Julie Paul is the author of two collections of short fiction, The Jealousy Bone (2008) and The Pull of the Moon (2014). Her recent work has garnered much acclaim from such outlets as The Coastal Spectator, The Other Press, The Toronto Star, and The Globe and Mail, which listed The Pull of the Moon as one of the top 100 books of 2014. In addition, it was just named a national bronze medalist in the 2015 Independent Publisher Book Awards in the category of short story fiction. Paul's writing can also be found in The Danforth Review, The New Quarterly, carte blanche, and numerous other journals. In 2005, her story "Feeding on Demand" made the short fiction shortlist for the CBC Literary Competition. Paul currently lives in Victoria, British Columbia, with her husband and daughter, where she can be found teaching, writing, and working as a massage therapist. In a conversation with profiles editor Christina Consolino, Paul talks about how her writing reflects her life, her transformation as a writer since becoming a mother, and what being a mother means to her.
Christina Consolino: The Pull of the Moon is your second collection of short fiction. How did the stories in this new collection emerge from your experiences in motherhood? Do these two collections differ in terms of their treatment of motherhood?
Julie Paul: In both collections of stories, I explore the world of parenting from many vantage points. In my first book, The Jealousy Bone, a couple of stories deal with fertility issues—challenges friends and family were having at that time—and other stories feature babies and young children. These stories reflect my own reality back when I wrote them. In the new collection, I include some teenaged characters—my reality now—but I also have stories with younger children in them (and women who want to get pregnant, too). The kids just keep popping into the scenes! Family life is a never-ending source of material for me. Also, I'm the oldest of four children, and I have a really good memory, so my siblings are also good resources, although perhaps my family is less pleased about that than I am.
We learn by our relationships, and thus, the people in my life are quite influential to my writing, whether they're a direct result of me being a mother or not. I hope that my stories contain some emotional truths that have come from experiences I've had.
CC: Many of the mothers in your book engage in erratic behaviors. In "Adios," Simon's mother lives with an imaginary husband; Diana asks her daughter's boyfriend to provide sperm for artificial insemination in "Viable"; Joni, from "Weeping Camperdown," stalks her new love interest. How did you come to birth stories with eccentric mothers?
JP: I write to have fun—to entertain myself first, and then, hopefully, my potential readers. I wish I could say that I'm trying to get bigger messages across, or meme-worthy ideas that will make someone's life better, but that's just not me. I like to follow O. Henry's secret: "I'll give you the whole secret to short story writing. Here it is. Rule 1: Write stories that please yourself. There is no Rule 2."
What keeps my interest when writing stories is creating characters that ring true, and then exploring what happens when I put these people in various situations. I ask "What if?" a lot as I write, mostly making it up as I go along. Sometimes these oddballs, these eccentric people, make their appearance this way. So, I don't really set out to write characters that behave oddly—they just seem to appear on the page.
Sometimes the situations within the stories are a reflection of what's going on in the world around me, and I let my imagination take things further, play with ideas, or push the consequences a little further. And maybe, too, it's about letting my alter-egos out a little more on the page. . . .
CC: Along those same lines, some of the mothers in your stories do not embrace motherhood in the traditional sense. For example, in "Black Forest," the mother has left behind her husband and precocious daughter in order to "gather herself." What prompted you to talk about a different, yet very real, side of motherhood?
JP: I think parents of both genders are under an enormous amount of pressure to do it all, and sometimes, we crack. We can't do it. We're not always going to rise admirably to the task at hand, and in "Black Forest," the mother is the one who cracks first. We hear a lot about fathers leaving, but not as much about mothers. And while it's not something that I ever see myself doing, I think most mothers, me included, have had those moments of wondering what life would have been like had we not become parents. For me, motherhood has been, overall, a tremendously positive experience, and I believe much of that is a result of both luck and being a part of a supportive family and community. In some of my stories, I explore what it might be like to have neither of these.
CC: "Flip" stands as one of my favorite stories in the collection. After the main character, Claudia, contemplates a trip to Cuba with a co-worker, she feels powerful and alive. She thinks about herself: "Isn't she the same woman? Or is there a new girl in residence within? Or is it just that a part of her, seemingly dead or missing, is being brought back to life, a little resurrection?" Claudia's positivity and hopefulness should resonate with many readers, especially women, who have experienced similar transformations of self over time. How have you transformed as a writer since having your daughter?
JP: I've been reading the beginning of this story at events, and getting some positive reactions. It's also the only "happy ending" story in the book, which in and of itself, feels a little risky in a genre that seems to pride itself on endings of grief and darkness.
Ironically, becoming a mother happened at around the same time that I started taking my story writing more seriously. Previous to this, I'd been writing more poetry, but the story switch got flicked, it seemed, during this new mothering period. I'd given birth to a daughter, and a new writing identity emerged, too.
Transformation happens all the time to us, whether we're conscious of it at the time it's happening or not. Usually, I would say that we strain against it in the moment. Having children naturally limits the amount of time possible for writing, and that can be so challenging—a teething baby or a toddler in mid-tantrum wait for no one, least of all someone trying to write just one decent sentence. Like most mother-writers, I struggled with this. But what the experience did for me was teach me how to buckle down.
When my daughter napped for two hours a day, a brief and glorious period of time, I wrote. Once she was in preschool for three mornings a week, I wrote. Then, during the school days, when I wasn't working at my paying job, I really focused my energy on putting things down onto the page.
I've learned to not be so precious about writing—life isn't always easy, or controllable, and we as humans often need to adapt to a reality that doesn't live up to our vision of perfection. Of course, the urge to create, to communicate, does not go away, and eventually, if I don't write for a few days, I end up becoming rather grumpy. Thank goodness for my patient husband, grandparents and aunts, playdates, and Harry Potter movies.
I don't think you need to become a parent to learn these lessons; I don't believe in prescriptive parenting. Claudia, in "Flip," is being braver than she's ever been, reaching out to become involved in a relationship that will give her experiences she wouldn't otherwise have if she kept playing it safe. Not to mention the love she's receiving and giving.
CC: I found the title of the collection, The Pull of the Moon, so apt. In each story, the characters feel a yearning, a tug, an almost uncontrollable pull, toward someone or some state of being they've never experienced before. In "Pilgrim," you reference the pull of the moon in the actual, not metaphorical, sense. Did you recognize the theme, as well as the title, before you had written all the stories?
JP: No, I had no idea, really. I try to avoid thinking about theme altogether when I write, because it just ends up being way too obvious in my stories. My first book's theme is jealousy, and when I realized this, I tried to write one more straight-up jealousy story. It was awful! The story "Pilgrim" used to be called "The Pull of the Moon" in an earlier version published in The Dalhousie Review, but I revised it substantially and afterwards, my editor and I felt it needed a new title.
I'm pleased that the theme came through that way; I do believe that we're all acting on impulse instead of reason at times, and often we're not entirely sure where this impulse originates. I think the theme is a reflection of my story writing process, too. I don't plan things out; I don't know where things are going, or where they'll end up—at least not at the outset. You should see my vacuuming and lawn-cutting methods—kind of the same randomness in what really could be a more straightforward activity.
CC: Kathleen Winter, fellow Canadian and short story author, describes your writing as "masterful and sexy." I would agree that many of your stories are provocative in a way that might push against the boundaries of comfort for some readers. Was this your intent? What has reader reception for The Pull of the Moon been like?
JP: I'm glad that the stories might push a little against the comfort bumpers, although I don't think I consciously set out to do this—at least not in my first drafts. In the editing stage, I might try to enhance certain aspects of my stories. There is sex in a few of the stories in the new collection, as in my first, performed in a variety of ways, and I think it belongs in there—as it does in life! I'm not afraid to get a little eroticism into my stories, if it seems to fit.
So far, the reader reception has been really positive. I've attended a couple of book clubs that have read this book, and I just loved hearing their reactions and responses. They talked—and argued—about my characters as if they knew them, as if they were real people. That scenario is so gratifying to me, since I really do try to put character first. Similarly, I've had a number of mothers come up to me and mention how some of the stories have reflected their own experiences of mothering—in particular, "Black Forest," with its character, Jenny, a young girl with sensitivity issues, on the first day of her first period. It's wonderful to hear that some of the stories resonate with readers in this way.
CC: Your blog features a lovely mix of poetry, prose, and photography, and reveals the many sides of Julie Paul, which include writer, teacher, and massage therapist. Of course, you could add to that list, wife and mother among them. How has each role you play impacted your writing and which role influences your writing the most? With all of these roles, how do you find balance in your day-to-day routine?
JP: I am the kind of person who seems to do better with a multitude of roles. I trained as a massage therapist after attending one year of university, hoping to focus on creative writing and instead becoming discouraged. It turned out to be the best decision I could have made. I have a trade that I enjoy, one that allows for flexibility and a decent income, and it gets me moving and away from the computer. It allows me to write without thinking about profit, because—let's face it—writing does not often pay the bills, and when you put that kind of financial pressure on creative work, it often ends in stress and frustration.
Right now, I'm working three days a week, plus a little teaching, so I have at least two dedicated days (in a row) for writing. I write every day, though, just a little, but on those two full days I can get into it more deeply. Of course, there are always demands that threaten to disturb this routine—that's life. I try to keep things in balance as best as I can. My family knows that if I don't write, I'm not my best self, so they understand when I ask them to leave the house for a couple of hours. I'm lucky to have my own small office in our small cottage-like home, but it's mostly for my books and papers. I write best in an empty house. Or, paradoxically, in a busy coffee shop. Lots of noise—but not my noise. Nothing I need to attend to.
Being a mother is a role, yes, but it's more than that. More than making school lunches or teaching my child to load the dishwasher; more than teaching manners and kindness; more than signing permission forms or driving her to band practice. All of these tasks are vitally important, yes. But to me, being a mother is something else: it's a doubling (or tripling, quadrupling, and so on) of yourself, with, then, the constant possibility that a part of your very being will be lost. Occasionally, that worry might be over the loss of the original self, replaced by the new identity—entity—that's taken you over. How many times do mothers hear, "Oh, her? She's so-and-so's Mom"? But more often, for me, it's the other way around; imagining not having my child in my life is what defines mother love to me—that intensity of connection that would devastate me if it were gone, and therefore, a reminder of what I cherish most.
CC: What can we look forward to from you in the future?
JP: Right now I'm working on my first poetry manuscript, with both new work and poems I've written over the past 20 years. Hopefully, the novel I spent many years writing will see the light of day, too. And I can't seem to find the off switch for stories, so I've got a few of them in various stages of development.