For me, it’s just a question of how to most fully and appropriately explore a particular observation or idea. Sometimes, for example, I’ll be working on a poem and find that it is actually the beginning of a story or even something that needs to get worked out with the help of outside sources, as with an academic paper. My approach in all cases is to follow the thread of an idea as best as I can according to the constraints of the form, all the while remaining, on the one hand, as open as possible to the connections and the diversions that necessarily arise, and, on the other, trying never to lose sight of the project’s inspiration or goal.
I read loads of old newspaper strips: Little Orphan Annie, Popeye, Gasoline Alley, Moomin, and really anything else I can get my hands on. I feel privileged to live in a golden age of classic cartooning reprints. I was sad to recently read the last volume of the collected Terry and the Pirates, by Milton Caniff—but I’m about to jump into his follow-up strip, Steve Canyon.
“My career path is typically atypical, which as far as I can tell is the norm among literary translators. By and large, people who translate literature have all kinds of meandering in their lifelines and in their professional lives as well. I eventually got a degree in literature from the University of Ottawa, and then a master’s at Concordia in creative writing. My thesis was a collection of poems. But then there’s the whole informal education which I think is as important, if not more, for my work as a translator: being raised by working-class immigrant polyglots, my involvement in semi-professional theatre and music in my late teens and early twenties, the very personal process I went through acquiring a deeper knowledge and love of the French language and civilizations, and the people who were my teachers, my friends, my intimates throughout that process. That’s the kind of thing I mean by ‘informal education.'”
Creative nonfiction is the term of choice these days. It certainly didn’t start that way, and there are still several other ways of referring to “that way of writing” which readers might also be familiar with: literary nonfiction, literary journalism, narrative prose, you get the idea. We’re trying to find a way to nail this baby, the “baby” being, in the short form of the definition, the application of literary techniques to documentary material.
What is translation? Phil Stratford used to say it’s a really profound reading of the text. You read it so closely and so intimately that it becomes part of you, and another part of your intellect or your brain sets itself the task of, not reinventing, not recreating, but remaking it in the other language.
Writing novels is much more of an emotional task. It can be exhilarating and depressing. Suddenly you have insights and it’s going well, and you feel wonderful, and the next day it looks awful. Writing nonfiction makes different demands on your ability to differentiate between what’s going to be interesting to the reader and what isn’t. The discoveries of relationships between things and people that come to you in writing nonfiction, as was the case for me in City Unique, become more clear to you as you do the research—so the rewards in writing nonfiction are largely in the research, which is followed by the craftsmanship of putting it down on paper.