The Hub Q&A with Katherena Vermette

Q&A with Katherena Vermette

On November 1, 2018, we welcomed Katherena Vermette to Athabasca University as this year’s writer-in-residence.

Katherena will be available in that role helping aspiring writers until the end of May. Guidelines for submitting can be found here.

Recently, Paul Huebener (AU writer-in-residence committee member and Associate Professor of Canadian Literature) and Angie Abdou (AU writer-in-residence committee chair and Associate Professor of Creative Writing) had a chance to engage Katherena in conversation about her writing.

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We’re very happy to have you in the role of Athabasca University’s writer-in-residence this year. People have long argued about whether or not creative writing can be taught. How do you approach this kind of teaching when you offer evaluation of submitted manuscripts? What sorts of things do you think experienced writers can teach aspiring writers? What elements of creative writing cannot be taught?

I am very happy to be here! I love spending time reading writing and talking with writers, so we’re going to have a fun year!

I think there’s so much about writing that can be taught. I have learned so much from others, and hope I can do the same for someone else. I am a big believer in passion over talent. I don’t believe in talent. I think it’s completely subjective. One person’s talent is another person’s hack. I also don’t think there’s a special magical thing that makes one person a writer, but rather, it’s many, many things, and mostly just a whole lotta hard work.

I call it passion because you really have to want to do it, and passion is the only thing that gets you through all the drudgery that comes with writing. It’s long, takes forever, and then just when you think you have it, you have to re-write everything, over and over, it seems. You also have to really like editing because writing is mostly editing, like, a good 90% is fixing, adding to, subtracting from whatever you started with. And then, you have to read you’re writing in front of people, too! This was my biggest hurdle. I was painfully shy and deathly afraid of public speaking. This actually prevented me from pursuing writing for a very long time. So I think much of all that can be taught. Editing, public speaking, re-writing, editing again, these are all things that can be reviewed and taught by others. Experienced writers can teach new writers all about these illusion-shattering things, we know how to edit, how not to make fools of ourselves in front of other (some of the time, anyway) and how to take all the waiting and rejection that comes after all this hard work.

What can’t be taught? That idea. That shiny story/poem/song idea that comes and lights you up. The thing that is yours and no one else’s. The thing you have to say/shout/sing even before you know how to fully articulate it but you have to! It’s as if your breath depended on it and nothing matters more. Those are the gifts. Those can’t be taught. They just come.

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Who were some important mentors in your writing development? What are a few of the key lessons you learned from them

Oh I have had so many mentors.

Catherine Hunter taught me all my poems live inside of me forever:

I was taking a writing class with her when the old computer I was using fell apart. I lost everything. I was devastated. But she was calm, and simply told me to rewrite them.

“But how,” I cried. “They are gone. Gone!” (I was very dramatic in my youth)

“You wrote them. They’re from you. They’re still inside of you.” I think she literally had her hands folded on her lap as she said this.

So I calmed the f* down and rewrote them, and she was right – they were still there and they came out even better than before. After that I stopped being anxious about writing. I started trusting that my work wasn’t going to leave me. It’s always with me.

I have had many teachers who have taught me many things. Richard Van Camp taught me to always look for the light. Marilyn Dumont taught me my culture is my greatest strength and best helper (seconded only by coffee, thirdly by wine). Beatrice Culleton Mosionier taught me that there is beauty even in the hardest stuff. The Imagists taught me to just make the image and be quick about it. So many teachers. Some have taught me in classroom, some over coffee, and some I only know from books. I bet there are a few I haven’t met yet, too.

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Your first novel, The Break, had tremendous success. Does that success change the way you come to the page for a new project?

Honestly, it makes things feel a bit more daunting. My first book was a small collection of poetry published by a local press here in Winnipeg. I gave it my all but fully realized it would likely only get a small readership. Then it won the GG and things literally exploded for me, and it. After that, I looked at the novel I was writing and thought, “Damn, people might actually read this. It has to be good.” And then proceeded to ignore it for about six months. I was putting way too much pressure on the thing! It was only after I forgot about all that that I could get back to the business of writing it. Attention and audience can’t really be predicted, and really don’t matter when you are creating. Whether it’s “big” or “small,” you have to give it your all. I think The Break is a success because I shut off the world and wrote it. Because I completed what I set out to do and it spoke to people. That’s success. That’s what successful writing is, no matter what comes of it. To do that, I had to shut off all the noise and FEAR and write what I needed to, and have passion for it to see me through the many rewrites.

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What’s one thing about writing you wish you knew before starting your first novel?

Um, how to write a novel might have been helpful.

Mine was a very messy process. I had no idea what I was doing. I just wrote and whenever I got stuck, or got to a hard part I wasn’t ready to write, I would just make a new character and start the story all over from another perspective. I ended up with several stories I had to piece together like a jigsaw puzzle. I basically took all the “How NOT to write a novel” tropes and mashed together the book. It took a long time. Like years.

This next one is going to be so much easier, right?

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Students who register in English 308: Indigenous Literature in Canada will be studying your novel The Break. Do you have any advice for students who are reading your work within the larger context of Indigenous literature or Canadian society?

There are many professors and Elders much more versed than I am at speaking to the larger contexts. I can say that as I was following the tradition created by Maria Campbell’s Halfbreed and Beatrice Culleton Mosionier’s In Search of April Raintree — these are hard, necessary, beautiful stories, and I tried to make mine like that too. I think our literature is a conversation we have with each other. My work responds to those who have come before me. I am speaking to them, and hoping I have honoured them appropriately.

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You’ve just published a new book of poetry, river woman, and a new graphic novel, Red River Resistance. You’ve also worked in other formats, such as children’s books and film. Do the techniques and elements of a particular genre or medium transfer over to other forms? For instance, does writing a graphic novel influence your poetry?

Poetry influences everything. I think of poetry as home. I start everything with poetry, really. I approached film like this. Same with graphic novels. They were both unknown to me but of course, both are all about the image which was a place I could comfortably start. And, everything influences poetry right back. For me, poetry is a way to see the world. Everything I see and do is reflected within it.

  • December 10, 2018