Sarah Leipciger’s debut novel, The Mountain Can Wait, is published this month by Tinder Press. A recent graduate of the MA in Creative & Life Writing at Goldsmiths, Sarah talks here about the importance of landscape in her fiction, what to do on encountering a bear and why comfy slippers are a vital accessory to writing
PJ: The landscape of Western Canada is as vividly drawn as each of the characters – how much was that evocation of your home country a motivation to write, living, as you are, in ‘exile’ in the UK?
SL: This is a very apt question, because my yearning for home, for that landscape in particular, had quite an influence on my decision to set the novel in Western Canada. Writing about that environment had a pretty soporific effect on me, and there were days, when the writing really flowed, that I came away from my desk feeling almost as if I’d been dreaming. It was similar to listening to an old, favourite album. Some scenes bordered on the self-indulgent. Luckily my editor had a nose for that and suggested cutting those scenes. People have started calling me a nature writer and, surprisingly, this has come as a shock to me – it wasn’t something I’d ever thought about – but I’m now onto my next novel and am seeing a pattern emerge: I’m most comfortable when the landscape of a story is outdoors. I wrote short stories before this but I think, in a short, there’s much less room to really get into detailed descriptions of scene – you have to select those certain details that will do the most work in pushing the story forward, or developing character – so all this nature business is a revelation to me.
PJ: Some of the details are surprising yet always convincingly dramatized – such as the fire that can smoulder underground, or Amy’s idea that the land is ‘angry’. There are encounters with wild life – the bear, the trapped hawk; Erin falling through the ice - are these from research or local knowledge/personal experience?
SL: Treeplanting paid my way through university, so all of those clinchers come from my own experience.
I once heard a similar story to the manager’s (the one about the bear and the two land surveyors), so I just stole that one from the logger who told it and made it my own. I did see bears when I was planting and I was always a complete wuss about it. When you see a bear close by, you’re supposed to drop your bags and walk away slowly. The idea is that the bear will be more interested in your bags than it is in you. If you run, the wisdom says, a bear will chase you, just as a dog would. Nowhere in this advice does it say squeeze your planting partner’s hand and weep… which is what we did.
I researched all of the hunting-related stuff, and I have one source to thank for that, two Americans I met online.
PJ: I see. What I found refreshing about The Mountain Can Wait, is the way you depict, in fascinating and specific detail, that world of work. The planting camp on the mountain is three-dimensional and full of danger, a perfect location for your character, Tom.
SL: Yes, I had all of that personal experience – three springs/summers – also, I chose this world because it was the perfect vehicle to convey Tom’s work ethic, his abilities in harsh terrain and his love of isolation.
PJ: Your characters are troubled in different ways, they are full of contradictions, which makes them all the more interesting. Eg, we learn that when it comes to hunting, Curtis doesn’t like killing and yet he gets caught up acts of violence; Tom is the tender yet reluctant father. Can you say something about how you grew your characters?
SL: The seed of the book really came from Tom, so his character arrived ready-made. Curtis was a reaction to Tom (I think that can be termed as a foil if my memory of Grade 10 English holds up!). I wanted these two to travel on a parallel but contradictory trajectory, sometimes crossing paths, always reflecting one another. I can only hope I achieved this. One strategic intervention with Tom was to write his dalliance with Nix – his morals needed to be challenged and he was becoming too much ‘the rock’. On that note, and on the other hand, I developed Curtis as the dreamer, the one who really believed an island in Howe Sound might save his bacon.
PJ: What are you writing at the moment?
SL: I started my next novel as soon as I finished the first… there have been a lot of distractions with the editorial process and now publicity, but I’m onto the next book. Without giving away too much, it’s a story about the giving and taking of life, narrated from beyond the grave, and takes place over three eras in three different countries.
PJ: What’s the shape of your writing day?
SL: I write (or do research) four days a week, from 10am until 3pm. Stops for lunch and kettle boiling. I keep a candle lit and wear comfy slippers, even in summer. Someone once asked me if I hang out all day in cool cafés with my laptop, but, no. I only write at home so I can have my dictionary and other reference books, novels that inspire and printouts on the wall. And I’m not very cool.
PJ: Which writers do you most admire – is there anyone author or book that really helped you grow as a writer?
SL: As a young person, Margaret Laurence and Alice Munro had a big impact on me, their abilities in conveying character and place, talking to me about my own home. In particular, Munro’s Who do you Think You Are had a great influence on me as a young reader and writer. This still holds true, but to these I would add Cormac McCarthy, Annie Proulx, Lorrie Moore, Orhan Pamuk and Joan Didion.
PJ: What are you reading at the moment?
SL: I’m rereading Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, though dipped it in the tub the other night (you know the drill, eyes start to close and you promise yourself you will not drop the book you’re holding, you will not drop the b--…) so it’s become quite fat and hard to grip. I’m also reading The Bees by Laline Paull. I’ve only just started but it’s extraordinary! Dystopian fantasy in a beehive. I highly recommend.
PJ: What would you like to pass on to someone embarking on their first novel?
SL: You have to believe in your characters and your story – as in, you’d be proud to take them to a party and introduce them to your friends. I’m not saying it matters what others think, it matters how you feel about the project. The other thing is, never give up! There’s no time limit, no age limit…