Interview: Diane Schoemperlen

Diane Schoemperlen is the award-winning author of thirteen published books, including several short story collections, three novels, a non-fiction book, and most recently, a memoir. She has received many award nominations, including the 1990 Governor-General’s Award and the 1990 Trillium Prize, and has won the 2007 Marian Engel Award and the 1998 Governor General’s Award for English Fiction.

Schoemperlen spent her childhood in Thunder Bay, Ontario, where she continuously explored her creative writing. After graduating from Lakehead University, Schoemperlen spent six weeks during the summer of 1976 at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity where she studied with writers such as Alice Munro, Eli Mandel, Sylvia Fraser, and W.O. Mitchell, before working there as a Staff Writer. She soon moved to Canmore, Alberta where she spent the next piece of her life submitting stories and poetry to various literary magazines. In 1984, she published her first book Double Exposures, a collection of short passages. She now resides in Kingston, Ontario, where she has taught at St. Lawrence College for the Kingston School of Writing and various other writing programs.

Her first novel, In the Language of Love, first published in 1994, has also been published in the United States, Sweden and Germany and was turned into a theatrical performance in Kingston and Toronto. This novel shows the progression of love throughout a lifetime in 100 chapters, each labelled using the stimulus words from the Standard Word Association Test. The novel follows Joanna from childhood to adulthood as she encounters the various love affairs that shape her life and teach her what it means to be in love. In the Language of Love demonstrates the complications of love through each defining moment in Joanna’s life from watching her own parents’ complex relationship to the internal struggle of pursuing a passionate affair with a married man to the unconditional love for her son and ailing father. Joanna must make sense of these significant moments, blending each together and finding how they can fit to fully understand the meaning of love and emotion and its significance in her life.

Your novel, In the Language of Love, is split into 100 chapters, each one titled by the 100 Stimulus Words from the 1910 Kent-Rosanoff Word Association Test. This test is typically used to explore a person’s psych based on the connections made to the neutral word. What inspired you to use these words for each chapter of the story?

I came across this list of 100 stimulus words by accident, when I was at the library looking for something else (I don’t remember what). Because I am very fond of lists, it immediately struck me as interesting. I kept it filed away for a long time. At first, I thought it might make an interesting structure for a short story; 100 short sections about each word. Soon enough I realized that that would be much too long to be a story and it would have to be a novel. Having never written a novel before, I found this “n” word quite intimidating!

That’s right. Prior to this, you had released multiple short story collections, including The Man of My Dreams and Hockey Night in Canada. This past year, you went on to publish a memoir. How did you approach each format differently? Which form was the most difficult?

I am currently in the process of writing a long essay about this very question. It will eventually be published in The New Quarterly. The short answer is that each genre presents its own set of challenges. I found the memoir to be the most difficult by far. As a fiction writer, I was accustomed to making things up, but as a memoir writer, I sometimes felt constrained by my need to tell the truth. I complained about this to a friend who laughed and said, “You know memoirs aren’t really true anyway!” But mine is. Everything in the book is true; but that’s not to say that everything is in the book. It was difficult to figure out what to put in and what to leave out. Also, it was very difficult to find the right “voice” for the memoir. I have always had a certain amount of confidence in writing fiction. Whether it was a novel or a short story, I felt I could do it however I wanted. But in memoir, I had no confidence at all to begin with. It took me a long time to feel comfortable in the form. With the memoir, there were also concerns about privacy and libel. These do not enter into fiction in the same way. After all, I wrote a novel about the Virgin Mary and the Pope never called!

This novel is not written chronologically, as it jumps across various points in Joanna’s life. For example, chapter 51 begins in Joanna’s childhood, then skips ahead to an experience she had with Lewis later in life and returns again to her childhood at the start of chapter 52. How did you plan this out before you began writing? How was the process different than when planning for the memoir, which you wrote chronologically?

First let me change your wording a bit. In this novel, the story is not TOLD chronologically but in the memoir it is. In fact, neither one of them were WRITTEN chronologically. In both cases, I did not write the chapters or sections in the order they appear in the finished books. For the novel, I printed up the list of 100 words in a very large font and stuck them on the wall beside my desk. I wrote the sections in no particular order and then put them together in the actual order of the list at the end of the first draft. I then worked on consistency and making the narrative work in the non-chronological arrangement. For the memoir, after several false starts, I wrote a detailed 100-page outline that I called the “skeleton” in which I laid out everything that happened in those years in chronological order. But then I did not write it in that order. In fact, I wrote the easy parts first, working my way up to writing the more difficult parts as I went along. So in fact, there was a definite similarity in the actual writing process for both books, although they ended up being arranged quite differently in the end. Whether a story is to be told chronologically or not is determined by the nature of the story itself and how it can be best shaped to make sense to the reader.

Since this was your first novel, was the process of having it published different than when writing the short stories?

When writing a book of short stories, it is possible to publish the individual stories in literary journals as you go along. This is encouraging. But with a novel you must submit the finished manuscript all at once. I had an agent by this time and she did that for me. Since I had already published several collections of short stories, I was a known “commodity” which made it easier to get the first novel published with a large commercial house (HarperCollins Canada.) Also, generally speaking, large publishers are not especially fond of short stories and prefer novels. I’ve been publishing books since 1984 and for all that time I have been repeatedly told by large publishers that “Short stories don’t sell.” You might think that Alice Munro winning the Nobel Prize would have changed that thinking but it hasn’t.

This novel does not follow a chronological order of the significant events within Joanna’s life, but rather separates life events by certain key words or phrases that remind her of these events. Since it did not follow a chronological ordering or a typical plot structure, what techniques did you use to show character growth as well as keep the story moving forward?

Given that I began writing this novel in 1990 (almost 30 years ago!) it is hard now to remember actual techniques I might have used. As I mentioned earlier, once I had all the sections written in the first draft, I put them together in the second draft and that was when I worked on making sure the story was moving forward.

Each of the three main romantic relationships in Joanna’s life were very different and separate from each other. Henry was Joanna’s first serious relationship, where she was still trying to figure out how to approach it; Lewis was the heated, forbidden love that Joanna likely had the most passion towards; and Gordon was perhaps the safe love that she married. How did you ensure that each relationship brought a different perspective on love and demonstrated the various stages of Joanna’s life?

Because all three men are so different, I think this made it easy to show different perspectives at the various stages of her life. Interestingly enough, both Henry and Lewis are based on real-life relationships, but the lovely husband Gordon is an entirely fictional creation.

A lot of the different stories or passages in Joanna’s life overlapped with each other and appeared throughout various chapters of her life. Why did you choose to tell it like this as opposed to each chapter being a different story or a few different stories connected to the Association Word?

Telling the story as I did allowed me to draw connections between the various chapters of her life. Which I think is true to how we actually live. It was largely this interconnectedness that gave me the opportunity to show how she had grown and changed over time, just as we all do in real life.

Why did you choose to write this book in third person rather than from Joanna’s own perspective?

Writing in the third person gave me a certain amount of distance and allowed me to look over her whole life in a reflective way. In fact, I don’t remember ever considering writing it in the first person from Joanna’s point of view. From the beginning the third person seemed like the best choice. Feeling sure about the point of view from the start is a kind of gift, I think. It is not always so clear which will work the best.

Since this novel tells the story throughout Joanna’s lifetime, you had to write her from multiple viewpoints. Was it difficult to change perspectives from a child to a young adult to a mother? Since various events would have changed her attitudes, values and ideas throughout the course of her life, how did you approach the writing to show this growth?

I don’t recall having too much trouble shifting from child to young adult to mother. It seems to me that in real life we don’t have much choice about changing as we grow older. Life changes us, for better or for worse. All the experiences we go through, all the people we love, everything we encounter on the way changes us in one way or another. This book is autobiographical in many ways so I suppose that made it easier to show how she had naturally grown over the years.

For chapter 57, “Boy” is the Association Word used for the chapter title, but only the definition of the word is given before it continues to chapter 58. For chapter 68, “Joy”, you do not give the definition of the association word, but instead provide multiple definitions of the word “entrance”. Both of these formats happen in multiple instances throughout the book. Why did you choose to write these chapters differently? Was there a specific pattern to it?

There are actually five chapters that are only the definition of the word: 5. Man; 23. Woman; 40. Girl; 57. Boy; and 75. Child. Practically speaking, I found these words to be so “big” that I didn’t know for a long time how to handle them in the book. Eventually I chose to use the definitions only in these chapters because in fact these are the words that DEFINE the whole book. So yes, there was definitely a pattern to my decision to do it this way. There is another set of chapters that are different as well: the six colour chapters (11. Black; 28. White; 36. Red; 54. Yellow; 66. Blue; and 94. Green) are all written in a different stylistic voice and are in the second person. One of the interesting things about using the 100 words as my chapter titles was that, although you might think this structure would be limiting, in fact I found it liberating in that I could do several different things within that overall structure.

Megan Arden Gallant was born and raised in Mississauga, Ontario, though she currently lives in St. Catharines. She is finishing her second year at Brock University studying English and Creative Writing, with a minor in the Sociological concentration of Critical Animal Studies. Aside from reading and writing, she spends my spare time playing softball or camping in the great outdoors as much as possible.

This interview was originally written as an assignment for Natalee Caple as part of the Brock University Creative Writing Program.

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