All roads lead to Rome. Except, of course, if you are being exasperatingly precise and you point out that roads on islands, for example, don’t really lead anywhere except to other places on that same island. Anyway, traffic is so congested in Rome that I imagine the locals are pretty happy to disagree with the idea that all roads lead to Rome. In fact, they might suggest, most roads lead to Berlin or West Palm Beach or Barstow. With that in mind, let’s welcome Thea Atkinson today. We shall not be asking her any questions about Rome or Julius Caesar or the Pax Romana, but I imagine she would have plenty to say if we did.
Hi, Thea. Welcome, greetings, hello, and all of that. Thanks for stopping by. Before we submerse ourselves in the world of writing and books, can you tell us a bit about yourself?
I wish there were some interesting secrets I could divulge. The simple truth is that I was brought up in a small Nova Scotia community on the tip of the province, which meant almost everything in my life had something to do with water. I lived in a fishing community even though my father was a brick layer, I worked in fish plants from the time I was 14 until I was in my 20s. My mom was a floor lady in a fishplant. I married a fisherman.
I can tell you that I intimately understand back breaking labor because of the hours I spent hunched over a filleting machine or a fish trough. I understand what it’s like to wear bread bags over socks before you put them into rubber boots because there’s so much water there’s no guarantee it won’t splash over the top and get your feet soaked.
I can tell you what it’s like to slit the belly of a herring over and over again, looking at the clock, telling yourself you won’t look again for at least another hour, and then when at last you think enough time has gone by you discover only 10 minutes have passed.
I will admit that for me: It was all a little slice of heaven.
I took some computer programming training early in my career but I ended up as a teacher at a local community college teaching writing because I also spent some time as a freelancer. My writing is heavily influenced by the fact that I live so close to water, but also, because as the only sister to three brothers in a neighborhood full of boys, I tend to write about relationships. It always intrigued me to watch how the boys reacted to people.
I understand, perhaps, to some degree. I’m the youngest of three boys myself. Boys are rather reactive. And happily so, particularly if it involves fire, or mud, or launching rotten fruit through the air with a stretchy length of rubber. Good times, childhood. Anyway, speaking of launching things, what started you writing in the first place?
I have no idea. I remember writing an essay in grade 3 as an assignment and the teacher was planning to submit the best of them to our local radio station. My best friend won. I was so thrilled for her that I wanted to pull her hair out. Maybe I wanted to work at my writing so that I could get as good as her. She was always the better writer. So no matter what the actual motivation was, I wrote some little thing every year until I took it up seriously when I was 26. At the time the Internet came to our community. That was really the catalyst for me. I discovered other writers to network with. I learned a lot in the first two years and I still remember some of the names from the listservs I was on, and I still keep in touch with some.
So where did you end up in terms of genre?
I would like to say literary fiction, but I’m petrified to do so. I’ve heard the definition of literary fiction is: that which does not sell. Most people assume that it’s boring. When I think of literary fiction, I think of The Shipping News, and Fall On Your Knees, and a ton of other novels that could be called anything but boring. So I just call myself a mainstream writer at the moment. I’m hoping the ploy works.
My plots always have something to do with relationships. They’re always dark. In fact, my agent calls me her dark Canadian writer. A friend asked me to write her some romance fiction once, and I gave it the old college try. She was quite confused when I passed her a story about two octogenarians being intimate and ending up breaking bones.
Aargh. Bone density does have an inverse relationship with age, doesn’t it? Note to self: make sure there’s a decent amount of calcium in my diet. Well, everyone has a different take on romance, just like everyone has a different take on what constitutes a genuine Reuben sandwich. Speaking of corned beef and all that, are there any particular books that’ve had a great deal of influence on you as a writer?
I can’t answer this one. Every single book I have read has influenced me as a writer for some reason or other. Sometimes it’s because I want to achieve the same level of expertise; sometimes it’s because I thought, “Heck, I can do that.”
Speaking of influence, do you have any thoughts for other writers?
Write every day. Study other writers. Pay it forward whenever you can. Always assume your writing needs to be edited and then accept with grace the comments others give you because every comment can help improve the work in some way even if you don’t agree with it.
Accepting comments with grace is a valuable talent. Not just for writing, of course, but for life itself. May we all aspire to that. For writers, though, aspirations go nowhere without inspiration. Where do you find your own inspiration?
I gave up writing three years ago. I had been freelancing pretty heavily, and I just lost the zeal to put words on paper. In that time, I studied photography and took tons of pictures of musicians. I think I needed a break, and at the time I thought I would never go back. But if writing is in your blood, I think it just is in your blood. Whether or not people read me, I will continue to write the same as I always have, and continue to study the craft, the same as I always have. I continue to be inspired by my meanderings of what it is that drives people. My wonders about what drives me. And so that exploration for me is done with fiction.
At this point in your life, what do you hope to achieve with your writing?
I would like to have someone, some reader, say, “Wow. That was good.” That’s all. I’d really love to be as good as Alice Munro or Annie Proulx, but I think that’s pretty unachievable for me. So I satisfy myself with the hope that someone out there might just like one of my stories.
May you find many such readers. Thank you for stopping by, Thea, and best wishes for your writing.