On Writing, with Judith Millar

This interview was originally published through Open Book Onterio in September, 2012! Enjoy!

Tell us about your new book, Grave Concern.

Grave Concern is a cross-genre goulash of literary fiction, mystery, humour and romance garnished with a soupçon of magic realism. Despite the dark happenings that set the plot in motion, the book is deliberately entertaining and light in tone. The story: after the sudden death of her parents in a car accident back in Ontario, middle-aged, sharp-witted, underemployed Kate Smithers ditches her antiseptic and lonely existence in a boomtown Western city and returns to her hometown. Living back in her ageing childhood home, she opens a grave-tending business. Needless to say, the longer she remains, the more remains she discovers—in particular, those of long-buried town secrets that eventually reach around, full circle, to Kate herself. 

Your main character, Kate, returns to her hometown in Ontario. What did you enjoy most about setting this novel in the place where you have your own roots?

Pine Rapids’ geography is a composite of a couple of Ottawa Valley towns, while its spirit and street layout is similar to my hometown. It’s always fun setting the action in a place you know well, because it is so indelibly etched on your own being there’s no need to stretch for symbolic meaning. Everything has been working away so long in your unconscious you just have to tell the story and the place participates as a matter of course. On top of that, local readers experience a very real joy; response so far is all crazy grinning and that deep satisfaction you get from having your place seen and recognized. 

Kate opens up a grave-tending business, which is the start of all her problems. Tell us about your research into this macabre profession. What were you most surprised to learn? 

I actually found very little evidence of for-hire grave-tending going on in this country. However, that wasn’t in the least discouraging, partly because I didn’t want facts to get in the way of a good story. Also, although Kate’s grave-tending work is of course an extended metaphor, from a plotting perspective (no pun intended) her work functions more as a setup for comic situations and a way to involve her in the life, or should I say death, of the community. 

What was your inspiration for Grave Concern? Did you know how it would all turn out when you began the project?

Grave Concern popped into my life much as do the “host of puzzling characters” in Kate’s life (see back cover blurb): that is, pretty much unbidden. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been looking for a way to write about my hometown of Deep River. It is a powerful force in my life, both creative and otherwise. Images, people, events, feelings, and a strong, almost spiritual, connection with that Canadian Shield country have tumbled around in my consciousness like laundry in a washing machine for, well . . . ever. But I could never find a thread to bind it together. One day I was skimming the classifieds in The Globe and Mail and came upon a tiny ad offering grave-tending services in a rural area of Vancouver Island. I looked up the link, and it appeared a pretty low-key operation, just some good-hearted soul trying to make some extra cash. The idea struck me as wonderful and absurd. Not only did it present a weirdly perfect occupation for a somewhat marginalized, small-town protagonist, but it suggested her very nature and the “voice” of the book: principally comic, but also wry, bemused, a bit sad, off the wall, and a little otherworldly. 

Did I know how it would turn out? No. I had no idea. My first mental image was of Kate standing in the bank lineup. Now there’s nothing to look at in a bank lineup but the calendar, always prominently displayed. And so it began . . . Kate realizes she has missed her most important client’s most important date and things develop from there. I honestly had no idea from day to day how the plot would develop. This will sound precious, but it’s the absolute truth: I would go to bed at night just itching to get sleep over with so I could get up and find out in the next morning’s writing what was going to happen next! 

Describe your average writing day.

I get up around 7:30, coax my teenage son out to school and settle down with breakfast and the local paper. Its wild mixture of humour and pathos is a perfect crucible for irony, cynicism and bemusement. The absurdity, craziness and outright stupidity on display every morning is like a tonic for comic writing. I only allow myself a limited time at it, though. Otherwise, depression sets in. I start writing no later than 9:30 and finish when I’m tired, usually three to four hours later. Occasionally I write six or more hours. I am a physical person and need to get out in the afternoon and do some kind of exercise or at least hoist a latte with a friend. Most evenings, I read books in the bathtub and hatch ideas for the next morning’s writing. Before I began having a lot of joint issues, one weekend day was reserved for getting out of the city: hiking, backpacking, cycling, canoeing, cross-country and backcountry skiing. There’s a direct correlation between physical activity, especially in a natural setting, and mental acuity, I find.

What authors have had the most influence on your writing?

I don’t know about the actual writing, but certainly my lifelong desire to write: Alice Munro. Always number one. Plus all the classic icons of the Canadian canon: Atwood, Laurence et al. For comic inspiration: James Thurber, Stephen Leacock, Todd Babiak, Rick Mercer, Cathy Jones, Mary Walsh. The radio version of Royal Canadian Air Farce. Wayne and Schuster! Mr. Bean. Monty Python. Even Republic of Doyle! I flatter myself that Grave Concern is a kind of midnight meeting of Edgar Allan Poe with Alexander McCall Smith!

What are you working on now?

For now, marketing this book. I have some idea of a sequel but, in my experience, the less I try to force it, the more likely some creative idea will come and tap me on the shoulder.