Within the science department, there are presentations that involve explosions, and research that translates very well into practical use. The drama department puts on amazing plays, while music brings us performances with instrument and voice. And don’t even get me started on the fervor and excitement that accompanies athletics. But what about the English department? Those students who find joy in the quiet, solitary act of reading and writing, that while is very emotionally fulfilling, lacks a sense of social engagement? To that, I bring to you the almighty book reading.
On Tuesday October 18th, the English department was given the great pleasure of attending a reading and question and answer session with Canadian novelist Alissa York, who has been short-listed for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, has won the Journey Prize and Bronwen Wallace Award for her short stories, and has had work appear in The Guardian and Canadian Geographic. York presented a passage from her newest novel, The Naturalist, and I had the added pleasure of speaking with her prior to the presentation on her inspiration, writing process, and future endeavors.
York’s interest in the natural world, which comes through in each of her novels in some form or another, stems from her Australian parents telling her childhood stories that always revolved around wildlife. She credits the spark in her writing career to a literature class she took in her first year of university, in which the professor allowed the class to write a creative paper as opposed to a more rigid research essay. York said of writing creatively for the first time: “it felt like my brain was on fire.”
This fire clearly lent itself towards passion rather than pain, as York went on to publish a collection of short stories, followed by four novels. York has an interesting writing method as she writes scene by scene, and usually ends up with every scene written from more than one point of view. Once she has them completed, she prints out the pages, physically cuts them up and moves them around to create the novel. She does this process a few times over, filling in any gaps in plot through constant revision, and ends up with a final draft which she once again edits tirelessly. York’s somewhat peculiar method of organizing means that her novels provide rich perspectives and include meticulous detail, made all the more impactful due to the vast amount of research she does before each project.
For The Naturalist, which is set in the Amazon, York journeyed to South America and spent a number of days on a boat, floating down the Rio Negro – taking the same route as her characters later would in the novel. York detailed for us the real-life events that made it directly into The Naturalist, including jumping into the river although wary of the anacondas, piranhas, and other potential harms that could have been awaiting her. Although York was afforded this adventure, her characters witness much more, which she notes is one of the great joys of writing fiction: “you can do things on the page that are crazy in real life.”
After her reading, which left all in the audience enthralled, York and Canadian novelist and English lecturer here at Augustana Marina Endicott opened it up to questions and bantered back and forth on where their story ideas come from, how they write differently, as well as how much they love their editors. The audience was also able to ask questions about their own writing, how to handle criticism, and some of the other complications that plague the creative writer daily. York also mentioned that she doesn’t necessarily have an idea for her next story, but rather that “there is a novel that’s there and knows itself, that’s burbling away now.” I, for one, am looking forward to the continued burble, as well as York’s next novel, and the next time such talent is invited onto our campus.