Winnipeg Free Press—PRINT EDITION
By Ariel Gordon
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.
Q: 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,
Q: 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.
Q: 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.
Q: 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.
Q: 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.
Q: 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
Ariel Gordon is a Winnipeg writer.