I’ve visited most of the places I’ve written about, not all of them, though. Listening to news stories, and also friends. The title story (about a flight service specialist and his experiences with a plane crash) was inspired by a friend of mine in Kamloops.

LL: Did you go up there and do research?

TA: I didn’t, actually. We had a really detailed email correspondence, but that was an example of writing out of my comfort zone because I knew nothing about the job and I was also writing from a male point of view. I’ve been to Kamloops but I had never seen the flight service station. He was a writers dream. When you interview people for a book, some people only want to give you the exciting parts. But what a writer wants are all the mundane details that give authenticity to your story. He was wonderful for that because he would tell me what all the buttons look like, the dynamics of working in a place like that, what the lingo was and in the end I had him read the story to make sure everything was correct.

LL: What about in your story The Art of Eating, which is set in a restaurant kitchen?

TA: Well, when I was a university student I waitressed for many years so that was a lot of taking inspiration from kitchens I had observed. But I did interview a couple chefs for that story, because I was always on the other side of that relationship. Part of the appeal of being a writer is getting in someone else’s shoes and seeing what their life is like. In restaurants you always find this tension between the people in the front of house and the back of house. So it was fun for me to get to see it from someone else’s point of view and see how hard their jobs are. Hopefully you can do something other than waitressing when you’re a university student! It’s not always a fun job, it’s a good way to make money, though.

LL: Now, Clear Skies also has a book trailer. Was that your idea?

TA: Yeah! It’s a thing that some writers do now, I guess. Because I’ve always had that interest in the visual side of things and the photography I thought a book trailer would be a lot of fun. It was kind of that opportunity to have the two sides of my undergrad playing off each other.

LL: Did you get to have a big part in its production?

TA: No. [Laughter] I chose what I wanted the trailer to be about. It’s describing the last story in the book, Mosquito Creek, and it’s set at Lynn Canyon where they have the cliff jumpers. Have you ever been there?

LL: Yes.

TA: Have you seen them jumping off the cliffs?

LL: It’s quite scary.

It is. I never did that as a teenager. That was another instance of writing out of my own experience. I was very lucky to have a friend from UBC who was a film maker, and we lugged a bunch of equipment down there and I got to be there for the whole thing. He did the directing and drew from the story. And my brother did the music! So it was a really fun collaboration. I would totally do it again.

LL: You studied Creative Writing at UBC. In fact, that is the topic for one of the three events you will be speaking at during the Vancouver Writer’s Fest.

TA: Yes! They’re having the 50th Anniversary of the Creative Writing Department this year, so that’s a big deal. It’s a wonderful program and it gave me so much as a writer. I actually meant my husband there, so it really gave me a lot!

LL: Do you know any of the other panelists?

TA: Yeah, Amber Dawn. We went to school together for both undergrad and grad school.

LL: Another event you are speaking at is “This Place We Call Home,” where you will be talking about the impact of British Columbia on your writing.

TA: D.W. Wilson who is part of that panel is a writer I really admire. He wrote a collection of BC short stories which I loved, it was a couple years ago. It’s called Once You Break a Knuckle, and it’s a good one.

LL: Event #3 is “Celebrating 25 Years of Journey.” At this event you will be talking about how having your stories published in Journey Prize Stories has affected your career, along with Shaena Lambert, Saleema Nawaz and Douglas Glover.

TA: Shaena Lambert is wonderful. I just recently met her at a book launch. I’m reading her short story collection right now and it’s just amazing. Saleema Nawaz… We were published in the same Journey Prize Anthology, so I’ve read her work as well and admire her work a lot.

LL: This is your first time at the writer’s festival, yes?

TA: Yes, as an author. But I’ve been many times before. I’ve been going since I was a teenager. For me, it’s sort of like writer heaven. You get to be around people who love books and the panels are always fascinating. There’s always some very interesting programming. It’s got a wonderful vibe that it hard to describe, but there is something about it… the authors are so generous with their ideas and thoughts on writing. I always come away as an audience member feeling inspired, and I always discover new authors. It’s just an exciting place to be! And it’s neat to see writers on a panel who may not have met each other before.

LL: What event are you most excited to perform at?

TA: I’m excited for all of them for different reasons. The UBC one is just going to be like a reunion. I’m excited to see one of my old profs, Keith Maillard, who is going to be up on stage with us. I adore him, so any time I get to see him I’m happy. This Place We Call Home, I’m looking forward to because I love writing about B.C. and I’m curious to see what the perspective of these other writers are on it. There are a lot of diverse short story collections coming out of B.C. which shows what a wonderful setting it is to draw from.

LL: You’ve written mostly short stories and poems, but now you are working on a novel.

TA: Yep. It’s very different and I’m probably not at a point where I can talk too much about it. I’m kind of in the thick of it.

LL: The panic phase?

TA: Exactly. I’m in the anxiety stage, but it’s going well. The longer format works for the subject matter I’m writing on. It’s always just been a matter of subject matter for me, finding something that warrants that length of a book. It doesn’t take place in BC, I can tell you that. It takes place abroad.

LL: Have you ever written about your time in Japan?

TA: I think I’m going in that direction now. I wrote so much about home with Clear Skies, but I’ve done a lot of travelling and I want to write more about what it’s like to be a traveller. I can see myself writing about Japan in the future, for sure.

LL: Are there any events you are planning to go watch, or can recommend?

TA: Yeah! I’m hoping to catch as much as I can. I’ve got tickets to Titans of Canadian Theatre, which you would probably like ‘cause you’re a theatre buff. Other than that I’m going to try to sneak into as many as I can. I’m also going to try to bring my daughter to something in the daytime. They have a lot of little kids events. We were at Word Vancouver last weekend, where I did a reading, and then I took my daughter to see some of the authors. It was fun, she loved it.

LL: What did you read?

TA: I read from the title story.

LL: Why is that one the title story?

TA: Good question. That story was the last story I wrote in the book, and I actually wrote it several months after the book was accepted for publication. So, I kind of had to sneak it in there. And my friend had told me this story in passing and he mentioned that he had had a water bomber that crashed on his watch, but he didn’t say much about it. When he said it, I got goosebumps up my arms. I had already written a lot about the Okanogan in this book and there was just something about what he said that made me want to write about that experience using the landscape I love so much. It was a couple months later that I approached him and asked him if he could tell me a little bit about him.

So I wrote the story, and I think because it was written last and I knew I wanted it to be in the book it drew on a lot of the themes that had already been established in the other stories. Once I finished it, I snuck it off to my editor and they were very good about it. It was my agent who suggested the title change, because it was called something else before (The Mosquito Creek Collection) because, of course, that story wasn’t in there before. I think this title is a little more descriptive and makes you wonder a little more. It plays on a lot of the themes throughout the book, like the idea of a perfect forecast and how we relate that to our lives and our relationships and our ideas of the future. The irony of the title in that story is that one this perfect day that is supposed to be ideal for flying, there is this plane crash. The title brings in the idea of those things that ruin our perfectly laid plans or change our ideas of how our lives are going to go.

LL: Do you have a favourite story in the book?

TA: I do, actually. The first story, Rabbit. Not because of the actual story, but just because it was one of the first stories I felt I was successful with. It has sentimental value in that sense, so I’m almost protective of it. It was also my most rejected story in the collection, which is funny because it is the one that taught me the best lesson. But it always got the most interesting rejection letters. That’s one thing that you find because once you start submitting stories: there are different tiers of rejection letters. There’s the form rejection letter with “Dear Writer” where they really didn’t care about the story at all, and then sometimes you’ll get a few little lines, but sometimes they’re quite interested in the story and they’ll write a little handwritten paragraph to you. So those are the best kind of rejection letters, and Rabbit always got those rejection letters, but no one wanted to publish it. The funny thing about it was that every rejection letter was different. Some people loved the voice, other people didn’t like it at all, some people loved the style, other people didn’t like the style. That’s why it was such an important story for me because I really had to think about what mattered to me as a writer. Did it really need to be changed or did it just need to find the right home?

I ended up deciding it just needed to find the right home, so it was really an exercise in sticking to my guns and trusting my own voice. And it ended up being nominated for the Western Magazine Award, and doing quite well. But it took at least three years of being rejected before it found it’s home. It’s one of those stories that you just have to stick to and know it will eventually find its readership. And when I wrote it as a grad student, my professor, who was actually Keith Maillard, told me to send it off saying it would get published right away. And then it ended up being my most rejected story! [Laughter]

***

Théodora’s website can be found here.

Frances Elizabeth Photography can be found here.

 

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