LP: You have a novel coming out shortly? What can you tell us about it?
NM: OK, I’m not the greatest at speaking about my own books, but I’ll give this a whirl… Here’s what we came up with for the back blurb: Scrapbook of My Years as a Zealot is a narrative of longing for self-creation, but also for self-destruction, restlessly twisting and turning through triangular friendships, teenage delinquents, Nazi killing hospitals for the disabled, the inane ex-boyfriend, a dying father’s sudden conversion to parenting, and fantastic tales of the Mormon Angel Moroni on estrogen.
It’s called Scrapbook of My Years as a Zealot, partly because I liked the contrast between staunch zealotry and a cluttered scrapbook. But I also gave it that title to encompass the non-linear nature of the novel. The narrator goes through a childhood with European parents and indulges in her best friend’s Mormon religion as a way of feeling more North American. She ends up dating a “Jack” Mormon because, like her, he knows what it’s like to be involved with the church but also to leave it. As a grownup, she works with delinquent teenagers; and she has a complicated relationship with her mother, an atheist, and with two friends who never knew her as a Mormon but who find her a bit uptight because of her background. Now, everything I’ve said so far is just plot, though. Much of the book is about how the story doesn’t unfold from A to Z, but that scenes from different timelines appear next to each other. She tells the entire story, but still manages to present versions of what’s happening with other characters. So, for example, she longs to be closer to her mother, but only tries to get her mother to understand her; meanwhile, her mother has a tragic secret from which she wishes to shield her daughter. How characters related to each other, what they do or do not tell each other, was the focus of many of the scenes. On the one hand, I’m fascinated by religion and how believers fit themselves into the “rules” of their faith; on the other hand, I’m in love with the kind of language that accompanies wonder and obsession.
LP: This is your second novel. What changes did you notice in writing the second as compared to the first?
NM: When I wrote Yellow Pages, I couldn’t believe how much of the “story” I had to leave out, in order to properly get that story onto the page. For this novel, I used the idea of surreptitious lives and past secrets to put pressure on the idea that you can ever tell the “entire” story. In my first novel, I was trying to “expose” Alexander Graham Bell as the antagonist of Deaf culture. At the same time, I was gripped by the language of how one can try to tell a non-verbal story. So one of the biggest changes in Scrapbook is actual dialogue tags! But even though this book wasn’t written around a historical figure, I still had to do an enormous amount of research into the 70s and 80s. I didn’t just want to drop in a Madonna song, to easily signal where (or when) readers should understand the story now is); but rather, I turned to less famous, but possibly equally relevant details. So, for example, I mention Eddie the Eagle in one chapter. Partly to remind readers about the time of the 1988 Calgary Olympics, but also because he’s a figure that really captured Canadian’s hearts when he participated in the ski jump. Not because he won (and not even, I think, because he came last), but because he took on the spirit of competition for the sake of the sport, not the result.
LP: Much of your career has been devoted to poetry. Is there a big shift for you, in terms of writing, to go from poems to a novel?
NM: More like a constant shift! I’ve been alternating poetry and fiction since I started writing (and now squeeze in essays and formal talks and even a few web write-ups). And then when I do write a book in particular genre (I’m thinking of my first novel, Yellow Pages), readers claim it’s prose poetry (or that my poetry is narrative). But I hear your question: it is, always a shift to move between the kind of writing that develops characters or sets a scene or emotion to the kind of writing that zings the senses without necessarily presenting a story. I love how poetry can work at a dozen levels at once, prick the readers’ ears and sight and intellect. But I also love how fiction can get readers caught up in the narrative push, in the dynamics between characters and conflict and the materiality of the word and story. I guess I find it hard to settle in any one genre because I’m so passionate about all genres as a reader. I’m the type of reader who has several books going at once. I’ll read a poem for a while, then turn to a short story, and then delve into a literary essay. And then, of course, dive right into a film!
LP: You grew up in Calgary, and until very recently, were teaching at the University of Calgary. You’re now at the University of Windsor. As a writer what are the differences between the two cities/regions?
NM: I’ve been in southern Ontario now for two and a half years, and I seriously am still getting used to a different way of thinking. Not worse or better, but definitely different. For one thing, Windsor is across the river from Detroit, which not only makes it a border city, it also makes it a small city that is physically linked to a large city. People hear listen to US radio stations and watch US local television shows. This may not be so unusual in other parts of the country, but Calgary – despite being represented often as a pro-US city – is pretty physically isolated. And there’s so much going on in the history of this city! Just last week, I had a great conversation with my Creative Writing students about setting their fiction in Windsor. I was dismayed to hear that none of them thought Windsor was “interesting” enough to hold the interest of readers not from here. Meanwhile, I’ve been taking notes like crazy every since I moved here, because most of what I’ve learned is so fascinating: the first stop in Canada on the underground railroad, the origin of Canadian Club, the place where Michigan teenagers go to drink two years before they’re legal in the US, the booze runs across the river during prohibition, etc. etc. This is a fairly working class town, and one that’s been reliant on the auto industry for most employment. Meanwhile, people here are unbelievably optimistic about the future. And teaching at the University here makes me more and more aware of how much students want to learn and how much their parents want them to get a “higher” education.
LP: You’ve just spent a summer in Vancouver. Was the decision to spend time there strictly personal or was there a connection to your writing?
NM: Both. I find that I really spend all my hours from September until May on my teaching, as do most of my colleagues across the country. So getting into another city is one of the ways to make a sharp divide between teaching or administrative work and the writing I’m always trying to get to. But I also love the West and love getting back to the kind of city where you can buy all your fruits and vegetables organic (and I’m not even a health nut!), where you can read in a coffee shop at every block, where you can walk around and not have to own a car. Just as I can’t settle on one-only genre, I can’t seem to settle in any one place, without longing to be where I’m not. When I’m in Windsor, I miss the prairies and the coast, and when I’m in Vancouver, I miss Victoria and Ontario and Montréal. I’m not satisfied, ever, but in what I hope is a generative way, that makes me pay attention to what I’m missing and why. Pay attention to the friends I get to see in the now, and to remember that when I’m no longer with them.
LP: You rented the house of a well-known poet who was away from Vancouver for the summer, did you discover any new favourite books in his bookshelves?
NM: Both Fred Wah and Pauline Butling have enough books to last my lifetime, though that didn’t stop me from also making a trip to the public library every week! I reread a lot of George Bowering while I was there, as well as quite a few other Vancouver writers, such as Roy Miki and Sharon Thesen, and more recently emerged writers such as Jacqueline Turner and Nikki Reimer. It’s funny, I was heavily focused on prose last summer (finishing Scrapbook and getting a draft done of my next novel), but spent most of my time reading poetry…
LP: At one point you had your own press, publishing poetry chapbooks. Are you still doing that?
NM: Sort of. Not the best answer, I know, but as truthful as I can be. Maintaining a chapbook press through grad school was incredibly overwhelming, and I’m happy we managed that, but once I got a permanent job, that kind of editing got constantly pushed to the side. Then, right before I left Calgary (and to commemorate Fred Wah’s retirement from UofC), I published broadside of one poem. That got me all excited about small-press publishing again, and last year I put out a card-sized poem by Chus Pato, translated by Erin Mouré. My idea now is to produce a chapbook once a year, and if I get some momentum, then maybe even increase the number to two or three a year. I adore the publishing end of writing (when it’s other people’s poetry), and miss the excitement of producing some that’s just finished. As well, it’s so hard for newer writers to get published these days, I feel that a small press offers writers (and readers) avenues that don’t need the entire publishing and marketing system behind it.
LP: Are you doing any editing these days?
NM: Besides the above newish publishing venture, and besides editing for various writers who hand me complete manuscripts, I’m doing a lot of editing of graduate students who have chosen to write a book-length manuscript for their MA thesis, and editing for the undergraduate students in my Creative Writing classes.
LP: If you were to recommend books for your students to read (aside from what’s required for their courses with you) what would they be?
NM: That’s a tricky question. Not because I don’t have an answer, but because the answer changes with every single student who asks me the question! I often give students specific books to read because of what they’re handing in, or to expand on the kind of writing they’re interested in but don’t yet have a handle on. Often students protest that they don’t want to read anything that relates to what they’re writing because they don’t want to be unduly influence! I explain to them that they’re already influenced, and what the need is a wider knowledge of their subject matter and writing impact. So: the list is infinite and specific to who’s interested in what, and why. Having said that, there are certain books I love forever, and constantly tell all sorts of people to read – such as Zsuzsi Gartner’s All the Anxious Girls on Earth, Tom King’s Green Grass, Running Water, Robert Kroetsch’s Completed Field Notes, Suzette Mayr’s Venous Hum, Rosemary Nixon’s Cock’s Egg, Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion, Aritha van Herk’s Restlessness, and Fred Wah’s Waiting for Saskatchwan.
LP: Last, the old standby, what are you reading yourself right now?
NM: That’s always the worst question because, as a Creative Writing teacher, I’m mostly reading student manuscript drafts! But the books I have on the go right now include: Sentenced to Light by Fred Wah (an amazing collection of his collaborative poetry projects), Kissing Doorknobs by Terry Hesser (a fabulous YA novel about a girl with OCD), Gerbil Mother by Dawn Bryan (an exquisitely demented “tall-tale” narrative told from the point-of-view of a nasty-spirited, foetus), a book of essays about the role of fairytales in contemporary culture, The Red Queen by Margaret Drabble, Blindsight by poet Rosemarie Waldrop, and Shaun Tan’s The Arrival, which is either a picture book or a graphic novel, depending who you talk to (I’m finding the lack of any text whatsoever deliciously troubling).