Lee Kvern drops in to chat

My friend and colleague, Lee Kvern has a new story at http://foundpress.com/ and because I am a fan of both Lee’s fiction and this innovative story site, I urge you to go there.  Buy the story.  Buy all the stories.  They’re brilliant and entirely affordable in this format.  But first I want you to meet my talented friend.

Lee and I belong to a writing group that meets ad hoc whenever any one of the six of us decides we need a kick to get a new story finished.  No matter at what stage Lee’s story offering to the group, I am utterly charmed by the writing and have to work hard to bring my steely-eyed gaze to the work. Lee has a background in the visual arts and if I had to choose only two words to describe her writing I would say she is an artist and a stylist; her prose is spare and yet elegant.  Allowed one more word, I would say she is a magician; her narrative is quicksilver on the page. With each new Lee Kvern story that I have the pleasure and honour of reading, I shake my head and ask, “How does she do this?”  So I thought I would ask questions and try to tease out the secrets to her magic.

 BJH:  Lee, I know you are a graduate of the Alberta College of Art and Design, and I know that you’ve had a history of interesting occupations in support of your life as an artist and a writer.  Could you take us through some of the journey and how it’s shaped you as artist, both visual and literary?

LK:  At the age of three… no, I’m kidding. After ArtCollege I moved to Vancouver where my husband, fellow artist/illustrator started a design company. Work was piecemeal, largely altruistic and speculative at best; the city was expensive. So after a time, my husband got a job at a car wash and turned to painting, I worked three nights a week at the casino as a pitboss and started silk-screening. I had this great studio space on Granville Island where I caught the day ferry across the clear green water and spent entire long luxurious (!) days silk screening dill pickles and cows and milk bottles. It was absolutely wonderful both in studio and space and time, something I wish I had now as I share my tiny writing/art studio with the faint smell of husky pee in the corner. That and the fractured time with kids and husband and work, none of which I would trade, all the while balancing toast making, laundry, part-time work, paying bills, the usual things people do.

When I look back on that now: such a short period of time in my life, such a long time ago, but it had an enormous impact on me in that it has lasted me a lifetime. It ruined me for anything less. I found I not only craved time and art and space but also recognized that I needed to do something creative in order to be remotely happy. DangArtCollegeVancouverGranvilleIsland, all of which have a permanent sweet stain on my heart.  

Then my father died. I moved to Vancouver Island in order to make sense of things. (I’m still waiting on that explanation, says Cage The Elephant and me). I started writing fiction. Reading fiction had always been integral to me both in Art College reading the philosophers, the Dostoevskys, the Hesses, Rands and Orwells, and in life, reading Hemingway, Munro, Laurence, Salinger. The first story I wrote was a semi-finalist in the CBC literary contest but even before that, just the physical/emotional act of writing itself, I knew I’d found my niche.

So how does art influence writing? I’m a visual thinker, so images sticks more strongly than any other sense in my mind. Usually for me, that’s where a story starts. I’ll see something at Tim Horton’s or Sobey’s or on the street and that image will stick with me. It always about people and their interactions with one another, or non-actions that catch me. I’m immensely interested in what makes us tick, how we think, why we do things. More so when we make mistakes, when we fall down, and in turn, how we might pick ourselves back up, and with luck, find redemption of some sort. Outside the initial visual, this is the impetus that gets the story rolling for me. I’m a rock lifter by nature. Not a great quality if you’re a homemaker (more to dust) but for a writer it serves a purpose. So that combined with the visual makes me the writer I happen to be. I like to describe scenes in a very A.D.D. way (only the facts, ma’am), in the hope that the reader can see what I see, in combination with the emotional/psychological depth of our Oh Humanity (I say this lovingly, myself inclusive) that I also hope comes through in the story. For me both are important. Yes, a movie/story has to look good, but it also has to move me.

BJH: Your website http://leekvern.com/  has both Writer and Artist pages. I know that recently you’ve been spending more time on finding and painting vintage furniture than on story.  Can you talk a bit about how you balance the visual art with writing?

 LK: After launching my second book in 2010, finishing my third and having my mother die in the same year, I needed a break, so went back to those things that I haven’t done since I lived in Vancouver some twenty-odd years ago. Think I’m still/always looking for that explanation. Can someone please explain it to me, anyone?? I’ve spent this last year painting images on vintage furniture in avoidance of novel writing and rock-lifting. I think my soul just needs a break, a place to come back to where I can mindlessly enjoy what is in front of me. And for that, I am grateful for ArtCollege and green waters that still sparkle in my now older, wiser mind.

 That and the fact that I don’t care about painting, I have nothing invested in terms of hopes/career/ambition, which I’ve been guilty of having towards writing and publishing. Which, over this last year has left a vinegary taste in my mouth, but that is likely grief speaking, coupled with ridiculous expectation. I know at some point I will come back to writing, newly energized, ready to do the heavy lifting (rocks, always with the rocks) that I apparently can’t seem to avoid. I long to be the sort of writer who can write light, funny, Harlequin Romance-type books that actually sell, and make people laugh. If you think Happy Drugs might be the answer for all your problems, please consult with your doctor… yes.

 BJH:  I’ve known a number of writers whose talents and training take them into the visual arts as well.  Your artist’s eye and hand are so obviously a part of your writing. Can you describe how the writing and the painting work together, or any challenges involved in moving between them?

 LK: No challenges moving back and forth. In this past year and a half of supposed non-writing on my part, I’ve written close to two hundred blog pages (see: don’t care, doesn’t matter as in painting). The ha ha is on me in this case. What I’ve discovered (to my surprise and delight) is that if one thing becomes too important in my mind, then the shift onto the other is a great remedy. My most anxious times are when I’m pushing too hard on something, or conversely waiting for something to happen (waiting is death to any writer), both of which suck the joy life out of the very things I love. So, in that sense, writing and painting work well for me. Wished I’d discovered this sooner.

BJH: You have two books, both novels, and I know that you are looking for a publisher for a collection of short fiction. Tell us a bit about this collection and your passion for the short story and its place in Canadian literature.

LK: I do have a book looking for a publisher, a short story collection that spans twenty years of writing for me. Short story writing is what kick-started me into this whole silly writing game. I love the genre. I’m A.D.D. at best and this form works well for me. I read short fiction wherever I can, I serve on short story juries whenever I can, I promote the hell out of this poor-cousin (as Z.Gartner says) to the novel. The short story deserves a secure place in Canadian lit. It’s the starting point of almost every writer out there, so why then does there need to be a stopping point? I’ve been told by numerous publishers, that if you don’t have a Giller, a G.G. nom under your belt, or bare minimum, the New Yorker hasn’t noticed you yet, then sorry, we can’t take your collection. And to that I say, market it, the same way you market and sell any other book. Make it an attractive genre that promises a whole slough of writers that you might never get to read otherwise, and man/woman, you don’t know what you’re missing! You really don’t. I could talk about what Alice Munro taught me via her short fiction in my early days, how Margaret Laurence impacted my world view of things, how Salinger’s short stories caused me to pause and ponder and re-think something, the list of short story writers that have impacted my life outside of my writing is endless. Think we need to push it whenever/wherever we can.

BJH: And after all this seriousness, what’s so much fun about all this that none of can cease in spite of the frustrations we share and whine about regularly?

LK: For me: GranvilleIsland. Space and time, balance and perspective, waiting on that explanation. For the record, we whine because it’s hard, dang hard but I suspect when it comes down to the endgame, its worth is measured in the body/soul weight of every writer out there. I wish obscene obesity for all of us. Eat, feast, write… : )

BJH: Thanks, Lee.  Such a treat to talk to you at any time, and a real pleasure to be able to host a blog visit!

Have I mentioned that Lee’s last book, The Matter of Sylvie, was shortlisted for the Georges Bugnet Award for Fiction in the Alberta Book Awards in 2010?  Check out that book, and her previous work and all the other bits and pieces of Lee at http://leekvern.com/.

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