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A dark, moving debut: in conversation with Andrea Routley

Andrea Routley is a busy woman. In addition to editing Plenitude, Canada’s queer literary magazine, working as a publicist at Caitlin Press, and making music as part of Jansz & June, she just released a stellar collection of short fiction called Jane and the Whales. This debut collection has been receiving fantastic reviews and is a finalist for a Lambda literary award for Debut Fiction.

I loved the dark, probing focus of so many of the stories, and the moments of humour and compassion that complicate and humanize the lives of her characters. Whether writing about suicide cults, divorce, grief, betrayal, or astral projection, Andrea has a sure hand and talent to kill.

Andrea Routley’s work has appeared in numerous literary magazines, including the Malahat Review and Room Magazine, and in 2008, she was shortlisted for the Rona Murray Prize for Literature. She is the founder and editor of Plenitude Magazine, Canada’s queer literary magazine. She editedWalk Myself Home: An Anthology to End Violence Against Women (Caitlin Press, 2010), which continues to receive praise from magazines like Bitch, Herizons, Prairie Fire and the Vancouver Sun. In 2012, she completed a degree in writing from the University of Victoria.

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Huge congrats on the publication of Jane and the Whales. I loved the book. What’s it feel like to have your first collection out there in the world?

Frightening at first, but that’s subsided. I had several nightmares just before the book came out where people who’d read it were asked what they thought about it, and several simply shrugged their shoulders and said, “Meh,” and couldn’t remember most of what they’d just read. So I guess my biggest fear with publication was complete and total indifference. But overall it’s very satisfying having a book out. It’s a nice, tangible outcome of all those years of working on stories that it seemed no one – at least no one who wasn’t obligated to – would read. Many times my girlfriend endured compulsory readings from me while she sat in the tub (a captive audience), but then I had a book launch and there were people who actually wanted to hear it. [Laughs]

Another thing that’s been really interesting about all this is how different readers interpret the stories. It really shows just how personal and subjective the reading experience can be. Although writing a story is a solo act (at least before the editor gets involved), it becomes part of a collective story, and a collective experience – it takes on a life of its own. There’s no point in holding on to it, or feeling protective of it or anything like that.

Do you remember the first thing you ever wrote?

Probably my name. But story-wise, I think it was grade 4. I wrote a story about a veterinarian named Dr. Jenkins who was up in the Arctic saving seal pups from being bludgeoned. Anti-fur activism was big at the time. But my big literary triumph happened in grade 9 when I wrote a story about nosy neighbours trying to figure out what is so weird about the new neighbour, Pete. Wanna know the twist? Wait for it … Pete is gay! And the irony is it’s really all the nosy neighbours who are acting weird! Pretty edgy, eh?

Tell us a little bit more about how the collection came together. Did you write the stories imagining they would be in a collection?

Definitely not at first, but then it was a goal/hope. In terms of themes, many of the stories explore class, related social isolation, suicide, characters who are unable to express themselves and sort of implode at times. Animals figure prominently in most. Writing a lot of short stories is a great way to discover what you are obsessed with.

What was the most difficult part in the writing process? Do you have a typical writing routine or do you wing it from day to day?

Lately I don’t have a routine at all, which means I haven’t been writing very much. I recently moved and started a new job, and am also very busy getting the next issue of Plenitude out, so I’m still getting into the swing of things. But when I do have a routine, it involves getting up early (early as in 7, not 5), having coffee while I read, then maybe some free-writing, then working on a story, or just jumping right into the story. If I read fiction, I usually get through only a few pages before I feel inspired to write. When I lived in Victoria, a hike up Mount Work really helped, too. On the way up, I’d think about junk like to-do’s, come-backs I was too slow to make, things like that, and then on the way down some solution or new direction for whatever story I’m working on would present itself. I still have to find a favourite hike for that kind of routine here on the Sunshine Coast. Once the cougar has moved on, anyway. (But there’s always another cougar, isn’t there?)

There are no cougars in Toronto, except in the zoo. But we have Rob Ford. Turning back to writing, who are some of your own writing mentors and who have you learned from most as a writer?

I did an undergraduate degree in writing at the University of Victoria, and I definitely learned something from every instructor there. Madeline Sonik in particular is so inspiring to me. She maintains a curiosity and enthusiasm for the process that reminds you always to try this, try this, try this — to be fascinated and interested in how a story works, and in discovering how your own story could evolve.

One of the things I love about the collection is how you fuse compassion and darkness. In “The Gone Batty Interpretation”, for example, Carol grieves for her dead daughter Olivia while giving a nature presentation at a provincial park. Many of your characters face dark or difficult situations, but you handle their situations with honesty and respect. Can you talk about darkness in the work and in your writing process?

This is an interesting question, because “dark” wasn’t really a word I used to describe my own stories until recently. I suppose they are obviously dark. For some of these situations I draw from personal experience. As a teenager, for example, I struggled with depression and self-injury, so, not surprisingly, this makes it into one of the stories. Strange, creepy older men seem to be everywhere when you’re an adolescent girl, so they are in there too. When I “came of age,” I did not feel a sense of security or safety in the world, and this has probably influenced my writing a lot.

But to me, reading or writing these kinds of stories is not depressing; it’s validating. There is no way to reconcile a friend or family member’s suicide, for example. A tidy, life-affirming conclusion to a tragic situation would not make me feel good – that would be depressing. Because where does that leave us when all we can really hope for sometimes is that the pain will fade?

Of course not all the stories are dark, right Trevor? Didn’t you think “Art” was funny? Nasty five-year-olds are funny. Come on.

I did — full props to the funny. I also love how well you describe queer characters and situations in your stories. The title story “Jane and the Whales” will be familiar to many queer karaoke regulars. How important are these queer stories, particularly in Canada at this moment in history?

The queer characters we see in other media certainly do not comprise a very diverse group, so books are the only place to find a relative diversity of queer complex characters, but we need lots more. We are not shells, but if that’s how we see ourselves reflected, then we start to feel that way. Or if we simply don’t exist in story, we are left with a persistent feeling that the world is not for us.

I edit a queer literary magazine, but even still, when I read fiction with a queer character I feel such a rush of energy and enthusiasm, it’s like the first time I encountered a little gayness in my reading. Do you remember the first book you read that had a queer character in it? That flash of recognition? When I was about thirteen, I read a novel called River Road. I can’t remember who wrote it, but the main character was a guy who, at some point, has a relationship with another guy. They are in New York City, I think. As a thirteen year old girl in Richmond, BC, I hardly had much in common with this big city gay experience, but it was as close as I’d gotten, and it was amazing. Finding books like these was magical – how did the gods know this is just what I was looking for??? I wasn’t much of a reader as a kid, but I think I just didn’t have the books I really needed.

In Canada, these stories are especially important because most queer literature in English is from an urban American perspective. Because knowing our queer past relies so much on oral history, we must imagine the stories that no one is alive to remember.

I know you’re juggling many hats right now—writing, editing, and music, among other things. What’s next for Andrea Routley?

The next big exciting news is that my girlfriend Auto Jansz and I finally, after 1 ½ years, have completed our new album. The very talented and generous producer Wynn Gogol at 1 Ton Studios recorded it and it sounds f**king fantastic. We’ll announce the official release date soon. Because we are a couple of west coast dykes, you probably think it’s alt-folk-country with maybe a didgeridoo for good measure, but you would be wrong, although we do think everyone should have some alt-folk-country west-coast dyke music with didgeridoo. I’ll let you know when we have some sample tracks available for streaming. Not naming a genre is a bit of a cop-out, so let’s say pop-roots-epic-cabaret-folk with piano, guitar, drums, drums, mando, guitar, guitar, guitar, bass, bass, omnichord, VOICE! VOICE! etc. It’s very layered. That’s why “epic.”

Congrats! Can’t wait to hear it.

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Janes and the Whales can be purchased online. Check out Andrea on Twitter. To learn more about Plenitude, here’s an earlier interview with Andrea about launching the magazine and the queer writing scene in Canada.

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