Andrea Routley, an alumna of the University of Victoria, has recently published her debut short story collection, Jane and the Whales through Caitlin Press. The collection is a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award, an international English-language award for LGBT literature. Previously, Routley’s work has appeared in numerous literary magazines, including the Malahat Review and Room Magazine. In 2008, she was shortlisted for the Rona Murray Prize for Literature. She is the founder and editor of Plenitude Magazine, Canada’s queer literary magazine. She also edited Walk Myself Home: An Anthology to End Violence Against Women (Caitlin Press, 2010). Recently, Coastal Spectator Managing Editor Nadia Grutter discussed Jane and the Whales with Routley via email.
Andrea, I was delighted to read a series of short stories that skims so close reality. Your stories—particularly “The Gone Batty Interpretation”—challenged and moved me emotionally. Would you mind describing the emotional journey you went through writing this book?
Well, each story is its own journey. I didn’t begin writing the first story with an over-arching concept for a collection, but, like any writer, your obsessions begin to reveal themselves in your writing patterns. That particular story, “The Gone Batty Interpretation,” I wrote about six months after the suicide of a high school friend, so it is not a humorous story or an intellectual story at all. Suicide is something that comes up in several stories. So many of us are touched by this, but I most often hear it talked about in medical terms, as a treatable disease, and it’s not that simple. “The Sign,” on the other hand, deals with the same subject but in a way that (I think) is humorous. It looks at choices like that from a more logical perspective.
Your writing is powerful in its restraint—both in its brief form and concise content. Is this something you learned to cultivate through, say, workshops during your time at UVic or has your writing style always been so distilled? Basically, how did you learn to write the way you do?
When I first started writing stories, I’d often get the question, “Is this the beginning of a novel or a short story?” At first I felt proud of this question, like looking like a novel meant it was a big, fat, interesting story and this was a good thing. Then I realized this just meant I had a lot of superfluous detail or was alluding to potential plot twists that were never going to happen. You definitely learn to pare down the more you write. (And yes, I learned this while at UVic with the fantastic instructors!) I think this is in part because your writing becomes less precious to you, simply as a result of quantity. I’ve axed characters from some of these stories who I’d thought were critical in early drafts. For example, there was a kid like a wild animal who likes to stalk around in the sage by the clay cliffs and hisses at people, but eats his wiener like it’s corn on the cob. Maybe he’ll come up in another story, and if not, that’s okay too–it was fun to write the scenes with him. It’s not about publishing everything you write. It’s imperative to just enjoy writing, too (or just feel compelled to do it).
Your stories are very diverse content-wise. How did the stories inform each other in the writing process? Was there one core story that sparked a sort of leap-frog of ideas into the other stories?
Every story explore in some way humans’ and animals’ relationships with the world around them, that search for a place. “Habitat” certainly carried over into “The Gone Batty Interpretation” with the protagonists both coping with grief and expressing their sadness through empathy for an animal, among other things. Many of the stories have characters trying to make sense of the past through their unreliable memories — or the way we discover just how unreliable our memories are when something surprising happens to a person we thought we understood.
The conclusions to your stories strike a careful balance between inevitable and surprising. What did the process of rounding out an individual story look like for you?
I’m glad to hear the conclusions feel that way. I try to write a “satisfying” ending to stories. Sometimes stories end so abruptly and the satisfaction is really delayed; it only comes later when you’ve had time to unlock its meaning. I can appreciate those endings, but I don’t really “enjoy” them. I try to write something that will feel concluded and satisfying, but give enough to leave you with something to chew on. For some of these stories, the rounding out involves the editor’s feedback, deleting one line too many, or adding one more beat. (Sometimes more than that, of course, like going back and rewriting a scene that obviously was not doing its job of setting up the ending and things like that).
Are you working on any projects aside from Plenitude at the moment?
I have some crazy, daunting, stupid idea of writing another book, one of linked short stories of exclusively queer characters, across decades. I have read at a couple queer events and it was incredibly rewarding to read a queer story for such an engaged, lively, appreciative crowd. I want to make more of those characters that we are obviously in need of — “we” includes me. The queer past is full of diverse and wonderful people and experiences, and there are not enough of us in story. If anyone would like some ideas on new queer books to read, though, I have an ever-growing list of new queer Canadian titles at PlenitudeMagazine.ca.
For more on new queer Canadian titles, visit http://plenitudemagazine.ca/resources/new-queer-books/.