By Susan Johnston
“A spot of blood falls on the pressed white table-runner. I cough, clear my throat, begin.”
—from “Fairy Tales for Survivors,” a short story in Seeking Shade by Frances Boyle
Ottawa author Frances Boyle recently spoke with Apartment613 about where she finds inspiration, her writing process, and the value of artists bring us during uncertain times. Last month, Porcupine’s Quill published her first collection of short fiction, titled Seeking Shade.
Seeking Shade explores what Boyle describes as people’s “intentions and actions and how they interplay with each other.” The author describes herself as “living and well-settled in Ottawa,” and this book follows works of poetry and a novella.
“I still feel like I’m above the surface of things and trying to get a little bit deeper. Art both reflects what we are as humans, but also helps us shape and collate experience into something that’s concrete, but fluid,” said Boyle on why she writes. Boyle has written throughout her life, with pauses, or what she calls “minimal output,” during years spent raising her family and pursuing a legal career.
“Artists have always been there to respond to major events in the world,” she continued. “If they see it through a lens that is not a broad canvas but is personal, then that still is speaking of truth. And it has its importance and its weight. It’s all about the precision of language and making the phrase as apt as you want it to be.” In that way, her writing helps us “see through to the interior of things.”
For example, the final story in Seeking Shade, “Fairy Tales for Survivors,” began as a stream-of-consciousness retelling of Sleeping Beauty. “Eventually, I came up with an idea of structured storytelling as the genesis for this character who is trying to tell her story and convert it into something new,” said Boyle. “Once I had her telling her story, I wanted a very well-intentioned but slightly hapless facilitator who really was biting off more than she could chew in this group.”
“Artists have always been there to respond to major events in the world. If they see it through a lens that is not a broad canvas but is personal, then that still is speaking of truth.”
Boyle says she is also “doing a few more reviews of poetry books, which feels good.” She’s been a member of Ottawa’s ARC Poetry Magazine editorial board since 2010.
“It is a way to get to the closest of close readings on poetry, to actually engage with it to the extent of being able to write a review that hopefully does justice to the work that the poet has done,” she said.
When asked who influences her writing, Boyle listed several novelists and fellow short fiction writers, but said that she isn’t usually taking notes when she reads.
“I don’t know that I read for inspiration as much as for pleasure,” said Boyle. “I love writing that carries me along. I love story—solid stories, which can sometimes make up for less lovely writing. I like rhythm in poetry. I like characters that can take me places that I wouldn’t otherwise go.” She reads more widely in fiction than in poetry, citing Alice Munro and Marilynne Robinson as influences, noting that Robinson’s Gilead is a book she rereads every year.
“The work is to try and tease out what’s the conflict in a story and where that is, and to get a better sense of what the story wants to be, and what you want it to be, although the two are not necessarily the same thing.”
She also credits the fiction writing teachers she’s had over the years, both local and beyond. “I’ve learned from renowned writers like Robert Kroetsch, Isabel Huggan, and Audrey Thomas, as well as some lovely local writers who became friends.” She includes Rita Donovan, Mary Borsky, the late Jan Andrews, and members of her writing group, the Ruby Tuesdays.
What did she learn from these writers? “The work is to try and tease out what’s the conflict in a story and where that is, and to get a better sense of what the story wants to be, and what you want it to be, although the two are not necessarily the same thing.” Boyle clearly holds her teachers and colleagues in great regard: “Working with teachers who know the craft and can bring that out is the most wonderful thing. I’ve been very lucky in working with all those people.”
So, what’s keeping her busy now? “I’m in the midst of selecting and organizing poems. What I’d really like to have come out more is the sense of magic; power and ritual and whatnot. My very earliest readings were books about magic. Fairy tales first, of course, and then the contemporary magic of E. Nesbit and Edgar Eager, and books like that. It’s always been there as a current. It’s something that I’m anxious to see more fully developed in the next poetry book.”
Boyle notes that her collection Seeking Shade drained her of most of her short stories, but she’s still got a few rough drafts.
“I have a few more stories in draft; ones that didn’t make the cut because they still felt a little too raw. So I’m going to work on them, but I’m also continuing the magic and fairy tale idea.”
Frances Boyle is the author of Light-carved Passages (Buschek Books, 2014), Tower (Fish Gotta Swim Editions, 2018), This White Nest (Quattro Books, 2019) and Seeking Shade (Porcupine’s Quill Press, 2020). She’s reading with Mississauga’s Anna Yin as part of Toronto’s Art Bar (online) Poetry Series on September 22, and participating (with David Bergen and Souvankham Thammavongsa) in The Ottawa International Writers Festival Art of the Short Story conversation on October 2. For more information, check out her website.
Susan Johnston is passionate about the transformative power of stories. She’s been making radio about social justice and the local arts scene since 1999, and currently hosts #AskingForAFriend on CKCU FM every Tuesday.