Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Author Interview with Buffy Cram

1.  You've got quite a vagabond history, do your travels inspire your writing? Is there a specific story in Radio Belly that was inspired by a particular trip ("The Moustache Conspiracy" perhaps?)

Living and working all over the world has definitely inspired my writing. It has exposed me to all kinds of different realities, which may be why “reality” is such an ambiguous thing in my fiction. Several of the stories: “Loveseat,” “Refugee Love” and “Floatables” were written while I was living in Buenos Aires. I was haunting the same cafes Borges and Cortazar used to write in and I must have absorbed some of their magic realist leanings. “Mrs. English Teacher” was directly influenced by (but loosely based on) my time teaching English in South Korea. And “The Moustache Conspiracy” is based on some of the paddling trips my dad used to take me on around Vancouver Island as a kid. So, yes, many of the places I’ve been work their way into my fiction.

2. Do you have a favourite place for writing? (Or even a favourite country?)

My hometown, Victoria, is still one of my favourite places to write. I’m able to go for long walks and not be interrupted by traffic or trams or crowds the way I am in other cities. I’m able to take a break from my writing and yet stay in the dream state from which I do my most creative work.

3. The stories in Radio Belly often deal with contemporary concerns, like the economy in "Large Garbage", in a slightly whimsical way; what made you decide to take a look at serious issues, often with a humorous eye?

It’s extremely important to me to be relevant to my readers and that means not avoiding the “big issues” of the day but tackling them head-on. Short fiction is so often overlooked and I think that’s because it has a reputation for being overly-precious or overly-subtle. But actually, when done right, short fiction is one of the most powerful ways I know to really get inside an issue and experience it first-hand. In order to be motivated, I need my writing to address the things that matter most to me— the economy, the environment, mental illness— but not in the usual “newsy” way. Whimsy and humour are my way of creating new perspective on these issues. My goal is to offer readers a safe way to see themselves and, by extension, an opportunity to laugh at themselves. I think there is great healing in that.

4. Interestingly, like the short story/memoir author, Charlotte Gill, who blurbed Radio Belly, you've also been recognized for your creative non-fiction. When you start a new piece, what makes you lean towards fiction or non-fiction? What are some of the differences for you between writing in the two genres? Do you have preference?

For me, fiction and non-fiction are two different gears within the same machine. They serve very different purposes. Sometimes the plain truth is the most powerful type of story. Adornment would just clutter the message. Other times, and often with more complicated or more fraught subject matter, the reader has to be drawn in more slowly and methodically. For example, if I were to write a non-fiction human-interest article about a family man who loses his home during the economic downturn, readers might turn away. They’ve heard it too many times before. It’s a downer and offers no solutions. But, if I’m to take that same story and dramatize it, and make it silly and imaginative, and then turn the issue on its head and make it so that the reader actually wants that man to lose his home (as in “Large Garbage”) it’s much more powerful.

5. How would you sum up Radio Belly in five words or less?

Great question! I would say: soft-lobbed, sometimes-funny, magical political poetry (okay, I cheated with the hyphens!)

6. The order selected for short story collections is always so interesting– was that something you decided on, and if you did, what made your decisions? How does the chronology of the stories in Radio Belly compare to the order that they were written in?

I’m so close to my stories, I can’t always see them clearly, so I really relied on my editor and publisher when deciding the order within the collection. In the end, one of the most important things we considered was pacing—it was important to start off with a bang. But it was also important to ease readers into my “otherworldly” point of view, which is why stories like “Radio Belly” and “Floatables” were put near the end. Interestingly enough, the order of the stories in the collection lines up pretty well with the order in which they were written, with the exception of “Floatables” which was one of my earliest stories.

7. What are some amazing books you've stumbled upon lately? Any Canadian fiction recommendations?

I was most recently living in Berlin where English books are a little scarcer and a little more expensive. I was getting my books from second-hand book stores and flea markets so I was reading a strange mix of older books: Steinbeck and Virginia Wolfe and Gertrude Stein. While there I did discover a wonderful German contemporary short fiction writer, Daniel Kehlmann and a wonderful new American short fiction writer, Ben Loory. And I had the pleasure of blurbing new Canadian writer Melanie Schnell’s powerful new book “While the Sun is Above Us.”

8. If you could have a dinner party with any five people, living or dead, who would they be?

My dinner party would be all dead people. I would invite Earnest Hemmingway, Hunter S. Thompson, Janice Joplin, Salvador Dali (he would do the cooking) and, hmmm, maybe my grandma who was supposedly a real entertainer.

9. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

My advice for aspiring authors is to try and write for at least an hour every (or most) days. Try not to focus on quality at first, but just on time spent in the act. I would also say don’t expect ideas for stories or characters to arrive fully formed—in more than a decade of writing this has almost never happened to me. Instead, think of writing like building an onion—you’re adding one thin layer at a time, a little bit every day, and only at the end of the process does the work start to resemble a single coherent idea.

10. What's next for you as a writer?

I’m having a lot of fun working on my novel, which will come out soonish with D&M. It’s about two kids who grow up on a schoolbus chasing the Grateful Dead across the country.

Growing up in a communal housing project on the tip of Vancouver Island, Buffy Cram spent most of her childhood running wild on beaches with a gang of kids her own age. Buffy has spent the last decade teaching and writing in Vancouver, Montreal, Boston, Texas, Mexico, South Korea, South America and various parts of Europe. She currently divides her time between San Francisco and Berlin, Germany. She writes by day, bartends by night and has a business making repurposed leather handbags on the side. 

Thanks so much to Buffy for stopping by In The Next Room! To learn more about her debut collection of short stories, Radio Belly, stop by her website or Facebook page. Click here to read my review of Radio Belly at In The Next Room.

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