A Conversation with Caitlin Galway

Author of the forthcoming Blackbird (Aqueous, July 2013)
By Stephanie Renae Johnson

I first read Caitlin Galway before I came to work with Prick of the Spindle, while doing a review of the first print version for another press. I was struck numb by her beautiful wordplay and stunning, exotic images–“It was dark but for the bloody, underwater glow of a red lava lamp.” Galway soon debuts with her first novel, Blackbird, anticipated in July 2013. I was lucky to grab Ms. Galway between projects to talk about the general arch of her writing career thus far.

SRJ: Your novel Blackbird is due to come out in 2013. From the teaser posted on your author website, it sounds like you are making further foray into the life of a young girl, as you do in much of your work. Can you tell us more about why you choose the characters you do?

CG: I tend to veer toward cracked and quirky characters, as I find them the most fascinating and they’re to whom I most closely relate. Ultimately, though, every one develops organically. They spring into vague shape and gradually evolve the more I get to know them, with the best interest of the story as priority.

SRJ: I always write with my next writing project in mind, which might be why I am always frantic when I finish things, instead of relieved. What about you—do you have a sequel planned after your novel?

CG: No sequel to the first novel, but I’m about halfway into my second. I very rarely write with more than one project in mind, but rather one immediately after the other. My method is that I have a skeletal plot mapped out, and experience compulsions to explore long-term interests that have emerged as temporary infatuations; currently it’s woolly mammoths, last week it was Tolstoy. Soon it will be something else. I can focus on one piece at a time because it’s essentially made up of different story ideas layering and tying into one another.

SRJ: You are a busy lady. You’re in school. You edit. And you are very prolific. Do you sleep? How serious is your caffeine addiction?

CG: I feel like I haven’t slept in seven years. I usually clock out in the middle of doing something and wake up with paper stuck to my face. As for the caffeine addiction, it’s going to make me sound like a child. I can’t stand coffee, the grown-up caffeine, but I drink between 5-10 teas filled with sugar or whipped cream on a daily basis. Bizarrely, never a cavity in my life.

SRJ: This ties in, slightly, but: what were the largest challenges in writing your novel? I assume time was one. Any specific characters you found particularly difficult to form? Did your plot come easily?

CG: Blackbird is the only piece of mine that’s in part autobiographical, so the plot felt natural to flesh out as it had, to a degree, already been lived. It’s certainly fictionalized, but much of it directly draws from my life, and otherwise falls from a framework of reality. Truth be told, I wrote the original draft when I was a teenager and briefly homeless/cordially institutionalized, as can be gauged from the book synopsis—so I would count living conditions as the biggest challenge. They bit. The formation of the characters wasn’t difficult in any particular case, but it’s certainly a sensitive matter dramatizing personalities that are loosely based on real people. 95% of a character could be fiction, but if someone recognizes the 5% that’s based on them, the excrement could hit the air conditioning, as Kurt would say.

SRJ: What inspires you? You have beautiful language in your writing. My favorites from one of your short stories: “inner vein-work like the blueprint of a body.” Where do you find this treasure trove?

CG: Thank you, that’s very kind. Now and then I have to squint and really concentrate on the imagery I’m trying to illustrate, but usually it’s akin to playing the piano. The brain locks into a certain state, and without repeatedly pausing to consult the keys, there’s somehow accuracy, music. Hopefully, at least.

SRJ: What is the number one book on your shelf you want to read, but you know you never will finish? My sense of dramatic irony never lets me finish Sylvia Plath’s Unabridged Journals, for example. I already know what happens. Is there any book like that for you?

CG: For me, it would be The Diary of a Young Girl. It was given to me and I can’t quite bring myself to even start it. There’s something about Anne. Her torment, her thoughtfulness, how young and truly beautiful and human she was—then knowing what happened to her. If I read her diary, had her face and thoughts crawling around in my brain, I would blip out of functionality. 

SRJ: Between your stories, I find some common themes of death and loss—why? Do you have any favorite issues to stick into your writing?

CG: I’ve definitely noticed that, as well. The thing is that I think about death almost every second of the day. Literally. It’s a cumbersome OCD tick—just a white noise scramble, all day long. It’s like sitting next to a group of hyper-neurotic people on a bus, and they’re talking very loudly, but I can’t switch seats. Also, my eldest brother has always had extremely precarious health, so a certain anxiety has been tattooed into my design. I have a propensity toward writing about the subconscious, as well. Dreams, mental illness, hallucinations, delusions, so on. I feel very at home in the absurd.

SRJ: You aren’t too far from my age—how do you find being in your twenties affects your writing? Do you have to hold your characters back from club hopping and eating easy mac in hopes of something a little more poetic?

CG: Yes and no. The banal and less poetic details of the everyday can contribute to a more striking and empathetic depiction of a character’s world—but I almost always set my stories in different eras, so I suppose even then the commonplace is tinged in retro poetics. And if we’re not counting bars (because bars are timeless), I can’t see myself writing a club scene. I’m not cool enough for clubs; the reader would never believe me.

SRJ: Along that line, how do you address technology and name brands in your work? Within this post modern world of literary fiction, I feel there is a silent pressure for writers to talk about their character’s cell phones and network sites, since they are so inherent in our lives. Do you feel this too?

CG: I can sense that this pressure exists, but I don’t personally feel its weight. I’m extremely out of touch with technological fads and trends. Blackberry-Raspberry-Strawberry phones and all of that. Given that most of my stories take place between 1950 and 1990, none of it needs to factor into my writing. And while I very rarely mention brands, if I do it’s usually to locate or amplify a definitive era. I really do believe that one need only to write artfully, and from a place of truth, to be relevant in fiction.

Caitlin Laura Galway is a Toronto-based fiction writer and freelance editor. She is presently an English Literature major at Queen’s University, and an editor at Metazen.ca. Most recently, she was the winner of Riddle Fence’s 2011 Short Fiction Contest and CBC’s 2011 Stranger than Fiction Contest. She was also a finalist for the 2012 Gloria Vanderbilt Prize, Glimmer Train ’s 2010 Fiction Open Contest, and Matrix Magazine‘s 2011 Litpop Award. Her work has appeared in numerous journals across the globe.