Lisa Moore gives the reader control

The Giller nominee on her novel Caught and the 'shimmering things' that inspire

Photograph by Chris Bolin

THE 2013 SCOTIABANK GILLER PRIZE: Canada’s most distinguished literary prize awards $50,000 annually to the best Canadian novel or short-story collection published in English. In this series, Maclean’s highlights the work and artistic process of the five shortlisted nominees. In this edition, Caught author Lisa Moore writes about the power of imagination. Watch for upcoming interviews and book excerpts from Dennis Bock, Craig DavidsonLynn Coady and Dan Vyleta.

When Jackson Pollock splatters paint on a canvas, there’s room for interpretation: Maybe it’s a bear, someone running, jealousy. Modern artists urge observers to connect the dots with their own subconscious, encouraging a dialogue instead of a monologue. Lisa Moore, whose novel Caught is nominated for the Giller prize, crafts her scenes with the same purpose, and her economical use of language allows the imagination of the reader to twin with that of the writer, working together across the arc of the story. “The strongest fiction, for me as a reader, is that which allows me to create it in my head and, as a writer, I like to give the reader as much control as possible—I think that’s where the real pleasure lies.” Moore’s trust of the abstract is often where she finds the seeds of story ideas. “The glimmer of a beginning: the facial expression of someone in a café or the way light hits a landscape, it can be enough to get me started.” And Moore packs wit into her short, sharp sentences. She mines situational irony like a prospector, searching for the disconnect between our imagined version of events and the reality. Those moments of relatable tragi-comedy, says Moore, are humour’s sweet spot. “We all know what it’s like to go through life assuming that we’re right until we’re proven wrong. I think that can be pretty funny.” In Caught, through seized moments and pointed sarcasm, Moore’s imagination takes off.

Lisa Moore on writing

Today I have to fix a factually erroneous line, picked up by a copy editor (thank you) in an essay I’ve written about Mary Pratt for Canadian Art. So I have been thinking, off and on, all day, about how Pratt describes that moment when she is seized by the look of a particular object or scene or a particular slant of light and knows it must be painted, and it must be painted by her. She has described that urgent, demanding excitement of the senses as something akin to an erotic charge.

Late in the afternoon, yesterday, I was in a second-hand shop, standing in front of a mirror in a dimly lit hallway outside a row of dressing rooms. There was a woman in the shadows behind me, sitting bolt straight on a sagging leather ottoman. She was wearing a blue sequined minidress. It was the blue of a propane flame, bristling with porcupine needles of spark. A tiny white price tag was dangling from the neckline, tangled in her long, dark hair. She was speaking on a cellphone. She was telling a man named Charles that she was with him: I am with you Charles. I get you. Charles. I’m there. Charles. I’m right there with you. My God Charles, I’m listening. You listen to me for a sec. I’m there.

I was standing in front of the mirror in a red wool dress that was either too tight or not too tight. But I was lost in a sudden memory from earlier in the day. More a fragment or sensation than memory. A scrap flitting through. I had been jogging by the Bow River. It was overcast when I began but the sun came out and all the yellow leaves over the wet black pavement brightened as if someone had turned a dimmer switch to full blast. The river, which had been grey, became glacial green, and a man in fluorescent spandex power-walked past me. He was speaking into a white wire hanging from his ear. He said: No, it will be fun. We just wrap our heads around the reorg.

The night before I got on the plane to Calgary I dreamt I was looking out the window of one of the bedrooms in our country house around the bay. There was a wild animal on the lawn below, partially obscured by the streaks of condensation and the ripples in the very old glass.

It was some kind of deer, I thought. But as it stepped forward and lifted its head from the grass, I saw it had a long horn. I realized it was a unicorn and at that moment the dream surged with overwhelming, knee-weakening, dream euphoria. A charge so unexpected and physical it felt erotic.

Then the animal trotted out of the window frame and was gone. I was hoping it meant that if I managed to be alert on this trip, if I let the cocktail of jetlag and the pleasurable disorientation of a new city, the influence of stories I would hear from other writers at Calgary’s Wordfest and strange floating fragments of talk from strangers passing by, I might write some kind of story. Something might coalesce, a story charged with the significant, shimmering detritus of a single day, the flotsam of dreams and flux of crowds, intimate moments with strangers in elevators, errant lusts, the crunch of a peanut in a curried prawn dish. The thick scent of the organic oil of oregano I’d bought to fight a cold, a dense furry smell still clinging to the hotel glass I drank it from, just before dawn, a long way from home.

I imagined an entire managerial team fired in the spandex power-walker’s reorg. I imagined Charles flying over the handlebars of a racing bike, landing on his back in a swirl of yellow leaves or, better still, in the green river. I remembered the man beside me on the plane with his fat red pencil drawing a line through his Seek-A-Word puzzle. The word, whose letters ran diagonally through a square of jumbled letters, turned out to be two words: catalytic converter. I imagined there would be a way to bring it all together. A reorg, a conversion, a charge.

Then the woman on the ottoman behind me snapped her phone shut. I saw myself standing in front of the mirror, looking transfixed and lost and, frankly, frumpy in the red dress. She said to me sharply: I don’t know what your dilemma is. The colour is right and it fits. Go get it.

An interview with Lisa Moore, conducted by Julia De Laurentiis Johnson

Q: That essay you sent was a really entertaining snapshot of a couple of your days: what you did, what you saw, fragments of memory we all have when we try to think a few days back, like, “What stuck out about Tuesday?’’ How was that essay about writing?

A: It was about how a story comes together. When I go through my day, I’m constantly on the lookout for bits and pieces of shimmering things that could possibly go into a story. So, if I’m in a café, I look at people’s faces and try to imagine what kind of lives they lead, eavesdrop on the things they’re saying. Or even maybe the way the light is on the landscape—all of that stuff ends up working its way into my fiction.

Q: How do you write? Does inspiration strike you when you don’t expect it? Or do you sit down every day and slog it out—keep going out into the storm until you get hit by lightning?

A: There are two things going on, I think: I have an idea for a novel or story, some kind of glimmering beginning. If it’s a short story, it might be a feeling, like greed, and then I try to describe something ephemeral like that. But if it’s a novel, it’s usually something I can see—see the shape of it, something nascent. So that’s going on at one level, and then on the other, I’m just wandering around, picking up on things, looking into people’s faces. Those two different threads tend to braid together and form a story. And, of course, it’s all subconscious. I mean, I see those things, I jot them down in my notebook, but when I’m actually sitting at the computer writing, it’s more about diving into the fictive dream, being lost in whatever it feels like is unfolding in front of me.

Q: Do you feel more comfortable working from the abstract to the specific, or the specific to the abstract? Do you have a preference?

A: I never know when I sit down. I generally have an idea of the arc, and that’s what I’m working toward. And I never work in chronological order. I write scenes as they come to me and order them later.

Q: Sometimes your writing feels like you’ve traced an outline and then tossed ideas and observations against it to see what sticks, but it requires a bit of work on the reader’s part to link it all together—a bit like connecting the dots by way of audience participation. Are you trying to make us work?

A: I don’t know if I would call it work, but I think the power of fiction for the reader is that they rev up their imaginations when they read. So I might write, “The woman wore a red dress,” but, depending on how rich the reader’s imagination is, they’ll imagine what kind of sound the fabric makes, or what it feels like, whether it has ruffles or not. The more that the writer lets the reader create the story, the more pleasure there is in the reading, I think. The strongest fiction for me is the fiction that allows me as a reader to create it in my head. And as a writer, I like to give the reader as much control as possible. So I don’t think of it as work; I think of it as pleasure.

Q: A lot of the humour in your writing comes from describing the unfiltered consciousness—when we peek inside the minds of the characters to find out what they’re really thinking—and how they go about filtering those thoughts into words or actions. Why do you think that’s funny?

A: Situational irony: what we see with our eyes and then what’s occurring in the characters’ heads. And what they’re thinking might be completely in opposition to what we’re observing; it’s about our misconceptions and our assumptions and how they’re often wrong. The situation is never what it appears. It’s that showing up of the layers of what might possibly be happening, and I think that’s funny. Because we all go through life assuming we’re right unless we’re proven wrong. That’s funny!

Q: Much of this novel revolves around the main character rolling with the punches, adapting to surprising and interesting situations and learning about himself as he reacts to different situations. Why didn’t you call this book Freedom?

A: Oh, that’s such a great question! Well, the book really was an exploration of freedom for me, and what freedom could possibly be. But when Slaney [the main character of Caught] seeks freedom, it feels like he’s escaping all the yokes of responsibility and, as the story goes on, I think the reader—or even Slaney—comes to wonder whether responsibility is a chain or an avenue to freedom. So we’re all caught in our lives, in some way, and the question is: Do we choose the ways that we are caught or do they choose us? I’m not sure how free we all are. So the novel really is about being caught, as well as being free—but, damn, now I really wish I’d called it Freedom!

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