Creator Spotlight - Lee Thompson
The New Brunswick writer answers a few questions for us
Lee Thompson is a writer and editor based in the Canadian province of New Brunswick. He is the former Executive Director of the Writers’ Federation of New Brunswick, a published author and professional editor. We’re very pleased that Lee was able to answer a few questions for us and we think you’ll enjoy his answers.
When you were a teenager, what did you want to become when you grew up?
A professional baseball player, but having only a smattering of athletic ability, I knew that wasn’t realistic. Then, because I was pretty good at drawing things, I gravitated toward visual arts and spent much time in the art room in high school. I’d go on to (briefly) attend Concordia’s visual arts program before dropping out and deciding, quite foolishly, that I was a musician.
In the back of my mind, somewhere, was this idea that I also wanted to write a book one day. Essentially, I was interested in many creative things but I would be in my twenties before the writing bell clanged in my head.
Do you prefer writing by keyboard, do you prefer pen and paper, or do you have another favorite method?
When I started writing – actually, when I first thought I wanted to write – I knew it wouldn’t be by hand. I was reading lots of science fiction, and I think it was Ursula K. Le Guin whose writing advice was ‘learn to type.’ I borrowed a typewriter and learned to touch-type, then eventually bought a word processor (fancy electronic keyboard with a 14-line display) and then a computer. That was in ’97. I’ll often make notes on paper, but always write the story with a keyboard.
What's the story of how you came to publish your first novel?
I won’t count my first book, which is called a novel but is only 14,000 words long and is more a book of prose poems, so I’ll talk about my first true novel, Apastoral. It’s the second novel I’ve written, and for the most part that writing was done between 2011 and 2012. I sent it around to a few publishers, ones I thought would be sympathetic to such an odd story, but no one bit.
In 2014 I took it to the Banff Writing Studio and had excellent feedback from one of the guest faculty members, author Tamas Dobozy, which renewed my faith in the book. I sent it out again, only to have a few more rejections. All were kind rejections, with words like ‘enjoyed it’ and ‘great writing’ followed by ‘however’ or ‘unfortunately.’ In one case they’d published too many New Brunswick authors.
So again I had set it aside, when a writer friend, Jeff Bursey, suggested I send something to a new little press in Slovenia (run by an ex-pat American) who were in the process of publishing some of Jeff’s books, saying he’d vouch for my work with the publisher. And it was as simple as that – I wrote the publisher, Rick Harsch, told him about the book and he said, “If it’s good enough for Jeff, it’s good enough for me.” Accepted it purely on Jeff’s recommendation. It came out some months later.
My first book, that was unique, too, in that I was walking down a hallway at the Charlotte Street Arts Centre in Fredericton, walked by an open door and heard, “Hey Lee!” I stopped and there was the publisher, Joe Blades, sitting on the floor at the NB Film Co-op office. Without even standing up, he told me he wanted to publish my book. Went back to my board meeting with a bemused smile.
What's one thing about being an author that most people don't understand?
My father had my book in his hand and marveled that I could hold all of this in my head, meaning, I think, that he felt I must have planned everything out, every plot change, every character, every single idea that a novel like mine, like many, puts forth. But the fact is, it’s as much an act of discovery for me as it is for the reader, and I think that’s true for most writers. For me, that discovery is what compels me to write (or create anything, for that matter).
Other than that, I think everyone knows there often isn’t much money in it, but they may not know that much of an established writer’s income is through grants and paid readings, judging writing contests and giving workshops.
Do you do any writing exercises or other work to further develop your writing skills?
Well, I do a lot of editing, probably near two million words a year, and that close attention to another’s writing – and we’re talking writers of various levels of development – can only hone one’s skills (either that or you suffer complete word-freeze when tackling your own writing). So there’s that.
Early on – when I first started to write – I kept a daily journal and used this to practice my typing and (to my surprise) discover my writing style. Writing is like any developed skill: you start off a little lost, think you’re better than you really are (a little Dunning-Kruger there) and then, with some commitment and self belief, and a healthy dose of humility, you learn. Journaling allowed me to write freely, experiment with ways of telling a story, even if it was just the story of my day. From that I went on the writing short fiction, and again trying different styles, different voices, persons and tenses.
You mentioned that you edit about 2 million words/year - what kind of editing do you do? Fiction? Non-fiction?
I mostly do a mixture of substantive and copy editing, but there are a lot of proofreading projects as well. Majority of clients are fiction, at least two-thirds, though I don’t have a preference and there are always other kinds of books in the queue – memoirs, autobiographies, essays, pamphlets and even poetry. I also do layouts! What can I say, I love words and books.
What can you tell us about the arts scene in Moncton, NB? Has the Frye Festival made a significant impact on the scene?
I’ve been a little out of the loop for the past half dozen years, but my impressions were always that the Anglophone arts scene paled in comparison to the Francophone scene, which isn’t the say that the Anglophone scene was weak, or the talent wasn’t there – it’s just that cultural identity fosters great community and a better environment for the arts. But Moncton’s a growing city and all aspects of the arts scene are growing as well, including greater cultural diversity.
The Frye Festival, yes, for over 20 years now, it’s had a tremendous impact and has given local writers a chance to interact and share the stage with international writers. I volunteered for many years, and hosted one event (Prelude: Emerging Writers) for a spell. MCing the event in both official languages was probably the most nerve-wracking thing I’ve ever done.
In your experience, how important is a social media presence for an author or other creative?
Really, it’s hard to imagine doing anything in the arts (just like in business) without a social media presence of some kind, and the biggest ‘should I’ is around which platform(s) to use and how much time to devote to them.
Expectations of interacting with a writer, for example, have changed too. Previously, maybe you’d send a letter, or catch a writer’s reading, to make a connection, but now you can tag the author/artist and get a ‘like’ in return, or a thank you, or even a personal response. This interaction with your readers, especially if you don’t have a huge publishing house behind you, is invaluable, not to mention word of mouth and resharing. News can get around so quickly. So, you can have a social media presence, or you can write a book, have the publisher stick it on their website, interact with no one and hope by some strange miracle people are drawn to it.
The other aspect is: this is our world now, and if you’re writing about it, you should probably be immersed in it.
Imagine you wake up one morning and the Internet has been destroyed. What's the first thing that you do?
I print off these answers, get in my VW Golf and drive across the province relying on old-fashioned paper maps and a sense of direction to find you. We mimeograph copies of your Substack newsletter, letting the world know that what’s important cannot be suppressed. Slowly the newsletter spreads, copies are dispersed, recopied, until the last faded copy…
Or, I stay home, read a book, have a great meal with my beautiful partner Cindy, and wait for the Internet to be fixed. It won’t take long.
Thanks to Lee for agreeing to this interview!
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