When you are a person who loves all things British – especially Irish or Scottish – and a writer named Lily Iona MacKenzie says she will do an interview with you, you get a little smiley and begin to wonder if she is kin (even in a fictional way) to Gabaldon’s MacKenzies. Enjoy this beautiful woman’s words and be sure to pick up her new novel Fling when it comes out in July.
1. Tell me about your latest project.
It’s hard to describe a “latest project” since I’m usually working on more than one thing simultaneously. I’m revising my novel Bone Songs that will be published in 2016. I’ve just completed another novel whose focus is a young version of the main character in another novel of mine, Freefall: a Divine Comedy. And I have several short stories in process.
2. What role, if any, did books, writing, and reading play in your childhood?
When I was 13, I started a diary, but I was afraid someone would see what I had written, so I used a coded language that I can’t remember. I would love to see those pages again so I would have a better sense of my writing self at that age. I didn’t start keeping a diary again until I was in my mid-20s and going through a deep depression. The writing was my attempt to understand what was happening. I began then to journal daily not only about what I was thinking and feeling but also recorded my nightly dreams. I’ve continued this practice ever since, learning much about myself in the process. I feel the keeping in close contact with my dreams has fed my writing and enriched my imagination.
3. What is your writing practice, your writing routine?
I try to write a minimum of one hour per day. I usually can fit in that amount of time, and I’ve produced an amazing amount of material over the years as a result: three poetry collections, one of which is published; four+ novels, two of which are on their way to being published, and I’m sure the other ones will as well; a short story collection; travel articles; reviews; memoir; and much more.
4. Who are you reading now?
It’s hard to say because I always have so many books on my night stand. I love the Norwegian novelist Per Petterson and have read all of his books except the last one, which is now waiting for me. I recently finished Three Light Years by the Italian author Andrea Canobbio. Francine Prose had praised it highly in The New York Review of Books, and over all it lived up to the accolades. My husband and I will be spending a month in Italy this summer, so we read John Hooker’s The Italians, a wonderful overview of the country and its people. I intersperse fiction and non-fiction with poetry since that’s a genre I also write in. I’ve been impressed with Mark Strand’s Collected Poems and have been going through it. Always much more to read than I have time for!
5. What are three of your all-time favorite books? Why do you love those?
I really can’t identify three favorite books. There are too many that I love. But I can say that certain novels had a profound effect on me at different stages of my life for various reasons. When I was working on my BA in English, I took a Modern American Novel class that did exactly what Lionel Trilling said such books should do: they read me as much as I read them. Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and his Light in August. Dreiser’s Sister Carrie. Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. And many more. Each book made me aware of elements of myself that were also manifested in the characters inhabiting the books.
Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude found me at a time when I needed a model for the magical realism approach that seems natural to me and inhabits much of my work. I LOVE that book and return to it often for inspiration.
In another mode, Roberto Bolano, a Chilean writer, has also inspired me. He diverges from the more familiar magical realist vein and creates his own genre. I’ve read most of his books now, and they create a world that seems like a parallel universe to ours. He also steps beyond the usual fiction boundaries, violating our expectations of how a novel should unfold or end. I’m always entranced by his work.
And I haven’t mentioned W.G. Sebald yet, another writer who died far too young. He’s another writer who invented a new genre, a hybrid novel form. Again, I’ve read all of his work, and I’m stunned by it.
I’m sorry that all of these authors are men when there are so many female authors I love as well, including Anne Enright. I’ll read anything she writes because of her sharp wit and illuminations of contemporary life.
6. How do you balance “building a writing platform” and the actual writing to set on that platform?
Platform has become a hated word in my lexicon. I feel we writers have become cogs in the publishing machine instead of masters of it. Of course, we don’t have to create platforms, but most publishers wouldn’t work with us if we didn’t. So I now find myself stealing precious time from my writing to keep up with the demands of social networking, finding reviewers for my novel, writing blog posts, etc. In the last week, I haven’t had time to go near the various projects I’m working on. I’m clearly not doing very well in the balancing category.
7. What is a typical day like for you?
I’m not sure I have a typical day. I teach freshman comp at the University of San Francisco, just one class a semester now. I also am vice-president of the part-time faculty union. Those two responsibilities take a considerable bite out of my day. I’ve already mentioned the marketing demands I’m dealing with. Working out is essential for my mental and physical well being, so I ride a stationary bike for 45 mins each day. Three days a week I also do strength training at a gym. I love to cook and enjoy making healthful meals for my husband and myself. I also am a great tennis and baseball (SF Giants) fan, so I squeeze these activities into some days. The writing I fold into whatever spaces are left.
8. Describe your dream writing space?
I can’t stand to sit at a desk or in one confined space to write. I’m more like a cat, moving around the house (or wherever I am) with my laptop and settling for a while in a comfortable spot.
9. What is the hardest writing critique you ever received? How did you respond?
I’ve written an essay about the most memorable one that’s been published at this site http://www.nowwhatmfa.com/guest-articles/. It happened while I was enrolled in SF State’s Masters in Creative Writing Program. I was taking a short story class, and the teacher only wrote realistic fiction. She seemed unable to tolerate narratives that didn’t follow that model. At the time, I was still finding my voice. When I tried to do what was natural to me—to write symbolic dramas, Shirley Jacksonist contemporary folktales/fables that retained the details of everyday experience and psychological authenticity—I found that this teacher did not have a context from which to judge them. I met a blank wall. It wasn’t until after I’d graduated from the program and spent some time working on my own that I realized her limitations. Her comments could have shut me down completely if I hadn’t believed in myself.
10. What is the best wisdom you have to share with other writers?
Write. Rewrite. Write some more. Get feedback from respected editors. Revise, revise, revise. Keep writing.
A Canadian by birth, a high school dropout, and a mother at 17, in her early years, Lily Iona MacKenzie supported herself as a stock girl in the Hudson’s Bay Company, as a long distance operator for the former Alberta Government Telephones, and as a secretary (Bechtel Corp sponsored her into the States). Her novel Fling will be published in July 2015 by Pen-L Publishing. Bone Songs will be published in 2016. Her poetry collection All This was published in 2011. She also teaches writing at the University of San Francisco, is vice-president of USF’s part-time faculty union, paints, and travels widely with her husband. Visit her blog at http://lilyionamackenzie.wordpress.com.