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Splendid Terrors of Daily Life - Eva Tihanyi speaks with Diane Schoemperlen
by Eva Tihanyi

Diane Schoemperlen was born in Thunder Bay, Ontario, in 1954 and was educated at Lakehead University. From 1976 to 1986, she lived in Canmore, Alberta, where she worked as an avalanche researcher, typesetter, newspaper reporter, and bank teller. Since 1986, she and her thirteen-year-old son, Alexander, have made their home in Kingston, Ontario. She now writes full-time.

Schoemperlen has published five story collections: Double Exposures (Coach House, 1984); Frogs & Other Stories (Quarry, 1986); The Man of My Dreams (Macmillan, 1990); Hockey Night in Canada & Other Stories (Quarry, 1991); and Forms of Devotion (HarperCollins, 1998). She has also published a novel, In the Language of Love (HarperCollins, 1994).

Frogs & Other Stories won the Writers' Guild of Alberta Award for Short Fiction. The Man of My Dreams was shortlisted for both the Governor General's Award and the Trillium Award. Forms of Devotion won the Governor General's Award for English Fiction in 1998.

This interview took place in January 1999.

ET: Forms of Devotion opens with an epigraph: "Strangely enough we are all seeking a form of devotion which fits our sense of wonder." Would you say that writing is the form that fits yours?

DS: Absolutely. Books, both by reading them and writing them, are the twin forms of devotion that fit my own sense of wonder. This has been true ever since I was a child. I cannot imagine my life without books. I find that I am distinctly uncomfortable if I go to someone's house and there are no books visible. As far as I'm concerned, a big shelf full of books is the most perfect piece of furniture a room can have. Not only do I love to read and write them, I love books as objects too. I love the look, the smell, the feel of them. I am never happier than when I have a book in my hand. One of the things that satisfies me the most about Forms of Devotion is its sheer physical beauty. Book as beautiful object.

Interestingly enough, I do not come from a family of "book people" and so my life-long devotion to books is not something that can be traced directly back to upbringing or anything like that. Why I fell in love with books so early on is a mystery to me, one that I am eternally grateful for. I consider myself privileged to be able to now make a living doing what I absolutely love the most: writing and reading.

ET: The use of illustrations in a book of fiction is unusual. What was your purpose in including them in Forms of Devotion?

DS: My idea to include illustrations in a book of stories actually grew out of my previous book, the novel, In the Language of Love, in which the main character is a collage artist. In researching collage so that I could write about it more knowledgeably, I found myself becoming more and more interested in the whole art form. I have always been something of a frustrated visual artist. Back in high school, I was drawn to the visual arts as much as I was to writing. But I found I could not paint or draw very well and although I seemed to have infinite patience for tinkering with words, I could not muster the same dedication to visual art. If I couldn't make an image look the way I wanted it to, I just got frustrated and gave up. But collages were fun. I started collecting volumes of copyright-free illustrations and making collages of my own from them. I filled up my living room walls, gave some to friends, and even sold a couple.

It was not a stretch for me, a writer, to then think about using collages and illustrations in a book. I was also spurred on around this time by my son's comment that it was too bad my books didn't have pictures in them. He, like many people of all ages, was somewhat daunted by page after page of uninterrupted print and wondered why at a certain age he was supposed to give up picture books and move on to "real" books. I could see his point. Why not a book for grown-ups with pictures? It was hardly a new idea. In earlier centuries novels often contained illustrations and of course there were the illuminated manuscripts long before that. So I did not think of myself as doing something new, but rather as taking up something old and seeing what I could make of it. The truth of it is it wasn't even really a new idea for me. My first book, Double Exposures, published by Coach House back in 1984, was a combination of photographs and fiction. In that case I wrote a fictional story to go with a series of photographs which were actually of my own family (and which I rescued when my mother, in a fit of housecleaning, threatened to throw them out once and for all.)

Purpose? To make a beautiful book, to add a new element to my writing, to please the reader's eye, to exercise my creative impulses in a new direction. The pictures function in relation to the text in various ways. In a couple of stories they are mostly decorative, but in most cases they add a new dimension and hopefully a new level of meaning to the text. I have tried to play the contemporary stories off the historical illustrations in different ways.

ET: Aritha Van Herk, in her Globe & Mail review of Forms of Devotion, claims that you used some of the illustrations to "trigger" your stories. Is she right?

DS: Yes, she is quite right. In some cases, I had the pictures first. In "A Matter of Perspective" and "Five Small Rooms (A Murder Mystery)", for instance, first I made a series of intriguing collages and then I came up with a story to go with them. In the title story, I first chose the ten illustrations from a book of 200 and then used them to shape the story. In "On Looking Further into the Bodies of Men", I was so taken with the anatomical drawings of the male body that again, I came up with the text to accompany them. So, as it turned out, there were two different ways of getting at these stories: start with the pictures and move to the text, or start with the text and find the pictures to go with it.

ET: Van Herk also suggests that the book is "more fable than fiction", that it is a "[m]editation on the occasional and the ordinary", that you aim "to transform the familiar by apprehending the spiritual dimensions of all simple things". Are you aware of such a spiritual dimension in your work? If so, is this spirituality intentional?

DS: There is definitely a strong spiritual dimension in my work, one that I think is becoming more apparent as I go along. I was not, in the process of writing these stories, intentionally trying for that. Its presence in my work is, I think, a natural consequence of the fact that at my age (forty-four) spirituality is becoming a major preoccupation in all areas of my life.

ET: Would your phrase, "the splendid terrors of daily life", sum up the focus of not just much of Forms of Devotion but your work in general?

DS: I think so, yes. That phrase comes from the final chapter of In the Language of Love: "The splendid terrors of daily life are like the power of gravity: invisible and inevitable, infinitely more dangerous than other more apparent enemies. Also reliable, dependable, and undeniable." I am as preoccupied with (and sometimes overwhelmed by) daily life as the next person. When I'm not writing, I'm doing the same things that everybody else is doing: cooking, cleaning, shopping, paying bills, worrying about paying bills, shoveling snow, mowing the lawn, and, most importantly, trying to raise my son right. Daily life is largely a matter of what I call "just going along". Sometimes I resent having to do all these things but more and more I try to really enter into them and appreciate them. I used to hate raking leaves. It seemed to me the most futile of all futile chores. But now I kind of like it. I try to look at all the pretty leaves instead of just hating them for being there in the first place. I try to marvel at the fact that next year a whole new crop of leaves will grow, fall, and need to be raked, instead of wondering why God didn't devise a more efficient system by which the old leaves would just be absorbed back into the trees in the fall instead of ending up all over my yard! Maybe this sounds corny but it helps. I think that "daily life" is, for most people, the only life they've got. So of course I write about it. I find it endlessly fascinating to write about, if not always endlessly fascinating to live.

ET: Your tone is matter-of-fact, detached, almost clinical. But sometimes this voice can create almost too much distance, what one reviewer sees as your skating "perilously close to flippancy". Any comments?

DS: Writing humour is always a delicate process. What strikes one person as funny may strike the next person as just plain dumb. Or snide. Or flippant. I try to bear this in mind to a certain extent when I write. I do not want to be offensive in my humour. But of course you can't please all the people all the time!

ET: Another interesting remark is by Philip Marchand, who considers Forms of Devotion one of his ten top fiction picks of 1998, and then calls it "a book to dip into from time to time, between immersions in more purposeful and well-behaved narratives". What I find intriguing here is first of all the implication that the stories in Forms of Devotion lack a clear "purpose", and second, the delightful concept that narrative can somehow "misbehave"-a very Schoemperlen-type of notion, don't you think? So, are your stories subversive? And do they have a "purpose"?

DS: I'm not sure what Philip Marchand meant by this use of the word "purposeful". It does raise some interesting questions. Is fiction of any kind "purposeful"? Does it need to be "purposeful"? What about the other art forms? Painting, sculpture, music, dance. How does the word "purposeful" apply in those cases?

I do like his idea that narrative can misbehave. I suppose it is a very appropriate image to be applied to my writing. In In the Language of Love, I purposely subverted the usual chronology of things and jumped around in time. In Forms of Devotion, I let the stories go where they wanted to without worrying too much about the usual "requirements" of narrative such as character, plot, etc. So yes, I would agree that my narratives are not very well-behaved. Good for them! Subversive?... so I've been told. Purpose?... I don't know.

ET: You said recently that you "don't have a real definition of what a story is". So what does the word "story" mean to you? When you're writing, how do you know that what you're writing is a "story"?

DS: These are very difficult questions. I think of Flannery O'Connor who, when asked to define a short story, said it was a question "inspired by the devil who tempts textbook publishers". Then she went on to say what a story is not: a story is not a joke, an anecdote, a lyric rhapsody in prose, a case history, or a reported incident. I would agree with all of these nots and still be hard pressed to come up with a definition of what a story is. I use the word "story" in the loosest possible sense. I think of a story as telling somebody about something. I like the way my son (who is now thirteen) tells me the stories of his day. He says, "And then... and then... and then... and then." This is a good way to think of a story: telling of then and then and then. Some of my stories, especially the ones in Forms of Devotion like "On Looking Further Into the Bodies of Men" and "Rules of Thumb", would not be considered "stories" at all by many people, but more some kind of "personal essays". That's okay with me. I tend to call whatever I write a "story" or a "novel", the difference being that a story is short and a novel is long... and I don't intend to be flippant, arrogant or disingenuous here. It's just that I don't think about labels, categories, definitions, etc. when I'm writing. I think I would be paralyzed if I did. I still remember word-for-word something that I read almost twenty years ago. It was in an article in The Writer magazine by a "writer" named Josephine Jacobsen. She wrote: "Like the centipede, which, questioned as to its method of locomotion, never moved again, the writer, considering the how of what he is doing as he does it, is lost".

ET: Your work has been frequently hailed as innovative, experimental, unconventional. What do you personally consider to be most innovative about what you write?

DS: I suppose it would be my adventures with form and structure. I do like to push the story envelope as far as I can. I find it exciting and challenging and fun to turn some of the conventions of fiction on their heads and see what happens. Again, I am not always conscious of doing that while I'm doing it but afterwards I can step back and see what I've done. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't.

ET: In the introduction to Hockey Night in Canada and Other Stories, John Metcalf wrote about your having to "avoid the danger of repeating [your]self, of becoming the captive of the strategies [you] had developed". Are you aware of this danger? How are you avoiding it?

DS: I think all good writers want to avoid repeating themselves and I am no exception. I recognize that some of the techniques I have used in my stories can only be used once. Things like including the meanings of dreams in the story, "The Man of My Dreams", or the multiple-choice format of "None of the Above". Other things are more intrinsic qualities of my writing style and so can safely be returned to again and again because there are always new ways to explore them. Like lists, stories in sections, dictionary definitions, interrupting the narrative, etc. Thematically of course I will sometimes cover the same ground. If I'm doing that, I try to make sure I have something new to say about the same old things ("the same old things" being those big themes or questions that most fiction is about: love, death, God, fear, power, and what is the meaning of life?).

ET: Do linguistic considerations supersede ones of characterization and plot for you?

DS: I'm not especially concerned with plot. I don't think of plot at all when I'm writing. I think instead of something that I call "tension" and wanting to be sure that the story amounts to something in the end. So to take your question apart a bit and take it one step further. Yes, linguistic considerations do supersede plot but they don't often supersede character and they never supersede clarity. I want my language to be always clear and clean.

ET: You have said that "more often than not, it is the structure of the story which comes to me first". Is this still true? How does a story begin for you?

DS: This is still true for the most part. How a story begins depends on the story. But I would say that all my stories start with a fascination... me becoming fascinated for one reason or another by something. That fascination is actually a physical feeling, a kind of swooping or tingling in my stomach (or some other previously undiscovered body part that only writers have). Often the fascination is fixed on a possible structure but sometimes a character, an image, a single sentence or thought. Then there is a lot of thinking time before actually beginning to write. Sometimes that thinking time takes a long time! With my novel, In the Language of Love, I came across the list of 100 words of the Standard Word Association Test a good two years before I began to write. I was at the library looking up something else (I don't remember what) and found the Test in a Psychology textbook. It fascinated me instantly so I made a copy and brought it home. I kept that list in a file folder for two years before I figured out even how to begin. But the fascination never disappeared. For me that is the test of a good story idea. I can be fascinated with something for a day or two, a week or two, sometimes even months, but then I can forget all about it. That's not a story that needs to be written. But if the fascination endures, then ultimately the story will be written.

ET: Metcalf goes on to describe the "Schoemperlen world" as being characterized by its "plenitude of deliberately flat fact" and a "sly sense of humour which is wry and dry and sometimes as painful as ingested ground glass". How would you yourself describe the Schoemperlen world?

DS: No offense to John Metcalf, who is a good friend of mine and someone I respect very much, but I must admit that I have to laugh when I think of there even being such a thing as "the Schoemperlen world". He does go on to clarify that phrase though by saying "I mean by this that as she continues to write we'll begin to pay her the ultimate compliment of recognizing certain things we see as essentially details from a Schoemperlen story". I like that okay. I like the idea that my way of seeing the world and writing about it could become that recognizable. So I would say it's not "the Schoemperlen world" so much as "the Schoemperlen way of seeing the world".

ET: Because of your experimentation with technique, much of your work seems self-consciously "contrived". It flaunts its artifice, its "fiction-ness". Do you consider yourself more of an intellectual than an emotional writer? And how do you react to the term "postmodern" as applied to your writing?

DS: I wouldn't say I consider myself more an intellectual than an emotional writer. In fact, I think of myself as a very (sometimes overly) emotional person and I think that informs my writing. Perhaps I use rather "intellectual" means to express these emotions. But the emotion always comes first.

As for the term "postmodern", it doesn't bother me a bit although I'm not entirely sure what it means. Doesn't it apply to all of us who are writing at this time at the end of the twentieth century, because we are all writing after the moderns. Well, I'm just splitting hairs there. But really, "postmodern" is fine with me, although I realize it isn't always a compliment!

ET: The word "ironic" is probably the word used most often in connection with your work. Why are you drawn to irony?

DS: I'm afraid I have no logical or rational explanation for that. My fondness for irony is a life-long habit. I think my attraction to irony is something like my attraction to dark-eyed, dark-haired men... just one of those things! I am not conscious of looking for irony but it does seem that I see it everywhere.

ET: You deal a lot with marriage, male-female relationships in general, contemporary urban life, the lot of the nineties woman. If we agree that all writers are to at least some extent affected by their place and time, what would you say most interests you about ours?

DS: I think that what interests me the most is changing as I grow older. For a long time, my stories did deal mainly with misguided male/female relationships. I've never been married but I have had a number of relationships with men, none of which worked out very well. I certainly had ample material to work from on that topic! But I think I am more or less written-out about all that now although I'm sure it will continue to reappear in my books, but more likely now as a side-issue rather than the overriding theme. I hope that my work is moving in new directions. In In the Language of Love, for instance, I wrote for the first time about being a parent and all the wonders and worries that that involves. As has been pointed out, Forms of Devotion looks at things from a more spiritual point of view. I consider it very important that my work keeps growing and changing as I do.

ET: You've said that Alice Munro, with whom you briefly studied, is one of your favourite writers. What do you most admire about her work? How is yours different?

DS: I have always admired Alice Munro's ability to turn seemingly ordinary characters and situations into something marvelous and mysterious and meaningful. I also love her attention to details. I think that she, like me, is a very visual writer, fond of describing lots of things. I also think we share a deep and abiding awareness of all the irony in the world. As for how my work is different... I think I use more experimental structures than she does, especially in her earlier stories. She is such a master of the short story form that I don't even feel comfortable comparing myself to her in any detailed way! I still have so much to learn from her. Re-reading her stories is, for me, always "an inspiration".

ET: In the Language of Love is based on the Kent-Rosanoff Word Association Test (1910), a test used to assess the sanity of those who responded to a list of 100 common words, such as table, dark, music, and sickness, to cite just the first four. You use these 100 words as chapter titles. It's an intriguing way to structure a novel. Did you write the chapters in sequence? What was it like to work within this 100-word framework?

DS: I didn't write the chapters in sequence. I wrote the first chapter first ("Table") and the last chapter last ("Afraid"). For the other ninety-eight chapters in between, I wrote them totally at random. I printed up the list of words in big block letters on my computer and stuck them on the wall beside my writing desk. Then I just went from one word to another, choosing whatever one I had some idea about, some sense of what I wanted to say or of how I wanted that word to fit into the book. Then when all 100 chapters were written, I put them together in the order of the actual test, which is the order in which they appear in the book. So my "later" several drafts were more a matter of straightening out the continuity and making sure that the chapters hung together as a whole.

Although you might expect that working within the 100-word framework might be limiting, in fact I found it quite the opposite. I found it very liberating, perhaps because, since the structure was established from the outset, I could then focus on content and exploring all the different things I could do within that framework. It certainly did not feel confining or restricting. Plus I got very good at the whole "word association" thing. I could begin with almost any word and make it go wherever I wanted it to!

ET: How did you find the process of novel writing in general? Would you engage in it again?

DS: I was at first quite intimidated by the prospect of writing a novel. I had done short stories and I loved doing them. I was worried that I didn't have enough to say to write a novel, that I might find working on one thing for years just too hard. When I discovered this list of 100 words, I knew right away that it couldn't be a story. Even one page to go with each word would have been a very long story. I knew it was a novel but I think I had to trick myself into writing it. That's where the 100 short chapters thing really worked. I was comfortable with and more confident about the shorter form. So one chapter at a time. That's how I wrote it. Having now completed one novel, I no longer feel intimidated by the idea and am in fact working on another.

ET: In one story ("The Town"), you observe that "[t]he truth, like old wooden houses in the winter, is always shifting, cracking, settling back down in some other season, some other place. Nobody wants to admit that truth, like time, can never stand still." What, to you, is the relationship between writing and truth?

DS: In one of the more interesting paradoxes (or ironies) of life, I think that fiction is one of the best ways to get at the truth. Although "fiction" is not considered "real" or "true" in the sense of "a true story", still it is a magical and mysterious means of uncovering the truth. One must remember that truth does not exactly equal reality.

ET: On a more personal note, what got you started writing, and what pulled you to the short story specifically?

DS: I cannot remember a time when I wasn't writing or wanting to. My mother loved to tell the story of how back before I could read, I used to haul out her cookbooks from the box under my bed where she kept them (why there, I don't know!) and tell her stories from them, pretending to read. I have always wanted to be a writer. As soon as I learned how to read and write, I was writing little stories, many of them based on the kinds of books I read: the Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden series. For a long time I read anything I could get my hands on, Harlequins included. As I grew older, obviously my tastes changed! I don't know exactly why I began with short stories. Probably because I, like many people, was under the misconception that short stories were easier because they were short. I wrote stories for a long time partly because I think I would have considered it presumptuous and preposterous to imagine that I could write a novel. But also because in 1985 I became a mother, a single mother at that. My time for writing was fragmented. It seemed more reasonable to keep working on short things than to embark on a big long project that could take years and years.

ET: In a recent Globe & Mail article on writers and motherhood by Margie Rutledge, Alice Munro says that combining writing and motherhood is "the most insoluble problem in a woman's life... All the beliefs of feminism can't do anything about it." As a mother yourself, do you agree with this?

DS: I loved that article! And I referred to it in my thank-you speech when accepting the Governor General's Award for Forms of Devotion. After thanking various other people, what I said was: "I especially want to thank my son, Alex. This book is dedicated to him not just because, as it says, he once said it was too bad my books didn't have pictures in them. Mostly it's dedicated to him because he is the joy of my life. A couple of weeks ago, I read a wonderful article in the Globe & Mail by Margie Rutledge about the challenge of combining motherhood and writing. It's an ongoing struggle, that's for sure. But here I am... the proud winner of this award and the proud mother of a wonderful boy. We did it." I was so choked up by that point that I could hardly get the words out and I wasn't even sure if people had heard it all. But clearly they had. In many interviews and conversations that followed (including that evening at the awards dinner at Rideau Hall) everybody was talking about what had quickly become known as my "motherhood speech". I really struck a chord with male and female writers alike. Everybody was talking about their children as well as their books. It was wonderful! When I got home from Ottawa, my son gave me the congratulations card he'd made. It said, "To the best mom on the earth." Choked up again.

I agree completely with what Munro says in the article. How to be a writer and a mother at the same time is a problem that must be solved over and over and over again. As she says, "Children take up space far beyond their size and location. And it's this very same space of heart and soul and mind that a writer needs to fill up with something else: her imaginary world." As the rest of the article shows, each mother who writes has to figure out how to do both in her own way. The solution to the problem depends on the people involved.

Here's what I did in those early years when the challenge is the greatest. Just before my son Alex was born I received a good-sized grant from the Alberta Foundation for the Literary Arts. This was a Godsend because it meant I didn't have to work outside the home. For the first year of Alex's life I stayed home with him. I sometimes wrote when he was napping but most often I napped too (a habit that I still enjoy but one which he gave up long ago). It was hard and very frustrating even though he was a very good baby. The book for which I received the grant never did get written!

When we moved from Alberta to Kingston, he was fourteen months old. I knew I had to make a new arrangement. I was becoming more unhappy about not writing, and having an unhappy mother at home could not possibly be the best thing for my son. Since it was just the two of us, I also felt that it was important for him to spend time with other people, adults and children both. I began by putting him in a private home daycare one day a week so I could write. Gradually we increased it one day at a time until, by the time he was two years old, he went to daycare five days a week and I stayed home and wrote. I had surprisingly little guilt about this and still no regrets. Because I was a single mother from the beginning, earning money was always an issue. I had to write in order to make money. I decided that I would sooner struggle along trying to make a living as a writer (never mind that everybody said it couldn't be done) than get a job that would stop me both from being with my son all day and from writing. Plus it was a fabulous daycare run by a wonderful woman named Michelle Woodcock, so I had no anxieties about the quality of care he was getting. In all the years that Alex went to Michelle's, there was never one day that he didn't want to go and also never one day that he was crying or unhappy when I picked him up. Financially speaking, there were some very hard times in those years (and since!). But we managed.

One of the many things I have learned is that as a writer/mother you just have to arrange your schedule around the child's. That's all there is to it. So I did my writing in business hours (9 to 5) when he was at Michelle's (no midnight sessions for me). I still always arrange myself around his schedule. Now it's my natural schedule too. When he's at school, I write. When he's at home, I don't. Three days a week he goes to an after-school program called Programs After Learning, PAL for short (I am proud to be president of the PAL board of directors). This gives me a little extra writing time for a very reasonable price. PAL also runs a full-day program all summer. He goes to that too, although not every day. In the summer, we try and work it so that he is home half the time and at PAL the other half. It works for us. Which is not to say that I never get frustrated with trying to do both. The hardest part now is when I am asked to travel to do readings (or receive an award). That takes some tricky arranging so I do as little travelling as possible. This is not really a hardship for me as I don't like travelling anyway.

I hope Margie Rutledge writes a whole book about this topic! I would like to hear in this kind of detail how other mothers have managed and I think it would be extremely useful for younger writers just starting out.

ET: What have been the most notable obstacles or difficulties in your writing career so far?

DS: The other challenges (I hate to think of motherhood as an "obstacle") I have faced are those that all writers face. Self-discipline, self-doubt, and all other self-inflicted forms of misery. Not to mention the sometimes all-pervasive anxiety of money and the lack thereof.

I think that the biggest obstacle a writer has to overcome is him or herself. There are always more reasons not to write than there are reasons to do it. Oh, I must go and clean the fridge now. Oh, I really should wash that kitchen floor. Oh, I'm so tired, I think I'll have a nap. Oh, I'm so lonely, I think I'll call a friend. Oh, I think I'd rather watch Oprah. Oh, I think I'd rather go downtown and have coffee at Indigo. Oh, what difference does it make whether I write today or not? Oh, what difference does it make whether I ever write at all?

ET: What are you working on now?

DS: For the past two years, I've been working on another novel. I feel as though this one has been coming along very slowly but when I count them up, I do have over 200 pages now. I hope to have it finished by September. But I, like many writers, am very superstitious about talking about the work-in-progress so I won't say very much other than that it is a big departure for me as far as subject matter goes. When I started back in January 1997, I thought I was writing a short, simple book. I thought it would be written in quite a traditional form: beginning, middle, end, first person past tense. When I got to the end of chapter five, everything changed. It has now taken on all kinds of unusual forms and structures, and it feels like a great big octopus of a project. But I can honestly say that I'm loving the writing of this book more than anything else I've ever done.


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