Maureen Medved, Writer

Writer Maureen Medved

Novelist, playwright, and screenwriter Maureen Medved is the author of THE TRACEY FRAGMENTS (Anansi, 1998). She has lived in Winnipeg and Montreal and for the last few years in Vancouver, where she earned an MFA in creative writing from U.B.C. THE TRACEY FRAGMENTS was made into a film (2007) by Bruce McDonald, starring Ellen Page, for which Medved wrote the screenplay. She is also an Associate Professor in the Creative Writing Program at UBC and writes film reviews for HERIZONS.   

1. Your novel THE TRACEY FRAGMENTS presents us with a young, troubled, sassy female protagonist. In some ways it seems to derive partly from YA fiction, even though it’s clearly an adult novel. I can’t think of many female narrators in literary tradition who compare to Tracey. Where are the female Holden Caulfields and Huck Finns?

There are great female narrators out there, although I couldn’t find those characters when I needed them most, and when I was a young child I became obsessed with finding them.  I honestly think that level of obsession is what drives the writer to create new worlds. When I initially began showing the Tracey character to other writers, I was in Robert Kroetsch’s fiction class. Robert was a huge influence on my writing. He introduced me to the work of Kathy Acker. I believe that is the energy and spirit that came closest to what I was aiming for with Tracey, even though I didn’t know Acker’s work when I first started writing.

2. On a wider scale, there have been some outstanding older female characters in Canadian fiction: Margaret Laurence’s Hagar Shipley, a number of Atwood characters (Elaine Risley in CAT”S EYE, Zenia in THE ROBBER BRIDE, Penelope in PENELOPIAD, for a start) Susan Swan’s Mouse in THE WIVES OF BATH. Have you been conscious of any of these (or others) as models when you set out to write about a female character?

I was conscious of these writers, but when I set out to write a character it’s more as if I feel there is a literary gap that needs to be filled. As it was with Tracey and some of my earlier characters, such as Palmira and Edna Diefenbaker, as well as the people I’m currently working with, I often feel like there is someone whose voice I need to hear, someone whose experiences I need to understand and witness, and someone who needs to speak and tell her story. However, having said that, there are female characters who’ve had an enormous impact on me as a writer. I’m particularly interested in the short stories of Flannery O’Connor. I have a great deal of affection for those people, such as Hulga in “Good Country People.” The same goes for Mary Gaitskill’s protagonists in her short stories and some of Joyce Carol Oates’ women. There are so many great Canadian female characters as well. Those who speak to me profoundly are the characters in Judith Thompson’s work, especially the women in THE CRACKWALKER. I was naturally drawn to certain writers stylistically, and found these books impressive on many levels, but I wasn’t so much inspired by the female characters. Whatever they had to offer in a literary sense, did not at the time touch me in a personal way. There was a certain coalescence of anger, vulnerability, truth, beauty, passion in a kind of nervy, messy, often terrifying, journey towards truth through, human frailty, such as, let’s say, self-deception that I couldn’t find in the literature I was aware of. I finally found it in narrative territory outside the literary. Cindy Sherman’s early work was a mind blower for me. I saw her show at the Guggenheim when I first started writing and thought: Yes! That’s it. She was hitting on something so real and true for me. That, along with the work of such bands as Joy Division, such artists as Frida Kahlo and Diamanda Galas and Iggy Pop and the writing of Kathy Acker and modern dance/corporal mime with its sometimes expressionistic nuance of movement really nailed it for me.  These were definitely all points of inspiration when I approach my female characters.

3. A film like Lea Pool’s EMPORTE-MOI  (1999), to my mind, is closer in spirit to your novel than most novels I can think of. The issues are a little different, but the character is roughly the same age and embarks on a journey into the night and cold to save or to find her life.  Hanna (Karine Vanasse) is resourceful and vulnerable in ways similar to Tracey. Were you conscious of any film models at all when you set out to write this novel?

I was obsessed from an early age with the dramatic and cinematic forms as well as mythology and its workings in literature – both fictional and cinematic. For example, the Persephone archetype has been a great interest of mine and this resonates with the Tracey character, that female character carried through the underworld whose presence regenerates the earth. NIGHTS OF CABIRIA by Fellini and SMITHEREENS by Susan Seidelman would fall into this category as would Maren Ade’s  THE FOREST FOR THE TREES. I also have been greatly influenced by Chaplin’s little tramp. I see the tramp as a precursor to Cabiria. Any one who knows me knows CITY LIGHTS is one of my favorite movies. I often think of all these influences as I tap into the characters I’m working with at the moment.

4. You wrote the screenplay for Bruce McDonald’s adaptation of your novel.  How was that experience? What other film writing have you done?

It was amazing working with Bruce. He’s a great writer’s director because he has deep respect for writers and what they can bring to the table cinematically. We spent hours discussing my vision for the film. I wrote short films and plays before Tracey. I have since written one film that is part of a feature. The first part is in the can and I’m waiting for post to complete.

5. What is your usual creative process when you are writing? Do you work from concept, or intuition, or flowchart, or hallucination? Do you have preferences about where and when you like to work? Do you sit at a computer for hours or compose on the run, so to speak?

I like to work long hand. My favorite thing to do is to sit on a bus or in a coffee shop and free write. Places where you wouldn’t think to yourself I’m writing in a structured way because I have freedom to let the writing come in a way where I’m not controlling the process. I’ll stay in character and situation while I’m doing this. Later, I’ll sit at the computer and put it all in the machine. Then I’ll get into character and rewrite the material, again and again, considering character. This is a scary place for me because this of all places is where I the writer can interfere too much. I often think writing for me is very much like climbing a mountain. It’s treacherous territory, but  I feel like what I can see from that top place is like nothing I could have seen from the ground. It’s exhilarating and totally worth it.

6. What novels influenced you when you were just out of college?

If you mean undergrad, I’d say CATCHER IN THE RYE, of course. Anyone who reads my work can see that. I read it the first time when I was eight, and re-read it every few years after that. I recall when I first read it being quite blown away – even though certain words eluded me. I remember the word “whore” being one of them. The rest of it made a lot of sense, though, and the sincerity of it spoke to me. When I was a young kid, I read the usual suspects: Roth, Updike, Cheever, Richler – and those guys pretty much stayed with me through to young adulthood. I was also into other writers right out of college, Duras, de Beauvoir, Sartre, Camus.  Out of all of this, The Fall had a huge impact on me, and still does. Again, like CATCHER IN THE RYE, it feels very confessional and immediate in a way that is very meaningful to me. Other novels I loved at the time were Kroetsch’s WHAT THE CROW SAID and THE COLLECTED WORKS OF BILLY THE KID. Looking at this as I do this interview now, I realize the two things that informed me at the time was a love of the confession along with a love of poetry. A third influence at the time was, as already mentioned, the visual and performing arts scene. People like Lydia Lunch, Patti Smith, and Cindy Sherman. I think that is the spirit that infused my work at that stage. More the New York scene as well as the spirit of modern dance (a world I’d been working in when I got out of college), punk rock and the visual arts.

7. How and when did you decide to become a writer?

It’s what I always wanted to do, but I was afraid. I remember thinking as a child that certain people became writers, but it wasn’t someone like me, surely. I was working in modern dance in the eighties. I’d just come back from living in the UK and wanted to be a writer. I thought I’d become a journalist. It didn’t even occur to me then that I could write fiction. Eventually in my mid-twenties I ended up living in Montreal and had a strong creative impulse or need. I started typing out a journal every night, but what came out wasn’t me. I found that other characters had more to say than I felt I did at the time. I remember as I wrote away each night thinking I finally figured out what I wanted to do. It had what I would call a rightness to it in terms of what mattered to me, but I was terrified, too, because I knew this would require an enormous learning curve and leap of faith.

8. One of the achievements of THE TRACEY FRAGMENTS is its voice—this compelling, at times neurotic, at other times almost hypnotic presence on the page.  I’ve heard you read from the novel, and that was a very fine performance, and it leads me to wonder how conscious you were of theatre or performance when you were creating this character. Her story emerges from the distinct qualities of what she sounds like and which words she uses, as opposed to a story based on setting, say, or on strong plot development. Can you comment on any of that?

I really wanted to create a believable character. This is the essence of what drives my writing. On the page I want this to translate into a voice so vital that it becomes a living breathing character that exists separate from me. People automatically assume I’m like Tracey somehow, but I don’t think that’s true. I would say working with the Tracey character was extremely hard and exhausting work. It required being very true to how she presented herself to me and then staying true to that voice. I see that as walking a tightrope, and every time the voice becomes false I fall off the wire and have to dredge up the energy to pick myself up and start again.

I’d say I’m obsessed with the rightness of character probably more than anything. When I was a child, it was impossible to see movies except at the theatre and as they played on the limited available channels of the time. My father was a huge film and drama buff and we would discuss plays and character as regular dinner conversation along with that week’s hockey games. As a result, I was originally drawn to reading plays every night. I read Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Eugene O’Neill as a young child. When I was, say, eight, nine, ten years old, I became completely obsessed with these writers and the characters they created. Plot unrelated to character didn’t move me when I was a child. But plot that grows out of character – who they are and the decisions they make that advance the plot – interests me a great deal. Setting itself is fascinating as much as it influences or is interpreted by character. Again, character means a lot to me, and every person has his or her own musicality with which they speak in rhythm, cadence, diction, etc. Not all writers are compelled by character in quite the same way. But the job of the character-driven writer is to capture the true essence of character. To somehow create, through all of this, the illusion of this living breathing creature that exists distinct from the creator. If I involve myself too much in the process, such as bringing my own agenda into it, it usually takes a lot longer to write. My journey as a writer has been to let go of my own wants and needs regarding the work and to let the character tell her story. Often I find I’m alarmed at what I learn about who this person is. In that way, the process becomes both revelatory and inspiring.

9. There is a great deal of crossover these days in artistic creation. Novelizations of movies, short stories that become video scripts, poems that emerge as performances, set design that becomes installation art…You’ve worked in film writing, drama, the novel. But in THE TRACEY FRAGMENTS I can see the presence of theatre traditions, movies, performance pieces, aside from any literary development. This happy mixture is quite avant-garde and it strikes me as a sign of what’s possible in fiction. Looking back on what you accomplished and ahead to the new books coming, I’m sure, how conscious were you of trying to create a narrative that stood outside traditional conventions?

I wasn’t trying to create something new. For me it’s more about trying to greedily work with every medium because I love them all. Also, I see the potential of exploiting these mediums in the process of working with character. I mean, if the character tells the story as someone might tell it to a stranger in a bar, that could be told in a very theatrical way. If a scene is essentially visual, that could be told cinematically. In that way, I have opportunity to exploit these mediums, but I will only do so in a way that’s true to the character in the telling. Even if that truth is a distorted one, for my work it always comes back to character.

10. What writers do you look at today for inspiration?

I usually have ten books going at all times. I love to read and watch films and for me it’s about the writing. A film or book can go a long way for me in terms of a good story well handled. In other words, special effects and writing that’s a lot of fireworks might impress me for a bit, but not in the long term. My students in the Creative Writing Program at UBC, most definitely are a major source of inspiration and never cease to blow me away.  But in terms of other authors out there who really inspire me there are so many it’s impossible to name them all. I really like the usual suspects Gaitskill, Bolano, Coatzee, Haneke, Flannery O’Connor, Hemingway. But also Paul Schrader, Denis Johnson, Ford, Faulkner. Also the Argentinian writer Liliana Heker. Hubert Selby, Jr., Waldo Salt. You name it. I’m basically, a total fan of literature in every medium. I just love good writing and my tastes are broad, but I develop intense interests in certain writers, read everything I can get my hands on by those writers, then move on. William Trevor is another favorite. I tend to go for people who are both very skilled and who I feel take risk mainly with their dedication to uncovering the true impulses of their characters. I know – I probably sound like a broken record.

11. Many young writers in Canada want to write screenplays for a living.  In your teaching at UBC, you must come across some of these aspiring film writers. Given the fact that the conditions in Canada are not great for film funding and the degree of competition North America wide even to have a screenplay read, what do you tell your students?  No one wants to utter platitudes, but is it simply, jump in the waters and see what you’re made of?

I think it’s very promising out there for talented writers. Everyone in the world likes a good story, and especially a good story well told. I firmly believe that writers with talent and potential will see their work made/published, performed, etc. as long as they stick with it, work on their writing, stay somewhat focused, learn their craft and get their work out to people who can help them. In other words, it’s hard to get the writing out if you don’t eventually show it to someone. Eventually, if the work is vital someone will want to get it out there. I’ve seen it time and again. I’ve also seen people who can get behind themselves and make their own work. Sometimes as an artist we can be our own best advocates. I’ve seen this succeed as well. Eventually, if they’ve got something to say or even a fresh, interesting way of saying it, people in a position to help will get behind them. Again, it’s helpful if you don’t live under a rock.

12. Can you tell us something of the projects you are now working on?

I’m working on a novel right now. It’s a project I’ve been working on for years.  I’m happy to report it’s finally very close to finished. I’d rather not say too much about this now. I’m also working on some projects for film.

Thank you, Maureen.

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