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Words and Music: Zoe Whittall and Sarah Slean

Brad Frenette

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

Quebec-raised, Toronto-based writer Zoe Whittall has released six books – three volumes of poetry and a trio of novels, including Bottle Rocket Hearts, named by CBC Canada Reads as one of the top 10 essential Canadian books of the last decade.

Since her debut indie release in 1998, singer-songwriter, classically trained composer and pianist Sarah Slean has released five albums, including 2011's Land & Sea, a double album. She has also published a pair of poetry collections.

For this instalment of the ongoing series Words and Music, we paired the two artists together to exchange emails about the art and process of writing. Over a week of correspondence, the two discussed identity, where writing comes from and what it looks like in retrospect.

Zoe Whittall: I was just watching your behind the scenes making-of video for "Girls Hating Girls"  and was interested in the clip where you talked about this album being about finding "ideas on the fly" and rolling with them, appreciating the danger of that kind of risk-taking and immediacy. What compelled you to take this kind of creative approach, especially since your musical arrangements are so complex?

How did your songwriting approach differ between Land and Sea? Did one come first?

Sarah Slean: Great question. My double album Land & Sea is an exploration of contrast on as many levels as possible – the greatest of which being, of course, the music (land, joyful pop/rock, sea, piano/vocal with symphonic strings) but also in the recording approaches, the musicians and the producers.

On "Girls Hating Girls" from Land, I was working with great musicians who've played primarily popular styles for most of their careers. The best way to get fresh ideas and killer performances out of these players is to let them loose – to not impose too much structure, to give them room to breathe and invent. This contrasts utterly with the Sea method, where we had (equally great) classical musicians come in and read the scores in front of them. Not that they're incapable of invention, but we only had six hours to record with 21 players, so the music had to be very precisely orchestrated. Being the songwriter, and also one with classical training, I always have the urge to completely direct the proceedings, to control as many variables as possible in order to get as close as I can to what's in my head. I can get really taskmaster-y about it! Hence, I love to score for orchestra. But you can't really go that route with pop. It never leads to great recordings.

The best stuff emerges very effortlessly, without deliberate intent. And I think, the more I record and the more I observe myself and life in general, that this is a very profound thing to understand. Trying to control every aspect of music-making is completely forgetting the way the songs came in the first place. They just arise – suddenly a thread blossoms into a full line, suddenly a chorus unfolds in your head as you're pouring detergent into the washing machine. I think trying to build everything deliberately also hints at a deep mistrust of one's own nature. It assumes that "I," this particular mind must consciously generate something, choice by choice, when that is not at all what's happening – things are coming to you, there is a constant stream that you tune into, so to speak, and we select and shape these ideas largely intuitively. Would you agree?

How does writing unfold for you? Do you "see" a scene, capture it in words and weave them together later? Do you live with characters in your head for some time, gradually imagine the full story they will live out, from start to finish, and then write?

EXCLUSIVE VIDEO PREMIERE: Sarah Slean, "Society Song":


Whittall: Some of my best sentences come when I'm riding my bike, and I hear something someone says as I glide by, or see an object or person in a certain light, and it's as though I've pressed a "go" button, and a string of words will come to mind and I'll have to stop and write them down. In that moment, I write and see where the characters or ideas take me. From there, the sentence or idea might bloom into a more intentional scene, or poem, and it becomes something else entirely. Those moments collect in my notebook and some take years to develop further, and sometimes that moment starts a fire that I just let burn until it's out. Then I sift through what I have and usually there is something to extract and work with. Writing is always a process of blurting and clipping, taking those clips and then developing them, then revising 100 times until it's good enough.

Slean: "Blurting and clipping" – I love that. Really precise. Very similar to songwriting and scoring, in fact!

Whittall: Most often the draft will start with a spark and then I have to become more intentional about actually turning it into something worthwhile. Other days it doesn't happen that intuitively, and the work is more difficult or plodding, but that can be just as productive in terms of output.

Bottle Rocket Hearts was written without a net, and I let the story take me wherever. I started with an outline for my second novel, which I think I will do from now on. Inevitably the story arc will change, but I like to start out with that skeleton because I find it comforting and motivating. It's also interesting to go back and reference in the future.

After I've completed a significant draft or segment, I do feel like the characters occupy a portion of my imagination pretty much all day long. I felt sadness when my last novel was sent to the printers – even though it was a relief and a tremendous accomplishment to be finished – because I had to let go of these three people I'd been hanging out with for three years solid. It made me want to write a sequel, because I didn't want them [to] be finite, or to stop being changeable. It's actually hard to re-read published work because I could keep changing it forever.

How do you feel about your older work – perhaps your first album, or your first songs? You've already had such a significant and eclectic career, even though you're still young. I'm interested in hearing about how you reflect on the narrative of your career trajectory thus far?

Slean: One of my favourite quotes of [Aaron] Copland's is: “Inspiration may be a form of super-consciousness, or perhaps of subconsciousness – I wouldn't know. But I am sure it is the antithesis of self-consciousness."

I think this relates to your question about career trajectory and reflecting on its narrative thus far. It really is a strange, eerie thing to hear the voice of your 18-year-old self singing songs she wrote over a decade ago.

I sound like a different person! And it feels like listening to someone else. If the music or creative urge came from this thing we call "I" or the "self," then why should it change so radically over the years? After all, I have, for the most part, the same stats in my wallet ID as the 19-year-old girl did. But it does change radically, and I think that's why Copland's quote is so interesting to me.

We're in a unique position as creators in that we can spread our work out before us and see an evolution of sorts. I like to think it is a record of some kind of spiritual growth. And along that path, for me, that self-consciousness is always the hurdle to be jumped over, the dragon to be slain, the Jedi mind trick you have to play on yourself so that you can be unencumbered by ideas of who you "are" and tap into that stream we talked about. When you're young, all you want to do is gather who you are – collect it – have strong opinions about music and clothes, announce yourself to the world! And as I age, that need to make announcements softens. It seems like the looser those identity boundaries get, the more the universe can pour itself into you – and it comes out as art, methinks.

Whittall: I love that Copland quote! Slaying the dragon of self-consciousness is a constant part of the work that I do, but it does change as I age.

It is also eerie and strange for me to re-read Bottle Rocket Hearts because, in a different sense, I hear my 18-year-old voice in it as I read. Some of the book came from drafts I started writing when I was as young as 20 or so, loosely based on a time and place familiar to me when I was 18. The book wasn't finished or published until I was 30. Still, it, along with my first poetry book published at 25, are both painful/hilarious to look back on, but there is also something crucial and lovely about those first pieces of work that I'll never be able to replicate now that I'm nearing 40. I definitely feel less interested in making any kind of youthful announcement, even as I continue to be creatively interested in writing about youth, to some extent.

Inevitably we hone our craft and become more studied, and hopefully better at writing. Looking at my backlist as a record of a kind of spiritual growth – you're right. I've never thought of it that way.

VIDEO TRAILER: Zoe Whittall's Bottle Rocket Hearts

Slean: I'm going to try to bridge that concept over to the fascinating study of identity within your novel, particularly as it relates the French and English divide in Montreal. I loved how Della's vision of Eve became poisoned by the political upheaval surrounding the referendum. Her desire, her whole inner story about Eve took on a whole new colour, and almost turned her attraction into disgust.

While I can experience potent flares of emotion around certain identity markers – being Canadian, being a woman, being an artist, etc. – I see how these things cloud my vision if I cling too tightly to them. I see how they are culturally informed, sometimes even culturally created, and not objective truths. But I never realized how potent and emotional language could be in terms of identity until I travelled to places where English wasn't spoken, or there was resentment towards English. I find this so interesting – how difficult it was to feel like myself without language, how hard it was to be smart, funny, polite or warm in an unfamiliar language. It was a kind of "lost" I had never experienced until then.

Why did you choose to explore these themes? Do you see deep parallels between the language identity and sexual identity? As a writer, whose tool is language – how did growing up in Montreal influence your use of English and your own evolving sense of identity?

Whittall: I didn't set out initially to explore Quebec language politics, but I wanted to explore a relationship fraught by extreme difference – in politics, in personal values, in age – but capture that frenzy of first love/obsession in the face of those differences. While I was writing, I became interested in researching the 1995 referendum, figuring out exactly what happened. I think I watched a CBC documentary when I was in my mid-20s and couldn't believe how much I didn't know. I was 19 when it happened, I lived in Montreal, but my memories of it were so blurry and personal, and I felt like I wanted to go back and read about the particulars of the process.

That's when I felt like it was the perfect backdrop for my narrator's identity crisis. I wrote the book knowing it was a coming of age, perhaps even a coming-out (argh!) novel, but feeling intensely annoyed about both genres and all they imply. Perhaps there was some internalized sexism in that thought, that a young girl's story isn't interesting enough, but I felt like adding a political theme and some historical context would strengthen the complexity of the narrative.

Growing up in Quebec – it's interesting to contemplate its influence now – I've lived in Toronto longer than I've lived anywhere. But when BRH came out, it identified me as a Montrealer. It was what I knew at the time, and only after having left the province did I realize how different it was from anywhere else. I suppose I've always been very interested in writing about communities.

My second novel focuses almost entirely on a 10-block section of Toronto and how three people who live there are negotiating particular anxieties – also a thematic obsession of mine, one that I think I've written enough about at this point.

• Zoe Whittall's latest novel is Holding Still For As Long As Possible (House of Anansi). Sarah Slean will perform a special show with the Niagara Symphony on August 25 in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario.