I met Elizabeth Ross at Palimpsest Press Night at Toronto's Another Story Bookshop in 2014. It was a full night of reading: Patricia Young and I performed alongside Palimpsest editors Jim Johnstone and Dawn Kresan.
After the reading, Elizabeth—Liz—came up to me and said that she'd read Hump, which was unusual enough in and of itself to be memorable, and that Palimpsest would be publishing her first book soon.
Liz wasn't able to go for the traditional after-reading drink that night, as her small children were waiting for her at home. I remained curious about her and her book-to-be, so I'm really glad, now, to have the chance to chat with her...
So, Liz, what do you want people to know about Kingdom?
It’s part coming-of-age story, part map. It deals with many kingdoms—of course, the heart and the head, but also pathologies, geographies, and histories.
As a writer (i.e. someone whose artistic practice is predicated on time spent alone) how do you approach readings? What do you get out of them?
(Hopefully I’m interpreting this question’s framework properly.) Reading my own work doesn’t make me nervous. Maybe I’m not a capital “R” Romantic; maybe as a teacher I’m used to speaking in front of large rooms of people; maybe I feel safe speaking out of the poem’s container. Generally I see readings as a part of the job. I like them. There’s the oral history and traditional practice of poetry (Purdy’s “Say the Names” leaps immediately to mind), and there’s also the buzz I get hearing another poet read. And it’s nice to be in a room with like-minded people, poets and poetry appreciators. I wish I could get out to more readings.
Tell me about that strange object/phenomena called ‘the first book.’
As a creative writing student, I had the impression that many writers see the first book as being synonymous with regret, or as exposing some great wound or embarrassment, or as something to get over with, like bungee jumping naked. Critically, the books seem to be received as the next and greatest thing, or largely ignored.
Now that I have published a first book, I don’t really think of it as “the first book”—it’s just a book. I worked hard on it. I don’t think I’ll be embarrassed by it. But I also, at age eighteen, thought similar thoughts about my dragon ying yang tattoo, so who knows. Like my tattoo, perhaps there’s a lot of scrambled lore.
Kingdom explores the idea of “a life of your own,” that thing you’re supposed to acquire as you move from your teenage years onto jobs and houses, pets and spouses. Can you talk a bit about why you wanted to explore this stage, all of us “deer skittish in the bushes”?
I think I’m trying to reconcile an existence built in counterfactuality. I’ve always lived in hypotheticals. And since I can remember I’ve been obsessed with the idea of home, or what exactly makes a home, and wanting to make my own. Even as a kid, I would rearrange my room constantly; I’d play “nest” in the dogwood tree, wedging rock “eggs” into the crotch and sitting on them. Somehow being an adult happened, with no delineation, or stones.
What did you learn about your writing and your process while studying for your MFA at UBC and poetry-editing PRISM International?
There are my pre-kid and post-kid processes. Overall I’ve learned that my process is resilient and flexible, and that writing will happen if I want it to, albeit in less-than expected, or, for some, ideal, circumstances. Since finishing my MFA, I’ve had two kids. So instead of walking and writing and designating think time, I make lunch/drink coffee/bounce/sing/change diapers – and also write. Sometimes I write on the go—sitting on the carpet while my daughters play, or at the table while they eat their breakfasts. When I am able to designate time, more often than not it’s late at night when everyone’s asleep. My walk is pushing the stroller. Really, I have no consistent routine or process. The only thing that has crossed over from my pre-kid days is that at some point, I have to show my work to someone for feedback. And as unpredictable as my writing process is, when I do have uninterrupted time—even ten minutes—I’m super productive; in my MFA days, I would have never taken on anything writing related in such a short time frame.
Editing PRISM was good—not only for my writing, but for my ego. It helped me, as an unpublished grad student, understand that rejections are certainly not personal, or even necessarily a comment on the quality of the work—although they certainly can be. They’re part of a feedback loop that’s cultural, aesthetic, critical, and one I came to realize helps develop good writing. At PRISM, I would reject poems that didn’t fit with the issue’s aesthetic, or because I’d run out of space, or because I’d eaten bacon. Heaven knows. I read carefully and sometimes painfully—editing was a huge responsibility and the framework often unruly. There’s no rubric, that’s for sure. Editing also prepared me to work with an editor on my own work.
Speaking of which, tell me about working with Dawn Kresan at Palimpsest...
Dawn was simultaneously tough and respectful. Working with her showed me that a manuscript truly isn’t a book until it’s been edited by someone who cares about your work, and about poetry overall. In the production process, there’s nothing greater than seeing your editor get excited about a revision— start to finish, she was invested in the manuscript. I’m sure it’s been said before: editor names should appear right next to authors’.
Have you ever been to Winnipeg? What have you heard?
I probably have been to Winnipeg, likely in the early 90s as a teenager slumped in the back of my family’s minivan (see above re. counterfactuals). That was roughly the same year I claimed the thickest and scratchiest wool sweater in existence from my father’s closet, and he told me it was warm enough for Winnipeg winters, which leant the sweater a kind of mythic resonance. As an adult I’ve also heard the classic stories, trees splitting in two from the cold, ice cracking in the river. It sounds like a place I should revisit.
What are you reading right now?
Many poetry collections. Off the top of my head, Floating Is Everything by Sheryda Warrener, Dear Leader by Damian Rogers, Joy Is So Exhausting by Susan Holbrook. Unless they’re long poems, I kind of start and stop with poetry books, taking in a little bit at a time, hitting a point where I need to stop and let poems or ideas do what they need to do, stick my head into another book, repeat, shuffle. I’ve been reading Karen Solie’s The Road In Is Not the Same Road Out for months. The only exception is Michael Dickman, whose books I’ve been pretty much binging on.
What are you writing right now?
I’m writing a collection of poems that examines the ways middle-class motherhood is constructed. I’m also writing a series of loosely-linked personal essays. And many, many grocery lists.
In addition to his five novels—two of which won the Governor General's Award for Fiction—Ricci has written a biography of Pierre Elliott Trudeau.
|Kevin Kelly Photography|
Ricci was in Winnipeg recently, launching his sixth novel, Sleep. He took the time to speak to Ariel Gordon.
FP: What do you want people to know about Sleep?
Nino Ricci: While there is a lot in the novel that is actually about sleep, which turns out to be a good deal more important to us than most of us might have guessed, the question of sleep is also a stepping-off point for looking at a whole range of other issues, such as the lies we tell ourselves in order to live with ourselves, the mistakes we make over and over, and whether many of us, in fact, spend much of our waking lives in a kind of sleep, fiddling like Nero while the planet burns.
FP: Sleep seems to work with some of the same ideas that some of the smarter zombie books/movies do—Edgar Wright's 2009 feature Shaun of the Dead, with its satiric look at lower-middle-class England, comes to mind—that people have become tech-obsessed, full of misdirected rage at perceived slights and the sense that nothing they do really matters. What prompted you to work with these quasi-apocalyptic ideas? And how, do you think, is Sleep a progression or deviation from your previous work?
NR: I haven't actually seen Shaun of the Dead, but the comparison sounds right. I suspect the apocalyptic impulse is hard-wired into the human brain. It seems nearly every age likes to imagine itself at the brink either of Armageddon or the New Jerusalem, or of both. As a good Catholic boy I had such notions bred into me early, and spent much of my childhood awaiting the Second Coming and indeed secretly hoping I might be it. So apocalypse has always been there in my thinking; it has just taken me awhile to be up front about it. I see Sleep as following very naturally from ideas I started developing in my novels Testament and The Origin of Species, ideas that have less to do, I think, with the actual prospect of annihilation than with our obsession with it, and how time and again we seem to drive ourselves toward it despite our best intentions.
FP: Sleep is your eighth book in since Lives of the Saints was published in 1990. What are your goals for your writing now, as compared to your first books?
NR: My goals for my writing have not changed so much: to keep asking new questions and to keep setting new challenges. Ultimately what most novelists strive for, I think, is to find some way to hold the whole world—that was true for me at the start and remains true now. Since that isn't a goal I can ever really hope to reach, I guess it means I will just have to keep failing better at it, as Beckett put it.
FP: You wrote a biography of Pierre Elliot Trudeau that was published in 2009. Did it give you any particular insights into the recent federal election?
NR: I'm not sure it is advisable to ask a novelist for insights on federal politics. Let me just say that I'm very happy to see the country emerge from The Great Darkness of the Harper years, and wish Trudeau fils the very best.
FP: Tell me about your parents' influence on your thinking, on your work ethic, on your writing.
NR: When I was young, of course, I wanted to be nothing like my parents. In many ways I am nothing like them, though mainly because all their hard work gave me a chance to pursue the sort of life they never had a shot at. Then so much of what drives me and of what I write about goes back to what I learned through them or to what their own lives exposed me to. We talk a lot about the immigrant experience in this country but I think we have yet to appreciate the true enormity of it, not just the rupture and dislocation that goes with it but also the incredible sense of possibility.
FP: What are you reading right now? What are you writing right now?
NR: Right now I'm reading The Eminent Victorians by Lytton Strachey and Martin John by Anakana Schofield. As for my writing, I've been getting a start on a novel set in Edwardian England.
Ariel Gordon is a Winnipeg writer.