Nicola Davison is writer and photographer living in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. A past participant of the Writers’ Federation Alistair MacLeod Mentorship Program, she is now a member of the WFNS Board of Directors. Her first novel, In the Wake, is forthcoming with Nimbus Publishing (fall 2018). In the following post, she talks about craft, her new projects, and life in Nova Scotia.
How long have you been writing? What drew you to writing in general, and fiction in particular?
I’ve always been better at writing to people than speaking to them. I suppose I need more time to sort out my thoughts than speech allows. So, I’ve kept journals since I was a teenager, written long-winded letters, emails and maintained a personal blog. Occasionally, things surface in my writing that I didn’t know were there. I’m not sure what weird magic is at work when that happens but I’ve discovered things about myself that way, as well as my fictional characters.
Nothing is more comforting to me than getting wrapped up in a good novel. So, I knew I wanted to write fiction. Ideas were brewing, I just didn’t know where to start. It wasn’t until my forties that I took a creative writing workshop and it’s as if a dam burst. In the past five years I’ve written loads of short stories, a children’s story and three novels (including the one coming out this fall, In the Wake, with Vagrant Press).
In addition to being a writer, you’re a photographer. Do you see a connection between these two practices? What similarities or differences do you note in the two practices?
Other writers tell me that my work is quite visual. I wonder if that’s their gentle way of prodding me to use the other four senses. But yes, I think there’s a strong connection to photography. I prefer a documentary style of photos, where my subject is not looking at the camera. That allows me to tell a story with a series of images and capture genuine relationships with people.
The writing of In the Wake began with an image of a modern house, a wall of glass overlooking the sea. It was all monochrome, awaiting color. When I write a scene, I see it like a movie. I can turn the lens in any direction and fill in the details. It’s much the same as my practice as a photographer. I walk into a space and see it from all angles, watch how the light touches my subjects and then I find the composition that makes me feel something.
The difference with writing is I have this frightening omnipotence to change anything. I’m often overwhelmed by that, preferring to be given boundaries for creativity. But with a story, I can bring in multiple characters. They can say and do things that I’d never do. It’s a dizzying power. I’m still learning how to free my mind of the barriers.
What do you love about living in Nova Scotia?
Life seems less rushed here than in other places that I’ve lived. There’s a lot of spontaneous conversation that pops up in grocery lines. It often takes me ages to walk my dog because we get into lengthy chats with strangers. As a writer, I can feed on these snippets of life from the perspective of others.
And let’s not forget, the beach. We moved back to Nova Scotia in 2013, after being in Alberta for about fifteen years. Every summer we’d flock to a lake, along with the rest of the population. It didn’t have the same atmosphere as a Maritime coastline where you can get lost in your thoughts watching the waves, or spend hours poking around for beach glass. We go to the beach in every month of the year and I never get tired of it.
And, of course, in the Maritimes people call you love.
What’s the biggest misconception about being a writer?
You’re not done after draft one (or two or three or four). People are often surprised at how much time goes into creating a book. It’s years. Then the publisher gets involved and there is still more editing before it’s on a shelf. When I signed the publishing contract for In the Wake, I made the mistake of telling everyone I met about it. How could I not? My first book! So, for the past year people have been asking where they can buy this mysterious book of mine.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Join your local Writers’ Federation and take workshops. In Nova Scotia we have a wonderfully supportive writing community, so tap into it. If there’s a common denominator amongst creative people, it is self-doubt. Knowing that everyone else is just as anxious about sharing their work as you, makes it a tiny bit easier. You’ll learn about your writing by listening to others’ words. You get to hear if your story works when you’re reading it aloud. Even before your audience comments, you’ll find the lulls and the parts that might confuse a reader. It’s terrifying and invaluable. But it will push you forward.
What’s great about writing in your part of Nova Scotia?
Fog. We used to own a sailboat, and we liked to go out on multi-day trips so, inevitably, we’d have a full spectrum of weather conditions. Fog was a frequent visitor. It can settle around your boat, blinding you and distorting noises. Although, I hated it in reality, I love it for story-telling. That veil drawn between you and whatever is looming out there, really stirs the
bowels imagination. Could it be a seal, a dorsal fin, a container ship or a body?
What’s your guilty pleasure?
I read lots of literary fiction because the writing is so good. I learn a lot from it. But last year I read three books in a row that explored depression and suicide. It coincided with the daughter of a close friend committing suicide. I just couldn’t read it for entertainment. So, I picked up Neil Gaiman’s books, then Philip Pullman’s Golden Compass series. I suppose escapist stories are my true love. Anything that pulls me out of my own experience. I love humour writing too. The Feathertale Review never disappoints. I always have David Sedaris’s books at the ready because no one makes me laugh out loud like him.
My son is now at an age that I can read him novels. We’ve read all of Philip Roy’s Submarine OutlawSeries and we’ve just finished the books that Stephen Hawking wrote with his daughter, Lucy Hawking. Children’s books have some challenging themes. It gives us a chance to talk about difficult things – like war and racism – in a quiet, thoughtful state. We both learn a lot about the world and the universe this way. I’m not sure which one of us enjoys the bedtime stories more, but I suspect it’s me.
As for non-literary guilty pleasures? Copious amounts of chocolate are always on hand at my house, popcorn (which I will not share) and red wine (which I will share, sometimes). Don’t tell my doctor.
What do you do when you have writer’s block?
If the words won’t come, I work on another project. Lucky for me, I have photography and motherhood to distract me, so it feels like a gift when I can get the time to focus on writing. But, if the story stalls out, I have something else I can turn to, like a short story or another book. However, if I need to get the story going, I go for a long walk with a notepad & pen and force myself to think of only the characters. It might be as simple as a pivotal sentence or just an image but something always comes.
What are you working on right now?
I’m working on two projects. The first is a novel set in Nova Scotia about a girl who works at a local animal shelter. Frustrated by the constraints of the legal system, she and a few other misfits decide to turn to vigilante justice to deal with an animal abuser. The other is a children’s book set in Shubie Park (a magical spot, here in Dartmouth) where a young boy discovers who really makes use of all those tiny birdhouses in the forest.
If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?
I can only imagine that I’d be someone who learned to communicate well with my fellow human beings, probably earning a steady income at a bona fide job. But I’d still scribble bad poetry when no one was looking.