Kara Stanley holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia, and lives, works and plays on British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast with her musician husband, Simon Paradis. Her latest book is Ghost Warning (2017), a novel that dramatically explores Toronto’s underbelly of urban grime, crime and violence. Her non-fiction book Fallen: A Trauma, a Marriage, and the Transformative Power of Music was included on CBC’s Best Books of 2015 list. She is also a contributing songwriter to Stanton Paradis’ 2013 CD Good Road Home and Simon Paradis’ 2015 CD Mouthful of Stars.
Cagibi: Hilaire Belloc, the early twentieth century Anglo-French writer and historian, wrote, “We wander for distraction, but we travel for fulfillment.” Do you agree? Why or why not?
Kara Stanley: Hmmm. Interesting question. I can’t say I entirely agree or disagree. On the one hand, our modern life is filled with all sorts of places to wander (Facebook! Twitter! Netflix!), activities I think of as lateral distractions. These types of distractions tend to take me further away from my work, without feeding it in any substantial way. Traveling (whether it is into a book, a line of research, or a geographical place), implies a kind of intention, an envisioned future destination, that to my mind will always be more fulfilling than mindless distraction.
On the other hand, wandering (and again I mean this in the broadest possible terms: into a book; down a forest path; to a new town; into a piece of music) is a big part of my creative process. For me, this type of wandering is not about being distracted but rather about letting go of expectations and cultivating a state of mind that I can best describe as one of meditative exploration. This state of mind is essential for me to tap into the intuitive, associative part of my thinking. Having an agenda, or too firm an idea of a possible destination, sabotages the ability to surrender to the uncertainty and wonder of the unfolding moment.
Cagibi: Name some of your favorite distractions when you travel somewhere.
Stanley: Walking…I love to walk! In forests, in cities; I don’t connect with a place until I have walked around, into, and through it. I love to people watch, something I inherited from my mother. Eating out, of course. Fancy places, food trucks, I love it all. It usually takes about 24 hours in a new city to have picked out a favorite go-to bakery. And music! Checking out the local music scene is usually the first thing I do in a new place.
Cagibi: A cagibi, loosely interpreted, is a space such as a cubbyhole, or a space where you store things. Or the workspace in which authors write. For ourselves we’ve translated it as “any shelter, no matter how tiny, that allows for big imaginings to take shape.” Pick what kind of cagibi would be best suited for your creative process: a) a super organized cubbyhole b) a super messy tool shed c) any restricted space d) a space as vast as the universe. Please explain your choice—we are dying to understand your creative process.
Stanley: C) Any restricted space. The bulk of my writing work is done in my office, surrounded by my books, but I also consider my morning dog-walk at a nearby provincial park as part of my ‘writing time.’ I live on an inlet, separated from the mainland, and the fifty-minute ferry ride often provides a lovely writing oasis in the midst of an otherwise busy day. Cafés, libraries, airport terminals, hotel rooms—all make great impromptu work spaces. I’m old school though as I don’t generally travel with a laptop—it’s all paper-and-pen longhand.
Bernard Cooper wrote “Only when the infinite has edges am I capable of making art.” This is true for me both in a literal and figurative sense. My writing room is cluttered but not too cluttered. There must be a certain amount of clear, unfettered space for me to be able to work, and I need clear boundaries to prevent the busy world from pouring in: silenced phone, no emails. It’s when I have those perimeters defined that I feel I can go deep into my writing, burrowing mind. If those perimeters don’t exist, I am pulled in multiple directions, distracted by those lateral diversions, sliding away, hyperlink by hyperlink, from that focused (but wandering!) state of meditative exploration.
For me, writing is about sketching in the edges of the infinite, of framing space. Of attempting to provide a (temporary) vessel to give shape and sense to the vastness of life around us. I think all artists in some way are attempting to salvage experience from chaos and frame it into something that has (however imperfect, however provisional) meaning.
Cagibi: How does traveling to a new place influence your writing? In what ways do you incorporate travel experiences into your writing?
Stanley: Ha! This is a sad question for me. It is a time in my life where I thought I would be doing a fair amount of traveling with my husband, but, because of our current circumstances, it is not a very feasible, or particularly enjoyable, prospect. After suffering severe spinal cord injuries ten years ago, my husband now relies on a wheelchair. We have done some traveling together but generally it has been a daunting, labor-intensive experience fraught with unexpected issues around accessibility and mobility. So we tend to get discouraged. It is a dilemma because traveling is a great gift to the writer. There is nothing like being somewhere new, being in that heightened state of awareness, having the world expand around you, to help cultivate that state of meditative exploration.
Cagibi: Do you use your work as an excuse to travel?
Stanley: A little bit. Book tours are a great reason to travel across the county. One of my favorite travels in the last few years was doing a writer’s residency at the Banff Centre for the Arts in Banff, Alberta.
My new project, a work of historical fiction, is set all over the globe. It starts in England, travels to Scotland, South Africa, and Canada. It might provide a few very sound excuses for some research trips!
Cagibi: Do you use travel as an excuse to not work?
Nope. As a writer I feel like I am always working, wherever I am, whatever I am doing. There is the sitting-at-the-desk-writing work, and I am not immune from occasionally procrastinating, but, as writers, the going out and living and experiencing is an equally crucial part of the work. (And often, it is during these moments of ‘distraction’ that you light upon a solution to a problem, that you couldn’t, for the life of you, see a way around when you were sitting at your desk, shoulders tight, low back sore, hammering away at the keyboard.)
Cagibi: Did you ever have to hide in an uncomfortable space in order to write? Where, and how long did you stay in there?
Stanley: Being at Banff was a kind of a hide-out, in the most pleasurable sense. I was there three weeks, and barely said twenty words to anyone. I also have a friend’s house that I steal away to write at—no dishes in the sink, no bills to pay, no to-do list steadily growing on the kitchen table—and an uninterrupted afternoon of work there is often the equivalent of a day or two in my loud, busy house.
Writing, for me, always feels like both a hide-out and a way to travel. I am, for example, very excited about this new project I am embarking on. But, at the same time, there is a little resistance, a little dread, at the amount of time and focus it will require. There is so much you have to shut out to get deep into the writing. The sense of being on hiatus, or hiding out, from real life, is profound. But then again, when the work starts to flow, where you can travel to is almost limitless: you may visit different places, times, and psyches.
About Kara Stanley’s Ghost Warning
Kara Stanley’s latest book is a novel, Ghost Warning, published in 2017 by Caitlin Press, which is a press based in Halfmoon Bay, British Columbia. From the publisher:
On the day that Lou James finds her father dead on the garage floor, she leaves her small hometown and heads for Toronto on a Greyhound, initiating a series of events that will reshape her life. Lou moves in with her brother and begins a new existence all the while trying to make sense of her father’s unexpected death and the sudden loss of her place in the world.
Amidst the strangeness of life in Toronto, where vibrancy and violence mix, Lou builds a small community: Isabelle, the welcoming neighbour and new best friend; Sal, Lou’s angry but big-hearted godfather; despairing Donnie, a troubled fledgling drug dealer; dreamy Finn, lead singer in a post-punk band, and mysterious Stella, the old woman who spends her days seated on the back steps of a locked church door surrounded by plastic bags and bottles of Pepsi. When a series of savage and homicidal acts plague her new neighbourhood, Lou, following in her journalist father’s footsteps, attempts to investigate.
As her final year of high school unfolds, Lou comes perilously close to discovering the truth, and violence erupts, once again unravelling her world. She hops on a Greyhound, destination unknown, propelled by the urgent need to bridge the distance between the life she shared with her father and this precarious new existence where he grows ever more remote to her.