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Chance Encounter Between Two Women
by Eva Tihanyi

Speaking of Spelling Mississippi: Interview with Marnie Woodrow

Marnie Woodrow was born in Orillia, Ontario, in 1969 but has lived in Toronto for the past fifteen years. At the age of 22, she published her first collection of short stories, Why We Close Our Eyes When We Kiss (1991). This was followed by another story collection, In the Spice House (1996), and recently by a first novel, Spelling Mississippi (Knopf Canada, 2002). Woodrow wrote a humour column for Toronto's XTRA from 1997 to 2001, and is also the author of numerous essays, poems and reviews. Her future plans "include (but are not limited to) another novel, radio/film work and continued short-story writing¨between loads of laundry and creative accounting, of course."
The following interview took place on a Friday afternoon in May in a relatively quiet corner of C'est What on Toronto's bustling Front Street.

Eva Tihanyi: Tell me what it was like growing up as Marnie Woodrow.

Marnie Woodrow: I grew up in Orillia; I'm an only child. It was great growing up in Orillia because it's small, and was even smaller then. You could roam around the woods, so I had that kind of pastoral access. But I always wanted to live in Toronto, from my earliest memory.
My mom has been super supportive of the fact that she gave birth to a creative person. I was always interested in theatre and visual art and writing. Neither of my parents ever told me to get a "real" job. When I dropped out of university, they said, "Oh well, it's probably not for you." So I was really lucky that way. I didn't get the classic "Go and get your PhD before you even think about writing" lecture.

ET: You attended York University for a year and a half but have said that "formal education" is not for you. So what kind of education is for you?

MW: Anything I can learn about on my own. I've enjoyed taking six- or eight-week courses, but I really just have a passion for books, learning on my own, meeting and talking to people, working, travelling. I intend to make travel a priority all my life. It stimulates me.

ET: Do you find Toronto provides stimulation?

MW: I have mixed feelings about Toronto. It's got all the anonymity and chaos of a big city. But sometimes I think: either go to New York or move to Stratford [Ontario]. I'm very extreme. Maybe because of my small town background, I crave quiet. Sometimes being in the so-called centre of publishing is terrific and at other times, it's not. You get caught up all too easily, if you let yourself, in what everybody else is doing. You could go to a reading every night of the week.

ET: So let's talk a bit about your novel, Spelling Mississippi. Where did the idea for the book originate?

MW: It began with two separate images. The first was the child [Cleo] of the Florence flood workers, and who she would be as a grown-up. And then, because of my time in New Orleans where I met so many eccentric people, I had the second image. I imagined a super-heroish type of woman [Madeline], who swims across the Mississippi River. Actually, the image that came first was her coming out of the water fully dressed. And then I began wondering what these two women might bring to one another's lives. There's no real "reason" for two such people to meet, yet they do, and the profound simpatico they feel comes as a surprise to both of them. I wanted to explore their journey toward one another just as much as the meeting. "Getting there is half the fun," as the slogan goes. I was preoccupied with the notion that people can haunt each other indefinitely, for so many reasons.

ET: What was the most difficult aspect of writing the book?

MW: Self-doubt. By the time I submitted the Knopf draft, I had been at it for four years and had had two agents. That was a bit rattling, and I wouldn't recommend that a writer get an agent before the writer is actually ready to sell something.
I was working full-time in a bookstore, watching tons of books go by. Everyone says, "Isn't it great to work in a bookstore?" and it is, except when you're trying to write a book yourself. You see the returns, you see the downside.
I also needed to get to know the story. I had set myself a rather complicated challenge. The fact that the book isn't autobiographical meant there was a hell of a lot more work involved inventing everybody's story and keeping track of them all. I made a lot of lists. [laughter]
One thing I wish I'd done differently is not written the book on the computer. Using the DELETE key was far too easy.

ET: At one point in the novel, Johnny, thinking about his wife, Madeline, says: "How is it fair to be with someone for close to twenty years and never tell them who you really are?" Do you see this as a common occurrence in relationships? It certainly seems to be a theme that runs throughout Spelling Mississippi.

MW: I think everybody has a self that is totally private, no matter how close you might be to someone. But one thing I've observed is that people can be quite lazy and take each other for granted in profound ways. The comfort level is wonderful, but it makes us a little blind. It's terrifying to discover a need that you were for a long time trying to cancel out of yourself.

ET: Cleo thinks about Madeline: "Whatever curious force threw them together might just as easily pull them apart." Would you call this fate, or is it something more complex?

MW: When I started the book, I believed exclusively in fate. In fact, one of the driving forces that started the book was this wildly romantic notion that no matter what, you would end up in a certain spot. I think human relationships are fifty percent fate and fifty percent choice. You're given an opportunity¨or, more importantly, feelings or instincts. And you either listen or turn away. Sometimes the instinct is don't get involved with so-and-so, and you do anyway. Sometimes it's, oh my God, I could be really crazy about so-and-so but I'm out of here. And then you think about that person for the rest of your days.

ET: The reviews of Spelling Mississippi have been, overall, very favourable. But one criticism that has come up is your use of an "intrusive narrative voice." What were you setting out to do?

MW: It's an old-fashioned device, which I happen to love in books. You know, the whole "dear reader" thing. It represents, to me, an old-fashioned story-telling voice. Everything reads like a screenplay these days, and I was writing a novel.
It was also a humour device in spots. Some people have said they find it troublesome and other people have said they really enjoy it.

ET: Why do you think there is such a marked preoccupation with the novel form in Canada? Is it mainly about marketability?

MW: Yes. Having worked in a bookstore, I know that nine times out of ten people want a novel. If you showed them a book of short stories and a novel, they would most likely choose the novel. People want to get lost. There's more of a journey with a novel, and that seems to appeal to people. But my argument has always been¨because I will always write short stories¨that we keep hearing about the 21st century attention span, how no one has time, so you'd think that short stories would be perfect. Yet there is some sort of prejudice against them. And yet everyone's willing to say, "Oh, the short story form. That must be the most difficult of them all."

ET: How do you find it?

MW: I love writing short stories. Labourwise, it felt like forever by the time I got to the end of the novel. I actually wrote a lot of short fiction while I was writing the novel because it gave me a sense of gratification I couldn't get from the novel.

ET: What about poetry? You started out writing poems. Is there a poetry collection in your future?

MW: There's one in my computer, but I don't know if it will ever leave the house. I have very high standards for poetry. I think poetry is the hardest form. Done beautifully, it's unforgettable. And the tragedy is that although many people claim to like reading poetry, very few actually buy it.

ET: In your review of Bill Gaston's Mount Appetite, there is a passage that could easily be applied to your own work, especially to the stories in Spice House: "As the collection progresses, we journey through all kinds of hunger and thirst. Booze and drugs recur, as do sexual and spiritual hungering. The backdrop is often beautiful and harsh as in life." So what is it about this theme that attracts you?

MW: I don't think there's any other theme for me. Human relationships and human gluttony in all its forms.

ET: Is that what life is about, hunger? Is that a synonym for desire?

MW: Yes. Look at our society and all the ways in which people are trained to deny themselves. At the same time, the culture really wants you to indulge your every whim¨encourages you to shop excessively, get the cars, the clothes, the booze.

ET: So what are your current literary preoccupations?

MW: In the new stories, there are more men, and everybody's all over the place in terms of their jobs and sexuality. The characters are wondering if they're doing what they want to be doing. It's a question a lot of us have been asking, especially since September 11: Am I doing what I need to be doing?
ET: In your Web site journal, you mention that you've read Savage Beauty, the recent biography of Edna St. Vincent Millay. Would you say the lot of women writers has changed since Millay's time?

MW: In the U.S., it's different than in Canada. Our literature is almost a fifty-fifty split, sometimes leaning wildly in the direction of women. But it's beautiful here because the gender thing really isn't an issue in terms of how well you can do for yourself. Being a writer involves uncertainty and, at times, loneliness¨regardless of gender. And self-destruction is genderless.

ET: What did you learn about yourself in the process of writing Spelling Mississippi?

MW: That I'm really hard on myself to the point of illness sometimes. That when I'm really loose and enjoying myself, the pleasure of writing is unlike any other. That I will go to my grave finding the publication process thrilling and also agonizing. That I have more stick-to-it-iveness than I realized. That I have balls. ˛

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