Kyo Maclear and I meet at a coffee shop on Ossington. She is an author of numerous published works, writing both for kids and for adult readers so, beating her to the cafe by a few minutes, I scroll through her websites looking at beautifully rendered book covers, debating what one to order for my own toddler reader post-chat. I feel nervous as I wait for her to arrive for we really only met in passing in the midst of an academic institute at York University—I was completing my doctoral work at the time and she was just getting started. Our mutual friend passed on my interview request and assured me she’d do it saying, “She’s very generous with her time.” Over Americanos and loud music, the ensuing 45-minute gem of an interview with Kyo taught me much about trusting my artistic instincts and honouring the senses throughout the creative process.
This issue is about trusting the senses and finding art in unanticipated places. My introduction to you was sitting across a room from you, not knowing you, but hearing you speak and feeling “Who is this voice who in the moment could respond to one of Mario’s [our mutual connection, my former doctoral supervisor and now hers as well] questions with such beautiful words?” I don’t remember his topic and I don’t even remember your specific answer, but I knew then that I wanted to have a conversation! I am curious about how you see the world!
Hmm… well I guess I feel like we are living in an ahistorical moment. Like we hit refresh or look at our feed again in the morning and that’s where history begins and ends. I think I gravitated back to school partly because of people like Mario who are doing that sort of deep historical thinking… finding ways to make sense of the present moment. When you find people like that in your life you just want to cling to them! I find that I am drawn to writers who do that sort of thinking—roamers, across disciplines.
Why at this point in your established career did you go back to school? I mean we are both similar in that way—we are both in the midst of life and careers… not really a traditional starting point.
I know! That’s a really good question… and I’ve had second thoughts. I’ve started my dissertation now but I’m not wed to the academy at all—I don’t feel like it’s the place I want to be—but I was really hungry for depth. I really wanted to sequester myself and read deeply for a while. I feel like there’s a kind of tendency to be output oriented when you’re a professional writer, and I needed to find a way to be a bit more subterranean and cogitate, you know? I had missed it so much! Mario was in my M.A. program and it was just idyllic—we were studying with Roger Simon and it was really rigorous. I felt very alive and awake… and since then I’ve felt that there’s been a sort of slumber period. Part of that has to do with motherhood where you’re taxed and exhausted all the time. Things are just challenging right? I mean getting through the day can be challenging!
And I thought it was such a privilege to be a student again. And I’ve enjoyed a lot of it but I don’t like academic writing very much. [A professor] just said to me recently, “Kyo you’re going to have to do some ugly writing!” to move pieces along. That there’s going to be some clunky writing and she wants me not to be too precious about it. It was funny.
So what about artistic partners then? Has it been an instinctive process?
Well I don’t really like the way a lot of writing gets done—or the way that knowledge gets produced in the sense that you work in a silo or in a garret—that feels so artificial to me. I think for me the best kind of thinking comes about through conversation or dialogue with people. When it’s not monologic, where you’re not just sitting in an elevator shaft talking to yourself about your own ideas. That feels claustrophobic. I like to bounce ideas off of people—or to have people bounce ideas off of me. I’ve thought a lot about Maggie Nelson’s idea of “leaning against.” I really am not ashamed to admit that I like to lean against a lot of people in the work that I do. When I collaborate I do it because I really believe that other people bring so much to the work—and I rely on them! Narratively I rely on them, creatively and sometimes emotionally just to get through the work, to make it pleasurable. When you have a conversation with someone it can take you in a direction that’s totally unanticipated!
Can you give me an example? Like maybe one of the illustrators you’ve worked with on your various books for children? Did they get brought to you by one of your editors or…
Well there’s always a conversation. You’re always sharpening the text against the image and the image against the text. Things aren’t fixed until you go into second pages. When I write something I always leave space for the art. This goes back to my favourite illustrator/writer Maurice Sendak who always let the images do some of the narrative work. It was always a duet between the two. So for example, my books never say “Written by Kyo Maclear” but say “Words by” and then “Pictures by.” I think things are moving this way.
It’s funny that you bring up Sendak because my three-year-old loves Where the Wild Things Are. He’s so aware of the emotion in the faces of the wild things. It brings to the fore how early kids become readers! Who are your favourite readers: the adults you write for or the children?
I like the readers who are non-categorical. Those who pick something up without thinking about genre. I just read this interview with Maggie Nelson (yes, Maggie Nelson again) who was talking about subtitling a book around a condition instead of a genre… like you could say the title of your book and then call it “a pining” or “a love song,” rather than some sort of specified genre. I like the idea of not being tied to genre and instead being able to read across categories. As for readers, I like those kids who are the corner sitters, the ones who have a sense of deep emotion. The ones who are operatic in terms of the moods they go through. I joke sometimes that I write books that deal with the mood disorders of childhood! I feel like there’s so much intensity to being a child. My favourite writers are the ones who pay homage to that. Who respect the emotional intelligence of a child—like your son! It has to feel reassuring to see what they see of the world reflected back to them in a book. With Where the Wild Things Are, Max is in control, so the reader is too. The child can stop the rumpus by simply turning the page. The book becomes a safety zone for all of these large emotions.
That makes me weepy! Beautiful. How about your most recent text Birds, Art, Life. Was there an instinctive moment of inspiration for this book or was it growing over time in your body? How did this book come about?
I tend to work very intuitively. The projects I work on I choose because I need to work on them in some way. At that moment in my life I was ensconced in elder care for my dad and caring for my children. We had been through a number of family emergencies and I knew at that time I couldn’t write in any sort of sustained way. Longform writing was sort of beyond me at that moment. I also knew I didn’t want to write alone, shut off from the world. I knew I wanted to engage my full sensorium, to feel alive. I didn’t even realize I was going to write a book but then I came across this man who had lost his heart to birds. I was just so enamoured by this urban artist who had suddenly embraced nature after years of artistic struggle and personal struggle as he found a sort of solace in nature—but found it in the city. That experience was so interesting to me. As a first generation immigrant I’ve seen myself as very urban. Seeing all of the various species right in the city—as we walked everywhere together—well the book sort of curated my life in a very expansive way. I think the projects we choose do shape our lives for the period of time we work on them. And if you want to be living a certain way I’ve learned that you should choose your projects wisely!
It is so hard, though, not to chase the project that will pay the mortgage! I’ve been reading a paper by our mutual friend who is looking at the results of putting the soul to work… specifically focusing on the economy of artistic production. I need to keep thinking. What are your thoughts?
It’s true. And very gendered too. I think that women are really conditioned to be people pleasers and also to pride themselves on efficiency… especially if you’re a mother where you’re juggling so much work. It’s nice, then, to be recognized for work—but then you have to question whether you want to keep doing that work. It’s hard to say no, especially if it’s going to pay the mortgage. In terms of “soul work” that’s important to cultivate too… ideally you can do both.
Right? That’s the goal—hashtag goals! So do you have a new project on the go that’s “soul-inspiring” in some way?
Well… no… because I’m working on the dissertation!
I’m really trying to make it soul-satisfying. I almost feel like it’s a monastic [writing] space which might sound strange. I’m trying to make it pleasurable and I am hoping that by the end it will become more creative. It has its own architecture and it’s going to take up the next year for sure. But I’ve just finished working on a graphic novel that I’m really excited about. My kids are getting a bit older and I’ve always wanted to write for them. It’s for ten [years old] and up.
Illustration by Isabelle Arsenault (taken from Spork by Kyo Maclear)
(Laughing) If it helps, my own dissertation became way more creative at the end. It was like an aesthetic culmination. It was the part that pretty much my whole committee—outside of Mario—hated! They just didn’t know what to do with it.
(Leaning in) So how long did it take for you to complete your doctoral work?
Well, I had a pretty firm self-imposed timeline… so two and a half years.
With a baby?
Ya… but I just had to!
Well that’s really inspiring.
I’m no longer nervous, but now I’m blushing! We meander away from academia and back to her own career as a professional writer when I ask:
How have you dealt with the challenges of editing and pushback? Especially in terms of reviews?
Well I’ve realized, in terms of my editors, that I’m not at my best with “father critic” figures who make me feel intimidated or afraid. I am at my best when I feel the person is on par and I can take risks. And maybe make mistakes.
Because creativity is such a vulnerable process.
Yes. I can’t remember who says this but the idea is that all reviews are like intruders, both the good ones and the bad ones. They come into your house and they might have a smiley face or a frowney face but ultimately they’re transient. I think that’s really helpful as you figure out what your project is, and pay heed—paying attention to criticism that is constructive and helpful.
And then there’s social media. Like Twitter. It does seem like some people have real conversations on there. Perhaps less invasive than a review?
I really like getting feedback from readers! I like when it’s something sort of meaningful and when something is at stake. But I do feel like social media can be a distraction—like too many doors and windows open. Too many outside voices. So there are times when I have to shut that down. The addiction to the dopamine hit of getting a “like”—that, in of itself, can be such a time waster so I really try to monitor that.
Well, I try to only check social media once every couple of days.
Wow! That’s so disciplined!
But I have an addictive personality so if I was checking it more it would become a twitch—I’d be doing it all the time! I think it’s easiest to maintain [the discipline] when I’m at the writing stage where I’m really wed to a project and don’t want to be pulled away from it. It’s harder when I’m more reluctant about the project. That’s when my brain is most addled and I want the outside voices—to be in the playground for a bit. Totally normal I think…
And worth checking. OK, last question—how long has it taken you to do some of your projects? On your kids website specifically there are little stories that accompany your various books that tell what has brought each one about. I think my question comes from a place of fear… do I lack writerly instincts to take life stories and grow them?
Oh no—well everything I’ve done has pretty much come from my family life, a seed of a story from something that has happened to me personally. But I talk about the writing process a lot, especially on school visits, because it seems like kids get too quickly derailed when they come up against the asymmetry of where tastes outweigh talents. When things don’t look or sound like what they have envisioned. So I give the example of Spork which was essentially ten years in gestation! It’s a book that didn’t come about right away. It’s like a plant. You tend to it and water it. But such patience is a struggle for kids I think.
For us all!
Yes, and to cultivate that delay mechanism is so important as a writer.
And as a human!
Illustration by Isabelle Arsenault (taken from Spork by Kyo Maclear)
We decide that’s the perfect punctuation point with which to end the official interview but continue our conversation walking along Dundas. I’m heading home and Kyo is headed to another creative task: “To get some shoes dyed!” We hug and part ways. As I stand in yet another coffee shop line to prepare for my walk home in the heat, I find myself staring down at my own shoes, analyzing the colour. I’m inspired by Kyo… my whole artistic sensorium… right down to my toes!
Kyo Maclear is an essayist, novelist and children’s author. She was born in London, England and moved to Toronto at the age of four with her British father (a foreign correspondent and documentary filmmaker) and Japanese mother (a painter and art dealer). Her short fiction, essays and art criticism have been published in Brick, Border Crossings, The Millions, LitHub, The Volta, Prefix Photo, Canadian Art, Resilience, The Guardian, Uppercase, Quill and Quire, Shambhala Sun, Toronto Life, Azure, Brain Child, Saturday Night, The Globe and Mail, among other publications and anthologies.