One Good Chat: An Interview with Billie Livingston


Billie Livingston pic By Susie Moloney

Billie Livingston is having a very good year. Her most recent novel, One Good Hustle, (Random House Canada) was an early pick for Canada Reads in her home province of British Columbia. One Good Hustle was nominated for the prestigious Scotiabank Giller Prize, was named one of January Magazine’s Best Books of 2012, and The Globe and Mail, Salty Ink and Now Magazine all listed it in their best books of 2012 selections. Internationally published and recognized as one of Canada’s great literary exports, she’s also kind of hilarious. Recently Billie Livingston spoke with The Winnipeg Review the old-fashioned way, by telephone.

One Good Hustle has made it on to some pretty impressive lists this year, most recently on the best fiction of 2012 list from January Magazine. They listed and praised your other novels, Going Down Swinging  and Greedy Little Eyes, and then suggested that OGHmay be the best of the bunch thus far.”

What’s your take on your backlist, and which would you say was the “best of the bunch?”

One always has a soft spot for the first born, right? But really, I have a soft spot for whatever I’m writing at the time. I get obsessed with the latest thing. Going Down Swinging was my first novel. It seemed so impossible at the time than anyone would publish it. I remember telling my mom that I was writing a novel and she said, “What do you think, you can just write a book and someone’s going to publish it?” I said, “Yup. That’s what I think.”

It was also my most experimental book. I didn’t know what I was doing, so I was doing things that I wasn’t sure were even allowed in a novel (laughs).

Cease to Blush—that’s actually my slickest novel. It’s got the most story, the slickest surface, and the most subversive subtext.

One Good Hustle—It took a long time to find a story. It started out with a lot of flashbacks from the point of view of a woman in her thirties. It was a completely different animal at first. I was trying so hard to write something plot driven. But, once I got it, once I grabbed hold of that dorsal fin, it came fast. Once I got the voice of that 16 year old girl, it was the easiest one to write.

For the most part, all your books take place on the west coast, specifically Vancouver. How important is setting to you as a writer? Is it something you need to set aside and not worry about while writing, or is it all part of your purview?

Where you’re from is such a part of your DNA. If I write about the place I come from the story is much more visceral, because it comes from the gut. I don’t know if that would be true if I was writing about a place I’d never been (laughs). The west coast has been pretty good for me.

When I was writing what would be Going Down Swinging, I didn’t know what I was doing. I never went to university. Big institutions made me nervous. So decided I would apply for (writing) residencies, whatever I found, I applied to. It was intimidating. I figured those places were for people with big pedigrees, but I kept applying, to force myself to organize my thoughts.

Then I did get one, I got accepted into Banff (the Banff Centre for the Arts), and right up until the last minute, I thought they’d made a mistake. I was actually crying at the airport convinced that there had been some kind of error: I was going to get there and they would see it was me and someone would say, “Oh you poor thing,” and they’d give me a gift card for Starbucks and send me back to the airport.

Banff was the first time I’d ever even met another writer. When I got there, most of them had creative writing degrees and they were very focused on the Canadian scene. I’d been writing poetry, and had been publishing, Australia, England, the US, everywhere but Canada— which the other participants found bizarre. They’d ask why I would even submit to a magazine outside the country. The answer was because magazines in my own country wouldn’t touch my stuff. I couldn’t get published to save my life, in Canada!

It was at Banff that I met Susan Musgrave and Rhea Tregebov, and they were so encouraging, these amazing writers. They encouraged me to apply for a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts (which I hadn’t known existed) to finish Going Down Swinging. I got the grant, finished the novel, and sent it to a big agent. Big Agent signed me, couldn’t sell the book, and broke up with me!

I had met an editor from Random House along the way. After my agent dumped me I got back in touch with her. Turned out they had just brought in someone new to head up the publishing house —Anne Collins — so the editor encouraged me to resubmit Going Down Swinging. Anne loved it. They published it. And we’ve been together ever since.

What’s your writing routine? Longhand? Smoke signals? Late night, early morning, inside, outside?

I used to write at night, when I wrote more poetry. It was quieter and it was easier to go into that secret, quiet place, that shy little underside of yourself.

When I write a novel, I treat it more like a job. I have a page quota—two pages a day—little enough that it’s not too daunting to face every day. If I reach that goal, I feel chuffed and happy with myself. Some days I’ll write more than that, which is good because I can bank them and take a day off. If I do it every day, I know I’ll have a draft in six months. And it doesn’t matter where or what time I do it. I just have to do it.

As a mother, one of the really great things I see in your work is your ability to capture the dichotomy that is woman/mother. We’re not all just about self-sacrifice. Do you think you’ve identified a new genre, the Mother-as-Hot-Mess?

Oh I hope so! Actually, that’s what frustrates Sammie in One Good Hustle: Is she merely a product of who/where she comes from, or is there a choice in who she becomes.

I think when you have a child—your creation—you expect them to be like you. It’s a bit startling if they behave in a way that’s not like us. Grace (from Going Down Swinging) is often looking after her mother. Sammie too. If you do have to “pussy up” at a young age, then you’re forever going to have backbone—but how you choose to use that is up to you.

After my mom got sober in her 40s, she used to say, “If I put half the effort that I put into drinking, into building something positive, I’d be a millionaire by now.” Her old response to things was so often a big fuck you, which in her case was destructive, but it doesn’t have to be. Ultimately it’s about cause and effect. The choice for Grace, Sammie, is, do you emulate or reject the example being set?

There are themes of isolation in all your books. A kind of us vs. them, with storekeeps, neighbours, casual family friends, even the people who take Sammie in, all being a little suspect. What makes this socio-economic world of yours so clannish?

I think it happens to any group or family who lives in a way that isn’t on TV.  When what’s going on at home is something you can’t talk about on Monday at school you learn how to keep a secret. Kids figure that out pretty quickly. Oh, you don’t need to be told! (laughs)

One time when I was just a little kid, it was after Christmas break and the teacher was going around the circle and everyone was telling what they had for Christmas dinner. My mother was a pretty heavy drinker in those days. That year, she had put up a tree, bought all the presents, got them all wrapped — she remembered everything but food. So we had whatever was in the house for Christmas dinner. All the kids were throwing up their hands saying, ‘turkey and cranberry sauce,’ and ‘potatoes and gravy,’ whatever. Christmas food. When the teacher got to me, I was all excited, because I had something original and I said, “apples and toast!” Dead silence.

It becomes pretty clear.

I remember a sleepover at a friend’s house. Little girls all talking about how their parents got married, the weddings and photographs. My mom and dad were never married. I started to tell them that, but the shock and disbelief… I back-peddled damn quick!

It becomes pretty clear. If you haven’t got something normal to say, don’t say anything at all.

I’m sure your books have been the subject of essays and certainly many a high school keener book report. I had a young man ask me why Sammie ‘was a wuss’ when she was with her dad. So, what are you going to tell the young scholar who asks you if Sammie hiding in the sofa is a metaphor for an agreeable sort of infantilizing when she’s with her father? Does Sammie feel like more of a child when she’s with her father?

I didn’t do it consciously, but that’s pretty accurate. She’s so hopeful that her father will somehow start acting like a father—whatever that means to her—kids who want that are willing to do anything they can to make it happen. They show their bellies and throats in hopes of pleasing the alpha dog.

We at The Winnipeg Review are animal lovers. What’s with the cats?

(Laughs.) Funny you should mention that.

When I first saw the early cover options for Going Down Swinging, I reached for the one with the kitten in the martini glass. I understood it on a gut level, but I still had to ask ‘what’s with the kitten?’ My editor said, ‘Your book is wall-to-wall cats!’ I think some things become such a part of your mental furniture that you don’t even notice them any more.

We did have cats growing up, but they never lasted. My mother and I were not very good at providing a solid home for pets. Or people.

Post a Comment

Your email address is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>


Susie Moloney

Susie Moloney is the author of four novels: Bastion Falls, A Dry Spell, The Dwelling, and The Thirteen. She has a bit of a girl crush on Billie Livingston.