I Cheer With Fists In The Air: Hannah Macready Interviews Alexis Pooley
“I’ve been told that Andrew is dying. They say he’s probably been sick for a long time to grow a tumour that big, maybe even forever. This is to make me feel better, meaning, there’s nothing I could have done differently. It doesn’t make me feel better, though. My dad says animals aren’t scared of death; when it’s time, they find a nice tree to lay under and that’s it. My dad grew up on a farm, so maybe he knows.
Andrew’s favourite things include: his squeaky pig toy, kisses between the eyes, barking at cats, scooting his butt in public. I thought loving someone just the way they are meant even when they’re annoying, but it means even when they’re dying and you’re afraid to be around them.“
by Alexis Pooley
Winner of EVENT’s 2020 Non-Fiction Contest
Alexis Pooley has an MFA in creative writing from UBC and a BSc from Dalhousie University. She won third place in Grain Magazine’s 2020 Short Fiction Contest and was longlisted in PRISM international’s 2020 Creative Non-Fiction Contest. She lives in London, Ontario with her friend, Andrew, who on the outside appears to be just a dog.
Hannah Macready: Hi Alexis, I’m really excited to have the time to speak with you, to learn more about your writing and your process. Your creative non-fiction piece, “Our Lives,” which won EVENT’s 2020 Non-Fiction Contest, continues to move me. Maybe it’s because I have two dogs and the thought of losing them hurts me. Maybe it’s because your short, quick sentences were so simple, yet so incredibly full of emotion, metaphor, and imagery. I’ve read your piece a few times and every time I start to cry. How would you describe your writing style, specifically when writing non-fiction?
Alexis Pooley: Thanks so much for taking the time to chat! I’m glad you liked our little story. Andrew is here too, but he’s watching a fly. When I’m writing a piece, I try to focus on emotion and simplicity. I want to be as candid as I can, so this always brings me back to how do I feel in this moment and what is the simplest way I can describe it. Life isn’t like that; it’s complex, big, changing. It has so many angles that trying to look at all of them at the same time makes me want to nap. Instead I go, at the end of the day, what are Andrew and I doing? We’re sitting together in the grass. We’re sharing a hot dog. These moments are important. They matter just as much as the big, tangled experiences we have, and I think they resonate in an almost childlike, innate way. In her judge’s essay, Madhur Anand describes order emerging out of chaos as “simplicity on the other side of complexity.” I will forever be grateful for how eloquently she’s put this. There are a million things I could say, but what matters most in this moment? I think this technique comes from my time in recovery programs. I’ve learned to go, okay yes, a slurry of things, but right now, how do you feel? Scared? Sad? Grateful? It helps me to focus and better understand myself, and in this case, my stories.
HM: While you’re being recognized with us for your non-fiction work, you also write fiction. Your story “Success” was published in Grain this past year, and it describes the life of a woman who made a fortune on a hair curling cream for mice. It’s wonderfully absurd and works in the same quick, punchy style as “Our Lives.” It also weaves graphic details into mundane life moments which I always find so pleasurable in writing–the surprise, the turns! How wonderful. How do you decide what to write about? Are you someone that finds inspiration in real life, or do you prefer dream states, other art, television, nature?
AP: I usually sit down at my desk and go, what am I going to write about? Lol, that sounds pretty unmagical. I say it out loud. Otherwise, I’d be caught up in thoughts and ideas and options for years. Once I decide on the core person/event, then I can play around with how to tell it, what it looks like, what it sounds like. Sometimes the elements that come out surprise me. I’ve never once set out to write about mice.
I’d say most of my inspiration comes from real life. I like people’s quirky personality traits. It’s what I identify most with. I don’t care how beautiful your dinner looked unless you dropped the potatoes on the floor by accident and decided they weren’t too dirty to eat, you know? I also love dialogue; I listen closely to the unique way people use words and phrases. I think it tells a lot about a person. I’m sure I take inspiration from other art forms too. Music is important to me, visual art, interesting design aesthetic in general. I can blow through a Netflix series in a day, easy. All art forms are a study of the human experience, and one inspires the other. I wouldn’t say I take a lot of inspiration from nature. I don’t walk into a forest and go, oh wow! It’s just not how I am. I only really take notice if something funny happens, like if a bird runs really fast on extremely skinny legs. Or something scary, like the green sky before a tornado. This probably isn’t a good way to be; I should walk into a forest and be amazed. I love animals. They’re part of nature. There are usually animals in my stories.
HM: You mentioned to me previously that you’ve only started sending out your work for publication recently. Yet, you’ve received recognition in multiple contests and have been published by established Canadian literary magazines. What about publishing your work was a surprise to you? Are there any strategies you could offer to other emerging writers on making the publishing process easier?
AP: I only started submitting my work for publication recently because I was too scared to before. I was really paralyzed. I’m not exactly sure why. I eventually started sending pieces out because the fear of regret for not having tried became bigger than the fear of what might happen if I did try. What has surprised me about publishing is a great question. When I started learning that my stories were going to be in print, that’s when I realized that people would be reading them. Meaning, are my high school sweetheart’s parents going to read about my anorexia? Like, am I about to make my dad cry, you know? What surprised me is how okay I felt about that. Not about making my dad cry, but the vulnerability piece. It was a mental process I had to go through to make sure I was okay with it. I would advise emerging writers to think that through beforehand, even just for a hot second before submitting non-fiction. As far as strategies for emerging writers who want to start publishing, I would advise just doing it. Don’t think too much about it or put too much pressure on yourself. Get the email attachment on there and press send. You’ll find your legs once you get started. I also keep a log of which stories I’ve submitted where. You’ll start losing track otherwise, and you don’t want to send the same hometown fair story to a magazine that already rejected it. Be just as happy about rejection as an acceptance; they are both really important steps in moving you forward.
HM: Going back to the topic of non-fiction, what important elements do you believe should be present in non-fiction that may not be present in fiction, if any? What stylistic processes differentiate these genres for you?
AP: I only started writing non-fiction this past year, so I’m still learning about it. I try to write from a place of healing. I don’t want to burden my reader with a pile of messy, unprocessed emotions. There’s a difference between being vulnerable and being irresponsible. There are things about my life that I’m not ready to write for an audience, and that’s okay. It usually means I don’t understand it well enough yet. I check myself, and if I don’t feel content, I leave it out. This type of checking isn’t absent from fiction, but it’s less significant. As far as stylistic processes, I wouldn’t say there are notable genre differences for me. My intention is always to mine what I believe is truthful, and stylistic choices—voice, diction, the order of events—are all based on serving the story, fiction or non-fiction.
HM: This is, perhaps, a more abstract question, but something widely debated, perhaps never answered (so, no pressure): What does being a writer mean to you? Does it come with any hobbies, caveats, ways of being that you feel you didn’t possess before? Or, does being a writer seem like something you do, rather than something you are–(I always feel the latter).
AP: For me, being a writer is both something I am and something I do. I had to learn this—that if I am a writer, it means I have to actually write. I think you can have a propensity for something, a talent, desire, however you want to think of it (these are all debatable too), but being something always requires action. I like to sing, I spent a long time studying vocal music, so I know how to do it, but I’m not a singer because I don’t sing anymore. I have a Post-It Note above my desk that says Be a writer. This reminds me that it has to involve action—sitting down and writing a story, finishing it, editing, being frustrated, crying, wishing you’d chosen a different profession, breaking through, being so glad you chose writing, you have to do it all.
I’m sure my being a writer comes with hobbies and ways of being. That’s interesting to try to unravel; bit of a chicken and the egg situation there. I read a lot more now that I write because it’s important in studying the craft. It’s a conscious choice I make. When someone has put words together in a perfect way that immediately changes my life, I let out an audible sigh. Sometimes I cheer with my fists in the air. Do other people do this? It might pertain to being a writer. My centre is quite quiet; I spend a lot of time thinking, which I wouldn’t recommend. I was a serious baby. I had this kind of intense concentration that I find unsettling in photos. I’m certain none of these things are necessary to being a writer. I drink a lot of espressos, something I also wouldn’t recommend, but I see it come up among artists. I’m learning to play the ukulele. It’s a way that I can kind of free-think. I’m probably just listing off things I like to do now.
HM: Thanks again for making time to answer my sometimes strange questions. As a final note, how is Andrew? And also, what’s next for the two of you?
AP: Thanks for the really thoughtful questions! Andrew is doing so well. At the time that I wrote this story, we were about a year into a diagnosis of terminal cancer. He had a big tumour in his bladder. No matter what course we took, his team of vets was sure he would die. My goal was to give him the most comfortable life I could, and then let him go when he needed to go. When that time came, I called our vet clinic to relay information and make final decisions. While I was on the phone, I heard this guy in the background. He was a surgeon, and he’d heard about Andrew. I could hear him saying, tell her I’ll take it out. Casual. Tell her he’ll be fine. I hadn’t really slept. I was like, huh? Sorry for the long story. This surgeon operated on Andrew the next morning. The tumour was double the size of what ultrasounds showed. About the size of a grapefruit. Really gnarly. He emailed me professional-looking photos of this thing in a pair of hands. Andrew was home that night. I don’t really know how that all happened. We are the lucky ones. His follow-up scans have been clear so far. He’s happy and energetic. His pee is a gorgeous yellow colour. He’s staring at me right now because he wants his dinner. I still clap my hands when he finishes eating. I felt nervous about this question because I didn’t want anyone to think I’d snared them into this sad story that wasn’t true. But our story hasn’t changed; we just get to write a new chapter now. We painted our kitchen white and fixed the leaky bathroom sink. I bought Andrew a new bed. A human bed from IKEA. He’s obsessed with it. That’s what we’re doing for now—enjoying the small things because they’re not small. I wake up grateful every morning. I say, to the sky, thank you for another day I get to spend with Andrew. I do this every day. And then we get on with it.
Hannah Macready lives in Vancouver, BC.