She’s published two books of poetry (with a third forthcoming), a novel (with a second in the works), and written for numerous newspapers, magazines, and guidebooks including Time Out, Fodor’s, The Globe and Mail, and more.
In advance of her October 4 talk on travel writing at the American Library in Paris, I caught up with Lisa to get the inside scoop on writing, revising, and her many adventures abroad.
You write it all – poems, articles, travel pieces, a novel. What do you get out of each of these different types of writing? Do they inform each other in any way?
In some ways, they all come from the same impetus: I want to connect with the world, whether it’s through writing a travel article or writing a poem. For a while I worked as a music journalist, which was quite ‘rock & roll’ (you really have to say that with a French accent), and now I’m mining all my weirdest music & fashion stories for my next novel. So as it turns out, the different kinds of writing inform each other very directly!
You grew up in Montreal so were accustomed to living in a bilingual environment. Now you live in a French-speaking country and write in English. As language is our currency as writers, can you describe the role living with these two languages plays in your work?
I love the interplay of languages, how people here can start a conversation in English, veer into French, maybe steal an expression from a third language—the cosmopolitan mixed-up 18th arrondissement where I live in Paris really feeds my writing and makes me feel at home. I guess the mix reminds me of the Montreal voices I grew up with. Although I write almost entirely in English, I really miss having French around me when I’m not at home.
How does the city of Paris itself influence you as a writer?
Paris is a good city for writers. People care about literature here and support wonderful independent bookshops. And the media actually discusses serious books as well as the bestseller airplane ones! I love the uproar Sarkozy caused by criticizing Mme de Lafayette’s 1678 novel La Princesse de Clèves—considered one of the first psychological novels, a great very readable classic. I can’t imagine another country where people would immediately organize public readings of the novel to protest their president’s ignorance! I didn’t move to Paris to become Ernest Hemingway—I think I’d rather be Colette, she seems to have had more fun—but the legacy of expat writers has inspired me and given me a sense of possibility.
We were talking recently about revision (me bemoaning the difficulty of revision, you saying how much you loved it). Can you talk about how you approach deep revisions? Is it in this phase that you learn in fact what it is that you have created – and how to strengthen that vision?
Revising lets me get further into the world I’m trying to create in the work. Journalism has been a great discipline, because it taught me to get on with the job, to not be precious about the work, to believe in the process of revision. I’m someone who rarely gets it right the first time, and I’m constantly fascinated by how much a piece of writing can change. I’m really lucky in Paris to know wonderful writers who give me creative advice and brainstorm about how to revise and improve a project, especially with my upcoming poetry book, where Jennifer K. Dick and Michelle Noteboom (who run the Ivy reading series) were incredibly helpful.
We discussed publishing briefly in our recent chat. Can you describe your own path to publication?
I worked very hard to get work as a journalist, and that route is fairly predictable—query letters and recommendations from friends already in the business. Getting poetry and fiction published is pretty similar—I started publishing poetry in literary magazines and websites, the normal route. My first book, Weave, was published because I sent the manuscript to a competition run by Frontenac House in Canada. The only hitch was that when the email came in announcing that they wanted to publish my book, I actually thought it was spam and didn’t read it for a week. By total fluke, I decide to open the email before deleting it!
That’s turned out to be a wonderful publishing relationship; Frontenac published my second book of poetry, A Bad Year for Journalists, and will bring out my third in the spring.
For the novel, I spent a long time finding an agent to represent me, and then she fought for two years to find a home for the book. Rats of Las Vegas came out at the end of 2009 with the Canadian press Enfield & Wizenty. The process for the novel took about seven years—very slow and sometimes frustrating, but I’m really happy with the book. Now I’m waiting to see the Hungarian translation–I can’t read Hungarian, but I’m excited by the idea of having a copy!
You narrowly escaped ending up in a Belarus jail. Sounds like you have many such exciting travel adventures! Care to share a favorite story here?
I have to admit, I don’t understand how people can complain about writer’s block—life is so consistently weird and interesting, it’s impossible not to be inspired to write about it. I have lots of strange stories from travelling. A while ago, I did a series on casinos in Europe, and when I was at the Venice casino, someone at the roulette table actually stole my winnings from under my nose. I was distracted by the beauty of the room, the rowdy gambling of the Italians, and I wanted to remember everything for my article—and when I looked down at the table, my chips were gone.
When I complained, a terrifying pitboss took me aside and had me wait in a different part of the casino, and I assume he went to view the video of the table, to see if I was telling the truth. He never explained the process, he just eventually came back and gave me my money and recommended that I leave. I hope the thief escaped—preferably by vaporetto, and then down some romantic calle to spend the money. I don’t think I’ll ever play roulette in the Venice casino again—even though it’s my favourite game.
Read and write. A lot. Write wherever you are, every day if possible. Definitely that’s the best advice anyone’s ever given me. There’s a nice riff on that from This American Life host Ira Glass that I just put on my blog, here.
I’m working on a novel set mostly in Paris, near Porte de Clignancourt, where I live. And this spring, I have a book of poetry, any bright horse, coming out in Canada with Frontenac House, who’ve published two of my previous books. I’m waiting anxiously to see the cover…they have a wonderful design team, so I’m excited to see what they come up with!
On Tuesday, October 4, Lisa Pasold will join author and journalist Ann Mah (who I also interviewed here) for a panel discussion about travel writing. The talk will take place at the American Library in Paris at 19h30. More information about the event can be found here.