Based in Halifax, Ian Colford writes short fiction, novels, and literary criticism. His first book, the short fiction collection Evidence (Porcupine’s Quill, 2008), won the Margaret and John Savage First Book Award and was a finalist for the Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Prize, the Danuta Gleed Literary Award, and the ReLit Award. Since then, he has gone on to publish two novels. His second book of short fiction will appear with Nimbus in 2019. In what follows, he talks to us about inspiration, writer’s block, the first time he was paid for his writing, his advice for aspiring writers, and more.
How long have you been writing? What drew you to writing in general, and fiction in particular?
I’ve been writing fiction for so long it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when it started. Growing up, I wasn’t much of a reader and I didn’t write at all. I didn’t discover books until I was almost finished high school. We had lots of books at home, but early on I was a math and science geek. I liked facts and making lists. My first degree is a B.Sc. with a major in mathematics. But during my first year of university (1976) I got a part-time shelving job at the public library, where I came across works by authors I’d never heard of (Cheever, Updike, Drabble, Welty, Gardner, Garcia Marquez, among many others). Curiosity got the better of me and once I started reading I didn’t want to stop. It was like I was trying to quench an insatiable hunger that I even hadn’t realized I’d been suffering. After reading non-stop for several years, I started thinking, I can do that. I walked away from science and did a masters in English. I wrote my first short stories in grad school, goofy miniatures that I showed to a few people then stuck in a drawer. After graduation I got a job and lost myself in work for a few years, but I was still drawn to telling stories and creating characters and building worlds for them to inhabit. By the end of the 1980s I’d written a novel (deservedly and thankfully unpublished), and in the 1990s I started writing short stories again, but seriously this time, with the intention of submitting them to journals. Looking back, I think what attracted me to fiction is the freedom to invent, the sense that absolutely anything goes, that any idea is viable, depending of course on how you approach it, how you tease out its dramatic potential. Writing fiction is also addictive, a form of enchantment—different from reading, but similar in the sense that once you start, you never want to stop.
In addition to writing fiction, you frequently review books for journals like The Antigonish Review. How do you approach reviewing? Do you find that your work as a literary critic has influenced your own writing?
Ever since I started writing for publication I’ve demanded more of the books that I read, more at any rate than simple entertainment. Time is short and there are a lot of books out there, so I’m disinclined to spend time reading a book that’s not teaching me something new about writing. Reviewing takes this to another level. You develop an intensive relationship with the book under review: you can’t respond to it in a knee-jerk fashion. You have to look closely enough to understand what’s working and what isn’t, and you have to be able to justify whatever verdict you reach. You can’t just say you love it or hate it and leave it at that, you have to articulate your position and explain your reasoning. I find it instructive to approach books in this way from time to time. By taking a nuts-and-bolts approach—peering under the hood at what another writer has done, successfully or not—I can decide if that’s something I might be inclined to try myself.
Do you remember the first time you were paid for your writing? What was it like?
I believe it was when a story called “My Mistake” was published by Event. I remember being shocked and delighted when the acceptance letter came, with its far-fetched promise that I would actually receive money for my efforts. Event pays reasonably well, or they did in 1993. I got around $300 for that story and it came like a windfall, unexpected riches. I probably blew it on books and CDs.
What do you do when you have writer’s block?
In my experience, there are many and various reasons for being unable to write. Life distractions are ever-present, or it can be a stubborn story line that refuses to reveal what happens next, or a character you don’t know well enough to be able to see what their next move will be. It can be a poorly conceived idea that should never have been pursued in the first place, or you might find yourself in that no-man’s land between projects, where life seems empty and nothing grips you. Any of these can make you seize up and doubt what you’re doing. If I get blocked midway through a story or novel, I step back and look critically at what I’ve written so far. This can take a few days or a few months. First, I have to decide if the story is worth the sweat I’ve put into it. If the answer is yes, and if I still can’t get the flow back, I might set it aside and do something else for a while, some other activity, not necessarily writing. The best activity by far is reading, because you might hit on a book that gets your juices flowing again. Or go for a walk, or listen to some music. The important thing though is to remain connected with the story you’re working on, at some level. If the characters and their struggles are in your thoughts—and it doesn’t matter that your head is filled with all kinds of other stuff—the right idea can come along when you least expect it.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Read, read, read, and then read some more. Reading will help focus your efforts and put you in touch with what you want to accomplish as a writer. Remember that all writing is derivative. Nobody writes in a vacuum. All of the writers you admire started by emulating writers they admired. If you read enough and you have what it takes, at some point your head will be overflowing with original ideas.
Also, I think most writers have been on the receiving end of a piece of advice that goes, “Write what you know.” I certainly have. I was once offered that advice while at a workshop where I was looking for feedback on a novel set in South America, where I’ve never been. I believe that all writing is exploration. Grant your imagination the freedom to go wherever it wants. If you end up writing for publication, the industry will impose enough limits on what you can do. Don’t start out by imposing limits on yourself.
What’s your guilty pleasure?
I really enjoy mystery, suspense, and detective novels. The best of these combine a taut narrative with engaging characters tackling difficult questions and possibly putting themselves at risk. If the characters have complex backstories, deep inner lives and the prose features the occasional literary flourish, so much the better. If I was to offer a recommendation, you can’t do better than the Simon Serrailler detective novels by Susan Hill and the Quirke crime novels by John Banville writing as Benjamin Black.
What are you working on right now?
My current project is a novel focusing on the case of a missing child. It has a contemporary urban setting, and the girl goes missing prior to the start of the book. The structure is in three parts: the first is told from the perspective of the father, who loses his daughter at a playground, the second from the mother’s perspective, who is trying to deal with the loss and a variety of private demons, and the third from the perspective of one of the detectives on the case.