Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Ten Questions With Sara Tilley

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Ten Questions With Sara Tilley

Sara Tilley is a writer and theatre artist who lives in St. John’s, Newfoundland. Skin Room, her first novel, was published by Pedlar Press in 2008. Sara will be reading in Toronto with a crew of other Pedlar Press authors, at The Victory Cafe, October 1st, 2008, as well as at the Landon Branch of the London Public Library on October 2nd.

OB:

Tell us about your book, Skin Room.

ST:

Skin Room is a novel told from the point of view of Teresa Norman, at two distinct periods in her life. The chapters alternate between her life as a twelve-year old white girl in Sanikiluaq, in the Northwest Territories (now in Nunavut), to her present-day existence in St. John’s, Newfoundland as a young woman in her twenties. It’s a double coming-of-age story for the same person, and a love story: of love for another person, for another culture, for landscape, for language, and for yourself.

OB:

How did you research your book?

ST:

Most of the writing came from sense memories that I have of living in both the Northwest Territories, as a child, and in Newfoundland. Certain details were sparked by photographs. I also spent quite some time in the Banff Centre’s excellent library looking at footage of Inuit community life, which really helped to be as precise as possible in my re-imagining of that world. I got help with vocabulary from my old Inuktitut workbooks, and from emailing a childhood friend from Sanikiluaq. I consulted a family court lawyer about the legal proceedings described in the book, read a lot of text about bipolar disorder, depression and Catholic martyrs, and looked at as much Inuit artwork as I could. The rest is imagination.

OB:

Did you have a specific readership in mind when you wrote Skin Room?

ST:

I suppose that if I write for anyone I write for someone like myself, a voracious reader, whose greatest pleasure is to spend a whole day immersed in a novel, lounging about in the backyard. I don’t write for any specific sub-group of people, and I hope this is the sort of book that can be enjoyed by anyone who enjoys reading.

OB:

What was your first publication?

ST:

When I was about eight or so I had a drawing published in OWL Magazine. It was in response to an article about a man who had fingernails which were meters long, growing in thin spirals. OWL asked kids to send in pictures or stories of what their lives would be like if they had long fingernails, and I responded with a drawing of myself doing a very quick job of tidying my room by shish-kebabing all my possessions on my spear-like yellow fingernails. They sent me some copies of the magazine, one which I still have and one which I mailed to my grandmother. It was an intoxicating rush to see my own drawing there in that magazine which, at the time, featured large in my life.

OB:

Describe your ideal writing environment.

ST:

My work room in St. John’s. My partner and I bought a house this winter, and the room in question has been painted yellow and has 100-year old red wooden floors. There’s a window directly overlooking what we call The Bird Tree – a tree with about a dozen birdfeeders that our neighbour fills each day. The tree is constantly filled with all sorts of birds, you can hear them through the window. I have put my writing desk sideways right next to the window so that the tree is always with me as I write. My cat has a spot at the corner of the desk for his own birdwatching purposes, so I have a lot of living creatures around me. And at least three or four plants.

OB:

What are you reading right now?

ST:

I tend to read four or five books at a time, alternating back and forth as the mood strikes. Right now I am finishing off a cycle of the following: The Drowned Lands by Stan Dragland, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey, Margaret Atwood’s Negotiating with the Dead, Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel and Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales.

OB:

If you had to choose three books as a “Welcome to Canada” gift, what would those books be?

ST:

That is a very, very difficult question. However, off the top of my head here’s three Canadian books I really love that have inspired me as a writer. All were written quite some time ago, so I feel I’m missing a contemporary companion volume (of which I could choose many) to fill out the list. However, my picks are: Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature by Margaret Atwood, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept by Elizabeth Smart and Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers.

OB:

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received as a writer?

ST:

To take a break and rest in between drafts, so that you come back to the words with fresh eyes and an open heart. That it’s okay to take a break, it’s part of the process.

OB:

Describe the most memorable response you’ve received from a reader.

ST:

The most memorable response was from my parents. My father read Skin Room within a day and called me, crying, as soon as he was done. My mother read it twice and then wrote me a letter about it. In a family where we hold our emotions in reserve much of the time, those two reactions were really powerful.

OB:

What is your next project?

ST:

I am working on a second book which is based on documents found in my family’s ancestral home in Elliston, Newfoundland. These documents date from 1888 to the 1940s, and in particular trace the journey of my great-grandfather, Duke Tilly, as he traveled to the States, then to Vancouver, then up the river to the Yukon and Alaska, during the Alaskan Gold Rush. I have been doing research on this project for several years and am just starting to write my own material, based on Duke’s daily log book and his letters home. I also have a play going into production in 2009.

Skin Room "Skin Room is an unflinching love letter to heartache, the far north, late nights in downtown St. John's, family dysfunction and the slim possibility of redemption. Sara Tilley manages despair, slapstick and all registers in between with equal skill and grace. A completely convincing voice and a terrific book."
- Michael Crummey

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