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Words and music: Grace O'Connell and Tony Dekker (part 2)

Brad Frenette

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

With the release this spring of her debut novel, Magnified World, Grace O'Connell was welcomed to the CanLit landscape with open arms. The Toronto-based author was declared "a beautiful writer" by The Walrus, while fellow novelist Andrew Pyper stated the book showed "a distinctive authorial voice that's already found itself."

Songwriter Tony Dekker founded his band, Great Lake Swimmers, in 2003, and has released five studio albums since. Their 2009 record, Lost Channels, was shortlisted for the prestigious Polaris Prize, and their followup, New Wild Everywhere, was released earlier this year.

For this instalment of Words and Music, we paired the two writers together to exchange emails with each other. The result was a thoughtful discussion about first attempts, common themes between the forms and the importance of place in the creation process.

Tony Dekker: I'd love to know about how you develop characters. Where is the line between reality, life experience, outlook and fiction? Not sure exactly where I'm going with this, but I sort of see my songs as ideas, and I don't consider myself a "confessional" songwriter – a lot of times even though I write in the first person, I'm not talking about myself necessarily, and I think that gets confused when quiet songs are delivered in an intimate way to an audience. Maybe one way of looking at that would be, how much of yourself do you see in your characters?

Grace O 'Connell:This is such an interesting point to me, because first novels tend to be viewed as autobiographical and mine isn't particularly. In fact, it was a real challenge to relate to my narrator in many ways, since she is experiencing really big life events that I haven't personally faced, and reacting to some things in her life in ways that I never would. First person narratives, in both music and prose, do tend to lead to people assuming it's a confessional mode. But that being said, there's always something, even if it's something small, that helps me to step into a character.

With my narrator, Maggie, it was our mutual love of the city (we're both still hoping to see the white squirrel of Bellwoods some day). I thought of the two of us as a sort of Venn diagram, where I could sneak in via the overlap, even if there were lots of things we didn't share. In terms of how it's perceived, it doesn't really matter to me. People can think Maggie is me if they want to, as long as they don't expect me to be able to read tarot cards or any of the other things Maggie can do that I can't. That being said, I've also written other characters, in short fiction, that have a lot of overlap with me. It's never 100 per cent, though.

O'Connell: How about you? Does it irk you or worry you when people listen to a song and think they've gained some sort of personal insight as to your emotional state or your experiences? People get so emotionally involved in the music they love – I wonder if it has ever led to any strange experiences for you, meeting people who feel like they've bonded with you on some level?

Dekker: It can be a strange thing, for sure. I choose to look at my songs as ideas, or modes of being, and am often drawn to extremes because that's where a lot of the exciting stuff is. I've had couples come up to me after a show and say that my music is "their" music, and others that have used songs as their wedding song, or for other big life events. And that is such a huge, flattering compliment. The performance aspect, the singer part of being a singer-songwriter, adds a whole other dimension to the thing, to the process I mean. The songs start the conversation and performing them for an audience sort of continues that conversation. For the most part, though, I don't think those lines of reality become blurred. I think we have a really great, understanding audience that can appreciate that bit of distance.

I'm curious to know about how much interaction you have with your audience after a book is released. Do you do readings? What is that like? It seems to me that "performing" the work provides such an immediate channel, and with a novel maybe there's the opportunity to go a whole lot deeper?

O'Connell: As a writer, I don't always get the same opportunity to talk to people as I imagine a musician might, but that is changing a bit with social media and that sort of thing, which makes it a bit easier for writers and readers to connect.
I got an email note the other day from a woman who had lost her son to suicide, who said the book had been a comfort to her. She told me to keep writing. I was blown away by the generosity of that – of taking the time to write and encourage me when she's going through something so incredibly painful. Those moments are amazing and disorienting – it makes you realize how separate writing is from you once you release it into the world, how you can't predict or control the effect it is going to have. Which is kind of humbling, especially when I consider how deeply affected I've been by songs and books I love. It's a strange privilege to be on the other side of that equation.

Dekker: Also, as a travelling musician, I find that being within other cultures and places even for short periods of time really gives me a renewed sense of perspective. Do you travel much? Does that impact your writing? Are there places other than Toronto that energize you?

O'Connell: Ha, I wish I had a more glamorous answer for this, but I've travelled very little. It's generally been too hard on my pocketbook, as a writer, to travel as much as I'd like. That being said, the brief travelling I have done often makes its way into my writing. I took a driving trip around the American south some years ago, and that experience informed Magnified World quite heavily. I hate driving, but I loved the South.  

In that way, memories of places I've visited kind of hover while I'm writing, as potential jumping-off points. When I'm at the absolute beginning of something, I find myself thinking of where I've been and using those cities and countries as sparks for brainstorming story. Sometimes just having a ready-made backdrop, a place you can picture from having been there, is enough to get the wheels turning.

Dekker: Something else I'd like to get into eventually is how important is a sense of place in your writing, especially considering the placement within Toronto in your latest work?

O'Connell: It definitely depends on the narrative. Some short stories I've written have been kind of unmoored from any particular space, but that's always a thematic choice. Magnified World, though, was so, so anchored in Toronto that it became a bit strange for me. It's a Toronto of the late '90s, so I was forever having to double-check that the things I was referencing had been there at the right time, so it felt like there was a city right underneath the present city that I was always trying to scratch through to. And it was strange living in the place I was writing about, because it sort of blurred the line between real life and the life in my head, the book. I'd be on the streetcar, trying to think as Maggie, eating up details I normally would have overlooked, and then I'd find myself five blocks past where I meant to get off.

There are some landmarks I can never see just as myself now, especially the sign on the Queen Street bridge over the Don, the one that says "This River I Step In is Not the River I Stand In." Maggie's always going to be in charge of that, in my brain, now. Which makes me feel a little bit nuts, but I guess that's just the nature of the beast.

O'Connell: What about you? Toronto comes through in many of your songs, and even the band's name seems so particular to place and a specific atmosphere. Do you find yourself writing place into songs, or does it sort of naturally inform the process? I'm curious how this works with music especially.
Dekker: I definitely feel like place, and more specifically a sense of place, filters into the songs. The band name is a geographical reference in a way, and I really like how songs can tell part of the story of where you're from. Toronto does come through a lot, but I think there's also a tension that exists in the songs between the urban and rural worlds. I find myself looking at the parallels in the rhythms of the city and natural cycles. I guess coming from a small town, you initially see the city through that lens, but being here, you also gain a new perspective on the place you've come from.

When I sit down to write and really consider what unique perspective I might have to offer, it always comes back to time spent close to the land, the environment, and the natural world, almost trying to draw close to a kind of spirituality in it. That really overlaps with internal environments, physical and mental weather patterns, and how they intersect in the place that I find myself in. It's not really a conscious thing. It's more like a distillation process.

Dekker: Are there certain themes that you are drawn to within your work? Are there certain things that you come back to, or that maybe serve as an overarching constant?

O'Connell: I am really interested in how people know each other. Or, I suppose, the question of whether people can actually know each other; how much of the love we feel for the people we're close to is based on knowledge and how much is based on a sort of faith or, to put it another way, a kind of inherent recognition. And why we love the people we do, who are often so different from one another, and yet equally dear to us. I like the slightly bizarre – not in the affected sense, but in the sense of what is hidden beneath seemingly normal lives and attachments. I'm interested in the way people are afraid and the way they are heroic, the need for safety and the strange ways people pursue that.

I find the lyrics you write so evocative (I'm trying to resist the impulse to observe themes in your writing, since I'm a fan!). I'm curious to hear from you what interests you when you're writing. And in terms of themes, do you consciously set out to tackle certain things, or is it more a case of noticing recurring themes afterwards that you're unconsciously attracted to?

Dekker: It's both conscious and unconscious. In terms of individual songs, I have pretty specific ideas in mind, but I've never stuck to an overall concept that stretches over an entire record. There are things that begin to appear over the course of writing it, and definitely you start to see the bigger picture once you take a few steps back. For example, with the latest record, I found that a lot of the basic imagery related to elemental things, like fire, water and wind. They became important parts of the architecture of the songs. Whether it was fully conscious or not, I definitely used those themes as building blocks. But it can sort of be like following a thread, where things are unified thematically and yet can still be quite divergent in tone. Overall, I think, some of my favourite work springs from approaching a kind of spirituality or harmony in the natural world, and really immersing myself in that. That has remained a constant.