February Member of the Month: Robin McGrath
Robin McGrath was born in Newfoundland, just prior to Confederation. She failed two years of high school, but went on to take a PhD under the supervision of James Reaney at the University of Western Ontario, where she later taught. She was an associate professor of English at the University of Alberta before resigning in 1993 to return to her home province to write full time. In 2006 she moved to Labrador with her husband, Judge John Joy. She writes a non-fiction book review column for The Telegram and a social commentary column for the Northeast Avalon Times and is a feature writer for Labrador Life. Robin is a member of the Writers’ Union of Canada, the Visual Artists’ Association of Newfoundland and Labrador and the Book Arts Association of Newfoundland and Labrador. She is a letterset printer and printmaker and the author of over twenty books. Honours and awards include the Henry Fuerstenberg Canadian Jewish Poetry Award, 1999; the Children’s Book Centre Choice 1999; the Commonwealth Book Award Shortlist, 2003; the Geldert Medal of the Royal Philatelic Society of Canada, 2004; the Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage and History Award, 2004; and the Helen and Stan Vine Canadian Jewish Book Award for Fiction, 2010. She is on the Board of the Labrador Creative Arts Festival, and the Editorial Advisory Committee of the Newfoundland Quarterly, and is a volunteer with Them Days Magazine and Archive and the Lawrence O’Brien Arts Centre.
What inspired you to become a writer?
Most writers say they’ve known writing was their calling since they were kids. Not me. I did a bit of academic writing but that’s all, until one day I was telling Al Purdy a story about one of my neighbours, and he clapped his hand over my mouth and ordered me to write it down for him. That was the first piece of creative writing I ever had published. So it’s not what inspired me, it’s who. Al did.
What is your genre?
I don’t have one. I choose the genre according to the material I have on hand. I write poetry, fiction, non-fiction, doggerel, drama, cartoons, you name it. I don’t think that’s helped my career—I may be seen as a dilettante. I can’t help it, that’s the way it works for me.
What is your writing process?
It depends what I’m writing. Poetry tends to come spontaneously—it just erupts and then I revise and polish. Fiction, I think through until I’m sure I have it pretty-well all clear in my mind, then I write it down as fast as I can and worry about the fine tuning later.Non-fiction, I research for ages, assemble my material, and work very slowly and systematically, revising and fact checking as I go. When I have to review a book, I read it with a pencil in my hand, I scribble notes in the margins and on the end pages, I don’t read anything else until I’m finished, and I write the review immediately, revising it later when I’ve had more time to think. I almost always work ahead of deadlines so I have time to revise and proof-read. Every time I’ve ever sent in a piece of work as soon as I’ve finished it, I’ve regretted it.
What books have influenced your writing style the most?
I’ve no idea—I’ve read so much. If I’m planning to write fiction, I will often read some Alice Munro before I begin, just to set the bar high. If it’s non-fiction, Joseph Mitchell. Poetry, John Steffler or Michael Crummy or Mary Dalton, so I don’t lose my Newfoundland voice.
Do you ever experience “writer’s block” and if so, how do you prevail?
I switch genres. If a story isn’t coming together or a poem isn’t emerging, I’ll start a research article on saw mills or Inuit map making or something totally different. I think if I got really stuck, I’d write a cook book. I have to cook every day regardless of how uninspired I am. I like cooking, but I really like eating, so I think that would get me going again.
Are you currently working on any writing projects?
Since I have two newspaper columns, I always have something that needs doing. But I usually have a larger project on the go also, and at the moment it’s the text for Geoff Butler’s illustrated “Ode to Labrador.”
Do you have a favourite writer and if so, who and why?
When I read a really good book, I always have a crush on the author for a while. This week it’s Gary Saunders since I just finished “My Life with Trees,” a really wonderful book. Next week or next month it will be someone else.
What book(s) are you currently reading?
I don’t usually have more than one book on the go at a time, but I was reading Kate Taylor’s Madam Proust and the Kosher Kitchen and then lost it under the bed, so I started a science fiction paperback I found at the library, The Postman (I think it was a movie with Kevin Costner). Then yesterday, a copy of White Eskimo turned up in the mail and I can’t wait to get at it. This isn’t Harold Horwood’s White Eskimo, this is an account of Knud Rasmussen’s Fifth Thule Expedition by Stephen R. Bown. I think The Postman will go back to the library unfinished and Madam Proust will have to wait.
What advice would you give your younger writing self, based on your experiences now?
Study grammar—it’s a slog but it’s necessary. You can break the rules once you know them. And revise and proof-read until you’re sick to death of it. Writing’s a job, not just a calling, and jobs require hard work.
Do you have any advice for emerging writers?
Once you’ve done the best work you can, send it out to publishers. A rejection letter or even dead silence is a critique of sorts, and until you know what works and what doesn’t, you’ll keep making the same mistakes over and over again. Even worse, you might not find out until too late that your work is really good and publishers want it. Hold it back long enough to polish it but then send it out. Give it a chance. And develop a thick skin.