INTERVIEW: JENNIFER FINLAYSON
BIO: Jennifer Finlayson was born in Toronto, and raised by show-people; She was weaned on jazz and folk and show-tunes and Sesame Street. Her Grandpa Konikoff was a great trombone player in his dixieland band in Buffalo, New York; Her Uncle Mark played drums for fusion jazz group 'Spyro Gyra'; Her Uncle Ross played trumpet for Buddy Rich and Liza Minelli and for the whole Broadway run of 'CATS'. Jennifer`s parents both sang and played guitar, and both had acted in many musicals during their school years. Ms. Finlayson attained a B.A. with Honours in English from Carleton University, where she attended a lovely poetry workshop run by Christopher Levenson where she learned how to write a villanelle and how to start critiquing someone's work by saying first what she really liked about it. In 1998, Jennifer won The George Wicken Award for English at Centennial College and her poem 'The Coyote Baby' was also published in 1998, in 'The Dream Tree News', a dream related journal out of California. Jennifer started self-publishing in 2000, with her first chapbook 'The Anatomy of the Dog'; and today the tiny 'Whimsivore Press' has seven books currently in print, with 'Anatomy' now going into its fifth printing.
Contact Jen: firstname.lastname@example.org
Q: Jennifer Finlayson, why do you write?
A: I write because if I didn't I would never stop talking. I write because I want what I have to say to be ready for you when you are. I write because it's what I'm here to do. I write to shine a light in the world. I write because I'll explode if I don't. I write to keep my thoughts, my dreams. I write so I can see what I think. I write because so many of my friends are fictional, and writing is the one of the only ways to talk with them. I write because I love words. I write because, like dreaming, writing is a way to tap into the great vastness, and have it move through me. I write because it's an adventure, a set of extra lives and an enormous high. I write to bring something into the world that wasn't there before. I write to excite people. I write because it's magic.
Q: I met you for the first time at the Art Bar reading series at the Imperial Library Pub in the Spring of 1999. I liked you right away foryour sense of humour as well as your whimsical mind. In an age of politically correct yak, earnest writers and strained literary awards, I respect and admire your individualism and sense of truth and enjoy the sophistication and characters in your writings. Seals In Kitchens, The Whistling Ferryman etc. -- there were a lot of fun poems that I remember you reading. What are you working on at the moment, three years later on?
A: Lately, I'm officially working on loads of things, including a sonnet crown based on the folk poem, 'The Seven Sleepers', and a whole mess of poems by, for, and about the ancient Egyptian god Anubis, called 'Anubis Suite'. Unofficially, I'm writing tons of brand new surprise things that pop out simply because I'm supposed to be working on one of the above projects. Funny how that always seems to happen, not that I'm complaining of course; the surprises are usually so much better than the ones I wrestle with. I think that's why we need to have official projects going, so we can continue to write the surprise good stuff. Play is infinitely important, always, always, always.
Q: I know from having purchased a few of your chap books that you have your own press and sell your poems at the annual Toronto Small Press Book Fair. Can you tell me about this experience and why you have chosen this route as opposed to conventional publishing?
A: I really like the idea of having total control over every aspect of how my work is getting presented, me to you, no middle-man. I get to choose the order of the poems, the font, the cover paper, everything. As well, the Toronto Small Press Book Fair is an absolutely wonderful event, not only to get one's work 'out there', but also it's a wonderful day to visit with the poetry community. Two times before the last two Small Press Fairs I had funny dreams where I was so busy visiting with everyone, I even forgot to unpack and sell my books! I'm very glad I started out by self-publishing, because in many ways I think it has given me a better awareness of my own work, and what ways work and don't work in presenting it. I feel like it will give me more strength and assertiveness when it comes time to have my work arranged by someone else -- although I think it would be a lot of fun and extremely interesting to see how a different person would present it! At the moment though, I'm enjoying self-publishing very much, and I think the people who come to the Small Press Fair like to talk to the real person who wrote the little books they're thinking of buying!
Q: About rhyming poems. You have said from experience that you have received criticism for your rhyming poems. They remind me a lot of Grimm Fairy Tales and I suggested that you try and find a British publisher because I think some of your work falls into the category of Children`s Literature and other aspects into Fantasy, perhaps Science Fiction, which Canada does not revere as highly as literature. Have you gone or will you go the Canadian publishing route or branch out into different international markets when the time comes?
A: I think some people are perhaps afraid to like rhyming poems
anymore. Maybe people think rhyming poems are only for children,
in the same way that people sometimes think that fairy tales are
only for children, or any other universal things are only for
children. It's almost as though people sometimes feel afraid that
by being seen to enjoy something like that, that their 'grown-up-ness'
might be taken away from them! Or maybe it's like Dr. Seuss' 'Sneetches',
where someone in authority has said, 'Rhyming poetry is no longer
cool.' and so, in order to be 'cool', they can't be seen reading,
writing, or enjoying rhyming poetry, which I think is rather sad.
In fact, there are many wonderful writers of 'grown-up' rhyming
poetry too; just look at Kipling, for example, and of course Shakespeare,
Wordsworth, Dickinson. As well, for the most part, almost all
the literature that is considered to be 'children's literature'
wholly deserves to be read many times throughout one's adult life.
The great literature is always growing and unfolding with the
reader; reread 'Peter and Wendy' or 'Alice in Wonderland' sometime,
and you'll see what I mean. It's almost as though the writer has
gone back in and added new stuff, just for you to find right now,
at this juncture in your life!
I highly doubt I will start my forays into the world of having my work published on the Canadian front. I don't understand the mindset in Canada that says fantasy cannot ever be literature. Canadian publishers seem to really want things to be 'real', and unfortunately by 'real' they usually tend to mean bleak, shallow, devoid of spirituality (save sexually), and entirely lacking in what would traditionally be called a 'story', the one thing people actually crave. (And as for what's 'real', from what I've seen, what's really real is what's real to the soul. That's why things like stories, and dreams, can be as 'real' as anything in waking life, why I don't like to read anything that says only non-imaginative waking life is 'real'. You ask Ebenezer Scrooge whether it matters if those ghosts were 'just his imagination' or not.) Fantasy certainly can be literature, make no mistake. Tolkien, T.H.White, C.S.Lewis, Lewis Carroll, George MacDonald, Madeleine L'Engle, Philip Pullman, everywhere you look you are met with it. Sure the Atwoods and Lawrences and Munroes are getting the acclaim, but what are people reading and enjoying really? Writers like King and Rowling, writers who tell good and marvellous stories. It has been suggested to me actually that I begin by testing the U.K. waters, and then the U.S. ones, and I think that is probably the best bet for me.
Q: I know that you have some musicians in your family background. Can you tell me if they have had an effect in your life. If so, have they influenced your own work?
A: Huge effect. Huge effect. Not so you'd see it in my non-rhyming writing, but it does reach even there, in the rhythms and play of word-sounds, I think. I sang two of my poems at a recent feature, and there are a few others which also have melodies, or are getting them. I remember when I was very young, being absolutely flabbergasted to learn that so many of other people's families didn't sing! I can't imagine life without music. Music in my life is as necessary and as effortlessly included as breathing. Yes. Also, having musicians in my family has always been rather a point of pride too, and I have so many amazing musical relatives! Almost everybody in my family at least sings or plays some musical instrument, whether or not they have made or are making a career out of it. One of the funniest moments I think involving that family pride happened back when 'The Muppets Take Manhattan' came out in theatres. There was about a three second shot of an orchestra at one point towards the end of the film, and we knew that my Uncle, Ross Konikoff, a fabulous trumpet player, was going to be in that shot. Now, my uncle, he's played for Buddy Rich, Liza Minelli, the whole Broadway run of 'Cats', and loads of other stuff too. So my family and I, we sat in the theatre and watched the whole movie, and when that scene came on the screen, my whole family went completely crazy, 'There's Uncle Ross! There's Uncle Ross!' It was awesome.
Q: There are a lot of childhood images and themes in your writings and I wondered why you choose the images and themes that you do. We talked a bit about dreams and the fact that you can remember a great deal of your dreams after you have had them. You asked me about my dreams and pointed the symbolism in them and I was amazed at what you knew. I think you said that your father is a psychologist and I wonder if this is a field of interest that has also inspired your writing or influenced it?
A: There's a wonderful dangerousness to nursery rhymes, fairy
tales, dreams, and there is a great power in the befriending of
things one is afraid of. I learned that when I was very young,
the strength that comes with making friends with what frightens
you. Also, things like nursery rhymes and fairy tales have such
a great life to them, such a strong, raw energy, and they have
lived for so long, passed down and down and down. I feel that
anything that old with that much life still in it must have volumes
to teach, if we can just get near enough to the wildness of them
to listen. I think that's one of the reasons I am so drawn to
those themes again and again in my work; I love to try to tap
into that ancient, deep energy, and draw something new out.
As for my father being a psychologist, and whether this field much influenced my writing, I think what it did do was to give me a family to grow up in that always encouraged me to explore thinking in different ways about all kinds of different things. In my family, it was always great fun to speculate about all kinds of wonderful ideas, and what the consequences might be of various fantastical inventions or happenings. I remember so many times where around the dinner table or on a car trip we would come up with exciting or fascinating or hilarious ideas, and just have tremendous times talking and imagining about them! Also, dreams were something we were never afraid to talk about, and I remember many fascinating dreams shared by various family members. We never tried to interpret them, we just enjoyed them as the stories they were. My whole family are wonderful storytellers!
Q: About A.I. (Artificial Intelligence), the movie. I was inspired to go to it, through the recommendations of a friend as the movie covers an area which interests me a lot -- Human versus Machine. I loved the movie, especially the performance of Haley Joel Osmont and the middle sequence involving the destruction of the used-up droids. I suggested that you might like the movie and you wrote a three page email back to me about it explaining the direct references to Pinnochio. In the old days I believed that the book was always greater than the movie, till computer graphics came and changed the possibilities. Now, with the exception of A.I., I`m bored with most CG and long for the old basic human stories. You`d think that traditional literature and poetry would have gotten better as the form is not influenced and manipulated by teams of other people but books haven`t gotten better in my opinion. You just have to read Flannery O`Connor or John Cheever to know that the old books are better. Do you agree?
A: 'Pinocchio' is a nasty little book. I wouldn't read that
thing to a child. But it has lasted all this time, and people
keep returning to it. Why? There is some kernel of the 'real'
in it we still resonate to. The idea of personal growth and becoming
what we always wanted to be, of having someone believe in us,
even when we thought we were unworthy, of finally attaining our
dreams because we cared about someone else so much we finally
forgot to be selfish. This is powerful stuff. It's no wonder it's
lasted all this time.
Here's the thing. It's an extremely simple thing, so simple in fact it has almost totally been forgotten by some, and deemed 'corny', 'cliche' and 'old fashioned' by others. Here it is: people crave story. Story. Something with a beginning, a middle, and an end. And don't give me any crap about 'real life' not being like that, because it is. You get up in the morning, you go through your day, you go to sleep at night. Beginning, middle, end. A man is born, he lives, he dies. Beginning, middle, end. Something satisfying, something magical, something that makes us feel as though we've grown, or gained something important, story is a basic human need, plain and simple. That's why 'life-ish' movies like 'American Beauty' may take the Oscars, but what are people still talking about? 'The Sixth Sense', that's what. Does anyone remember what won the Oscar the year 'The Wizard of Oz' lost? Story is so compelling that soap operas have held watchers captive for decades; in absence of any real stories about, people will cling to anything that even remotely resembles one.
As for movies, people today seem to get lost in the knowledge that we can make ANYTHING happen in movies now -- Mr. Lucas, bless his multi-million dollar heart, is I'm afraid a prime example of that. They lose sight of the most important aspects, the story, the characters, the writing. Thank God for filmmakers like Pixar, whose credo is, and I'm sure I'm misquoting, that no amount of beautiful animation can make up for the lack of a good story and good characters. I can't stand a movie that isn't well written, and I find even the worst actors can't ruin a film if it has a brilliant script. Another filmmaker I like is Zemekis; he's one of the only filmmakers I know who can make a film that's better than the book it's based on!
As for the old books being better, I think we have to look at volume, here. I'm sure there was loads of garbage being written throughout the history of literature too; it's only the good books we remember as we look back, because those are the only ones people want to remember, those are the only ones people have cherished and kept. There is good stuff being written today, but as usual, there is so much filler out there that the good stuff is sometimes hard to find, more than ever now, because more people than ever are writing things and getting published. In two-hundred years, if there are still people here and reading, I highly doubt that most of the 'bestsellers' of today will be remembered. We might be tremendously surprised at what survives! Salieri was a tremedously popular composer in his day, remember. He gave people what they wanted, just like so many of the bestselling books today do. But he wasn't saying anything new. And Mozart died penniless, buried in a pauper's grave. It's the people whose work says new things that will carry over, that will be remembered, and I think that goes for all art, be it writing, music, painting, or film, or anything else people create.
Q: Obviously books are getting published here and the international success of David Adams Richards, Margaret Atwood, Ann-Marie MacDonald, Camilla Gibb, Andrew Pyper, Jim Munroe is international. But are these books going to be classics in the sense of the old American or English Masters? What do you think about book publishing in Toronto in the 21st Century?
A: It is so unfortunate that there are so many absolutely brilliant Canadian writers who have absolutely brilliant small press books out, who, because people want the Atwoods and Lawrences and Munroes, are probably never going to be even looked at by a Canadian publisher. For the most part, it seems to me big Canadian publishers are excessively timid when it comes to people who say new things, and people who don't want to tell stories that are depressing, bleak, plotless, and have no endings. I realize that sort of book really does speak to many people, but it doesn't speak to me. And there is such a vast variety of writing going on in Canada, and even in Toronto alone, writing that often is nothing at all like the Atwoods and Lawrences and Munroes, that I think it's very sad that more of this vast variety is not available to anyone outside a small press environment. And no, I really don't believe very many of these books at all will become 'classics'; more than likely, most will probably end up drowned in the multitude of other depressing, bleak, plotless books with no endings that seem to be more an outcry and symptom of the general feeling of lostness in today's society than an effort to create something people are going to love and want to return to again and again. Once again, I think it will be a surprise to see what does survive the test of time!
Q: What are you reading now and what do you recommend? Have you read Watership Down?
A: Just lately I've been reading 'Shardik' (speaking of Richard
Adams), the Bible (I'd never really read the thing before, so
I thought I ought to, front to back. I'm currently a few chapters
into Deuteronomy, and I was delighted to see God telling people
not to eat bats earlier in the book), various Toronto poets' books,
and Andersen's fairy tales, one a day whenever possible. I just
finished all of Grimms' that way recently.
There are a hundred books I'd love to recommend, but in the interest of time, I'll limit them. For relatively recent works, I'm going to recommend the 'His Dark Materials' Trilogy by Phillip Pullman (that's 'The Golden Compass', 'The Subtle Knife', and 'The Amber Spyglass'), 'Neverwhere' by Neil Gaiman, 'Momo' and 'Mirror in the Mirror' by Michael Ende, and the marvellous 'Time Quartet' ('A Wrinkle in Time', 'A Wind in the Door', 'A Swiftly Tilting Planet', and 'Many Waters') by Madeleine L'Engle. For older work you may have missed, you can't lose with 'The Once and Future King' by T.H.White, and 'The Cosmic Trilogy' by C.S. Lewis (both of which are more relevant today than ever). Any and all of Milne's 'Winnie the Pooh' and poetry books are always a refreshing treat, no matter how many times you've already read them. Antoine de St. Exupery's 'The Little Prince'; that should be read at least once a year, for your very health and wellbeing if for no other reason. As well, any Dr. Seuss you can get your hands on. That would be a good start, I think.
I have indeed read 'Watership Down', several times. In fact, I'm about due for reading it again. One of the great works of literature, for sure. Betcha that one survives. It's a real story, of course. Of course.
Q: Rabbit or Hare. Which one would you choose for a confidante?
A: Well, I have a Rabbit already as a confidante, so I will have to say 'Rabbit', but that's not the only reason. Rabbits know how to keep secrets; they know all about silence, and listening, and hiding. Hares on the other hand, although I don't know any personally, strike me as the sort that simply can never keep a secret, whether they want to or not. They seem to be pretty much open books, with few if any social graces, the 'speak first and sort it out later' types, and they tend to brag as well. They don't even live in burrows, but sleep in hollows on top of the ground - how's that for open - and are really rather flighty. No thanks. It's Rabbit for me!
Q: Adder or Asp. Which one gets the girls?
A: I'm going to have to say Asp. They're traditional, for one thing. I'd imagine that alone would do it, the idea of 'What's good enough for Cleopatra is good enough for me.' Plus, of course, there's the matter of potency. Some snakes who call themselves 'Adders' are in fact entirely without venom and totally harmless, whereas the Asp is guaranteed lethal, one hundred percent, for sure. Constancy in one's serpent is so important to a girl.
Q: Squirrel of Chipmunk. Which would you pick as a deliverer
of a message?
A: A Chipmunk of course! They're fast, they're feisty, and they have built-in pockets!