In Conversation with Jane Eaton Hamilton

Interview by 
Mica Lemiski

Jane Eaton Hamilton is the author of nine books of creative non-fiction, fiction, and poetry, including the 2016 novel Weekend. Jane’s books have been shortlisted for the MIND Book Award, the BC Book Prize, the VanCity Award, the Pat Lowther Award, and the Ferro-Grumley Award. Their memoir was one of the UK Guardian’s Best Books of the Year and a Sunday Times bestseller. They are the two-time winner of Canada’s CBC Literary Award for fiction (2003/2014). They’ve had a notable in BASS and BAE (2016) and have appeared in The Journey Prize, Best Canadian Short Stories, and Best Canadian Poetry. Their work has also appeared in publications such as Salon, The Rumpus, The Missouri Review, the NY Times, and The Sun. They have been the recipient of numerous Canada Council and BC Arts Council grants. Jane edits for Many Gendered Mothers. They are on the Equity Task Force of The Writer’s Union of Canada. They mentor new queer writers. They have been a judge for juries such as the BC Book Prizes, the Alberta Book Prize, QWF, The Writer’s Trust Dayne Ogilvie Award, and a writer-in-residence at Historic Joy Kogawa House. A photographer and painter, Jane’s photography has hung at Kew Gardens, UK. A queer activist, they were one of Canada’s litigants in the same-sex marriage case. They are also known for speaking out on disability rights and against violence towards women and queer people. They live near Vancouver.

Mica Lemiski is the host of Room’s new podcast, Fainting Couch Feminists, and she recently had the chance to ask Jane a few questions about what makes a “wow” piece, why the notion of death can be important for perspective, and why taking a side—in writing and in life—is crucial.

ROOM: I hear you’re working on a new book of flash fiction pieces titled Soon I Will Be Dead. Can you talk a bit about your process in compiling these stories, and what drew you to flash fiction as a genre in the first place?

JEH: I was drawn to the form in the 80s when I started having work published. I wrote poems and stories, mostly, and because I worked so often in narrative, it eventually snuck into poetry, creating accidental flash or sudden fiction. Sometime later, the book ‘Sudden Fiction,’ a US anthology celebrating the form, was published, and I was hooked.

ROOM: As a title, Soon I Will Be Dead is fascinatingly morbid. How did you come up with this title, and why is it fitting for this particular collection?

JEH: It comes from one of the pieces I wrote when I was staying in Paris a few years ago, where this book took shape as a ms. I am disabled, and ill, with multiple comorbidities, and saying “Soon I will be dead,” acts as a corrective in my life when I get exercised about something, including by disease. Soon all of us alive will be erased, whether that’s in one year or seventy. Soon I will be dead, but soon you will be, too, and, alas, the generation after yours and the generation after that. This notion of temporality helps me keep perspective. Given that something much worse is about to happen, why am I so upset in the moment by bills or hurting my finger?

ROOM: In the age of TLDR (“Too Long, Didn’t Read”) and shrinking word count limits for lit magazines and contests, do you think there is a growing space and appetite for short form pieces? Do you see this as a good thing?

JEH: I get tired of writing truncated pieces sometimes and miss the rangier lengths we used to work with in story . . . 5000 words was an average length when I started and a long story would have started at 7500 words and went up to about 15,000 before people talked novella. However we got here, we seem to be here. Look at Lydia Davis who has made a career from short bits. I don’t think it matters, ultimately, if you write short or long as you can squeeze an equivalent amount of meaning into the form. We are closer to exercising the skills of poets, than we are of the short fiction writer, though, aren’t we, that magnifying glass against each word to make sure it’s pulling its weight?

For some reason I enter the CBC fiction contest every year with a new story, and I found the 1500 word length very difficult to deal with. 2500 seems right to me for a starting point with short fiction, with the room and scope to develop theme and plot. But sudden fiction of course can be any shorter length. Ray Carver famously did it in 6 words (“For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.”) and packed a punch. Generally, it’s harder to write concisely, to impart a narrative in a short space, but it’s a great deal of fun to try, even when you fail.

ROOM: Authors like Maggie Nelson have made a case for blurring traditional literary genres because doing so encourages us to think outside of culturally-enforced (or maybe performative) categories elsewhere in life, especially in regards to gender. You identify as genderqueer, and so I’m wondering if it feels personally significant to be judging a contest that purposefully evades genre categorization?

JEH: Most feminists already think outside of performative category. I don’t think someone disabled and queer could fit in a mainstream box if they tried—nor would most have any interest in that. My life is liquid. I was a professional photographer for a decade, and I engage regularly with paint. I write across genres—memoir, poetry, children’s, flash fiction, lyric essay. I’m all for evading set forms if that’s what a piece calls for, but I also realize traditional forms exist for reasons outside, say, colonialism, male dominance and habit. A typical short story or novel form, for instance, allows a satisfying narrative to build and resolve, where an experimental style may not. In not using traditional narrative, can we still satisfy our readers? If so, by all means we should blast writing apart. Let’s try everything. Let’s see what fits our vision best.

What I don’t find blurs much is my gender. Other people might see change but I don’t. It’s been pretty clear since I was three years old and announced it to my mother. I’ve chosen to express it differently at different times, maybe, but mostly because of external pressure, while the inner me stays gender-stable.

ROOM: This contest has no rules in terms of form, so what criteria are you using, if any, to judge the pieces? What makes you say “wow”?

JEH: Make me notice your piece. Shock me. Dazzle me with language. Break my heart. Have some impact, however you do it.

A contest judge, talking to me about choosing one of my stories, said when she read my piece she jumped up, waved the story in the air and shouted out to her daughter, “I found a live one!” That’s what I want to do here.

So examine your sentences, especially with sudden fiction. I could not be more serious. Do you have flabby words? If you removed three words in that sentence would it be better? Tighter? Did you use adjectives, adverbs when you didn’t need them? Tighten it. And when you’ve taken out the three words every sentence see if you can take out more. It’s a good exercise to take out half your total piece. See if you can do it. Then build it back up where you removed critical info. Keep noticing your piece on the sentence level. Is this a sentence of yours a sentence you could read anywhere, from anyone? Because it shouldn’t be. Your sentences have to be brighter, better things.

There ought to be a pulse in your piece and I ought to be able to feel it beating, insistently, against my hand as I hold it.

ROOM: The home page of your website has a quote by Elie Wiesel: “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. We must always take sides. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” How to you embody this message through your own work?

JEH: My position in the world as a genderqueer, disabled, feminist activist is well known. I write and think often about what we call gendered violence (I have a not-very-active blog called about violence in the queer community), in particular, intimate partner violence and sexual assault. It is in this regard, or in a political regard, that I say we must always take sides. It does victims no good at all if you waffle, if you are equivocal, if you don’t do the hard work with and for them to declare your moral compass right out loud, because, as Mr Wiesel noted, “Silence encourages the tormentor.”

A lot of people have sided with tormentors over the years. Quite often, and frustratingly, I find that people’s feminist politics go out the window when they know and like or admire an accused. Yes, I’m feminist, but there are two sides. Yes, I’m feminist, but not when I don’t like the victim. Yes, I’m feminist, but not when the accused is my father/brother/friend. Yes, I’m feminist, but it’s too hard to turn away from him and the victim is as you know is hardly perfect. People who think like this need to interrogate themselves about their feminism, because they are doing real damage.

ROOM: Do you think “taking a side” is a necessity for good writing?

JEH: Commenting for fiction, your characters have to think and feel strong things. I read lots of wonderful writing I don’t agree with politically; it’s good for me to get out of my small world with its limited views. Certainly a writer doesn’t have to take the progressive side. I often choose a character who feels just the opposite of the way I feel, because in some senses they are more interesting to me, they are the untold story. (How did they arrive where they arrived with their suitcase full of regressive thoughts, with their anger directed at others? What is the challenge of making them seem to the reader rounded and complete as human beings instead of evil chess figures I’m pushing across a manuscript page? And, in the end, can they/will they indict themselves?), which sometimes causes readers to misapprehend me personally. It’s very exciting for me to “become” someone else (to the limits my white skin, queerness, disability, and circumstance allow). I want to know what it might feel like to slap a student or murder your husband for eating your chocolate Easter bunny, so I make up characters out of whole cloth to do just that. I try to inhabit them. Of course my feminism and queerness affects everything. I couldn’t write anything not sieved through that screen. But my job as a fiction writer is, I feel, to leave my politics out of it. How I feel personally is irrelevant, even though it is often my passionate interest in an issue, and firm stance on an issue, that spurs the writing from the opposite side to begin with. I’ve had heated arguments with feminists about this. Not everyone believes that it is a worthwhile political action to write a piece from, say, a batterer’s perspective, but I never write fiction to be a worthwhile political action, which seems a disservice to the form.

Room's 2018 short forms contest opens on October 15 and closes on January 29, 2018 (extended deadline). 

Learn more

Mica Lemiski is an MFA student at UBC and contributor to Room ("Tiny Parts," Issue 39.2). Her thesis project is a combination of comedic personal essays and original music, which is being developed into a podcast series. She is the host of "Fainting Couch Feminists." She is originally from Vernon, B.C. but is currently based in Vancouver.

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