For this month’s Five Questions posts, we’re pleased to welcome author Michelle Butler Hallett who offers her insight and advice about the writing process.
Michelle is the author of five novels – This Marlowe, deluded your sailors, Sky Waves, Double-blind and Constant Nobody (to be released in March 2021 from Goose Lane Editions) and the story collection The shadow side of grace. Constant Nobody is available for pre-order here.
What aspects of writing are easiest for you?
Revision. I find the first draft intimidating and difficult. The first draft has gotten a bit easier over the years as I learn how to outline (yep, I’m one of those structure nerds), but it remains the hardest part — can’t fix what ain’t wrote yet. Sometimes I tear down a project and just start fresh, rewriting it without referring to a previous draft. Deep revision like that is hard, yet also very satisfying. Sentence-level revision is a wanky doddle: tweaking verbs, reading aloud and checking for rhythm — easy-peasy. It’s easy to get lost in sentence-level revision and consider a work ready when it’s truly not.
What themes do you find yourself revisiting in your writing?
Knowledge is a big one, knowledge and complicity. That runs through all my fiction, and I often allude to a sentence — and huge idea — Alistair Macelod’s short story ‘As Birds Bring Forth the Sun’: ‘You cannot not know what you do know.’ When facing difficult truths, my characters might ask implicitly, directly, or both: ‘How can I not know what I know?’
I have several characters who are doctors of one sort or another, putting them in a position of power, privilege, and authority, any one of which can be compromised.
If you count my novel coming out in March, I have several more characters involved in espionage, so deceit, and the reasons for it, turn up frequently. I write a lot about tyranny, state-wide, internalized, interpersonal, or all at once. Many of my characters are haunted by something in their pasts. I also write a lot about confinement and its circumstances.
Duty as a motivation is a huge theme: what will humans do when they believe they are serving something greater than just their own little selves? Many of my characters are violent, physically or emotionally, and they rarely escape the consequences of it.
None of this is about hopelessness. Love and grace are also robust themes. For many of my characters, love is the strongest motivation of all.
Do you find yourself compelled to write, or do you have to coax yourself into it?
Both. I work a full-time job outside my fiction practice, and I live with a severe form of a disabling and degenerative disease called ankylosing spondylitis, so my time and stamina are limited. When I am barred from writing by obligation or illness and feel that heavy compulsion, I get quite out of sorts. Other times, when I have a Saturday all to myself for example, when all I want to do is rest, I might waste time procrastinating or watching a movie or reading a book and calling it ‘research’. Sometimes it is research. Sometimes it’s just me needing to force myself to work.
What practical advice do you most often share with other writers?
When I’m asked for advice, I try to listen to what the other person is truly saying. I want to validate their difficulties, stop talking, and listen some more. Writing itself can be easy; writing well can be quite difficult. Often, someone asking for advice only needs time and space to hash out their difficulties and discover their own solutions. I might waffle about reading a lot and about studying an admired work with an eye to how it all comes together, and I might suggest reading one’s work aloud. That helps with sentence-level writing and may reveal a gaffe in plot, setting, timeline, or character motivation.
What non-writing activity do you do that helps most with your writing?
Listening to music, really listening to it, any genre, though I favour classical and what gets called alternative. When I listen — and I have no musical training, can’t play or compose — I try to pick the stitching, try to understand theme and counterpoint, melody and harmony, try to understand the conversation within the work itself and the conversation it might be having with other works. Dmitri Shostakovich, Dobrinka Tabakova, Laurie Anderson, and Kate Bush are especially good for that. So is the musical Hamilton. Like I said, I’m a structure nerd. Wrestling with structure in music helps me wrestle with structure — and meaning — in fiction.