For many people, writing a book and seeing their name in print is their ultimate dream. Athabasca University’s creative writing professor, Angie Abdou, has taken her passion for writing and written several successful novels, including The Bone Cage, The Canterbury Trail, and her latest novel, In Case I Go. But does the life of a modern writer equal the dream that people have? I spoke to Angie for The Voice Magazine to find out.
In previous interviews with The Voice Magazine, you’ve talked a lot about being a creative writing professor. But let’s talk a bit about your life as a writer. Were you a writer first, or did a writing career start to happen after you established your academic career?
I remember the first time I knew I wanted to be a writer. It came right after I first fell in-love with a book: One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish by Dr. Seuss. I read it at four years old and knew that I too wanted to do that magical thing. However, when I hit the teen-age years, self-consciousness and insecurity set in. I didn’t follow that dream of being a writer. I ended up on a parallel path to what I most wanted. I did English degrees and studied other people’s writing, wrote about other people’s writing, and taught other people’s writing. I did not attempt to write any fiction of my own. I nearly completed a Ph.D. in Medieval Studies at the University of Western Ontario. Then one-month before my 30th birthday (on April 9, 1999), I had a near-death experience: a head-on collision on highway 22 on my way from Calgary to Fernie. I woke up in the trauma ward with a broken back. I saw then the silliness of letting fear of failure stop me from pursuing the thing I most wanted. As soon as I got out of the hospital, I started buying books on how to write fiction and filling journals with the exercises. I published my first collection of short stories in 2006 and my first novel in 2007. I eventually went back and completed my Ph.D. but with a focus on Creative Writing at the University of Calgary, where I could write my second novel as a dissertation.
Was it difficult to get your first book published and break into the writing market? Once you had that “in” after your first book, was it easier for your subsequent books to get published?
Yes, my first book received the most rejections (nearly ten, I think) and my second received fewer (maybe four) and my third book received none. The decrease in rejections came partly as a result of familiarity with the market. As I got to know what publishing houses published what kinds of books, and as I began to know people in the industry, I had a better feeling for where to take each book. My most recent book (Home Ice: Reflections of a Hockey Mom, forthcoming September 2018 with ECW Press) received three offers. That was a first and was very exciting – and it only took me six books to get there! Yes, it does get easier to get published. Now I’m most excited when my students get their first book publication, more than for myself. I guess I’ve come to expect that if I write a book, someone will publish it (knock on wood).
There has been a big trend toward self-publishing. What is your perspective on that? Is that another way in to the publishing world, where writers have more control over their work and their career (versus being at the mercy of the big publishing houses), or do you think self-publishing ultimately has a negative impact on a writer’s career? How do you think the mainstream publishing industry is responding to self-publishing?
I’m old-fashioned on this front. I like traditional publishing. I like the gate-keepers. I like the team of trained professionals working to create the best book possible and then promote it in the most effective way. As a writer, I want to know that a publishing house believes my particular book to be worth the effort and that the manuscript made some kind of cut – that professionals are keen to put resources toward publishing my work. That investment on the part of a publishing house gives me confidence once the book is out in the world. As a reader, I also want that quality control. Of course, there are exceptions, but the self-published books I pick up don’t tend to be as good as the ones traditionally published. To my mind, that’s how the publishing industry responds: by continuing to put out great books.
Do you have a set writing routine, or does it vary?
I’ve learned to trust in my process. The main thing I need when I’m working on any project is consistency and momentum. When I’m mid-book, I need to write every day, and I need to carve out a substantial chunk of time (not thirty minutes here and thirty minutes there). Mornings work best. If I can get three hours in the morning, or even two, as long it’s every day – that works. Then – here’s the trick – after I put in my writing time, I need to go for a run. That’s where the ideas come to me – when I’m running, not when I’m sitting at the computer. But I have to put in that computer time – to input the information into my subconscious, I guess. Then after the run, I scribble down whatever new lines came to me. Next day: repeat. Learning to trust in that process means that: I don’t try to put in eight-hour days at the computer; I give myself breaks to go for those day-dreaming runs; and I make it a priority to find that chunk of writing time every day. On the bad days, I can remind myself: this process works, it’s worked before, it’s never not worked. That helps. The obvious question though: where to find three hours? That can be the trick! I have had months-long stretches when I’ve gotten up at 4am so I could write until the rest of the house wakes up at 7am. Those decades of early morning swim practices paid off: I know I can do it if I must.
AU students pride themselves on being master multitaskers. How do you find balance between being a writer, a professor, and maintaining a family life? Do you find it difficult to juggle everything?
Yes. I do find it difficult to juggle everything (smiles). I’m supposed to have more to say about that, but I’m drawing a blank. It’s difficult, but each of the three has such special rewards, and I have a family and friends who gently remind me when the balance falls out of whack. It’s a continual effort.
In Case I Go relied heavily on historical research. Is researching a book similar to academic research? What is your research process?
For me, academic research and novel research are very different. For academic work, I do all the research up front, decide my argument, make an outline and start writing, methodically working my way through the outline step by numbered step. Creative work plays out in a much more chaotic fashion. The more I try to control the process, the less the novel comes to life. Novel outlines don’t work for me. If I know where I’m going, I lose interest. Instead, I research as I find myself in scenes and realize I don’t know what I need to know. When I’m writing a novel as opposed to an academic project, less of my research comes from books. If I can, I talk to people – interviews as research. For In Case I Go, a lot of the research came in after I’d completed the novel and had a draft accepted for publication. I made major changes as a result of consultation with the cultural liaison at the Ktunaxa Nation Council. I enjoyed the challenge of working out that balance of maintaining my creative, imagined world while (hopefully) smoothly incorporating the historical suggestions and corrections that came out of that collaborative (research) process.
It seems that modern writers are required to do a lot of work promoting their books, such as conferences, signings, readings and interviews—which might be as much work as writing the book itself! Do you think that the promotion side of writing is necessary for writers? Do you find all of that draining or exhilarating?
I try to think of the promotion part as the reward for writing the book. I’m a social person so all those solitary hours of novel-writing don’t come as naturally as I would like. I prefer the bookstore events, the library talks, the literary festivals – talking to readers and teachers and students and fellow writers. That’s all very fun to me. The challenge is balancing the travel with family life, and each time I say I’m going to do less on-the-road promotion …. but when the book comes out, I do more. I feel I owe it to the book. Readers have an overwhelming abundance of choice. It’s my job to get a new book out there in readers’ hands. I’m lucky I enjoy it.
How do you feel about the blogging world? Do you think that having an online presence–such as a blog–is necessary for writers and other creative people so that they can establish a presence and get their names and work recognized?
Is anybody reading blogs anymore? Does anyone even click on the links? We’re so overwhelmed with online wordswordswords. As a reader, I would be happy to never again have a blog sent in my direction. I love getting off my computer with a good old-fashioned book. I recently read Dr. Cal Newport’s Deep Work. He advocates for people spending less time online and getting off social media entirely. The idea is that what we value in society is deep, careful work (i.e. that which is original and labour-intensive rather than that which is common and quickly produced). Such “deep work,” of course, is not what’s being produced on Twitter, Facebook, blogs. In fact, to do deep work, we need to get away from the distraction of Social Media’s easy output and immediate (but superficial) rewards. I like this idea: I’m going to imagine Newport is right. He makes sense to me. So my advice: don’t worry about creating an online presence or maintaining a blog. Instead, take the time and do the deep work – create something unique and beautiful and profound. It’ll find its readers.
But it also appears to almost be a requirement for modern writers to have an active social media presence. Of course, recently, you have had a difficult time with social media. How has that experience situation changed your perspective on social media? How has it affected you as a person? What lessons about social media can others learn from what you went through?
There has been a lot of conflict and high emotion in the Canadian Literature community over the past two years. Recently, I made a mistake, and people called me out on it, loudly. Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publically Shamed is great on this relatively recent phenomenon. In the end, I decided to give myself a one-month timeout from social media and make apologies directly to injured parties. I’m still processing the experience, but I know I have lessons to learn from it. Things happen very quickly online. One lesson is to stop, think, and consider consequences. Less than a minute of bad-decision making can spiral completely out of control and do real harm. I’ve learned we should all behave on social media as if our actions will be reported in the national newspaper … because they might be (in this case they were). I’m also a firm believer in taking conversations off Twitter. Face-to-face, real-life conversations allow for complexity and fallibility and forgiveness.
After In Case I Go was published last year, have you been so busy that you have found it difficult to come up with your next project?
I have had an unusually productive few years. In Case I Go came out in the fall. I also edited a collection of essays about Canadian Sport Literature, which is coming out this spring (Writing the Body in Motion, Athabasca University Press), and I wrote a creative nonfiction book about parenting and North America youth sport culture, which will be released September 2018 (Home Ice: Reflections of a Reluctant Hockey Mom, ECW Press). My wheels have started to turn on a new novel idea.