Former Arts Editor Lauren Kirshner published her first novel, where we have to go, when she was fresh out of the Masters of Creative Writing program at U of T. During her time at U of T, Kirshner garnered a heap of writing awards, including the Hart House Review Poetry Prize, and was mentored by Margaret Atwood over the course of writing her book.

where we have to go is an artful debut, fluently weaving a coming of age tale set in Toronto. The book follows the young Lucy Bloom as she journeys from childhood to adolescence in the 1990s. the newspaper spoke with Kirshner about her own journey through the writing process.

When and how did this novel start? Can you remember back to that moment of inception?

The summer before the novel started working, I couldn’t get in touch with my voice. Every story I wrote crumbled in my hands, they were so empty of anything real to me. I think everybody who has written knows this feeling: you’ve got something to say, but the words on the page are not matching up. The more you prod at them, the farther they get from the truth. When I stopped being this obsessive hound about structure, plot, and all that craft stuff, the novel started to churn. I claimed Lucy’s voice. After 50 pages, I kept going because I felt comfortable creating Lucy’s voice and I believed what she was saying.

What inspired you to write where we have to go?

I knew I wanted to write about the inner life of a girl who spends her childhood as wallpaper, this observer with a million miles of imagination inside her. I had a bad stutter until I was eight so I know what it’s like to be an outsider. As a kid, I spent lots of time curled up inside myself re-arranging words in my head just to keep me company. In writing Lucy’s childhood and adolescence, I wanted to figure out how we learn to become ourselves, in our own bodies, in our families, in the lives we dream for ourselves, on our own terms. The “where we have to go” in the title is about these tough, necessary journeys.

What was your initial response when you found out Margaret Atwood would mentor you through your Masters of Creative Writing?

I was super nervous before our first meeting because Margaret’s name was in big lights in my head. I mean, The Edible Woman is one of my favourite novels of all time. I feel very lucky to have been mentored by Margaret, because she taught me a lot about writing. Things like if you want to get a point across three is the magic number. Another thing she told me is if you want to understand a character, know what they have in their bedside dresser drawer, because if you don’t know what’s in that drawer, you’re kind of lost. I would always walk away from our meetings feeling very excited to write. Her energy was inspiring.

How would you characterize the presence of autobiographical details, if any, in the book?

When I think of an autobiography I think of a voice telling the truth straight at me, so if anyone thought my book was an autobiography I’d be really flattered. It would mean my book was working. I mean, I love thinking that my favourite books are true stories. The first time I read The Catcher in the Rye I was convinced J.D Salinger was some runaway kid kicking up shit in New York and when I found out he was a bona fide adult, the book kind of came down to earth again. My book isn’t an autobiography. The world that Lucy grows up in is in basic ways familiar to me: I was a kid in the 1990s, in Toronto, I’m Jewish, my mother’s an immigrant, and I definitely have spent a lot of time in second-hand stores. But the plot of the book, the characters, their motivations, the particular situations the Blooms find themselves in, these are my inventions. Once I started Lucy’s story, it just kept going.

Can you walk me through the process of writing a first novel and getting it published?

The writing process and the publication process are totally separate from one another, in my experience. Writing, I spent a lot of time alone in my bedroom, and my friends and my family wondered if I was alive. Editing is communicative; it forces you out of your head and out of the closed world of the manuscript. I had long and very eye-opening conversations with my amazing editor at McClelland & Stewart, Anita Chong. I further shaped the book. Publishing is nerve-wracking. I think with a first book especially there’s a lot of worry about how it will be received and how you will feel about it once it’s out in the world, as an object. I’m starting to get over that now, and it feels good to shake back into myself.

Is the writer’s life what you imagined it would be?

I didn’t know how hard it would be to write. When I was a kid I thought writers had these pens spewing geysers of words, and it was all magical like the circus. At the same time, I underestimated how much satisfaction writing would give me. I wouldn’t be happy doing anything if I couldn’t also write.

You wrote this book on campus. Did that influence the work?

Definitely. I was going to U of T when I wrote the first half of the book and I spent lots of time writing in the libraries. Around campus my favourite writing spots were the library at Hart House, the second floor reading room at Trinity library, and the basement of E.J Pratt at Victoria College.

In Room 257, the collective journal that came out of your creative writing class with Rosemary Sullivan, Sullivan quoted Julio Cortezar when she wrote that a writer’s role is ‘to move at the boundaries of language, throwing back new ideas.’ Do you see yourself on this type of reconnaissance mission when you write a story?

I write about stories that I get obsessed with, that have a row of question marks after them. Usually these are the stories that I’ve been thinking about for a while. They’re the stories that sound like the people I grew up with, and feel like the streetcars I ride to work, and smell like vintage clothes and my grandmother’s lamb soup and the neighbourhood on a summer night. I try to be honest about what I see and who I am, and for me that’s a form of creative reconnaissance. I’m always reminding myself that the finished story is just as important as getting to the right story in the first place.

Lauren Kirshner will be reading at The International Festival of Authors on Tuesday October 27 at 8:00 pm in The Studio Theatre. For more information on Lauren’s upcoming readings, go to www.laurenkirshner. com.

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