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Anne Fleming

October 2009

Anne FlemingAnne Fleming teaches Creative Writing at UBC Okanagan as an associate professor in the Faculty of Creative and Critical Studies. She is the author of a volume of short stories entitled Pool Hopping and Other Short Stories and of a novel named Anomaly. This interview took place in Anne’s office at UBCO on Wednesday, September 8, 2009.

Leigh MacFarlane: It’s nice to see you, Anne. First, would you please tell me, what are your various disciplines and what led you to them?

Anne Fleming: I was just talking to a theatre and performance student yesterday, and he assumed I had done something and I was thinking, ‘Wow, I am really far now, from drama, from writing it and from thinking about it and from writing screenplays.

I started out writing poetry. That was the first thing I wrote, and soon after that fiction, and soon after that drama. Actually, one of the first things I started was a screenplay. A friend and I started it after seeing a really bad movie -- I don’t remember what it was -- but we came back from the movie saying, ‘We can do better than that!’ So we started working on a screenplay.

I have interests in all those areas, and in non-fiction, but I am mostly writing fiction. I only write non-fiction when someone asks me to, which they have done. I have a piece in a book of birth stories, out from Anansi, and another piece in an anthology called Who’s Your Daddy, about queer families. So, mostly fiction. Short fiction and novels.

Leigh: Where were you born, where did you grow up, what are your outside interests, and how does that affect your writing?

Anne: [Laughs.] I was born in Toronto and lived there till I was eighteen, then I moved to Waterloo to go to University, and I stayed In Waterloo after I graduated. Then I moved to Vancouver to do my MFA at UBC, and I stayed. Seems to be a pattern, I move somewhere, and I like it, and I stay. I don’t know how much of this shows up in my writing, but I actually started my University career as a geography student. I loved physical geography, loved drumlins. I liked glacial landscapes, especially, because I was from Ontario and it was a glaciated landscape and the escarpment was a significant feature. I have an abiding love for physical geography, and, increasingly, for human geography and urban planning and those kinds of issues. Actually in Anomaly I used air photos as a way of organizing the book a bit. I knew the dad’s voice wouldn’t be a voice in the novel; he wouldn’t be a point of view character, but I wanted him to be in there in some way. He’s not someone who would talk much, but he collects air photos. There’s him looking at the air photos, and he’s thinking that – one of his teenage daughters has run away from home -- so he’s looking at these air photos wondering where she is. It was really, really fun for me. I got the air photos from Ottawa [she says as she rubs her hands together excitedly]. It was so great. It was so much fun just looking and doing air photo interpretation, just looking at what are the landforms, what are the patterns of building, and figuring things out from a really different view point. There’s that. Also my other interest has been the ukulele. It’s important to mention, I think, that I play the ukulele. I think that’s important to mention.

Leigh: That brings a picture of Matlock to mind.

Anne: Matlock?!

Leigh: Matlock. When he’s thinking about his cases he strums his guitar.

Anne: Oh. Really? No kidding? I didn’t know that. Okay. Well, I don’t know. I’m being a little facetious, but I think there’s something to it. The ukulele doesn’t take itself too seriously, and I think there’s something I relate to in that. Yeah.

Leigh: Okay. That’s fair. We won’t mention Matlock.[Laughter.] Where do you find inspiration?

Anne: Well, kind of different places all the time. Different stories come from different places. Like, one time, I was sitting on my front porch in the fall watching the chestnuts fall from the tree and they hit the sidewalk and I had the line in my head: “Chestnuts are biffing the sidewalk.” I started to write a poem and that was the first line, and it turned into a story very quickly. Then there are other ones that come from really different places. Anomaly has many sources that I drew on, but one of the things that happened was a neighbour of mine, when I was a kid, had a piano fall on him at school. I never knew exactly what had happened, and I always tried to imagine – how did that happen? So, I made up a scenario in which a piano falls on a kid, and that’s the starting point. That’s kind of the beginning of the story of -- the piano falling on her leg and what sort of repercussions that has in the family. So, it just sometimes those little interesting things. Or just a line that comes.

Leigh: How do you describe yourself as a writer? Do you have any processes that are unique to yourself?

Anne: That’s a good question. Well, I like things to be funny. One of my favourite things is to laugh and then, you know, not quite the sucker punch like -- I don’t like that sort of dishonest approach -- but the blending of the comic and the not necessarily tragic, but the difficult together. That’s my absolute favourite thing to read and also to do. I mean, I am very happy if I can really make someone laugh uproariously while making them also kind of suck in their breath about something, So, there’s that.

And then, I don’t really like this about my process, but I find it very hard to move on. It makes it hard to write novels, because I find it very hard to move on until I’ve got a scene that is really alive. I’ll sketch out a scene, and it’s really just a sketch and it’s not alive yet, and I can’t move on to the next scene until I have that first one really working. It’s not an efficient way of working, at all; that’s why I’m not so happy with it. But it seems to be what I do.

Leigh: What are some of your past works and which are you proudest of, and why?

Anne: [Laughs.] Well, I have two books, Anomaly, and my first book was a book of short stories called Pool Hopping and Other Stories. The first chapter of Anomaly was a story in Pool Hopping, and I always knew I would turn it into a novel. In fact, I wasn’t going to include it in Pool Hopping, but my editor really wanted me to, so I did. I’m equally proud of both of them, and also of the book I have finished which I am trying to find a publisher for right now, which is another book of short stories called Gay Dwarves of America. I am really pleased with it, which is making it frustrating, you know, publishing. There’s a bit of a crunch in the publishing world these days. They’re a bit less willing to take chances, and short stories don’t sell as well as novels so a lot of publishers are reluctant to take them on. So it’s very frustrating when I feel I’ve got this really good book ready to go, and they’re not biting yet. But they will. Yes.

Leigh: Well, actually, this wasn’t one of the questions I originally had for you, but do you ever hold onto your manuscripts and then bring them out in the future? Or are they pretty much time specific.

Anne: Well, I might end up holding onto this one, but I don’t want to. I want to get it out, you know?

Leigh: Prior to teaching at UBCO what other professional experiences did you have in the arts?

Anne: Well, I had a rare bonus, I think, in that when I did my MFA in Vancouver my screenwriting prof recommended me to CBC TV Drama to be a script reader -- which is in some ways very lowly. Basically, they had a story development department where they would read anything that anyone would send them, and people sent them a lot of stuff [laughing]. A lot of it was awful, but some of it was pretty decent. The script reader was the first person to read the stuff. You write up a little report and then send it on and recommend it yes or no. I learned so much from doing that about so many things, I read hundreds and hundreds of scripts and pitches for TV series and TV movies and stuff like that. I learned that it’s really easy to say no, and it’s really hard to say yes. It takes a lot more courage to say yes than to say no. It’s important to keep that in mind every time you are reading something. You want to be looking for the things that are good. This is true not just of script writing. You can fall into a sceptical frame of mind, and you have to keep yourself fresh and out of that try to see with fresh eyes. So, I did that. I also did a lot of theatre reviewing for the Georgia Straight, and that was super fun. I loved doing that; it was great. There was a challenge too, to encapsulate what you saw and give enough of an impression so the potential readers know whether they’re going to like the show or not. There’s the craft of getting it all, making it good – because most people are never going to go and read the books you review, or sometimes even the movies you review, but, hopefully they’re going to enjoy the piece of writing. You want them to enjoy the review as a piece of writing. So that they don’t have to see it, but then they get to say, ‘Oh, yeah, no, I read a review of that!’[chuckling]. It’s funny how much our knowledge of culture is made up of how much we’ve read of reviews, versus actually seeing or reading something. So, that was another thing that I did.

I was on the board of a professional theatre company. We tried to start a gay and lesbian theatre company in Vancouver called Out West Performance Society which ran for a number of years and was successful, but then all of us ran out of steam and stopped wanting to be volunteer board members. It was a lot of work, but it was also really fun. We offered some training and workshops too. So, clearly I have a lot of background in the theatre. I was on the screening committee for the Vancouver International film festival for the Canadian Film Series, which was also fantastic. That was great. We got to see all the submissions and decide which ones we would accept.

That’s about it. And then I started teaching. I taught at Emily Carr, which was a really neat place to teach, because the most consistently experimental writers I have taught have come from Emily Carr. They have already learned an approach of doing their own thing; it’s part of their identity and what drew them to art school in the first place. So, that was really interesting. I taught there, and I taught at UBC Vancouver, and at Douglas, and Kwantlen, and the Banff Centre for the Arts, and the Victoria School of Writing.

Leigh: Okay, well, possibly your Master’s might have done this, but what led you to UBCO and how did you acquire the position?

Anne: Um, [sigh and chuckle] there was a job posting; I applied for it. I’d done sessional teaching, and I really enjoyed my teaching. It was a good way to make money while I was working on my novel and my first book and it gave me autonomy and freedom, but it didn’t pay very well. I did sessional teaching for ten years, and your pay almost never goes up as a sessional instructor.

Also, I really wanted to teach upper level courses. I’d been teaching a lot of intro level, and while those are really fun, they are some of the hardest ones to teach because students are often still very sensitive about their writing, and you have to be extra diplomatic in giving feedback and really, you know, just careful with people’s feelings. It’s rewarding to do that, but very draining also. It takes a lot more time, for one thing, than just clearly writing what you think, when you know this person is not going to feel like they’ve had a knife to the throat. It’s so nice to work with upper year students who have developed that sort of detachment from their work that their sense of self is not affronted if someone says they don’t like something about what they have written - mostly. [laughs].

Leigh: How would you describe your teaching style? Do you have a particular philosophy on teaching or the arts?

Anne: [No hesitation.] I do. I hate the word facilitator, because it’s often used in a poor context, but people learn best when they teach themselves. So really I want to help people to learn to teach themselves. They can because of what you learn; you learn how to write from writing, and you learn how to read from reading. It’s all there-- you just have to learn how to teach yourself. I mean I could come in and just lay down a whole bunch of things and lay down some laws or guidelines, but those can always be broken -- well -- by someone. And for myself as a student I just always have this automatic mistrust when someone tells me something as a blanket truth. I immediately want to show how it’s not a blanket truth. So, as an instructor, I don’t want to be doing that. I want to be getting people to tell me. I try to be in the background a lot, and to ask questions, to get people to do it for themselves. Um, sometimes it looks like I’m not doing much (laughs), but in fact, I think, I’m helping people draw out what they already know or what they are learning that they know.

Leigh: Have you seen changes as a teacher since your first class?

Anne: Well, you know the very first class I taught that was not in a continuing studies context was at UBC Vancouver in 1995. I was filling in for a maternity leave. As a grad student, I had previously done a workshop as at a high school, and the very first day of the class at UBC I was so nervous that I failed to recognize that two of the students in my class had been in my high school workshop. After the class I went, “Oh my God, that was Sherry and Amanda! They must think I’m a total moron, that I didn’t recognize them, that I didn’t acknowledge who you are!” And it was just because I was so nervous about that first class. Once that first class was over – I’m still nervous. I’m nervous about this 116 that is coming up [referring to a first year course Anne is currently teaching at UBCO with sixty students], but once you meet the students and see them as people and get to know them, then all that goes away and it just comes. There’s still that sense of tension, hoping that each class goes well and that students get what I want them to get out of it and that sort of thing.

Leigh: What are you working on currently?

Anne: I am currently working on a novel set in the early 17th Century in England and the Netherlands, and in the New World. It is about a collector of curiousities, an accused witch, an anatomist and a ship’s surgeon. Although the research is heaps of fun, now I really need to put research aside and write the story.

Leigh: Do you set projections for yourself?

Anne: In terms of I want to be done when? Yes I do, and I’m usually a year behind.

Leigh: Now, I know you currently reside in Vancouver and teach in the Okanagan. Why did you make the decision to do so, how does it work for you, and do you think it would work for others?

Anne: Umm, that’s a good question. Well, I mean, there’s a variety of family reasons that I decided to do that. I don’t usually frame it like I live in Vancouver and work here. It’s more like I split my time between the two places. I feel a sense of connection to the community here in Kelowna, as well, and like to be a part of community events and stuff. I am actually on campus more now than when I had a permanent residence in Kelowna. I used to come into Kelowna for my office hours and then I would go home because I like working at home the best. Now I am on campus three full days a week, so I think I’m a lot more accessible to my students. But I don’t need to be; hardly anyone comes to see me. I always puzzled in the course evaluations when they ask about the instructor’s accessibility outside of class. Some people say they’re neutral. I think, did you even try? How do you even know? Maybe they called one time, and I wasn’t there.

Leigh: Well, that’s probably what they mean – they never tried so they have no opinion.

Anne: Yeah. So, I mean, I know there are other people doing it. There are a number of people who split their time between Vancouver and here, in a number of faculties, so... so.

Leigh: Do you have a piece of advice for aspiring writers? Advice for writing and for publication.

Anne: I was reading -- um, I don’t know who it was -- awhile ago, but a writer was talking about a young person had come up to him at a reading and said, ‘I really want to be a writer, what do I need to do?’ And the writer said to him, ‘Well don’t tell my agent I said this, but, do you like sentences?’ And I really loved that, because sentences are important. So, my first answer was going to be write and send stuff out. Really, that’s all it comes down to. If you want to do it, do it. Don’t be chicken, because it will never happen if you are chicken, and will happen if you’re not. And really, I can find it kind of helpful to look at all the bad writing and think you know – it’s there! I mean, I can do at least that well. But I think that reading and liking sentences are a good thing, also.

Leigh: Okay, so that was going to be my last question, but one thing I would personally like to know is how do you deal with nerves as a writer?

Anne: With respect to people reading it?

Leigh: Um, I think with respect to a sense of inadequacy maybe. Or, you know, I really want to write and to be a success. So, to really want something is a lot riskier.

Anne: Yeah, it is. Yeah, that’s true. I don’t know. I think I’m kind of – it’s tippy. Like, I think there’s times when I tip on the side of probably not that well founded confidence, you know, you don’t like it? Too bad. I don’t care, I think it’s good.

Leigh: All writers are like that. They have to be. A little bit arrogant.

Anne: Yeah. And, Richard Hugo in a book called The Triggering Town talks about that. He’s an American poet who taught creative writing for a long time, and he says you need to be able to cultivate a kind of arrogance as a writer, that what you write is good because you wrote it. And then he goes on to say, you know, not in real life. In real life, try to be nice [laughter]. But, um, so there’s that. And then the other part of that honestly is just showing it to people, because almost always we are more afraid of what people are going to think. Showing it to people gives you a reflection, lets you know you’re right! You think it’s kind of good; it is. And there.

Leigh: And there. An hour of dialogue with a very interesting, intelligent woman. Thank you, Anne, very much.

Anne: You’re welcome.

Leigh: [pointing to notebook] I wrote it right there. So I wouldn’t forget.

[Laughter].

Last reviewed shim11/14/2014 3:59:55 PM