The Lenore Rowntree Interview

Lenore Rowntree writes this time on the perils and humour in a life that does not age in
even strides. Old is not a dirty word, especially when told in a linked collection of stories
that move at a pace. Her novel Cluck was a finalist for the Great BC Novel Prize, her
plays have been produced throughout BC, and she co-edited and contributed to Hidden Lives:
true stories from people who live with mental illness. She lives in British Columbia.

See You Later Maybe Never (Now or Never Publishing) tells the story of Vanessa, who is
completely pissed off with aging. Why? Let’s see: she’s been squeezed out of her high
fashion job, freewheeling her into the destruction of her marriage, and on a comical retreat to
a Gulf Island where she reflects on early misadventures, while her husband in his stained
windbreaker and soiled sneakers finds himself another woman who favours smutty
t-shirts, leaving Vanessa to rely on her sparkly 103-year-old Aunt Marion for inspiration
about how to live.

Why linked short stories and not a novel?

LR: I’ve never understood why short stories are generally not considered to be major
league. To me, they’re a mighty way to convey big ideas concisely: concentrated doses of
entertainment. I’ve written novels too and though there might be more balls in the air
which requires some agility, too much can get ramped up into athletic writing that starts
to make a novel look like it’s a kid preparing to go to the Olympics. It still surprises me
that publishers gravitate toward the bloated babies rather than the mature short story.
In some ways with a linked collection, the writer and the reader get the benefit of both
forms. And if I’m honest, I have to say the stories about Vanessa and those around her
came to me in chunks. I started writing close to the present day, then I overturned the
rocks of her past and found good stories there, too. I didn’t want to have to worry much
about the mechanics of moving time back and forth as you would in a novel. I wish I
could remember the name of the writer who said the part of writing that made him want
to quit (I’m pretty sure it was a man) was all the drudgery of moving the characters
around, getting the protagonist out the front door and to the elevator can be a big task.

What character surprised you the most?

LR: The character of Aunt Marion was the one that crept up on me and surprised me the
most. At first, she was a bit character with one line in the story ‘Enchanted Girl’. Then she
made an unexpected appearance at the end of the story ‘Acorn’. By the time I came close
to the end of writing, I wanted to add a whole story about her. I had no idea as I wrote the
story ‘Care Less’ how Aunt Marion was going to amuse herself at age one-hundred and
three until all of a sudden I was writing a scene with her showing Vanessa some of her
latest artwork—it was a surprise. As usual, Marion was doing her own thing, along with
her crazy, free-spirited crystal power and all that goes with that.

What was the catalyst for writing See You Later…?

LR: I too was pissed off with aging and society’s view of people over sixty. I wanted to
put some positive power into the stories of people who are into their third act and
expecting a coda after that. It is time for ageism to stop. Seems to be one of the last
frontiers of acceptable prejudice. It’s counterproductive to not see the life in the years, as
opposed to the years in a life. The intent was to write a generous and sometimes
humourous collection showing people keeping things positive and vigorous to the end.
The stories are meant to give strength, in the years when invisibility is a real danger, especially for women. The whole disdain for ageing seems crazy to me. Old is not a dirty

Were there parts of this book that were difficult to write?

LR: The book, like life, is not entirely light and humorous. Some of the more serious
topics addressed did touch off insecurities and painful memories. There are scenes about
racism, one story set in rural Ontario comes close to difficult real-life events, and even the
less focused touch in another story about dating someone from a different race made me
unsure in this era of cancel culture. It shouldn’t be a risky thing to open a computer, type
a few words, and release them, but it can be. Especially if the writer doesn’t get it quite
right, which is always entirely possible. There are a lot of aggrieved people for whom
things can’t be put right without a lot of hard work. This isn’t going to happen in just a
few stories. The grievances can range from the relatively benign “you didn’t capture the
issue authentically” to outrage at the thought of the wrong writer, defined by whoever’s
shoes the reader is standing in, even dared to tell a certain story. These issues are
sensitive and some things don’t move fast enough forward, or in the right way for
everyone. I wanted to address these issues because they are part of life and people are
hurting from them, but I knew it was risky. I had to adopt the philosophy evoked in the
title of the story ‘Start Anywhere’. That is: to not at least try and write about issues of
racism is worse than saying nothing. Starting anywhere is better than not starting at all.
Also, the issue of how a woman is supposed to feel after an abortion is largely ignored in
contemporary writing. I may not have got that right either, but I think it’s a dialogue
about which a lot more can be said, so I broached it. Then there are the challenging aspects
of aging. Vanessa is a flawed character, and she does not always keep up the energy for
life that she would in a perfect world. One of the early readers of the story ‘Bastion
Square’ asked me if I was the character Vanessa, and if so, she said she didn’t like me. It
would be disingenuous for me to say, “Absolutely not. I am not in any way my
character.” I did create her. She is me to the extent that some aspect of me must have
reacted in a similar way to the situation I put her in, to allow me to even write that
particular story. One could go forever peeling this onion.

What question do I most like to be asked?

“What is my process?” It’s easy, I know all about my actual process and how messy it can
be and how every time I am amazed the mess of notes becomes something coherent and
formed in my computer. It’s also probably one of the most useless questions. I used to
listen intently when writers were being interviewed to learn about their processes. I
thought somehow if I learned to be like Joan Didion obsessively writing and rewriting the
first page (which apparently she did to get in “the rhythm”), or like Maya Angelou
checking myself into a hotel room to drink a glass of wine and start my writing day, or if
I sniffed a box of fermented apples like Proust, or was it von Schiller? to get the day
started, I too would become a decent writer.
This notion came to a crashing dubstep end for me when I watched a documentary about
Russell Smith, a writer whose short stories I admire. His process involves listening to
blasting techno music through headphones. As much as I like his writing, I know that
when I listen to music I usually write crap, unless it’s bland elevator music I’ve
interjected to block out some other annoying noise.
Even the most banal process advice like ‘you must write every day, or ‘make it a routine
like any other job’ works for the writer who says it, and not necessarily the writer who
hears it. I would be more prolific if I could follow that sort of advice, but I can’t. And the
fact that I handwrite poetry on scraps of paper stuffed into plastic bags, and occasionally
import the crystal power of glowing calcite or piece of hematite is easy for me to talk
about, but works only for me. Besides processes change. Next year I might be listening to
hard rock while I sniff apples and obsessively rewrite the first paragraph of a novel while
lying in stained hotel bed sheets with a glass of wine beside me.

What does the title See You Later Maybe Never mean?

I heard this coming out of the mouth of one of the characters and realized it stands in for
the polite, not so polite, way people brush each other off. I hear it in my head as a slow
reveal of the words: see you later, kind of polite and vague, rolling into, maybe … never,
not so polite. It fits with one of the themes of the book.

What prepared you to be a writer?

Really almost everything has led to it including watching way too much tv drama (love of
a good story). Though, I was a shy kid who was a good observer and reader so that’s a
part of it, too. Even being a lawyer helped more than I realized at the time. I spent years
railing against the rigours of practice, but it helped me learn how to keep my bum in the
seat and more importantly how to find the right word to express what I mean. Clarity
trumps grace in legal writing. It may not be the most poetic kind of writing but it is
precise and a good base to start from. You can always ruffle uptight writing into
something resembling a rose, but you can’t necessarily go the other way around — you
might end up with just a heap of petals.