Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The In Character Interview with Lana Pesch

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The In Character Interview with Lana Pesch

Lana Pesch's Moving Parts (Arsenal Pulp Press) is full of characters neurotic and bizarre, yet strangely relatable in their longing to connect and belong. Bootleggers, artists, caretakers, arm wrestlers and, of course, a man with a hoof come together in this irresistible collection. Lana's fresh, innovative writing is anchored by an emotional core that makes these stories not only creative but heartbreaking and memorable.

Today we speak with Lana as part of our In Character interview, and she tells us about juggling a whopping thirteen main characters, how to craft great dialogue to create great characters and what she has (and doesn't have) in common with her colourful characters.

Open Book:

Tell us about the main character in your new book.

Lana Pesch:

My book is a collection of nine short stories with thirteen main characters throughout the book so I will focus on one that was particularly challenging to write: Cody, from the story, "Brotherhood".

The story originated from a newspaper article I read about a man who asks his best friend to kill him because he is in love with his best friend’s girlfriend. I couldn’t shake the story, I was so struck by the bizarre scenario and had a strong sense of this main character, this man who wanted to die.

I wrote a first draft and my mentor at the time, Sarah Selecky, suggested a revision while “steeped in self-loathing” to get deeper into the consciousness of Cody because he didn’t feel fully formed. She was right. To tell the story, I needed to truly understand what was going on for him. What had happened to him? Why did he want to die? What experiences led him to come up with this scenario?

So I wrote from a dark, desperate place and it was difficult and sad and exhausting. But had I not explored Cody’s character in this way, I wouldn’t have learned what he needed to say, or done justice to the story. Issues of abandonment, parental neglect, low self-esteem and guilt bubbled to the surface and the story took a new shape.

OB:

Some writers feel characters take on a "life of their own" during the writing process. Do you agree with this, or is a writer always in control?

LP:

In one of my stories, "Landing Area", there is a bootlegging lesbian pilot named Steph. I am none of those things. Steph became her own person as I was writing her. I let her do what she needed to do and if that meant masturbating against a tree then eating a pound of bacon, well, that’s Steph, not me. It’s about being truthful to who the character is, what they would do or not do, say or not say. At one point, in "Deffer’s Last Dance", Deffer takes the lid off a jar of peppers in the grocery store, takes a sip and puts the back on the shelf. That’s Deffer for you.

There is plenty more to every character than what is on the page, but my job as a writer is to be in control of the details and include what is necessary to tell the story and toss the rest to the curb.

At some point, when I am deep inside a character’s consciousness, it becomes a relief to not be responsible for them anymore, in a way. This is the “life of their own” part of the process. They will tell me what they need to say (or not say) and do. The story too, reveals itself it this through enough revision. It might sound corny but this is my experience.

OB:

How do you choose names for your characters?

LP:

If I need a name for a character who is a certain age or ethnicity or from a specific region, I’ll do a Google search. For example: popular names for females born in 1993. Sometimes I use people I know by looking around the office or scanning my friends and family. (You know who you are Christie, Mrs. Greening, Riley, Wiz.) I’ll also flip through newspapers for ideas, including The Melville Advance, the newspaper from my hometown in Saskatchewan where they come up with some of the wackiest baby names.

OB:

What is your approach to crafting dialogue, particularly for your main character? Do you have any tips about writing dialogue for aspiring and emerging writers?

LP:

The key to writing good dialogue, I think, is to be a good listener. And I read dialogue aloud. It’s the only way to know for sure if it’s believable, and not too stagey or trying to do too much. For any of my main characters, I try to use language that is appropriate to who they are, things they would truly say.

I also include mistakes. We all make mistakes when we talk. We stumble, fumble, pause, say the wrong thing, search for a better word, swear, all of that makes this makes the dialogue believable, in my opinion.

For the aspiring writer I recommend two things:

1) Carry a notepad at all times and write down juicy bits of dialogue when you hear them. I do this. I’ll jot down parts of conversations I hear on the street, on a flight, on the streetcar, stopped at a red light on my bike, anywhere.

2) Take Sarah Selecky’s Story Is a State of Mind writing course. The lesson on dialogue includes an assignment of eavesdropping in a public place which is fun. In addition to be an amateur sleuth, if anything is going to make your dialogue realistic, it’s real dialogue.

OB:

Do you have anything in common with your main character? What parts of yourself do you see in him or her, and what is particularly different?

LP:

I think I have bits and pieces in common with a lot of the main characters in my book. There are slices of me, and people I know, woven into the fabric of my characters. The character traits of my characters come from actual character traits. How could they not?

Let’s just say I have been known on occasion to be neurotic and indecisive and confused, as well as proud, forgiving and sarcastic. These are a few parts of me that find their way into characters throughout my book.

OB:

Who are some of the most memorable characters you've come across as a reader?

LP:

So many!
Off the top of my head:

Morris in "The Falls", by George Saunders
Winky, from "Winky" by George Saunders
The narrator in Julie Hecht’s Do the Windows Open — she doesn’t have a name and I think that’s an interesting choice
Almost every character in Jessica Westhead’s books — Pulpy and Midge for sure, from the novel, Pulpy and Midge, and Shelley from the story "Coconut" in And Also Sharks
Orange, from Kathryn Kuitenbrower’s All The Broken Things — a perfect name and unforgettable, non-speaking but highly communicative character
Ellen from Ellen in Pieces by Caroline Adderson
Lily from Anne Marie McDonald’s Fall on Your Knees
Will Bird from Joseph Boyden’s Through Black Spruce
Aminata Diallo from The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill
Keane from the story "One Thousand Wax Buddhas" from the collection, This Cake Is for the Party by Sarah Selecky — one of my favourite characters, and stories
Ignatius C. Reily from The Confederacy of Dunces
Lionel Essrog from Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem — the orphaned New Yorker with Tourette’s Syndrome working for a small-time mobster

I recently read So Much for That, an entertaining and heartbreaking novel by Lionel Shiver that is filled with a bunch of memorable characters (and names) The protagonist Shep Knacker, his wife Glynis, his sister Beryl, Shep’s friends Jackson and Carol and their daughters Flicka and Heather, Shep’s idiot boss, Randy Pogatchnik and many more.

OB:

What are you working on now?

LP:

A novel, some more short stories, and a bit of haiku.


Lana Pesch is an alumna of the Banff Wired Writing Studio and her short fiction has been published in Little Bird Stories: Volumes I and II. She was longlisted for the 2014 CBC Short Story Prize and won the Random House of Canada Creative Writing Award at the University of Toronto in 2012. Moving Parts is her first book. She lives in Toronto.

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