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Jeanette Lynes on finding play in the rigours of writing fiction

By Kobo • April 17, 2024Author Interviews

Jeanette Lynes is the author of many volumes of poetry as well as several novels, including The Apothecary's Garden. She directs the Creative Writing program at the University of Saskatchewan.

Jeanette will be judging the Literary Fiction category for the 2024 Rakuten Kobo Emerging Writer Prize.

Kobo: What are you reading right now?

Jeanette Lynes: I’m reading Michael Ondaatje’s new poetry collection. And Ada Limón, the Poet Laureate of the United States—I love her poetry. And I'm reading the novel that won CBC Canada Reads, The Future by Catherine Leroux. I’m not usually that much of speculative fiction reader, but this is really, really good.

Kobo: How do you usually find books?

JL: For the most part, I really geek out on reading book reviews. I subscribe to The New York review of Books, The London Review of Books, and sometimes I read The Literary Review of Canada. I just read book reviews obsessively.

Kobo: This might sound like a silly question, but how do you read poetry?

JL: That's a great question. I often start in a linear way. Reading the first poem, and the second poem, and then the third, but after about five minutes I start to jump around and dip into the collection in different places, looking at the table of contents for a title that catches my eye. It's an enjoyable non-linear experience.

I think reading poetry really fits in with the kind of culture we live in, with the constant, conflicting demands on our attention.

I really geek out on reading book reviews

Kobo: As a novelist and poet, you published several volumes of poetry before your first novel, Factory Voice. What drew you to the novel as a form?

JL: My poetry is always fairly narrative—I’m just a hound for stories. I think of my early poems not even so much as poems but anecdotes. I got pulled towards fiction because there I can live with my characters in in ways that I can't in poems. I still love poetry, but I have a bigger canvas in fiction to just explore narrative and character.

Poetry is more like trying to sculpt something really artful, like working with a scalpel. Fiction is a little more forgiving that way, you can be more talky. 18th-century novels had massive digressions that had nothing to do with the main plot, something the narrator just had to tell you all about, and then we’re back to talking about Tom Jones again. I don’t think readers today have that tolerance the looseness that readers of these novels had. People today seem to want tight, propulsive kinds of narrative.

But there's still room for idiosyncrasy in literary fiction. I’m thinking of The Wren, The Wren by Anne Enright, and the writer Katie Kitamura. They're writers doing a very different kind of storytelling. So many literary fiction writers are doing really interesting things with plot right now.

I think the novel is in a really interesting place. It's great fun.

Kobo: I read that you need to be immersed when you're working on when you're working on a novel, but do poems come crashing in while you work?

JL: When I’m really immersed, no. But I'm between immersions in a novel right now. I'm waiting on some edits. It’s kind of a slow ping pong game. So I’m in it, then for a while I’m not.

I’ve been writing a little bit of poetry, one about the eclipse, but to be honest, my poems have been depressing.

I think the novel is in a really interesting place. It's great fun.

I think I just realized poetry is where I park my angst, and novels are where I can play and have fun.

Kobo: Your most recent novel The Apothecary’s Garden is a work of historical fiction set in Belleville, Ontario. You've said in another interview that the place spoke to you in a way that helped you to engage it creatively. When did you feel that calling, that there's a story to climb into here?

JL: I spent quite a bit of time around the area few years ago. And there's a little bit of a CanLit historical connection—Susanna Moodie lived there for years. But it’s really about a gut feeling, of being in a place and thinking, this is a really strange place... I bet not very many people have set a novel here. Belleville felt vaguely Gothic and weird to me. It was kind of a hotspot for psychics and mediums in the mid-19th century, which is something I learned in the course of a failed academic project. Failed academic projects, it turns out, can be the seeds of fiction.

Kobo: Does it work the other way, do creative projects send you off to the archives for the sake of historical accuracy?

Poetry is where I park my angst, and novels are where I can play and have fun.

JL: Yes, that happens a lot. I really love going through old newspapers. The world-building of The Apothecary’s Garden really depended on what I could learn from newspapers in the Belleville Public Library and the Toronto Reference Library. What did people wear? What did they eat then? Did they have toothpaste?

Advertisements alone give me tons of information, like how to describe somebody's dress in 1941. Not just what kind of style or material, but even the way they talk about colour, which is different from how we talk about it now. The research is just a wonderful part of the whole process. You can't get it all in, but it sure is fun trying. [laughs]

Kobo: Does that passion for digging into the nitty-gritty of time and place compete or conflict with your storytelling drive?

What did people wear? What did they eat then? Did they have toothpaste?

JL: Yeah, sometimes the most fascinating things don’t serve the character, or they clutter the scene you're trying to write. You know all these factoids and you want to get them in, like how in the 19th century fires would often break out on account of everything being made of wood and people having open flames everywhere—so in Belleville when there was a fire the churches would clang their bells and the townspeople would come running with buckets of water to help. I love details like that, so I’ll try to see what I can get away with. But I have an excellent editor who’ll call it out and say, “this is superfluous. You’ve got to cut this.” Because readers are smart: they can tell when a writer's just showing off their research and being annoying.

It's all about restraint. That has been a hard lesson for me to learn.

Kobo: You're judging the Kobo Emerging Writer Prize in the category of Literary Fiction, but from your day job as Director of Creative Writing at the University of Saskatchewan you’re more familiar than most with first attempts like these.

JL: I've actually got seven Creative Writing master's theses to read right now.

Kobo: Oh, wow. Now, master's theses for a Creative Writing program, are they typically full-length novels or novellas?

JL: It can be a variety, but most are novels. Among these seven, I've got six novels and one poetry collection. Over my 12 years with that program I’ve been really impressed by how many of my grad students have actually published their theses as novels. It’s really amazing to see. Because the thesis that comes out of someone earning an MFA rarely publishable right out of the box. In a way, the thesis is its own genre. It might need years of rewrites before it’s a manuscript ready to be published. But once in a while it does happen fast.

I’ve been really impressed by how many of my grad students have actually published their theses as novels.

It’s such an honour to work with these writers and see the satisfaction they get, regardless of whether the work is ever published. They can be proud of taking this thing to completion. I really do enjoy the teaching side of writing.

Kobo: When you look back at that early stage of your own career, is there something you can identify as a lesson you've learned along the way?

JL: Stephen King said in his wonderful book On Writing, that he knows when it's working because he's having fun. I love that. Writing as a highly disciplined form of play.

There’s a wildness to poetry, something you can’t really control. When I started out, I was drunk on poetry—everything was a poem. So I wrote lots of bad poems, maybe a few decent ones. Poetry felt like pops of bliss. Writing fiction was good for me, because I already understood the play part, but fiction forced me to be disciplined. It taught me restraint. And how to stick it out for the long haul, with stamina and stubbornness. I just adore writing poetry and getting out and reading it and meeting other poets and fiction you have to be quieter. ◼

This interview has been edited for length and clarity

The Apothecary's Garden by Jeanette Lynes

Victorian Canada: Touring circuses, seances, and a world powered by steam engines. But in Belleville, Ontario, a twenty-eight-year-old spinster, Lavender Fitch, barely scrapes by, selling flowers from her garden at the train station, her position in life greatly diminished after the death of her father, the local apothecary.

Then, one day, a glamorous couple step off the train. The lady is a famed spirit medium, Allegra Trout, who has arrived for a public show of her mediumship, accompanied by her handsome but disfigured assistant, Robert. With her striking beauty and otherworldly charms, Allegra casts a spell over Belleville from the moment she arrives.

A magical story about the mysteries of life, the enchantment of flowers, and wonders of love.

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