After following heroine Benny on her redemptive journey across Canada in West of Wawa, we chatted with author Lisa de Nikolits about her own Canadian travel experiences, what it was like to create a character like Benny, what’s difficult about the writing process and what she’s working on next.
Q: What do you find the most difficult thing about the writing process?
A: This may sound silly but most difficult thing is that my hands can’t type as quickly as my mind works! I can’t get the ideas out fast enough and I fear that if I don’t get them out, they’ll vanish and never return. So that’s the hardest thing; my brain’s buzzing, overflowing with things to say and my hands are lagging unforgivably behind.
In terms of expectations, I always thought I’d find the editing the most difficult part but I love it. I get to polish and sculpt a bit more – and a bit more and a bit more! Of course you need to know when to stop – or have someone you trust to tell you when you’re eroding as opposed to improving – and I’m extremely fortunate to have that with my editor-in-chief at Inanna, Luciana Ricciutelli.
Another difficult thing is knowing that the perfect word or expression is out there but it’s tantalizingly just out of reach. When I’ve got something down but it’s not quite right – it’s five eighths right and I can’t make it say exactly what I want it to – well, that’s tough! My (very patient) husband tells me to walk away and give my brain some time to come up with the solution but I always think that if I stare it down, it’ll come to me! And when it finally does, I rush around exclaiming about how ‘my’ system works much better than his. Yes… he’s patient!
Q: Do you draw from real life for your characters?
A: Oh yes, absolutely. People are just so fascinating and wonderful and weird and unpredictable and predictable and intriguing and complex. But I hardly ever write them as they are in real life, and if I do use something verbatim, I always ask permission – I have an example of that in another question below. For the most part, the bits I borrow from real life morph into new art, and the new art is the fictional story. The story comes from what I imagine could happen if some event were followed through to an as-yet unknown consequence. I love being able to paint pictures of the unknown and I do draw upon real people but I embellish, twist and change them. It would be akin to taking a bunch of photographs, scanning them into Photoshop, cutting out various bits and pieces, changing the colours, distorting the perspective, and adding a bunch of special effects, thereby ending up with a brand new story. It might begin with elements from real life but the mosaic pieces create a fictional mural.
Q: Would you say that West of Wawa is autobiographical?
A: Nope, it’s Benny’s story! My story would be very boring by comparison. But I have used experiences from my life, like being an immigrant and dating dubious men. I had great fun with my male characters, creating almalgams from so many of the worst traits of the extremely unprincely men I met before my husband. I also freelanced in a couple of places that were not dissimilar to Colin’s less than stellar environment and I drew upon those with unreserved glee. But I think the thing I love the most about Benny is that she’s so very much her own person, and it was quite fascinating watching her develop as the story unfolded.
Q: Have you been across Canada? By bus and in hostels? If so, was it like Benny’s experiences?
A: Yes, I did the journey, by bus and I stayed in hostels. For me though, the idea for the trip came from an almost obsessive desire to explore Canada – I felt I simply had to do it. Benny does it because she’s running, running from so many things but I felt this overwhelming hunger to visit places that seemed so extraordinary to me. Canada seemed so exotic, so exciting – places like Yellowknife and Churchill beckoned – and Moosejaw of course! I left a really good job in order to do the trip but I had to do it, I was prepared to live with any consequence in order to do the trip – I felt that compelled. And it was a great and wonderful thing to do. And yes, the busses were freezing and ablution challenged and the weird hours of arrival and departure are real. The hostels were fantastic, I loved the camaraderie.
And some of the things, like the debugging chemicals in the Calgary hostel did happen but I didn’t meet anyone like Chrystal. And, referring back to your question about drawing from real life people for my characters, I had a wonderful muse for Chrystal by way of one of my best friends and I asked her permission to use some of her expressions and her vibrant energy and individuality – I said, “Listen, you’re so amazing and I love you, and I have this character in the book and I need to channel you, but are you okay with that?” And she said, “Girlfriend, that’s one of the nicest things anybody’s said to me – you channel on!”
I didn’t meet any crazy or weird people on my trip – I was too busy admiring the sunsets, wildflowers and scenery. I was worried that I had too many sunsets and wildflowers in West of Wawa but I love the Canadian landscapes so much and it seems quite miraculous to me, the beauty and delicacy of the flowers that bloom with such profusion of colour after the harshness of winter.
Q: Was it hard marrying two such different aspects: travelogue and character?
A: You know, I didn’t find it hard at all. I think because I love Canada so much, it couldn’t help but flow through Benny. And I had a great time seeing all of it again through her eyes. Now that you mention it, my third novel is also a mix of travelogue and character, so this might be shaping into something of a genre for me!
Q: Are you quite detailed about creating backstories for your characters? Is there more to Benny than we got to see in the book?
A: Yes, I’m very detailed. And I write it all down in the first draft of the manuscript. Every single thing – and way too many things. And then I go back and delete a lot of it. It was an epiphany for me to realize that too much backstory can ruin a book for the reader who likes to fill in their own gaps but I also realised that I needed to write it all down first, so that I could be sure the character was fully fleshed out. That way, when she did something, I’d know for certain that it was a true action, and it would be instinctive. I also write way too much internal narrative in the first draft and I create a lot of work for myself that needs to be weeded out afterwards, but if I know what’s going on inside a character’s head, I can be sure that she and I are in synch. For example, I wrote detailed descriptions about Benny and her life with Kenny – I described their apartment, his graffiti artwork and her murals and a lot more about what she looked like and what she wore and then I edited it all out because it wasn’t essential to Benny’s story, and it would have stifled the reader.
Q: Do you think Benny has quite a taste for bad boys simply because she has such low self-esteem or is there something more going on there?
A: Very interesting question. I don’t think it was low self-esteem so much as the whole forbidden fruit thing – she was an obsessive perfectionist for so long that when she finally had a taste of freedom, she ran wild. In her quest for perfection, she had locked down her sexual appetites, locked them down so hard that when she finally opened that Pandora’s box, her desires escalated to the point of being out of control – look at how hard and fast she fell for Mickey – she needed to binge on bad boys in order to get them out of her system.
Benny bought into the whole idea of perfection, success, fame and fortune from a very young age because she was ashamed of her family’s lowly social status and she wanted all the shiny materialistic things in life. And I think that her drive for those things hid her self-esteem and it was only when their power was diffused, that her self-esteem blossomed. I think it was always there – it was just hidden under all the other stuff that she’d made so important.
Q: How do you explain the fact that Benny doesn’t really seem to learn very quickly from her mistakes?
A: I’m so glad you asked this question because it’s one of the pivotal themes of the novel – Benny’s mistakes! I wanted to reflect in fiction what I so often see in real life – that we often don’t learn quickly from our mistakes. I know I’ve made the same mistakes more times than I can count and the same can be said for many of my friends. A few of us were discussing this recently and one of my friends laughingly said, “in real life, one mistake leads to another mistake and then another mistake,” and I think, without her having read the book, that she hit the nail on the head of what happens to Benny. One mistake led to another and another and another.
I think it’s human nature to think that ‘next time will be different” without us actually doing anything to make it different. I’ve learnt that we need different actions in order for different consequences to occur, even if that different action is nothing more than a tiny moment of self-honesty. A lot of times we don’t look to ourselves for the reason why something’s gone wrong – we blame other people, we blame bad luck, we blame circumstance. Benny did that and it was only when she accepted that she had a choice in creating happiness and peace in her own life, that things began to change for her.
I’ve had readers ask me why she didn’t leave Sheldon White as soon as she realized how evil he was and my answer is that she needed to have that awfulness play itself out – real life gets gritty and dirty and mean and Benny needed to experience that. She also thought she was invulnerable to danger and she wasn’t — none of us are but sometimes we need to follow a thing through to its end even if we know we’re not making the greatest of choices at the time.
Q: What’s the story behind Marcia? She’s so fairy godmother–like.
A: Yes, she is, isn’t she! I’m very fond of Marcia, I love her warmth, her generosity, her energy. Marcia’s an excellent example of how I incorporate elements from real life people into fictional characters. I wanted a random act of kindness to befall Benny at this point in the story and what came to mind was a generous gift from my sister; I was living in Australia at the time, working like a fiend, and exhausted beyond belief. My sister surprised me by treating me to a luxurious day spa just like Benny’s. So there’s a strong element of sisterhood for me in Marcia’s actions and intentions and I hope that shines through. I channeled Marcia’s way of speaking from the managing editor at marie claire magazine many years ago in South Africa.
And why a fairy godmother at this juncture? Well, I’m a strong believer in fairy godmothers – I’ve had them come along in my life when I’ve least expected them, or when I’ve needed them but haven’t even known that I did, and I’ve even been one myself from time to time. I think it’s these wonderful exchanges between women that make life sparkly and magical when it can seem tedious and tough. We all have the power to wave a magic wand now and then or be a happy recipient of a generous gift and I figured that Benny was due a treat after Mickey’s ugly cruelty.
Q: The book is structured unusually, with quite short sections often and subheads instead of traditional chapters. Why?
A: Oh dear! Now you’ve got me wondering if that’s my ‘style’! Because I did the same thing in The Hungry Mirror. I’m trying to think if I’ve done the same with my third work-in-progress novel. Hmmm. Good question. No, The Corner of the Desert, my next book, doesn’t have the same treatment – that’s a relief, I had the sudden horror I was formulaic. I felt the short sections and subheads were a good way to construct The Hungry Mirror and I felt they worked here too. They add a poetic element and they help give the reader a hint of what’s coming, while adding a little twist. I also thought the subheads helped add another voice, an objective external narrator – a guardian angel or perhaps the all-seeing eye of he/she/they/it that we talk about below.
Q: Was the “he/she/they/it” mentioned in the book meant to be metaphorical or literally talking to Benny, who didn’t seem particularly religious?
A: Ah, yes, the kindly voice of he/she/they/it. Now, I’m really not trying to dodge this question but I’d like to leave the answer up to the reader! I will say this though – the beauty of the land did awaken a dormant spirituality in Benny but I’d love to leave that particular mystery to each reader’s interpretation.
Q: What did you most enjoy about writing West of Wawa?
A: Oh my, there were so many great aspects. I got to relive my wonderful trip and the places I visited. I got to hang out with Benny and her cast of wonderful characters. I got to vicariously pop a lot of pills and drink a load of Southern Comfort. I got to feel the freedom of Benny’s soul as she moved from her torments into a place of creativity and light. I had such fun being a part of this book and I do feel privileged, as if the book issued me a personal invitation to join the crew and help make it happen.
Q: What do you want readers to come away with after reading the book?
A: The most important thing, for me, is that readers have a great time reading it. A good book is like a lovely little vacation when you can forget all about your own life and escape into a completely different place. And after reading the book, well, I guess I’d like them to feel a sense of freedom and empowerment. We’re all subject to tough days and relationships that don’t work out the way we’d hoped but we can choose what we do with the things that happen to us. Life offers so much variety, so much choice and we sometimes forget that. And even if one can’t make big choices, like leaving a country or making a bad relationship work, you can choose small things in your day that make a big difference to your life – those small choices can be hugely empowering.
Q: What are some of your favorite books and authors?
A: Here are 15 of my current favourites – a very mixed bunch!
Barney’s Version by Mordecai Richler
Falling Angels by Barbara Gowdy
The Sudden Weight of Snow by Laisha Rosnau
Henry Kafka and Buying Cigarettes for the Dog by Stuart Ross
Body by Harry Crews
A Feast of Snakes by Harry Crews
Annabel by Kathleen Winter
The Ground Beneath Her Feet by Salman Rushdie
Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl
The History of Love by Nicole Krauss
Got No Secrets by Danila Botha
Jewels and Other Stories by Dawn Promislow
The Gardener on the Moon by Carole Giangrande
Echoes from The Other Land by Ava Homa
Lost Girls by Andrew Pyper
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m very close to completing my third novel, The Corner of the Desert. This novel features Kate who ditches her two-timing boyfriend of eight years and, on a whim, goes an overland trip from Cape Town to Namibia. All kinds of mayhem unfolds as a crazy bunch of people are let loose in Africa. This novel is also a travelogue and is jam-packed with witchdoctors, African muti, urban legends, murder and intrigue.