Victoria’s Julie Paul is the author of three short fiction collections, The Jealousy Bone, The Pull of the Moon, and Meteorites, and the poetry collection The Rules of the Kingdom. The Pull of the Moon won the 2015 Victoria Butler Book Prize, and The Rules of the Kingdom was a finalist for both the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize and the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award. She has just completed a novel and is at work on a collection of personal essays.
Julie Paul will be in an event celebrating new/ as-yet-unpublished writing by local authors, therefore no particular book is featured.
Interviewed by Jenny Hyslop
Jenny Hyslop (JH): Your latest pieces are creative non-fiction, but your previous publications are short fiction and a poetry anthology. I imagine it wasn’t a straight path from one genre to the next. Tell me about how you ended up here, mining your own life for stories?
Julie Paul (JP): It’s definitely not been linear, although it seems that way if you look at my work through publications. I started writing when I was a teenager, mainly poetry, then moved on to short fiction when I needed more room to speak. At some point the poems came back, and the personal essay form started calling, when again, I needed more space within which to explore questions and ideas. To some extent, they all rely on my own life as material, although I disguise what I can in my fiction!
JH: When writing CNF, how do you handle the dilemma of when to stick to the absolute truth and when to create a version of the story that makes for the best writing?
JP: Great question. I do tend to stick as close to the truth as I can, or as I remember, but there have been the odd times where I slightly “finesse” a scene to make it fit better into the piece at hand. I never make things up, outright, though—again, that’s where fiction comes in. But the truth is so subjective; by the time an event gets filtered through the years and my memory, often it comes out in a slightly altered form.
Emotional veracity is key, and perhaps Robert Louis Stevenson had it right when he said “Truth in spirit, not truth to the letter, is the true veracity.”
JH: When does writing energize you? When does it exhaust you?
JP: I’m one of those writers that feels excited to face the blank page: I just love the first-draft stage so much, for its limitless feeling, the power and joy that comes from creating something from nothing. It helps if I have a small bit of help once there, for example, a word prompt or idea to explore. Better yet if I have a few days away from regular life to really jump in and explore my own thoughts and ideas—retreats energize me! Editing, not so much. I wouldn’t say it exhausts me, though—there is a lot of satisfaction in making a piece better. The tedious parts of writing include grant applications, querying agents and publishers, rejections…all a necessary part of the process, but they’re not really all that much fun.
JH: After reading just these three pieces of your CNF, it feels like I’ve known you for years. Yet you obviously don’t get to experience the same openness in return from your readers. What gives you the courage to be so vulnerable?
JP: I’m glad you feel this way! I don’t “bare all” on the page, but the parts of me that I share are parts that I’m not afraid of exposing. Writing is sharing, and reaching out, communicating with another and hoping that they’ll resonate with what I say, so I write these pieces with that in mind—my side of the conversation. And sometimes I’m lucky enough to get a response like yours. Thank you.
JH: In all three pieces you very effectively use the seldom-seen second-person point-of-view. Could you describe how you arrived at the decision to write in this POV?
JP: I do love the second-person POV, and also use it from time to time in fiction, too. For me, it removes the relentless “ I, I, I,” and gives a bit of distance, making myself a bit of a character rather than staying in the intimate space of the “I.” The second person POV is often maligned for feeling bossy, if the reader doesn’t want to be the “You” in question, which of course, they aren’t, unless I happen to be writing a piece directed pointedly toward someone in particular.
JH: I imagine there are instances when your memory of an event or time period can’t give you all the details you need for your writing. How do you handle this?
JP: True. I do research when necessary, try to read as much as I can, and reach for Google, photographs and the phone to text my family and friends for details. But more often than not, I stick with the memory I do have, and the feelings that I carry from it. I also pass things by the people I’m writing about to make sure I’ve got the details more or less correct. As mentioned above, I would say that I don’t stick to a journalistic level of veracity, but I aim for the emotional truth to be as accurate as possible.
JH: These three pieces all revolve around the unpredictability of life, of fate, of providence, and of plans and expectations undone. Can you relate these ideas to your life’s trajectory and where you’ve arrived now, as a writer and author?
JP: I was chatting recently with a friend, another writer and artist, about the current state of the world, and she said “The writer in charge of this life seems to love plot twists.” Indeed. I’ve never been a person who plans much beyond the next meal—I’m a verified pantser—and so far, I think my life has been more interesting that way, although of course, we’ll never know. I rarely plan when I’m writing, although I did create an outline for the novel I’ve just completed and that helped a great deal.
Enabling this way of being is my other career: I’ve had the good fortune to have had a stable career as a massage therapist since I was 21. This has given me the ability to write without demanding that it make me a living, which is a very hard thing to do as an artist.
The pandemic has been the ultimate example of plans and expectations being undone, for all of us, and you might assume that it would make for good material and extra time for writing for someone who likes the unplanned. It’s done the opposite; other than editing some previously written work, only in the past two months have I had any real energy or inspiration to get back to new projects, and even then I’ve had to kind of fool myself into writing, by using the Notes function on my iPhone, so it doesn’t seem too serious. So far, that’s coming out as prose poems.