Burning through Books with author Sylvia Petter

“We are with students for a lifetime, we are their cheerleaders for life.” ~ Antanas Sileika, creative director of the Humber School for Writers.

Not only is this true, but for some students, this also describes relationships between teachers and fellow graduates. From my year, about a dozen of us (all women) still exchange flurries of emails about writing and publishing and life.

This group, which can’t seem to name itself, has grafted in a few more members over the years, including other writers and editors.

Personally, I’ve also connected with another Humber grad, and the friendship has turned into an unexpected blessing.

Aussie author Sylvia Petter was not part of my original Humber class. We instead waved hello across a Facebook group for Humber alumni (she was mentored by both Peter Carey and Timothy Findley, who she affectionately refers to as “Tiff”) and have kept in touch ever since.

When in Toronto a couple of years ago, Sylvia sent me one a signed copy of the original print version of Back Burning, her newest collection of short fiction.

Now holding a doctorate in creative writing, Sylvia is not only a published author, but specializes in teaching the art of the short story. Lately, she offered a critique up for bid on an “Authors for Japan” auction raising Red Cross funds for tsunami victims. And although I didn’t have a new short story ready I put up my paddle.

While Sylvia is still waiting for that short story to take place on an actual page, she has read the first third of my novel-in-progress, and keeps welcoming more pages, and more.

The thing is, I needed in the worst way to see the story and language through someone else’s eyes because mine had become blurred with literary cataracts from looking to closely. My book had stalled in a mud puddle of doubt.

I keep thanking Sylvia for such a gift. And simply, “Tiff,” she says, “would want it that way.”

As though that’s not enough, I asked another favour: Would she would be willing to talk to me for this blog.

Her answer, gracious as always, was yes. The following is our conversation, which happened via email last week.

Thank you Sylvia, for this and so much else!

Q: Our paths crossed in a roundabout sort of way because of the Humber School for Writers. Your mentor there was an author whose name Canadians speak in hushed tones. He’s that loved. Tell me, how did you come to have Timothy Findley as your teacher, and what was the experience like, both during and after you’d finished the class?

Yes, my Humber experience certainly played a big part in my development as a writer. In 1997, I attended a summer workshop run by Wayson Choy. It was an intense and satisfying experience. Then I saw that Australian Peter Carey was on the faculty and thought how great it would be to work with him in the correspondence course. But Carey was tied up with the filming of his book, Oscar and Lucinda, and so Joe Kertes suggested I work with Timothy Findley. (I eventually did work with Peter Carey on another novel, Ambergris, the last time he taught at Humber. It was very helpful for my writing but very different to my experience with Timothy Findley).

I’d never heard of Timothy Findley and the course was more expensive for non-Canadians. I remember phoning Joe from France and telling him, I’d have to take out a loan to pay for the course. He assured me that Timothy Findley would be perfect for me. This was in 1999 and Timothy Findley was still living in France and so was I. We did everything by snail mail. I sent him a draft of my novel, tentatively entitled Tillandsia, and thought that I was nearly there with it. It was the last time he was doing the correspondence course before going on book tour for his novel, Pilgrim. Over the 30 weeks, not only did he look at Tillandsia, but also the beginning of another novel in progress, Duende, and gave me detailed feedback on both works, with lots of questions that I was to explore. It was an intense period.

He was tough, but he was also very generous. He hinted that Tillandsia and Duende might be the same story and that I needed to find the right way to tell it. He made me think about coincidence, about character, structure and most of all about storytelling. Let me share some advice from his correspondence: “In stage terms, you (the writer) indicate some of the setting design and some of its details, some of the lighting and sound effects – and the reader supplies the rest of the look and the sound of the production; you define the roles to be played – but the reader does the casting for each role. And thus, every reader achieves a different and entirely appropriate production. “

When the course was over I reworked the novel, but I think I took on that job far too soon. He had warned me against this, saying that novels could take years to mature and mentioned that Pilgrim had taken almost 20. Today, Tilly (as I call my novel still in revision) is still unfinished, but I think I am ready now to revisit it, and once again study all our correspondence, reread Famous Last Words, for example. Timothy Findley’s guidance to me continues through his works. I miss that there’ll not be more of them.

Q: You have a shelf of CanLit in your office. Who’s on it?

Janette Turner Hospital, my Oz-Can link – I’d discovered her short stories in a remainder bin on a trip back home. She spoke to me through her stories, Dislocations and Isobars. Timothy Findley – I devoured everything he wrote. Famous Last Words is my textbook. Lauren Davis, who was also mentored by Timothy Findley and attended the Geneva Writers´Group, Isabel Huggan, who also gave workshops in Geneva, Wayson Choy. All those are on two shelves together. Then there are other shelves with Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, Rohinton Mistry, Dennis Bock, Mavis Gallant, Anne Michaels, Elisabeth Harvor, Erika de Vasconcelos, Richard Scrimger, copies of Descant and Prism, collections of Canadian short stories, Robertson Davies, Clark Blaise and Alistair McLeod

Q: For readers getting to know Sylvia Petter for the first time, I’ve heard you refer to yourself as a kangaroo living in Vienna. How did your writing take you from one place to the other?

There are lots of souvenir items, including T-shirts, in Vienna, which say “No kangaroos in Austria”, and somehow that seemed not quite true. So I bought one of those T-shirts and marked it up to read: I am a kangaroo in Austria; that highlights who I am, an Austr(al)ian. I was born in Vienna and grew up in Australia, and now I’m back, not really belonging anywhere anymore. My writing takes me to places linked to identity, subversion, truth in the lies and vice versa, in short, places of dislocation where I enjoy what in German they call “Narrenfreiheit” – I guess a sort of freedom of fools. It’s the dislocation, perhaps, that informs my writing, even when I’m writing bits of nonsense just for the fun of it, which I also like to do.

Q: Janette Turner Hospital calls you “…a cartographer of dislocated lives.” There’s wonderful poetry in that image. What does it mean to you, the writer who charts these characters.

When my publisher told me what she had written for the blurb on my book, Back Burning, the hairs on my arms stood up straight. It was a shivery experience. Often I discover things in my stories through the lenses of readers. What a reader sees and feels on reading my stories helps me explore my own dislocation, taking a phrase from John Metcalfe, shows me “how stories mean”.  If a cartographer draws up her chart after having gone down the road, then maybe that’s what I do. But there is never a chart at the beginning; it’s all unknown territory when starting out.

Q: Lately you’ve been telling me about your “souk” that’s currently under construction. “Souk” isn’t a word I’ve come across in Canada. Would you mind telling us about it, and yours in particular?

Ah, the souk. I was in Marrakech ages before I started writing fiction in the early 90s, and loved the souk, the marketplace filled with a jumble of goods from spices to satins and in the middle an old man cross-legged on an old carpet, before him an array of dentures and single teeth and the instruments for pulling them – a dentist of sorts. That image came back to me in my first writing room in France – papers and books all over the place, organic disorder, and in the middle, notebooks and computer, my tooth pulling instruments.

Sylvia's souk

Q: The collection of short stories, Back Burning (Interactive Press), is your most recent book. But there were others before, and others to come. What would you like people to know about your recent book? What are you working on now?

Between the Wayson Choy and Timothy Findley courses, I answered a call for submissions in the TLS. My collection, The Past Present, was accepted and in 2000 appeared as one of the first eBooks, and in 2001 as a POD (print-on-demand). It was a publishing “labour of love” ahead of its time, which soon sadly failed. Five years later, my collection, Back Burning, won Best Fiction Prize at IP. I’m very fond of Back Burning. It was important for me to be published in Australia, it was like coming home. But maybe Janette Turner Hospital’s words on the cover hint at my doubt in the existence of such a place. I need to revise Tilly, as well as Ambergris, the novel I did for my PhD at UNSW in Sydney on the smell of dislocation. Then I want to take stories from The Past Present and self publish them as an eBook together with many others not in Back Burning. That collection will be called Mercury Blobs – no publisher would ever accept that, hence the self publishing. It will be all over the place, my kind of thing. But first I need to finish a “memoir in craft” on the work of my mother with lots of photos of how she interpreted “waste not, want not”. And, of course, after all that, or maybe in between, there’ll be stories.

Q: What is your favourite thing about writing?

There’s a magical state of wanting to know how a story ends that I want to recapture. I was there once when I first started writing. I want to go back there to that freedom and energy and passion, that road into the unknown. Sure, there’s tooth pulling, but it’s worth it. Recently, John Siddique, a poet friend, wrote a blog post about the book teaching the writer how to write, how each book makes you start all over again. Starting something new, letting story take over. I think that’s what I love about writing.

Q: What do you think would surprise people to know about you?

Back in the 60s, between high school and uni in Sydney, I was working in the underwear section of a big department store. A woman was looking for a brand of bra we didn’t have, but I’d seen that brand in the window of a small shop a few blocks away and so rather than trying to sell her something from the department store, I told her she’d find what she wanted just down the road. She was very pleased. Needless to say, my supervisor was not impressed. I guess I still do that.