Lauren Kirshner is the type of person you want to take record shopping, and ride bikes with around her west-end Toronto neighbourhood. Maybe it’s because she’s an old soul who imbues her writing with a honeyed, nostalgic quality. Her first novel, Where We Have To Go (M. & S., 2009), is the bildungsroman of a gawky girl, Lucy, set against a nineteen-nineties Toronto backdrop, and was a finalist for the 2010 Toronto Book Award. Kirshner was mentored by Margaret Atwood while completing her master’s degree in creative writing, at the University of Toronto. Her writing has appeared in multiple Canadian publications, including Elle Canada, the Globe and Mail, and This Magazine. She is also the founder of Sister Writes, a writing workshop for marginalized women. Currently she is the Canada Council writer-in-residence for the County of Brant Public Library, in Paris, Ontario, and is at work on her second novel.
“I love old stuff. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been attracted to physical objects from a time that is unfamiliar to me. The history seems trapped inside, and it needs stories to get released. In elementary school, I remember my friends were all getting Skip Its, this toy you wrapped around your leg and sort of skipped over. Meanwhile, I was going with my mom to garage sales. I had become obsessed with old photos of people I’d never met. I remember this one photo of a guy from 1917, frowning at the camera with his hair all side-parted. I had the biggest crush on him. At the bottom of the photo it said the name of the photography studio and ‘Hamilton.’ I’d never been there, but suddenly I was imagining his life in Hamilton, his house, what he did. For me, objects have always been great triggers for stories.
“I was born in Toronto and a lot of my works are inspired by the city. It has no shortage of secrets and obvious treasures. One of my earliest memories is riding the subway when the seats were still mustard-coloured vinyl. When I was a teenager I started exploring Toronto on my own. One of my favourite places was Goodwill Buy the Pound at Jarvis and Adelaide. It’s a condo now, but in the mid-nineties it was like that room in the fairy tale Rumpelstiltskin, where all the gold is spun—treasures galore! I’d come home with bagfuls of books. I like wandering around in Honest Ed’s and dollar stores. A feeling of such richness comes over people because there is no such thing as no. I’m attracted to a place if there’s the idea that interesting, important, or life-changing things have happened there. You don’t get that feeling from a Starbucks, but you definitely do in the underwear section of Honest Ed’s.
“Music was a huge influence. If I weren’t a writer, I’d want to be an old-time country singer like Patsy Cline. I would be a revivalist of that sound. Growing up, I wanted to be a music journalist. Every inch of my room was covered in posters. In high school, in 1997, I wanted to be Patti Smith in 1977. I was in love with Joe Strummer, from the Clash. I interviewed him for Now, and the first thing I told him was that I had a picture of him in my locker in high school. I love early punk. It just captures a very hungry, urgent lust for life. There’s a restlessness there that creates a very strong, creative, brave impulse. It cuts away everything that’s not essential; it’s direct. My challenge in writing is figuring out what I want to say and what’s the most powerful, direct way to do that.
“I feel very grateful to have been mentored by Margaret Atwood. One of my favourite novels of all time is The Edible Woman. When I first met her, I was feeling very shy. I put on my best blouse and skirt, and waited at the corner of Bloor and St. George. We had coffee at Bar Mercurio, in the Annex. I didn’t have any preconceived notions about what she would be like. She was extremely generous with her energy and insight, and gave me wonderful encouragement as I wrote my first novel. One of the most important lessons she taught me was the importance of knowing your characters from A to Z. She encouraged me to really think about their backstories. They might be a secondary character, but knowing them inside out still counts.
“Where We Have To Go is my world, but not my story. Lucy is quite different from me. She’s not a crazy music fan. Lucy started out as a short story. She kept talking to me and I kept listening. She had an imaginative, searching, confused, funny voice. A twenty-five-page short story turned into sixty pages, and then I realized there was a lot more to it. Story is very important, and I access the story through the characters. I love the short stories of Grace Paley and Leonard Michaels for their fierce, unapologetic characters. Writing people is trying to figure out what their secrets are. Getting my characters to tell me their secrets is what makes writing a challenge and why I love doing it. I write long and deep, and then I pull back and edit. Subsequent drafts are really about figuring out the meat of the story. The greatest feeling is just being at my desk and enjoying it. Yeah, it’s challenging. Yeah, it doesn’t always come easily. But being at the heart of a story and being a channel for a story is really incredible.”