In conversation with novelist Krista Foss
Author of celebrated debut Smoke River
Krista Foss’ debut novel, Smoke River, has earned rave reviews across the country for its rich and studied portrayal of a community in conflict. Set in a fictional small Ontario town in the middle of tobacco-growing country, the novel probes longstanding tensions that erupt into confrontation when a proposed subdivision becomes the site of a Mohawk protest.
One of the book’s most stunning achievements is Foss’ adept ability to build a complex story with multiple and compelling points of view. We meet Shayna, a brilliant young Mohawk lawyer; Coulson, an idealistic, reserved tobacco farmer and Shayna’s lover; Ella, owner of the proposed subdivision; Stephanie, Ella’s fierce but uncertain teenage daughter; Elijah, a successful Mohawk businessman; and Las, Stephanie’s older brother, a champion swimmer and apple of mother Ella’s eye–just to name a handful.
Together, the hopes, dreams, resentments, and actions of these characters are stitched together to form a complicated microcosm of 21st century Canada where key land issues remain contested and painfully unresolved. Foss’ prose is sensual and nuanced throughout, and the many risks she takes in creating complex, flawed and richly authentic characters amply reward the reader.
Smoke River was published by McClelland & Stewart in May, 2014. Krista’s short fiction has twice been a finalist for the Journey Prize and has been published in Grain, Event, The Antigonish Review, and Room. A former journalist, her newspaper and magazine writing has been featured in many national publications. Krista has a combined BA in Economics and Political Science from McMaster University and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia.
Congratulations on the publication of Smoke River, Krista. It’s been well-received and had been earning some fabulous reviews. How does it feel to have the novel out there in the world?
It’s exciting. And there’s some relief, and disbelief, that after years of thinking about it, dreaming about it, working toward it, it has actually happened.
It’s such an ambitious novel, with a rich ensemble of complex characters and constantly shifting points of view. As someone currently working on my own novel, I tip my hat to you for pulling all of this off so effortlessly. Can you tell me more about the process of how the novel came together? Was it something you’ve worked on for some time? Were there many stages of revision along the way?
How I would love to say my process was thoughtful and strategic and even better, effortless. Most days it was chaos with a kind of lurching, forward momentum. I started with a vision of the book’s ending and a few general organizing principles—but other than that, I just dove in, blustered my way through.
I was working full time and doing my MFA in creative writing full time, and being tired full time. After I graduated, I had a rough manuscript with promise thanks to my thesis advisor Lisa Moore, but it took me another two years of revisions to get it to the place where it was ready to show publishers. It was sold early in 2013 and then it went through another eight months of revisions and editing with my editor Lara Hinchberger at McClelland & Stewart.
So short answer—it was written in stolen hours at cafes, mainly in the afternoon or evenings, and then subject to many revisions. I started it in August 2009, and it was published May 13, 2014.
Can I add that I am thrilled to hear you’re working on a novel? I’m a big fan of your work, and (confession) you are one of the illustrious, inspiring classmates I refer to in my response below.
I understand part of the project was completed during your time at the optional-residency MFA program at UBC. Now that you’ve graduated from the program—what are your thoughts on MFA programs generally and in particular the role the UBC MFA has played in your own writing career?
The UBC MFA program was a bootcamp in humility, in the very best sense. In every one of my classes, I would be reading the work of writers who were better than me—in terms of technical dexterity, voice, narrative flow, risk-taking or all of it at once. That made me sweat. Because these writers were reading my work too! So it forced me to stop relying on what was comfortable, and also to up my game in terms of reading and responding. I was humbled at how precise and thoughtful my fellow students were when it came to giving feedback. It was terrifying. I pained over every sentence in a discussion so I could sound half as smart as any one of them. This involved many late nights fuelled by angst and cold tea.
The humility—to be willing to see the weaknesses in your work, to be willing to see the greatness in others’ (and geez, that might have to happen in the same day)—was the trick to growth. Yet thriving in the program also meant I had to develop instincts, or filters, in order to select the feedback that would push my work forward at that specific point in time. Otherwise, I would get overwhelmed or distracted by trying to respond to everything everyone said – which risked leaving me frozen, writing in circles or wholesale trashing my work (which was necessary sometimes). There weren’t enough hours in the day to do that repeatedly, however.
So I don’t know about MFA programs in general—I’ve only had this one experience—but UBC was crucial to my development as a writer, both in humility and instincts, and I thank my lucky stars for it regularly. The right instructors create the atmosphere of constructive, supportive rigour in the classroom and I had some stellar ones—Zsuzsi Gartner, Lisa Moore, Wayne Grady, Susan Musgrave among them. But your fellow students also really make those classes hum. They have to want to grow themselves and be the agents of growth in others. At UBC, I lucked out. I found those instructors and those classmates.
How much research did you need to do in order to complete the book? What was most challenging, and what was most rewarding about that research?
I did a lot of research. Some of it was up front. I went through scads of newspaper coverage from both First Nations and mainstream sources. I read a lot of books, watched documentaries and took copious notes. I conducted interviews and made numerous in-person visits to reserves, museums, cultural centres etc. I eavesdropped on my college students shamelessly. Again, some of this happened before I actually committed a word to print, but as much occurred while writing. I would just drop the writing to research something, which can be hard on your flow. The bigger challenge was in knowing how much was enough. How does one ever justify ending the research; it feels like hubris to say, “Now I know everything I need to know about this complex issue.” Yet at some point, you have to stop.
The most rewarding thing is always talking to people—students, shop owners, language experts etc—and getting the kinds of insights that add nuance and complexity to a character, a scene, dialogue. I loved learning the Mohawk language and I wished I had started that earlier.
In addition to the many prominent and positive reviews, what sort of reception has the book received so far? Have you been surprised in any way by the reactions of readers?
I’ve been lucky to have some really lovely feedback from folks but of course, it’s the quirkier remarks that stand out.
A writer friend of mine said he would never use 14-pound line to catch a largemouth like my character Elijah does (I’m not sure if he’s serious or not.) Two people, on two different occasions, commented on my use of the word “purchase” for firm grip. They found that quaintly old fashioned. I have been approached more than once after a reading by someone who wants to tell me how great my shoes are, and that’s it! My Mohawk language teacher said I should have used more slang and idiom for my Mohawk characters (one reason why I wish I’d found his course earlier.) Other than that, the most surprising thing is that people don’t seem to mind the many points of view, and I thought I’d hear more about that.
From what I’ve read in other interviews, in some ways you are working within the well-worn vein of “write what you know”, but in large part, you’ve created characters and situations outside the realm of your own personal experience. Can you talk about this some more—the challenges, how you approached writing about such a sensitive and controversial topic from so many points of view, and lessons you may have learned along the way?
Well, I had to go on a spree of appropriation to create my characters—there’s not one of them to whom I feel experientially tied. I am not a middle-aged son of a grocer, folksy small town mayor, tobacco farmer of Belgian extract, 18-year-old varsity athlete or importantly, a Mohawk mother and ex-lawyer who is embracing activism, an older woman with a residential school past, a beautiful twenty-something restless for glory beyond the reserve, a heart-broken father doing the best he can. While I do believe that creating characters outside our own experiences is the writer’s bread and butter, I also know it’s privileged to presume there are no limits or sensitivities to countenance while doing so.
Here’s what it boiled down to for me. I couldn’t imagine the novel without voices from both sides of the barricade. So in approaching any one of my characters, I tried to avoid two extremes; one is to assume that all differences are superficial and that all people are the same underneath and thus easily understood; the other is to assume that people unlike me are so different, their experiences so alien, that they are unknowable, incomprehensible. To me, both extremes rob people of their humanity and dignity.
The trick is to do your homework, aim for the sweet spot somewhere between those extremes, and also accept that you never can nail it—that is, create a character who fits somebody else’s singular and unassailable notion of a “true representation”. You’re better off just focusing on making every character complex and writing a damn good story for them to participate in.
Land disputes are controversial because of the anger and misunderstandings arising from them, but if we take up space in North America, and most of us do, we are implicated in them. It’s the kind of topic a novelist can mine for thematic gold.
Who was the most difficult character for you to bring to life, and why?
You know I’ve had this question before and I answer it differently every time, and I think it’s because if I am perfectly honest, there really was no one difficult character, but rather difficult moments for each. The toughest decisions were about interconnections and interactions and timing. It took me awhile to work out the logical succession of circumstances in the personal lives of my characters i.e. who was doing what and when? The rest of it was a joy—animating all these different people so they had unique voices, giving them each a backstory, and finessing the little flaws that make them human.
What’s next for Krista Foss? Can you tell us more about your plans for promoting the book and what might lie ahead in terms of future projects?
I’m at an interesting juncture. I left my cushy college teaching job this past spring, long before I was eligible for any pension. So I am having a self-financed, low-budget sabbatical for several months while I research and begin writing my next novel. The fall is looking pretty busy; I have Toronto’s Word on the Street, Muskoka’s North Words festival, readings at the Hamilton and Burlington Public Libraries, SuperCrawl. a fundraiser and some book club meetings.
In December, I leave for seven weeks of mountain biking in Nepal so I’m trying to get in shape for that. Meanwhile, things are starting to book up for Spring 2015. So I am having a blast—but eventually, I will have to get practical about cash flow again.
Thanks ever so much for your great questions.