The Lucy E.M. Black Interview

Lucy E.M. Black is a Canada-based writer and educator. The author of The Marzipan Fruit Basket and Eleanor Courtown, Black’s award-winning short stories have been published in Britain, Ireland, the USA and Canada. A dynamic workshop presenter experienced interviewer and freelance writer, she lives with her partner in Port Perry, Ontario. Lucy studied creative writing at the undergraduate level and later earned her master’s degree in nineteenth-century British Fiction. She has also been a student at the Sage Hill School of Writing and the Humber College School of Writing. Her latest novel is Stella’s Carpet (published in fall 2021 by NON Publishing).

Exploring the intergenerational consequences of trauma, including those of a Holocaust survivor and a woman imprisoned during the Iranian Revolution, Stella’s Carpet weaves together the overlapping lives of those stepping outside the shadows of their own harrowing histories to make conscious decisions about how they will choose to live while forging new understandings of family, forgiveness and reconciliation. As the story unfolds, readers are invited to ponder questions about how we can endure the unimaginable, how we can live with the secrets of the past, and at what price comes love. An artful and engaging story of struggle and survival, Stella’s Carpet will resonate for those forced to find non-traditional ways to create community, and those willing to examine the threads that draw our tapestry together in this everchanging world.

Any advice for writers out there working on their first or second novel. Specifically, what do you do before you send the manuscript out to publishers?

I never show anyone the first draft.  When I sit down to write, I begin my session by editing the previous day’s pages.  I find this helps me to slide back into the manuscript.  When I have the second draft roughed out, I read the pages aloud, to feel the sound of the words in my mouth and also to listen for glaring inconsistencies and grammar issues. I revise and rewrite and edit the manuscript anywhere from 12 to 15 times.  This often includes major restructuring.  After about draft 10, I hire a trusted story editor who checks one of my final drafts for things like narrative arc, character development, and tension. I will also ask close friends and family to read it at this point and ask for general comments and feedback.  When the story editor gives me their recommendations, I incorporate the changes along with the general feedback I have received.  Then I re-write the manuscript again and again, weighing what I have been told and incorporating the changes that make sense to me.  At that point, I let it sit for a couple of weeks before reading the whole thing through again to make sure it’s doing what I set out to do.  If so, I send it off to a copy editor, who then fine-tunes and polishes the language, catches any inconsistencies and gives me detailed feedback about language, grammar, formatting, and other items that catch their eye.  A final edit comes next.  Only then do I decide that it’s ready to share with potential publishers and/or literary agents.  I’m not interested in wasting anyone’s time and I want to be sure that I am sharing only my very best work.

What else is ‘a little less brilliant’ in Stella’s collection of memorabilia? Or in general.

Stella impulsively purchases an expensive marionette based on the character Pinocchio.  She was avoiding a staff party and hiding out in a toy store to kill some time when she saw him.  He had a detachable stubby nose as well as a much longer one that could be inserted in its place when he told a lie.  This really appealed to Stella and although she had no use for such a toy at the time, she decided to buy him.   Telling the truth, keeping secrets, and telling lies within the family is very important to the story as it unfolds.  Everyone in the novel has secrets, and most of them have told lies either by commission or omission. She gifts the marionette to her half-brother and the gift is significant in that she is both acknowledging him as family but also offering him a representation of discernment.

What is a Palladian window?

A Palladian window is most often a large, round-topped window structure in three sections, with the center section arched and taller than the two side pieces.  The name comes from Andrea Palladio, an important Italian architect from the sixteenth century, and refers to a period of late-nineteenth-century classical revival architecture.  I think you ask me this because the novel mentions Palladian windows as a feature of the school’s design where Stella teaches.  The building is a composite of architectural styles as it was initially built in a rather classical style and subsequently added to with more modern wings.  It is the contrast between the old and the new coming together in this one building that I found so intriguing when I worked there (yes – it’s based upon a real school), and I thought that this contrast said something important about Stella’s life experiences.   

Did you base any characters on people you know – sub-question – even if we as writers claim or deny suspected influences – isn’t that rather private? The bank teller with the cheery demeanour do we question the source of such behaviour?

The short answer is ‘no.’  I freely admit to being a notorious eavesdropper – I love to sit in a restaurant or café and listen to the conversations around me, not so much for gossip as for a turn of phrase, a dialect or a speech pattern. I look for indications about who these people around me are and what I can guess about their stories and truth.  However, my characters do not come from real people.  They are instead composites of ideas and decisions that I make about who could best represent the character I need.  I study photographs and do a lot of research before I begin to shape a character.  I name them, I describe them, I think about their clothes and eating habits, the way they walk, quirky mannerisms they might have, their dark sides, their personal values and belief systems.  And when all of this has percolated for some time, they suddenly become three-dimensional and very alive for me, and they sort of walk into my head and show me where the novel needs to go.  I have learned how to listen to them and how not to force my own plan on the manuscript as it unfolds.

Who are your writing influences?

I’m a voracious reader.  I believe that good writers must also be good readers.  The written word is powerful and it plays an important role in my life, both when I’m writing and when I’m reading.  Some of the touchstones in my personal canon include: Dickens – for his wicked characterizations, Austen – for her social commentary and novels of manners, Alice Munro and William Trevor – for their short stories.  But there are so many others, including: Susan Swann, Jane Urquhart, Donna Morrissey, Frances Itani, Michael Ondaatje, Nino Ricci, Alistair MacLeod, Michael Crummey, Ann Michaels, and on and on…

Rugs as symbolism in the pursuit of extending, discovering domestic virtue in the 21st-century novel. Write your novel’s Jeopardy answer.

I love how Austen writes scathingly about domestic virtues in her novels.  She is very clear that the business of the Empire is entrusted to men, while women are relegated to the sphere of the household and their social engagements.  The making of Persian carpets, in a very traditional way, is actually a complex undertaking that encompasses an art form, a cultural legacy, and an economic domestic enterprise involving many members of one family group.  The weaving of a single carpet involves the purchasing of materials, the dyeing of the wool, the actual weaving, and then the finishing work which includes tying the fringes, washing, clipping and ironing.  It can take a family unit a year or more to complete one such handmade carpet.  Understanding the complexity of creating such a carpet is helpful to fully appreciate them.  I would like to think that the carpets have much in common with Stella’s family.  I’ll leave it to the readers to determine why I think so and whether or not they agree.

“I wanted to write about intergenerational trauma, about families and about new Canadians.  Those were the things that I felt were at the heart of the story.”

How did you decide on the use of italics?

I’m always going back and forth over my writing to see where it would be most effective. As you know, italics are traditionally intended to show emphasis.  I have used italics in this novel, as a way of indicating speech, following the contemporary Irish model. I really like eliminating quotation marks as a way of embedding speech within the text, without fracturing the flow of language by imposing the traditional markings.  I find it visually soothing, and feel that it moves forward very naturally without those quotation marks.  Moreover, the emphasis usually associated with italics makes it possible to emphasize all speech, when used in this way.  And that’s kind of intentional, as well.  This is a short novel, and there is a lot packed into it, so I have worked sparingly with dialogue – curating, if you will, the scenes I have chosen to present and leaving them fairly sparse.  This was really quite deliberate.  In its original form, the novel was about 120 pages longer.  My editor challenged me to cut it down in order to really focus on the heart of the story.  Deleting so much text and boiling it down to its current length was tough, but it was intentional.  I hope that the leaner shape allows the reader to engage without imposing on them a sense of how to respond.  What I mean by this is that some novelists writing about WWII often draw vivid, painful portraits of horrific scenes that are quite haunting and deeply upsetting.  That was not my objective with this project.  I wanted to write about intergenerational trauma, about families and about new Canadians.  Those were the things that I felt were at the heart of the story.

Is Pamela an antihero? What was the funnest thing to write about her character?

When we first meet Pam she is self-absorbed, slightly eccentric, and fairly neurotic.  She has a great deal of resentment about her divorce and her upbringing.  She is a damaged woman, in that she is a child who grew up under the shadow of the Holocaust.  She suffers from what is known as intergenerational trauma.  This is a term used to describe those people who are second and third generation removed from people exposed to deep trauma (i.e., through the Holocaust, residential schools, the Bosnian war, and the Vietnam war), and who have inherited a legacy of distress which is manifested in any number of ways.  So yes, Pam is a little bit funny because she is so extreme.  But she is also hurt and I hope that by showing her evolve as the novel progresses, that I have been a little bit kind to her.  Her relationship with Tony was fun to write.  He calls her out on her outrageous behaviours and I really love the interplay between the two of them.  I think my favourite scene is when he walks circles around her.

If your novel was a rock band what element would play bass, drums, lead vocals, fee free to assign other instruments.

I’m not very knowledgeable about rock bands, actually.  But something that always amazes me when I listen to ensembles is the wonder of such different, talented musicians playing together as one.  So, in that light, if we could talk about a string quartet, I might better be able to respond.  Goethe was reputed to have said that a quartet was like four people having a conversation.   And in this conversation, there is one instrument (perhaps the violin) that introduces the melody, while the others answer back and respond to it.  So, in my novel, Stella would have to be the violin – she is the main voice that sets the melody – but William and Pam and the Lipinskis are the other voices.  They contribute to the overall composition while still following the melody.  And just as an aside, the violin, is the single instrument that most closely resembles the human voice in terms of the tones, the nuances and the resonance.

Why do family’s avoid, thrash and burn in the attempts of being transparent? Why is it so hard why are there so many layers? Are families always out of sync?

I think this question is better suited to someone with some clinical training.  But in my experience, I will say that the short answer is that FAMILIES ARE MESSY! The longer answer, I think, is that individuals are complex, with unique personalities and distinct characteristics, abilities, talents and gifts.  Human nature is such that when you put a group of us together, we rub up against one another, and learn what buttons to push and how to get a rise out of someone.  Siblings in particular are brilliant at this. But the other aspect of things is that we are, by nature, closely bonded to our family members.  We depend upon them for our basic survival needs when we are young, and for some of our emotional needs as we mature.  And we have expectations for ourselves and for our siblings and for our parents.  Petty disappointments and jealousies and inflicted pain compromise those intimate bonds and we haven’t all learned how to rise above such things.  The family in my novel is a blended family that embraces people from various countries and cultures, and its members cleave to one another with a fierce bond that eventually transcends blood relations.  In a certain respect, we all CHOOSE our families as we progress through life, and Stella’s family is a family that has chosen to encompass members from outside, keeping them close, as intimates.  And this is something that I believe is very important for us as a larger community to recognize and celebrate.  Our country is a country filled with indigenous people as well as newcomers from every part of the globe.  Understanding that together, we form the fabric of the nation, and a country to be proud of, is key for me.  The other part of this is that many newcomers are fleeing their homelands out of necessity and not by choice.  People come from war-torn countries where they have been tortured and persecuted and have witnessed terrible atrocities.  These people deserve our compassion and our kindness and respect.  I hope that they find new families here and become proud of the larger community to which they now belong.

What is your favourite Greek myth and why?

I have always loved the story of Icarus.  We have a ceramic sculpture of him in our home, actually. The idea of wearing wings and flying through the sky like a bird is very appealing, somehow.   We used to live on a farm, and I loved to look out the windows and watch the birds swooping and soaring over the fields.  There is such an elegance to birds in flight, particularly when they flock and ride the currents.  The other part of the story refers to Daedalus, and his deep grief at the loss of his son.  Any of us who are parents understand the desperation and sadness of his mourning, and I think that also resonates with me – the strength of such a strong bond.  

What is essential for a good writing day beyond quiet, money, privacy, time and resources like a computer or electricity?  

For me, currently, the best time to write is in the still of the evening until the early hours of the morning.  I depend upon complete silence and an interruption-free block of time to enter into my creative process.  It also helps to have the background of living under control:  I don’t want to be distracted by something that needs attention.  I try to eliminate all such worries and distractions before I sit down to write.  It’s the only way I can feel calm and centred and focussed.  But I should say, that not all of my writing processes involve actually writing.  The pre-thinking and problem-solving and research that goes into the work is something that can happen at any time.  I squeeze in all of these things throughout my day, as my schedule allows.  Once my characters have become fully formed and have joined me, they often interrupt my day with something pressing or prescient.  I can hear their voices weighing in on things and I find that they are often quite opinionated.  In terms of equipment, which was part of the question: I do write both my first draft and all of my planning on the computer.  My editing, however, I do using a hard copy with a purple pen.

1 thought on “The Lucy E.M. Black Interview”

Comments are closed.