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September 13, 2018
The Word On The Street is coming up on September 23, with WOTS Plus+ the day before on September 22nd! We sat down with Casey Plett, author of Little Fish, who will be joining us at the festival this year!
WOTS: Little Fish is your first novel, but you’ve also published a collection of short stories. What was it like, going from short fiction to novels? When do you think a story is ready to be a novel?
Casey Plett: When I wrote my first book, A Safe Girl to Love, the stories just naturally felt like they ended, there was a point in the writing where a pulse in my brain went “Ok, nothing happens after this.” All the stories except the longest one, “Not Bleak” which felt like I could’ve just gone on and wrote forever (and two of whose characters show up in Little Fish, including the protagonist).
I didn’t make “Not Bleak” into a novel because the rest of Safe Girl was already written and I wanted to fit it in there, but when I had the first couple dozen or so pages of Little Fish, I had that same feeling, like “I think this is a novel, that’s what this feels like, I’m going to give it a shot.” There was no pulse in my brain that said “Nothing happens after this” or even “I think the ending might be coming up soon.” Just like a long blank expanse. It was a cool but scary feeling!
I have no idea how this process works for other writers, figuring out story vs. novel, but the above is how it happened for me.
WOTS: Little Fish explores the intersection of gender and religion through your main character, Wendy. She’s a transgender woman coming from a Mennonite family. Can you tell us more about how this story emerged for you, and what this intersection means to you? How did religion play a role in writing Little Fish?
CP: I am also a transgender woman from a Mennonite family, so lots of how Wendy deals with this just comes from my own fears, wishes, dreams, and experiences about that intersection. When I was younger, I assumed being trans and being Mennonite, both culturally and religiously, were 100% incompatible. That didn’t turn out to be true, though certainly there is enormous transphobia and homophobia among Mennonites. Religion plays a role in Little Fish not just through the older devout Mennonites that have surrounded Wendy in her life, but also with Wendy herself.
She thinks she doesn’t believe. She thinks she abandoned all that stuff a while ago. But there are surprises in store for her.
WOTS: What are your favourite places to write? Any quirky must-haves when it comes to sitting down and building out a story?
CP: Not really, I generally write in bed or on the couch with terrible posture while putting all sorts of unhealthy materials into my body. I do often have to get out of the house for a change of pace though. It helps to restart my brain. I write in bars and coffee shops a lot.
WOTS: Tell us a bit more about your process. How did you start writing? Do you have any favourite stories about when you were just starting out?
CP: I always did it since I was a kid, even if it wasn’t like “creative writing” or whatever. I taught myself to write via LiveJournal in some ways. (The pre-Tumblr)
I think anytime you’re actually putting words somewhere in a considered way it’s writing practice, even if it’s just a long-ass stupid Facebook comment or something.
WOTS: Reviewers found your dialogue in Little Fish to be very realistic and organic. What’s your secret to writing believable dialogue? Do you have any pet peeves when it comes to forced speaking in stories?
CP: I’m so grateful some people have felt that way! As a reader, I don’t necessarily mind stylized or forced speaking in stories. I like Miranda July and Amy Hempel and their characters don’t sound like they’re having organic conversations but that’s fine because the writing’s so engaging.
As for how I write dialogue—I mean, no one wants to read a transcript of real people talking, that’d be boring and terrible. What I try to do is start with that though. Write a long convoluted conversation, knowing I’ll cut it and trim it later. The hope being that the parts that remain still then sound like real people speaking. Amy Bloom (who wrote a really awful book about trans people but anyway) once said: “Dialogue is not conversation, it is conversation’s greatest hits.”
I also admire how Miriam Toews does this stuff. Especially in A Complicated Kindness, her dialogue is really plain-spoken but there’s a musicality to it that is truly gorgeous.
WOTS: What would you say to a writer who’s just starting out? What one thing do you think it’s crucial to know?
CP: Here’s a relevant story that I shared in an interview earlier this year and that I will share with you now. When I finished my undergrad, I was about to apply to get a teaching certificate. I’d gotten an English degree, I hadn’t written that much, I hadn’t been published anywhere or read in public, except for once, and that once had been an embarrassing shitshow. No one was pushing me to do anything, least of all write.
I still had dreams of being a writer, and I thought maybe I’d do “the responsible thing” and teach and then write “on the side” or at night or something. It was a few weeks until the deadline to apply for the teaching program, and then I realized: “If I do that, I’m going to end up a person who once dreamed of being a writer.” This isn’t to say that that would’ve happened to everyone! But I know it would’ve happened to me.
I went on to do an MFA, which was a whole different can of worms with lots of benefits along with some drawbacks, but I don’t really view that as the important decision—the important decision was realizing that some people might be able to do X and be a writer, but if I do X that’s not going to happen.
To bring this around and answer your question, I think it’s crucial for writers to figure out what that X is for them. Then make sure that doesn’t happen and go write.
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