Stephanie Domet is the author of two novels, Homing (Invisible Publishing, 2007), which won the Margaret and John Savage First Book Award, and Fallsy Downsies (Invisible Publishing, 2013), which won the Jim Connors Dartmouth Book Award. She also writes non-fiction for publications across Canada, including The Coast, Quill & Quire, and The National Post. In the following, she talks to us about rejection, getting paid as a writer, her new projects, and more.
How long have you been writing? What drew you to writing in general, and fiction in particular?
I have been writing since I learned how to grasp a pencil. So, since about 1975. I have always been a writer. I grew up in a family that prioritized storytelling—especially funny storytelling. My dad was never a professional writer—he was a teacher—but he had written poetry in his youth and had dreamed of becoming a writer. My mother, who stayed home with us kids, has always had a story bent. She was my first editor, and both she and my dad rooted hard for me to become a writer, despite the lack of economic stability in such a path. I can’t say for sure what drew me to fiction, except that I loved to read, and writing was a way for me to continue to be immersed in story.
What do you think is changing in fiction these days?
Good question. I’m not sure I have an answer. What I hope is changing is the access to readers for all kinds of writers. I am hopeful that readers, festivals, and publishers are starting to look outside the narrow band of cis, white, middle class voices that have, by and large, made up our literature so far.
In addition to being a writer, you’ve spent many years working in radio. How did you find the transition from radio to writing?
There was no transition from radio to writing, as I have always been a writer. I learned a lot on the radio, though. It’s like waiting on tables, which I think is in many ways excellent training for a writer of fiction. It gives you intimate access to people at their best and at their worst. Hosting a radio show immersed me in story in a different way, and showed me a deep and rich palette of human experience. A crash course in what it is to be alive. It also reminded me to pare down my writing to its essence—I do tend to want to go on, but you can’t really do that on the radio. It also gave me a chance to interview so many incredible writers, which was truly a privilege. All that said, I am so glad to be free of the daily need to be in the same place at the same time for eight to ten hours in a row. I am also glad to be out of the public eye a bit. That part became increasingly difficult for me. I am an introverted extrovert, or maybe an extroverted introvert. Being public property is not sustainable for me in the long run. So. My current set up—where I do some writing, some editing, some working for various clients, some sewing, and a whole lot of staring out the window—is very good. And sustainable in the long run.
You teach writing to children through your Tiny Empire Writing Workshop. Where did you get the idea for this program?
A friend who homeschools her kids asked if they could come over and learn about the work of being a writer. Her five-year-old was particularly interested. So they dropped by and we talked about writing, and we did a simple writing exercise together—we brainstormed a character and put her in an impossible situation to see what she’d do. It was lots of fun, and my friend encouraged me to run a workshop. I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to do that—but then in early 2018, when I was thinking about what I wanted my work life to look like, I revisited the idea and thought maybe I would give it a try, just to see if I liked it. Turns out, I love it. I teach kids between the ages of eight and thirteen, for an hour at a time, once a week, in my dining room. They blow me away with their imagination, their creativity, their boldness and risk-taking. They are writers with pure hearts. The world has not yet told them: NO, and if I can forestall that a little longer and instead tell them: HECK YES, then that feels like a good day’s work. And they inspire me every single day.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Don’t be so hard on yourself. You are not your writing, and a rejection is not a referendum on your worth as a person. If your first draft sucks, congratulations, you’re doing it right. Your second draft will probably be marginally better, and that’s okay too. By your third draft, you might start to think that maybe there’s a possibility that you might perhaps be starting to get around to getting somewhere. It takes time. And if it feels difficult, that’s because it often is. You’re fine. Consider the stakes—no one has to see your writing at all, if you don’t want them to. But when you’re ready, it’ll be okay. An editor can help you so much, so take as much of their advice as resonates with you. Be open to feedback. Try it different ways to see what works. None of it is written in stone. Unless you are actually chiselling your work into rock, in which case, no wonder it seems so difficult. Basically, all my advice—and most of my teaching—revolves around self-help. Writing is hard, but you can totally do it. So, start.
What’s great about writing in your part of Nova Scotia?
What drew me to Halifax, where I moved 22 years ago from Toronto, was a feeling of wide-open possibility. I still feel that here. I love the space of this place. It’s cosmopolitan enough to keep this city girl satisfied, but not so dense that you can’t make eye contact with passers-by. There’s room here to be an artist, to collaborate with others quickly and easily. There’s an energy here that I find very conducive to my work as a writer and as a human. There’s an incredible community of writers, and I am lucky to have so many of them in my immediate sphere. There’s always some kind of drama unfolding just outside the window. For instance, in the time it has taken me to answer this questionnaire thus far, it has been variously: a sunny day, snowing, raining, breezy, still, grey, sunny again, raining again, raining while sunny, grey with wind and rain/snow. And don’t even get me started on the ocean.
Do you remember the first time you were paid for your writing? What was it like?
I wrote some book reviews and an author profile for The Coast and my first cheque was for roughly $17. I took my best friend out for breakfast. He had to pay for his own coffee though. Later, the advance for my first book, Homing, bought a futon couch for our living room. That felt like a milestone, for sure. It was terribly uncomfortable, which is probably a metaphor for something.
Where do you like to write? Do you have a dedicated writing space, or do you find yourself moving around?
I write wherever. I do have a study, but I don’t always stay put in it. I write on the couch, at the dining room table, in the garden, in coffee shops or bars—depends on the book. Homing was all quiet early mornings in the living room. Fallsy Downsies wanted bars, busy-ness, night-time writing. Good Birds, my current project, is somewhere in between. My writers’ group, The Common (Ryan Turner, Sarah Mian, Carsten Knox, Jaime Forsythe) often goes on retreat and I tend to get a lot done on those weekends. I’ve written in just about every rental cottage that’s within a two-hour drive of Halifax. Beside lots of woodstoves.
What do you do when you have writer’s block?
I don’t generally get that. I don’t make sentences every day. I think a long time between bouts of writing. So when I come to the page, it’s because I’m ready to. The times I can’t move my story forward, though, I work my characters—I try to find out more about them, which usually helps me figure out how to get the story moving again. I have a whole separate notebook for them, with coloured tabs and all. It’s a Virgo’s dream come true.
What are you working on right now?
A(nother) novel about grief, called Good Birds Don’t Fly Away, and a biography of Pete Luckett due out next fall from Goose Lane.