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Words and Music: Craig Davidson and Jenn Grant (part 1)
By
Brad Frenette

Published

July 26, 2012

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Words and Music pairs up a Canadian novelist or poet with a Canadian songwriter for a conversation about the art and process of writing.

Craig Davidson is the author of three books, including The Fighter, Sarah Court and Rust and Bone. The latter book – a collection of short stories – has recently been made into a film (read the review), which will make its Canadian debut at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival.

Halifax-based singer-songwriter Jenn Grant has released three records, beginning with 2007's Orchestra for the Moon. Her latest, titled The Beautiful Wild, is set for release later this year.

For this instalment of Words and Music, we paired the two writers together to exchange emails with each other about starting out, family dynamics and measuring success.

Part one is below, and the conclusion of their conversation will be posted next Thursday:

Jenn Grant: Do you remember the first thing you ever wrote that meant something to you? And if so, do you still have it, or know where it is?

Craig Davidson: I started out writing horror stories. Big fan of Stephen King, Clive Barker, Dean Koontz, the modern masters. So for a while, lamentably, it was less about my own work meaning much to me as it was: "How scary is this?" Which, in my early 20s, really, truly equated to: "How gross is this?" I still love horror, reading and writing it, and I think it's entirely possible for horror to "mean" something, plenty of great horror books have characters you really love and pull for, but for me, early on, my style was more just that – style without a real emotional underpinning.

So, I suppose the first stuff that really meant something to me, in that I really tried to empathize with the characters and pull for them and love them, would be some of the stories in Rust and Bone. They were characters from my own life: elements of my parents and friends were sort of implicit to those characterizations. So I guess you care more for characters and the stories mean more to you when you're basing them in some way on the people you love.

Do you remember the first time you ever realized that a career as a singer was a possibility, or an opportunity you wanted to pursue? How did it come about?

Grant: I have wanted to be a singer as long as I can remember. I spent the first part of my childhood growing up in P.E.I., and can remember singing as loud as I could into the fields where no one could hear me.

I've always been most comfortable writing, and very inspired performing, when there is a lot of space around me like that. I developed stage fright at about the age of 14. I think it was when a few people first started to pay attention to the fact that I did sing and write music that it became scary to perform. My hands and voice would shake like a thunderstorm was hitting me in the heart.

It took almost a decade for that to subside, when I was 23 and booked a small and intimate concert at a tiny venue at the next city I lived in since I was 10 years old – Halifax. I performed in a trio called Navi with my two cousins, Andrew and Robert MacIsaac, and I was only able to perform because of their strength through that process. I think it was the joy we found making music together that helped me begin my career.

My family was always musical, and we had music all around us growing up. My parents separated in 1990 and that's why we moved to Halifax. We travelled so many times between Nova Scotia and the Island that all the words on our Beach Boys and Beatles tapes wore off from the drives. When my mother liked an album she would play it on repeat over and over.

My brother once told me to only take one album on a trip and listen to it over and over again so that when you hear it later it would always take you back to that place. I have a unique and beautiful family who have always ignited my desire to create art and share it with the world, and that has been a truly important part of my journey into becoming a singer-songwriter.

Did you always know you wanted to tell stories in books?

Davidson: I don't suppose so. I think that dawned in time. We likely all have our best method for telling stories: song, sculpture, film, writing. Plus it was a matter of talent; I couldn't play an instrument, had no talent for framing a scene on film, can barely draw a straight line. But I could pick up a pen and my cursive was OK, so writing was the way to go.

Grant: I once heard of a woman who wrote murder mysteries, and when she would go see her psychic, the psychic always knew the stories before the woman told her what she was writing, because they were the events of her past lives. Do you think it's possible that you have lived other lives, and that your stories are events that happened to you, coming to realization on paper?

Davidson: This is distinctly possible. Though, considering the awful things I write and the bad stuff that often happens to my characters, I must've led a rather tortured existence in my past lives!

What is your ideal creative space? Where do you go and what do you do that you find inspires you most? Could be a place, activity, intoxicants, etc.

Grant: I am writing to you from the deck of my new house in Nova Scotia. It overlooks a quiet lake where ducks and geese visit, and large trees overhang like I'm living in an Emily Carr painting.

I can't hear anything but the rustling of the leaves and birds singing to the morning. We've only been here for two weeks, but I think we've actually moved to my ideal creative space.

My husband, Daniel [Ledwell], produces records and we work together now a lot, and our plan is to build a studio in the woods. I've known for some time that it's easier for me to write in the country. A connection to nature makes me feel more in tuned with my creativity and my soul!

Cities tend to wear me down physically and emotionally. I like to keep them for visiting, and for fancy shows. I also like to be alone when I write, and with one or two glasses of red wine. I think my ideal writing time would be about 7:30 p.m. When the night is open and there are still possibilities in it.

What is your ideal writing environment?

Davidson: Anywhere, really. Get a lot of ideas in the car lately, stuck in the Toronto commute. Write little idea-lets down on gum wrappers and receipts and sometimes I dig them out of the cup holder, they're two weeks old and I'm saying, "Huh? Why the hell did I think that was so profound?" But I write wherever I can.

At home I write best in the mornings. I used to try to get 500 words done a day, at least; a novel is about 80,000 words, so if you divide it up into 500-word bites, that's 180 days of writing. Hey, you can write two novels a year at that pace. Again, that's a function of my obsessiveness but I also started writing horror books and the practitioners in that genre, be they big dudes like King or Koontz or lesser-known, they all write fast and are prolific. So I just need to perfect the art of sleep-writing.

Grant: Do you think that having a child will change your writing path?

Davidson: Yes, very likely. If nothing else he will make me less selfish. I don't like to think of myself as a selfish person generally, but writing is, in a way, a selfish diversion. I generally work best in isolation, obsessing over things, devoting myself to my obsessions slavishly, with the sense that my sliver of natural talent can be nurtured into something half decent by simply outworking other writers. Plenty of more talented writers are out there, but I like to think I just work harder, which to an extent meant putting my personal life on hold.

Say to yourself: relationships, children and all that will come later, because when they do come I'll want to invest myself as fully as I can in those people and experiences so as not to miss out. So yes, having a child means I need a day job because diapers cost money, my girlfriend is on maternity leave, and I don't trust the publishing industry or freelancing to bail me out and pay my bills. And it means I can't write whenever I want because the baby needs changing, and loving, and fussing over and I want to do those things, anyway. So it's a reordering of priorities. In many ways, writing doesn't matter as much now. Which is kind of liberating for an obsessive like me.

PART TWO: Visit CBC Music next Thursday for the conclusion of this conversation.