Alissa York, internationally acclaimed author of books including the Scotiabank Giller Prize-nominated Effigy, is one of Diaspora Dialogues’ mentors. The full-time faculty member with the Humber School of Writers spoke to Denise Da Costa, a writer who worked with York on her first novel in 2016 through DD’s Long Form Mentoring Program. The interview below has been condensed and edited.
TOK: Where were you living when you decided to become a writer?
AY: I was in Toronto, actually. I’d been doing some acting, but the life of an actor was not for me. Luckily, around the same, I started having ideas for stories… Winnipeg was where I wrote my first novel. Its welcoming community, and low cost of living, allowed me to devote my time to writing.
Toronto has been great for community and inspiration. I drew directly it for Fauna; the first time I drew directly from where I lived. As I began writing the book, I became even more aware of the animal tracks [around my home]. For me, having moved around so much, writing Fauna helped me to connect with the city.
TOK: If you have a writing process, what is it?
AY: For novels, I take a lot of organized notes. Some are scene ideas, that I cross reference with other notes, so that when I go to write that scene—I don’t get lost, especially if [the topic] is not taken directly from my life. That process helps clarify which scenes I need to write, and to make sure they work.
TOK: Are there characters you’ve felt uncomfortable writing about?
AY: Yes, there’s usually at least one per book…but if you’re going to write a villain, you have to go to dark places. The character of Hammer, in Effigy was very challenging to write. In Fauna, it was Darius…but you have to find the human being in those characters. I doubt there are many people who go around thinking ‘I’m a villain’. Everyone has a frame of understanding their own lives and the roles they play.
TOK: Civilization vs. Nature is a theme central to your work. Is there something specific now, that makes this topic of greater importance to you?
AY: We just had another warning from world scientists that humanity must change, or else the planet will die. We need to think about these things, but we also need to feel them or we won’t do anything. It’s always at the back of my mind – where I’m writing from.
TOK: To be able to change the way someone thinks, in a good way, is a gift.
AY: Yes, it’s an important role of art. I mean, we don’t set out to get our message across…anyone who makes art knows that its more complex. Each book will take on something larger…and when the reader shares in that, connections are made that go beyond us.
TOK: You talk about the space created when power steps out of the way, be it patriarchy, humanity – whatever. How do you see these changes reflected in the writing community or in the work?
AY: Core surrender has to happen…so that the work can lead. We’re seeing now – and this has happened over time, many iterations where different voices have been valued. People have become open and drawn to different voices and there always has to be a power shift …it’s good for that to be in motion.
TOK: How did you get involved with Diaspora Dialogues?
AY: I was a mentor for the first time in 2006. At that time, I worked with a few emerging writers and it was a really good experience.
TOK: Tell me about your new position with the Humber Writers Program.
AY: It’s wonderful. I’ve always admired and been interested in the program and its fantastic faculty. It’s a lot of work and its rewarding. I’m enjoying it.
TOK: In an interview with Shelagh Rogers, you shared a story about your trip to the Amazon, when after being called ‘Timida’ by a guide, you went swimming in a river with piranhas. Has that moment had a longer lasting effect on how you approach fear or new experiences?
AY: Absolutely, yes. That comment inspired a direct moment in the novel. I mean, writing takes a huge amount of courage. It takes you to where the story is which is never anywhere easy…The story will take you to the hard stuff, emotionally…if you dedicate yourself to what it requires—courage. I think that scene in my own life and in the novel are bigger, yeah.
TOK: You are fascinated by courageous female characters. Who was the first courageous woman in your life?
AY: Mom. My parents came from Australia while my mother was pregnant with me. She had my brother, three hundred dollars, and a tremendous sense of adventure. I love my mom. We’re very close.
TOK: Are there any such female authors you could consider brave, who?
AY: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, she is a wonderful writer…Madeleine Thien is a very brave writer. Marina Endicott…Miriam Toews. I could go on.
TOK: What are your reading now?
AY: The Last Neanderthal, Claire Cameron.
TOK: Are you working on new material?
AY: Yes, I’m working a new novel. I can’t say much more. It’s too fresh.
TOK: Your bookshelf is on fire and you can only save one of your novels, and one of someone else’s. What do you take?
AY: It’s not gonna be one from the shelf, it’ll be the one I’m working on. I’d save, maybe… Lila, by Marilynne Robinson or…I’d have to save two. CloudStreet, by Tim Winton.