Lockdown Interviews: no 24 Nina Murray interviewed by Cathy Bryant

Twenty-fourth in a series of author-to-author interviews to distract them, and you, from lockdown torpor.

Nina Murray

Nina Murray (An Outbreak of Peace) interviewed by Cathy Bryant (The Other Side of Sleep, Erratics)

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Cathy: You’ve recently been discussing on your blog how to organise work. This must be doubly difficult for you, as you have both art and writing to sort out! What are your strategies?

Nina:  Indeed! I have learned from experience that despite my best intentions, I can only do two things at once: writing and art, for example. Or writing and a day job. Translating and a day job. Day job and art. Not all three at the same time. At the moment, I’m in the “day job and writing” configuration. But whatever is going on, I am always keeping an eye on whatever I am not actively doing: either discovering new artists/authors whose work I admire, or learning additional tricks of the trade. I try to follow two principles. The first one, applicable to every area of life, I think, is to ask, What can only be done by me? The answers are pretty obvious: exercise, reading, writing, certain decisions, etc. My longer-term approach is create – curate – promote. At any given time, I try to be generating new work, revising or publishing or rearranging existing work, and promoting work, my own and that of others. Operative word here is “try.”

Cathy: Much of your work centres on animals. How would you describe your bond with them?

Nina:  The other day my mother was tidying her place and found what she proudly refers to as my first preserved work. I painted that picture when I was five. It is a picture of a farmyard, with a dog, a cat, some wildlife, a number of chickens, and a pair of ducks. All animals are clearly identifiable. There’s a tree for shade, a bone for the dog, and a pond for the ducks. The piece is signed. Not much has changed since then, other than about a decade ago someone pointed me to Pat Shipman’s paper “The Animal Connection” which argues, convincingly, that “Establishing an intimate connection to other animals is unique and universal to our species,” and, in fact, has been a driving force in the human evolution. It’s a great piece. Working with animals requires self-awareness, discipline, and a fundamental ability to get out of your way as an observer. I’ve been known to say that you could make sound hiring decisions based on how someone walks a dog. Or grooms a horse.

Cathy: What are you working on at the moment?

Nina:  Oh, man. Luring the next idea into my brain? My blog, mostly. I’m also putting myself through an online course from the International Writing Program, How Poets Write Poetry. It has generated some drafts…

Cathy: What is your writing/working day like?

Nina:  My job requires that I be responsive to folks in other time-zones, so when I start at 7 am (yay for telecommuting), it’s a sprint for a couple of hours to sort through whatever is waiting in my inbox. I curate my office’s Twitter feed, which means I spend a couple 15-minute intervals on that during the day. I walk the dog; I work out; I read. On Saturdays, I don’t talk to people other than my husband—I need the quiet. Usually that’s when I can write poetry, although I have been working on making it easier to enter that creative space in shorter amounts of time—if I wait for the luxury of a couple of uninterrupted hours, I will almost certainly spend half of that time on a nap. When I have a translation project, I work on that every day. I am fortunate to be married to a fiction writer who makes dinner almost every night.

Cathy: What resources have been helpful to you as a writer?

Nina:  Public libraries (almost) everywhere I have lived. Used bookstores. Thrift shops. I have a magpie kind of mind that relaxes while picking over an abundance of seemingly unrelated stuff.

Cathy: You’ve written some fascinating-sounding books! How would you sum up each one? Or if that’s not helpful, what might the reader take from each one?

Nina:  That’s a great question! There’s a chronology to them.

Fifty-Six North collects poems I wrote during my two sojourns in Lithuania – hence the title, which is the country’s latitude.
Minimize Considered was my first published collection, and it came together from poems I wrote on weekends while serving as a vice-consul in Toronto. I think of that time as the period when I finally committed to a writing habit and embrace Mary Heaton Worse’s maxim that “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.” That carried me through two years in Moscow, which produced Alcestis in the Underworld, a book about being a post-Soviet observer of a place whose version of “post-“ differs radically from one’s own. Minor Heresies is my ode to women.  

Cathy: (I’m going to borrow some of your interview questions now, as they’re excellent.)
What type of information do you seek and consume daily? How useful is this information to you? How does it affect your work?

Nina:  Ah, yes! For practical purposes, I ensure that I am informed of submission calls, reading periods and the like. I read global news—after it’s been subjected to analysis I trust. I’ll listen to the National Public Radio once or twice a week. Right now, I seem to be gravitating to well-written, thoughtful non-fiction about discrete areas of human activity and history. I just finished Michael Pollan’s “The Botany of Desire,” and it was excellent. Anything that brings new vocabulary with it—so it’s probably time to revisit Seamus Heaney, from whom I never fail to learn words like “scud.”

Cathy: When people seek you out, why do they turn to you in particular? What do they want from you? Are you comfortable with that, or would you rather it were something else?

Nina:  My job determines a lot of my interactions with others, and in that context, it’s usually advice, endorsement, or financial support. Connections. Helping get a project off the ground… On a very basic level, I’d say it’s help in making a decision, however small. I am at a place—I just realized—where I do get invited to translate pieces, rather than being the one who pitches. And for a laugh. I’d like to think I’m reliably funny.

Cathy: What throws you off? This could be a small thing or a big thing. What do you do to regain your composure?

Nina:  A small thing that can really derail me is a sudden change in pre-arranged plans: as in, I have something on my agenda for the day, and the boss comes in and tells me to go do something else. Because usually if that happens, that means somewhere we crossed wires, and I didn’t plan properly, so I’m going to be feeling guilty for the next few hours if not days. That’s not good.
Any unexpected personal confrontation is painful. Heck, even an expected confrontation can derail me—the unexpected ones (there was that legendary time at the DMV in Toronto) just undo me.
I hope and tell myself I have gotten better at not losing my composure in the first place, but if that horse is out of the barn, there’s usually a good, long cry, then a dinner and a heart-to-heart with my husband.

Cathy: How can one make money from writing? How important is this to you?

Nina:  I’m still working on that. I ask every writer willing to answer, you know… I can imagine a situation in which a carefully managed flow of soundly negotiated translation projects could generate a living, especially somewhere with a good internet connection and low cost of living. But I haven’t done that myself, so I cannot in good faith endorse it.
The second part of this question is key, isn’t it? I think influence is more important than income. Recognition. Resonance. The most gratifying response I’ve ever received was from someone who sent me back a picture to illustrate what my poem made him think of (West Point in winter). That was awesome!

Cathy: What are you most proud of that you’ve created (art or writing – children don’t count!)?

Nina:  I don’t have children—by choice, and am slowly, tentatively reaching an age where I don’t wake up every morning asking myself what I’m going to do to make up for that.  I am proud of my marriage (however much credit I can take for that). I know I have been a force for good in a few people’s lives (my interns, my students, a few friends, I hope). At the moment, I’m proud of the fact that our rescue dog—who started out as an animal with utterly no tools to operate in the universe—has developed a few good habits and proper manners through consistent training, and that the two of us have been able to deliver said training. There was also that moment, during the time I was taking dressage lessons every week, when a young horse executed a flying lead change for the first time in his life under me—that was something else!

Cathy: What you like to learn or achieve, both in your work and outside it, if money, time, health etc were no object?

Nina:  I’d like to find out if I could actually write full-time, or if that idea in itself is a red-herring because no one truly does. I’d like to hike Switzerland. Or Austria. Either one. I’d like to apprentice to a jewelry maker. Restore an historic building—re-paint, re-build, re-place stuff.

Cathy: Do you ever struggle with motivation or writer’s block? How do you deal with this?

Nina:  Motivation – definitely. Sometimes I can happy-talk myself into working: say things like, heck, let’s just do this for a bit, not too long, it’ll be fun, you can stop as soon as it’s not fun. My biggest challenge is coming up with ideas, and I’m starting to think I’ve been going about it wrong, as in, I don’t need to have an idea to start. It’s like you said, just give it a go.

Cathy: Bonus: What question would you like to be asked? What is the answer?

Nina:  Uh! Uh! I actually started thinking about this the second I asked you. Here goes: Would you like to go on a weekend trip I’ve arranged, to a beautiful spot in the hills where we can go hiking for as long as you feel like it? And the answer, of course, is yes!

 

You can buy all the Arachne books mentioned from our webshop, we will post them out to you.

If you would prefer eBooks, all these books are available from your usual retailer, now VAT free! We recommend Hive for ePub.

Lockdown interviews: no23 Cathy Bryant interviewed by Nina Murray

Twenty-third in a series of author-to-author interviews to distract them, and you, from lockdown torpor.

Cathy Bryant (The Other Side of Sleep,, Erratics) interviewed by Nina Murray (An Outbreak of Peace)

 

Nina: What motivates you? How do you ensure you get the motivation you need?

Cathy: I’ve written since I was a child, and I read and wrote throughout a very unhappy childhood. Books were my escape then, and they’re my pleasure now. Both reading and writing, I still feel that urgency, that excitement that I felt when I was little—particularly that charge one gets when reading a book that one knows is going to be special. Sometimes I lose myself in writing a piece that works, and feel that same urgency. Not always! But I don’t need extra motivation—writing is what I do and who I am, and always has been. Though money is useful too! I know I’m supposed to be above such things as a writer, but I still have bills to pay.

Nina: What throws you off? What do you do to regain your composure?

Cathy: Physical pain, due to arthritis and fibromyalgia and a bunch of other stuff. It’s why I can’t keep a regular routine of the type that is supposed to be so helpful. What I do is let myself off the hook—it’s not my fault, after all. I can also use the time for daydreaming (i.e. constructive idea generation!) or other mind exercises.

Nina: Tell me about a collaboration that was unexpectedly successful. Or, conversely, recall a collaboration that should have worked well but did not.

Cathy: They say don’t work with animals, children—or your spouse. Keir worked with me and several others on the three Best of Manchester Poets anthologies, and it was a wonderful experience. We all discussed and debated things and did a fair bit of complaining, but, on the whole, it was a warm and empowering project. One launch night we had 42 poets performing, and we finished on time and with everyone happy!
Another experience that stands out was working with a dancer for an ‘Inspired by Tagore’ performance run by Sampad. My poem had won a competition with them, and as I read it to the audience, a dancer called Shuma Pal danced. It was very special. She wasn’t happy with her performance, but I thought she was wonderful!

Nina: What skills would you like to learn/acquire? If you could learn anything, and time/money were no object, what would it be and why?

Cathy: I’ll be honest here—fighting pain is my main goal, so that I can continue reading and writing as much as possible. Taking care of my health is a boring but necessary job.  If I could learn anything: flying aircraft, dermatology (since I had to work on someone’s cyst I’ve been peculiarly enthralled—yes I know it’s weird!), goldsmithing, botany (so I wouldn’t have to say things like, “That puffy bird that looks like a sponge was on top of the bush with red bits this morning,”), and I’d write a disabled Kama Sutra (one can get great wedges and supports and things these days).

Nina: What type of information do you seek and consume daily? How useful is this information to you? How does it affect your work?

Cathy: I do read a bit of the news—as much as my mental health can stand. Sometimes I write topical poems, political satire and so forth (a recent example is a poem called, Donald Trump Cures Everything). Since we moved into our own home last year, I’ve had a garden for the first time since leaving my parents. I’ve been learning the names of the plants and how to care for them. I’ve always loved birds, and some of my significant childhood experiences centered on them, so now I’m trying to get to know those in my garden. Recently I’ve been writing about a female blackbird in our front garden who seems to be in love with her own reflection, and tries to mate with herself. So nature is featuring more in my recent work. There’s also the journey of marriage, which is a strange and wonderful garden in itself, and which I am stumbling through!

Nina: If you are a goal-setting kind of writer, what are your goals for the rest of this year? What, in your opinion, would be one practical thing that a creative person should accomplish in, say, six months?

Cathy: I think it depends on the writer. These set goals can be impossible for those with chronic health conditions or disabilities. I would say, just keep trying, keep writing when you can, and don’t beat yourself up when you can’t. Research apps or other software to help with health problems—for instance, speech-activated dictation software is much improved.

Nina: What practices do you have in place to ensure that you solicit frank feedback that is helpful to you?

Cathy: Submitting my finished and proofed piece to a litmag that pays. I used to go to writing groups a lot, but having recently moved I’m still looking for the right one here. As far as feedback from editors goes—if they accept it, they like it, which is useful and remunerative feedback. If they reject it, sometimes they add a note saying, “We loved this except for…” which is incredibly useful. Appreciative and constructive editors are pure gold.

Nina: What public/media engagements have you found to be most effective in promoting your work? What kind of opportunity do you wish to see more of? (pardon the clunky grammar).

Cathy: I like clunky grammar—it’s human and fun! I am limited with performances by my mobility problems and mental health issues. This makes me appreciate my publisher, Cherry Potts at Arachne, even more—I can’t be the dynamic person zooming around festivals and doing performances every week. I use social media—I love Facebook, and as I love to entertain people, I do share links to my work there with any funny poems or posts. I am conscious that I don’t do enough.

Nina: In your typical workweek, what tasks do you tend to complete first? What resources do you regularly draw upon?

Cathy: The morning is for admin, as it’s my best time physically. This is the time for proofing and submitting work, for editing and emailing. I subscribe to Duotrope—it pays for itself every year, for me—and have a lifetime subscription to Firstwriter. I use these and many more websites to collate my Comps and Calls, a monthly list of opportunities for writers. I only list free writing competitions (yes, they are worth doing—I won $1000 for a previously published poem, among many other wins) and submission calls without entry fees (which fees I consider an abomination). Afternoons are for rest. Evenings are for dreaming and writing.
I also take a lot of meds. If I gave a speech, it would begin, “I’d like to thank tramadol, naproxen, bendroflumethiazide…”

Nina: Who are the people/groups to whom you turn? What resources do you still need?

Cathy: I do Napowrimo every year now, as I always seem to get about ten decent pieces out of it. The pieces that aren’t great have still exercised my writing muscles, got my brain working.
The people I turn to are my friends—I have many wonderful friends who are writers too. The writing community is one of my favourite places—so warm, so understanding, so helpful to those who want to enter it, or are having problems within it. I owe a great debt to other writers.
Keir and I are both writers, so we bounce ideas off each other all the time.

Nina: When people seek you out, why do they turn to you in particular? What do they want from you? Are you comfortable with that, or would you rather it were something else?

Cathy: When people turn to me, it’s usually because of my writing success—27 literary awards and writing competition wins, plus several books published, plus hundreds of pieces in litmags. They ask all sorts of things, from how to write a great book, how to find an agent, how to get their stories and poems published, what terms mean (such as ‘MS’ or ‘spec fic’) or if there are any litmags available for people of their nationality, or age, or belief system. I do my best to answer helpfully, remembering the free help I got when I needed it and was broke. But it’s impossible to give everyone the in-depth help they need or want. I just bumble along, doing my best when I can.
Once Robert Graves received a letter from a businessman. He wrote that he’d had a good year, and as he enjoyed Graves’ work he was sending him £400. Now that’s the sort of message I’d like to receive! I do get fan mail sometimes, and it fills me with joy. I still have a need for validation, and when someone messages me to say that they enjoyed something I wrote or performed, I’m walking on air for days. People do donate to keep Comps and Calls going, and I love them for their thoughtfulness.

Nina: How’s your social media presence? Is there anyone whose social media presence you feel is useful and meaningful?

Cathy: I spend too much time on Facebook, though I’ve also had great opportunities from there. As so often, my inspiration there comes from other writers, and editors and publishers—I’ll name a few names here: Dominic Berry, Karen Little, Ayesha Kajee, Cherry at Arachne, Teika Bellamy at Mother’s Milk, Rosie Garland, Angela Smith, Sheenagh Pugh and Steve O’Connor. Fiona Pitt-Kethley is astonishing in all sorts of ways. Apologies to those I haven’t mentioned, a good gross or so of whom (clunky grammar alert) are extremely important to me—the above list is a cross-section.

Nina:  How can one make money from writing?

Cathy: There are loads of ways, though my health makes many of them impossible. Dominic Berry goes into schools, for instance, and entertains the children and gets them interested in poetry and writing poetry—he’s the most lovely writer, performer and person. Then there are poets such as Akiel Chinelo who go into prisons and help the inmates via poetry. These are ways of earning money while helping people and writing, all at the same time. Some folk of an academic bent have become creative writing lecturers, a proper job based on writing. Other writers—and I can think of two fabulous ones, who might not want to be named—take the corporate wage and become either content writers or in-house writers. This is less creative but more remunerative, and it depends on each writer’s circumstances what is appropriate.
I struggle to do these things as I often have to cancel events due to my health flaring up. I do run the occasional workshop (£80 per two-hour session if you’d like to hire me, folks), usually specialising in getting published and/or entering writing competitions, as these are my specialist areas. Mainly for me, though, I make money from winning writing competitions, and submitting my stories and poetry to litmags. This is not a way to get rich! I’m very prolific, so I write and submit loads—over 400 submissions one year.

Bonus: What question would you like to be asked?

Ooh! Ooh! Exciting! Umm….what would I like for my birthday? I don’t know, so not that…
What do you need to do, Cathy?
I need to stop self-rejecting my manuscript of woman-centered science fiction and fantasy stories. I keep thinking, I’d like to write an intro or afterword to each piece, and an introduction. I keep thinking that it might not be good enough for Arachne (I know that lockdown is a rotten time to publish, so I’m not sending them off anyway at the moment). In other words, I’m doing all the things that stopped me from submitting my work for decades. [Note from Arachne. We have told Cathy she is a noodle and to send at once.]
I need to remember that almost all writers feel like that.
I need to remember my own writing mantra: give it a go. Keep trying. have a go!

 

You can buy all the Arachne books mentioned from our webshop, we will post them out to you.
If you would prefer eBooks, all these books are available from your usual retailer, now VAT free! We recommend Hive for ePub.

Interview with Arachne Editor Cherry Potts

Arachne Author Nina Murray very kindly interviewed Arachne chief editor Cherry for The Compulsive reader.

You can read it here!: http://www.compulsivereader.com/2019/11/14/an-interview-with-cherry-potts/