Dian Day is the author of two books, The Clock of Heaven (2008) and The Madrigal (2018). Both are published by Inanna Publications. In the following interview, Ms. Day speaks about her background, the enjoyment of the bucolic Maritimes lifestyle, and how she is finally writing the books she has had in her imagination for 30 years.
Miramichi Reader: Thanks Dian, for taking the time to answer a few questions about your books The Clock of Heaven and The Madrigal as well as some about yourself.
It’s a pleasure. Thank you for such lovely reviews of my books!
MR: You’re welcome! Please tell us a little about your background, education, employment, etc.
I was born in Montréal of Newfoundland stock—I like to say that my parents were first-generation Canadians. I spent most of the summers of my childhood in rural Newfoundland, and identified feelings of ‘home’ in rocks, rough turf, strong-smelling seaweed-strewn shores, and people who worked with their hands for a living. I can appreciate Montréal now, but as a child, I had no love for urban environments. After leaving home, I moved back and forth across the country a fair bit, spending considerable time on Vancouver Island and in Eastern Ontario as well as on the East Coast—but I kept coming back to Nova Scotia. Most of my adult life has been spent here.
I’ve done a lot of different things to make money—I’ve been a reporter, counsellor, researcher, mosaicist, editor, health promoter, and public health manager–and have returned to school as a ‘mature’ student several times. I’m currently working on a doctoral project in cultural studies, and hope to “giterdun” very soon.
MR: Tell us about some of the books or authors or other people (such as teachers) that may have influenced you to write.
I had an English teacher in High School who noticed me sitting at the back of her class endlessly reading while holding a book half-hidden underneath my desk—I made such a career of reading through the class that I almost flunked out of Grade 8. My panic-stricken parents—both schoolteachers—packed me off to a different, much smaller school. There, this exceptional English teacher kept me after class one day near the end of the first semester of Grade 9 and challenged me to show up in my own life as well as to contribute something to the lives of others. It was a pivotal moment, thank goodness. She also facilitated a short story of mine going to a provincial competition—in which I won second place. From then on I wanted to be a writer and said so. My mother didn’t think that was very practical, and said so—and, of course, it turns out she was right. But practicality isn’t everything.
MR: Do you have a favourite book (or books), one(s) that you like to revisit from time to time?
As a child, my life was saved by CS Lewis, Tove Jansson, E Nesbit, and Alan Garner; as a teenager, by such widely disparate writers as Charles Dickens, Ursula LeGuin, JRR Tolkien, and Ngaio Marsh. I have re-read books by these authors countless times, and still happily go back to them on occasion. The advantage of age is that you forget the details sooner, so re-reading is even more of a pleasure.
I read mostly non-fiction these days, on a wide range of subjects: history, cultural studies, philosophy, natural science. I’ve just re-discovered Annie Dillard’s For the Time Being sitting patiently on my shelf, and have re-read it with great enthusiasm – everyone should read this book! I’ve now ordered her novels, which I’ve never read, from my local library. I am still always voracious when I find a writer whose work I like.
MR: I’m thinking of all the magnificent imagery and attention to detail in your writing: does this come naturally to you? Do you tend to agonize over your writing, or are you satisfied after a few drafts or rewrites?
I think the attention to detail comes easily; it is how I live my life, by attending—or at least, by attending to certain things, particularly things in the natural world: how they look and smell and feel. I make a lot of space in my life for attending; I think I could not survive well otherwise, and I certainly could not write books.
Sometimes the writing comes easily, and sometimes I agonize. Getting into a new project is always somewhat difficult. There’s a lot of work to do to figure out who someone is in their particular world. The bulk of the writing takes place in a kind of almost-happy zone, with, in general, mostly good or good-ish or at least not hellish days. The end is agony. I don’t mean the end of the book, but the end of the writing process: does this section go here or here? Oh, I see I have to write yet another scene that explains such-and-such and add it in here somewhere. Maybe this beloved character isn’t adding anything to the story and just has to disappear completely? There’s a lot of fretting at that point. And I’m never sure I’m going to pull it off.
MR: Where did the ideas for both your novels come from? Something in real life, or from a vivid imagination?
I’m not sure I would oppose real life with vivid imagination. I think we can keep living in this brutal/beautiful world only because we imagine. We all make up stories about everything, that we believe, or come to believe, whether or not they are true, whether or not there is anything that is Really True, and whether or not we write them down. Novel-writing is just one way of being more intentional and conscious and up-front about those stories. Having said that, the ideas just… come. Or I should say, the characters just come, and my job as a writer is to tell a story about how this particular, complicated person that I’m attending to comes to terms with this brutal/beautiful world. I think all my stories (and most other people’s) are and will be reduceable to this: terrible things happen; how do we go on? We go on, of course, precisely because of the beauty. Beauty can be a collection of little brown bats hanging upside down in a closet that reeks of smoke; it can be learning to care for a fumbling, incoherent, ageing parent with whole-hearted tenderness—surely one of the very hardest things in the world. Beauty is also self-forgiveness, no matter how much misunderstanding and hurt and sorrow permeates our past.
“I am finally producing the novels I have been imagining for thirty years.”
MR: As someone with an introverted personality, I couldn’t help but notice that both of your main protagonists, Esa in The Clock of Heaven and Frederick in The Madrigal are both introverts. Does this reflect your own personality, or are introverts easier to develop as characters vs. extroverts?
I am a pretty serious introvert myself. I also “couldn’t help but notice” that both Esa and Frederick are introverts—though I don’t think they are very similar in other ways, in terms of their characters. I am very deliberate in my beginning-to-write process by making sure I continue to grow as a writer. I challenge myself to do it differently next time. So if I write in the third person I will try the first-person narrative, and if I write a young woman, I will attend to and write an almost-middle-aged man, and if I write introverts, I will attend to and write extroverts—but I am getting ahead of myself: see the question below! To answer the easy/hard part of your question: so far, it doesn’t feel harder to write about that other experience, extroversion. Because our culture tends to celebrate extroversion, I think all introverts wish, at least sometimes, that it was possible to be other. It’s fair to say I’ve spent a lot of time studying the extroverts close to me to see how on earth they do it.
MR: What are you working on now? Are there any other books in the works?
I’m working on two things: A non-fiction project about food and eating that comes out of my doctoral work, and a new novel. The novel is, as with The Clock of Heaven, set in Nova Scotia. It’s both historical and ‘futurable’, features protagonists who live almost 400 years apart (and never meet), and, now that you mention it, they are both extroverts!
MR: What do you enjoy most about living on the East Coast?
I might just love everything about it. I love the ocean, and the way the tides, so predictable, make everything else so unpredictable. I love the landscape of rolling hills and the way the sky changes by the minute. I love the old houses and barns, even when they are falling down. Even as an introvert, I love the way you can have a whole, friendly conversation with the cashier at the checkout or the person next to you in the ATM line. I love the music, rooted in culture. I love it that there are many people here who still work with their hands to make a living because that seems to make everything a little slower and simpler. I love being twenty years ‘behind’ in taste and fashion because there is less compulsion to keep up. I love it that I can run to any one of my neighbours—even the shady ones—in absolute trust that, if I need help, they will help.
My partner and I have rescued a 160-year-old hand-built house on an old farm property five minutes from the ocean. I look around now and sometimes I can’t for the life of me figure out how I got here; other times I think this is, inevitably, the only place I could possibly be. It’s very beautiful here. Every day I think that.
MR: Finally, what do you like to do when you are not writing? Any guilty pleasures?
In many ways, I am always writing now, because so much of the work of writing happens when we are not actually writing… But none of my pleasures are guilty ones. I walk along the beach and through the woods with our dog; I garden; I renovate; I read; I cook, talk, and do jigsaw puzzles with my partner; we get together with children, grandchildren, and friends. I lead a quiet life, and I feel privileged that I now can. And I think it is no coincidence that I am finally producing the novels I have been imagining for thirty years. I have never been one of those people who get up before the children and writes every morning for an hour before the chaos starts—well, I did do that, when I was writing poetry or short stories, but all that writing would never, for me, have made a chapbook or a short story collection or a novel. So I suppose my guilty pleasures are the long stretches of being in my head, uninterrupted, and the glorious quiet I need in which to write things down.
My sincere thanks to Ms. Day for taking the time to answer my questions!
My review of The Clock of Heaven is here. My review of her new novel The Madrigal can be found at the Consumed by Ink site here.
*Please note if you choose to purchase Dian Day’s books through Amazon using the image links in the article, I will receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. Thanks!