An Interview with Angie Abdou
An interview with Canadian author, Angie Abdou, featuring writing from the heart, writing as an act of radical empathy, and writing without urgency.
*This interview with Angie Abdou first appeared in Issue 1 of the Dreamers Magazine.
Do you want to read our recent interview with Steven Heighton, Governor General Award Winner? You can find it in Issue 2 of the Dreamers Magazine. Become a magazine subscriber today.
Angie Abdou is a Canadian author of numerous books, essays, and short stories, including Anything Boys Can Do, The Bone Cage, Canterbury Trail, and Between. She is one of those rare writers who can write well in multiple genres and styles, from memoir to academic essay to fiction.
Regardless of the form she chooses, Angie Abdou’s elegant writing style always contains emotional depth and unexpected complexity. She writes about things that matter, focusing on difficult themes surrounding the human condition, including the body and medicine in athletics, the inner state of mind and emotions, the dismantling of stereotypes, infidelity, depression, modern motherhood, feminist politics, and indigenous relations.
In this interview with Kat McNichol, Editor-in-Chief of Dreamers Creative Writing, Angie Abdou talks about writing from the heart, writing as an act of radical empathy, and writing without urgency. Angie, thank you for joining us!
You’re a Professor of Creative Writing at Athabasca University. What do you like most about teaching writing?
I love helping aspiring writers realize their dreams. Often a student comes to me with the goal of writing a book – but the student is almost afraid to even articulate that goal, to even say “I want to be a writer” out loud, because this notion of author-hood seems so far out of reach. I help students break the book into manageable steps, and we go back and forth with chapters, sometimes over the period of years. As they get to the end, I love being able to say “Look! You wrote a book!”
These days, I get more excited over a student’s new publishing contract than over my own book deals.
How has your academic background impacted your writing choices and goals?
For a long time, I came to my fiction ideas by talking through what the story was “about” in academic terms. Even though I’d made the transition to fiction, I still thought about writing first as an academic then as a creative writer. With my most recent novel, In Case I Go, I tried to get out of my head and let the book come more from my heart. That involved letting go of control to a greater extent than I had before. In the end, I’m happier with the result.
My latest book is a memoir about family life and the role of sport (Home Ice: Reflections of a Hockey Mom, forthcoming September 2018). For it, I drew on my academic background to do more research than I have for my novels, but when I sat down at the page, I wrote from the heart – Home Ice is a personal, emotional story even though it’s grounded in academic research. I guess it’s a mix of heart and head.
Your recent novel, In Case I Go, is part historical fiction, part ghost story. This is an unusual combination. What inspired you to write it?
This book proved impossible to control. I kept finding myself in a different century, and thinking But I don’t write historical fiction!! The more I tried to rein it in, the less it came alive. Eventually, I gave myself over to the story as it came to me (and then relied on the Fernie Museum Manager to help me make sure I got the historical elements right). The ghost story part was exciting – the realization that anything can happen in fiction, as long as I can make the reader believe it. Since I’d only written realist novels before, I enjoyed stretching in this new way.
In Case I Go has Ktunaxa (First Nations) characters. I understand you consulted with many people, including Ktunaxa elders, out of regard for the Ktunaxa culture and how to respectfully represent it. As a result of your consultations you chose to make substantial revisions to your book.
Why did you choose to make these revisions?
I chose to do the consultation with an awareness that in light of truth and reconciliation, we’re trying to do all things in new more respectful ways. If I’m writing an Indigenous character, I want to do what I can to make sure I’ve written the character accurately and that I haven’t been unintentionally offensive or exploitive. The revisions themselves, I made in conversation with the cultural liaison. If something about my plot or characters or setting bothered her or seemed inaccurate with her, I worked out a solution that addressed her concerns while staying true to my fictional construct. In the end, I enjoyed the process. I learned a lot from the Ktunaxa woman I worked with, and her suggestions made In Case I Go a better book. She helped me avoid problems that I would not have seen by myself. I’ve never been a fan of group work, so the process was a challenge for me, but maybe that involved some necessary personal growth too.
In hindsight, would you make the same choices?
Yes, if I had it all to do over again, I would have consulted with the Ktunaxa Nation Council and worked with the cultural liaison and made the same changes. The thing I might not have done is write the article about the process. The controversy that emerged in response to my consultation process was about the article, rather than the book. Some people read the essay as self-aggrandizing. That’s not how I meant it: I wanted to share news of a positive experience and name names and thank people who had been so helpful and influential. In the end, the essay drew attention away from the contents of the actual book and caused conflict and stress for the very people I meant to thank.
In Case I Go received a number of glowing reviews but also resulted in substantial controversy concerning indigenous representation by white authors.
Can you describe your feelings about the controversy that arose? Did it surprise you?
I don’t love conflict. If I had a good tolerance for that kind of stress, I likely would have been a lawyer or a politician, not an English teacher. So, yes, I found the whole controversy very unpleasant. It did surprise me in a way. Though, I am an excellent worrier, which means part of me is always waiting for the worst possible scenario to unfold – so that part of me thought: Ah ha! Here we go! I knew it! Looking back, I wish I would have consulted about my essay on consultation – just to make sure I had all my words correct and I hadn’t misunderstood anything about the process. That might have avoided the whole controversy and the hard feelings. We have a lot to learn about this kind of cross-cultural collaboration. I’m learning.
You are the Editor, along with Jamie Dopp, of Writing the Body in Motion: A Critical Anthology on Canadian Sport Literature, which was just recently published by AU Press. What was the motivation for producing an anthology dedicated to sports literature?
I enjoy reading and teaching sport literature, and (as the author of The Bone Cage) I often visit Sport Literature courses in Canada and United States. I heard professors of these courses complain that though the sport material is very popular with students, it’s hard to find secondary sources. Professors were looking for essays to help with lecture preparation or readings to assign to students as research or as sample literary analysis. Jamie Dopp and I decided to create exactly that. We both belong to the International Sport Literature Association – so we had good access to the experts to write the essays. We compiled a list of the most commonly taught texts in Canadian Sport Lit courses, and then solicited an academic to write an essay on each.
Shortly after the book became available on Kindle, an Austrian academic wrote to me praising Cory Willard’s essay on Thomas Wharton’s Icefields. That was exciting in a whole new way for me – to bring international attention to a young scholar and a great Western Canadian novel. Well-deserved in both cases.
You often reference Richard Wagamese in your articles, on Twitter, and in your interviews. In Case I Go has a dedication “– for the haunted – especially for Richard Wagamese…” What impact has he had on your life and work?
Richard was a lovely man and a great writer. Indian Horse is one of my favourite novels: he has a deceptively simple storytelling style, pulling the reader along in an engaging, easy-to-read narrative, but then the book is also imbued with such visceral heartbreak and profound wisdom. The simple style means that the wisdom sneaks up on the reader in surprising ways. Wagamese is a master. Indian Horse is a book that will be read and studied for a long, long time.
Richard Wagamese was as great on the stage as he is on the page. We often ended up doing events together, and I never saw him do the same talk twice. He’d get up to the podium, pause to read the audience, and then launch into some completely original speech – whatever he thought that particular audience needed to hear. One time we were speaking at a venue on Granville Island and he noticed that it was usually a comedy club, so he decided to start his speech with a stand-up comedy routine. He did, and he was really funny. I don’t know another writer who could pull that off. I loved that about him – his spontaneity, his ease, his personal rapport with each new audience.
A speech he gave at a festival on Denman Island influenced In Case I Go. He looked out at a mostly white audience and told them they didn’t have to feel bad on his account. He said he didn’t expect them to change the past (because doing so was impossible) and he didn’t need them to say sorry (because they weren’t the ones who had committed atrocities). He said that all they had to do was say: YES, yes this happened. He said, “We can start there.” That yes is the truth part of truth and reconciliation. In that moment, I realized In Case I Go was my yes. That’s one of the reasons I dedicated the book to him. The other reason: I miss him.
Your most recent book, Home Ice: Reflections of a Reluctant Hockey Mom, combines “revealing stories and careful research of an often troubling sport culture.” Tell us about it. What do you want readers to know about this book?
This time I followed the advice “write the book you want to read.” I had to unlearn some lessons of sport and the way a competitive sporting outlook plays into other parts of my life and into my parenting. I wrote myself into that new knowledge. Thinking about this question now (with the book off to the printers), I realize that the year which makes up the content of this memoir was the hardest year of my marriage, and the perspective I gained by writing the book has moved us into a much better place – as parents and as spouses. We were going in the wrong direction, and this project rerouted us. I hope it can, where helpful, reroute its readers too. I guess what I want readers to know is that Home Ice is about more than hockey.
Your publication history over the past 10+ years is impressive. Have you ever faced writer’s block? How do you deal with it?
Yes. I suspect every writer faces writer’s block. Writer’s block is a product of perfectionism. If you want your writing to be perfect, you’ll never fill a page. I like the saying “Perfection is the enemy of good.” I get over writer’s block by not judging the quality of draft material. The only goal of that first draft is to get some words onto the paper. Then I have something to work with. A perfect idea in my head is no good to anybody. Getting that “perfect” idea from the mind onto the page is going to involve some mess and some letting go of control – once we accept that mess as part of the process, we have no more writer’s block.
There has been a growing interest in writing for wellness, therapeutic writing and expressive writing, as it is variously known. Have you found writing to be healing in your own life? Please explain.
Yes, my books have all been on subjects close to home: Anything Boys Can Do (infidelity and relationship collapse), The Bone Cage (transitioning out of the athletic life), The Canterbury Trail (relationship to the environment and contradictions of adventure tourism), Between (motherhood and foreign domestic labour), and In Case I Go (our children carrying the burden of mistakes of our ancestors). I write to understand life. I’ve heard many writers say you don’t know what you know until you write it down. In that way, writing involves a kind of self-discovery.
Of course, I have also focused on external elements of writing – getting publishing contracts, getting reviews, getting invited to festivals, pleasing readers. In the future, I plan to focus more on the internal rewards (self-discovery, increased understanding of topics of personal interest). Of late, those personal elements of writing are what matter to me – and I’m starting to suspect that if I put my focus there, the writing will be more genuine and honest and moving, and it will find its readers.
In a conversation we had a couple years ago when you were my creative writing professor at Athabasca University, you talked about The Bone Cage and how the story grew out of your own experiences as a swimmer, a car accident you once had and the resulting trauma you experienced, and your fears about your brother and what would happen to his sense of self after his Olympic experience was over. It seems that The Bone Cage evolved out of a combination of personal experience, powerful emotion and empathy.
Can you speak to this?
Recently when I told someone my early novels were more from my head but In Case I Go came more from my heart, the person looked at me unconvinced and said “But The Bone Cage. It’s from you heart.” I suppose that’s true. Digger shares some qualities with my brother, and my brother’s well-being is, of course, very close to my heart. I wrote the book out of sisterly concern (remember, I’m an excessive worrier). So yes – that aspect of The Bone Cage comes from my heart and out of empathy for my brother and other elite athletes working to redefine themselves at the end of successful Olympic careers.
That kind of empathy is, I believe, crucial to any novel project. Reading itself is an act of empathy: we imagine ourselves into other lives, and we inhabit the space of what it means to be other people. Writing – the act of creating those other lives and other spaces – is an act of radical empathy.
Did writing contribute to your understanding of these experiences?
Writing always contributes to my understanding, of every experience. Yes.
What writing projects are you working on now?
I’m starting a new novel, at the earliest stages, and I’m experimenting with writing-without-urgency. I’ve always put a lot of pressure on myself and imposed tight deadlines. I had an idea that I wanted a book every three years – an arbitrary goal. I don’t even know what gave me the idea that every-three-years should be something to strive for. Because of this pressure, I have always written under stress and in an odd kind of artificial duress. I’m experimenting with finding pleasure in the writing process and exploring whether or not that process and its pace can be leisurely.
Do you have any advice for new writers?
Yes, I do: Do NOT focus on “being a writer” and the external validation required to accomplish this status. It’s a moving goal, possibly unreachable. I thought I would feel like A Real Writer when I published my first book, and then I thought I’ll feel like A Real Writer when I get my first review in a notable journal, and then I thought well maybe I will feel like A Real Writer when I get invited to my first literary festival, and then for sure I’ll feel like a Real Writer when I finally get my first interview on CBC.
That feeling of having arrived never arrived.
Here’s my advice: write only because you love to write. Focus on putting your pen on the paper. If you write, you’re a real writer: now get on with it.
With thanks to Angie Abdou for conducting this interview with Dreamers!
If you enjoyed this interview featuring Angie Abdou, consider becoming a Dreamers Magazine Subscriber. We publish a new author interview in every issue. Issue 2 features an interview with Steven Heighton, Governor General Award Winner. Become a magazine subscriber today.