It’s been a while since our last installment of How She Does It, so with great excitement and clapping of hands, we present our next inspiring interviewee: Théodora Armstrong!
Théo is one of those people who excudes not only genuine niceness, but also oodles of talent. It’s a combination that makes you want to be her friend immediately–and then delve into her creative work: she’s multi-talented, with successful writing and photography careers. Her photographs range from personal portraits to atmospheric art pieces (see two of her “Canyon Jumper” photos below), and her writing–fiction, poetry and non-fiction–has been shortlisted for literary awards and included in several anthologies. Her writing has even been compared to Raymond Carver and Flannery O’Connor–high and deserving praise indeed!
Whenever I’m in Vancouver, I try to snag a visit with this amazing writer, and the last time, she generously agreed to answer a few of our most burning questions about maintaining a balance between being a creative person and having a busy family life.
RV: Okay, let’s start with the basics. Where, and with whom, do you live?
TA: I live in East Vancouver, Canada, with my husband, daughter, and ferocious cat.
RV: And how did you come to be a creative person, specifially a writer?
TA: I have been telling stories for as long as I can remember. At age seven I went to one of the only Francophone schools in BC. The kids were bused in from all over the Lower Mainland, and during the long bus rides I’d tell elaborate stories to my seatmates. The journey from school bus entertainer to published author feels like a natural evolution.
RV: I agree! If only that were a profession these days. What would you say is your proudest (off-bus) career moment so far?
TA: Reading from my first published book, a short story collection titled, Clear Skies, No Wind, 100% Visibility, at the Vancouver Writers Fest. I have been attending the festival since I was a teenager, so to participate from the other side as a writer was truly thrilling.
RV: What else about your work brings you the most joy?
TA: Creating an entire world with the simplest tools.
RV: And what do you enjoy least about your work?
TA: The middle part. Beginnings and endings are exhilarating. Middles are hard work.
RV: So true. Beginnings and endings are seductive and the middle is a big old quadmire, isn’t it? What do you have to compromise in order to be a writer?
TA: Financial stability. It’s incredibly difficult to make an adequate living as a writer. And it’s not getting any easier.
RV: What do you still hope to achieve in your field? Any secret (or not-so-secret) ambitions?
TA: I’d like to write books in forms other than short fiction. I write poetry and non-fiction. I’d love to write a children’s picture book one day or a young adult novel.
RV: Oh yes–do write that YA novel! I highly approve of that. Several of the characters in your short story collection are children or teens, so clearly you enjoy telling stories from younger perspectives. I’ll be the first in line to read your YA fiction! What quality do you think is the most important for a person to be successful as a writer?
TA: Insatiable curiosity.
RV: How do you juggle the work you do with your other demands or responsibilities?
TA: With great difficulty. Many helping hands is the only way I get anything done. That and accepting a messy house from time to time.
RV: I’ve come to suspect that there must be a direct relationship between the cleanliness of a writer’s house and how much they are writing. That said, I know a lot of writers for whom cleaning is a procrastination technique–sort of part of the process. When you’re on a roll, how do you work best?
TA: I work best first thing in the morning, but I haven’t been able to work that way in years. I buy earplugs in bulk and work anywhere I find a moment.
RV: Now onto the tasty parts: Which book has made a big impact on your life?
TA: Gloria, by Keith Maillard, made a huge impact on my life. I read Maillard’s book when I was twenty-two, and at the time my focus as a writer was poetry. Gloria is a coming-of-age novel set in 1950s West Virginia. The story follows heroine Gloria Cotter, a privileged, high-society girl, on a journey toward independence. Some years after reading the book, I found myself in West Virginia on the lawn of an estate surrounded by a flock of country-club glitterati. I had never felt more out of place in my entire life, but suddenly I had a searing sense of déjà vu. Everything around me looked strangely familiar. It took me several minutes to realize I was remembering Maillard’s book. At that moment, I knew I wanted to write fiction. I wanted to create worlds and transport people in the same way I was transported by Gloria.
RV: Who is your favourite author?
TA: Picking a favourite author is like picking a favourite child. It never feels fair. I have favourite short stories though: A Good Man Is Hard To Find, Flannery O’Connor; The Dead, James Joyce; Dance in America, Lorrie Moore; Bullet in the Brain, Tobias Wolff.
RV: The children’s writer in me must ask: Who was your favourite author as a child?
Roald Dahl was a favourite. After my father read me The Witches, I went through a phase where I anxiously examined women in checkout lines for itchy heads or square-toed shoes. I’m rediscovering all my picture book favourites with my daughter. Robert Munsch is fun to read—so theatrical! We love 50 Below Zero, Mortimer, and The Paper Bag Princess. So many great voices and sound effects. I’m reading Norbert Nipkin by Robert McConnell to her right now. It is my first autographed book signed by the illustrator Steve Pilcher! When we read it, my daughter likes me to hold the book as far away from her as possible. It’s a little scary, but I loved it as a child.
RV: Do you eat while you read? If so, what?
TA: Of course! Buttered raisin toast and a cup of tea go perfectly with a good book.
RV: Where was the best meal of your life? Can you describe it?
TA: In Bologna, Italy. Sadly, I have no idea where exactly I was or what exactly I was eating. My girlfriend was working a design tradeshow and we spent most of our five days in Italy inside a conference hall (this was unbearably cruel), but one night we were whisked out into the countryside and plopped down at a long outdoor table overlooking a picturesque garden. It was one of those disorienting experiences—someone ordered for the group, I didn’t know anyone at the table, I couldn’t understand much of the conversation. But none of that mattered. The mood was festive, the setting beautiful, and the waiters kept bringing out baskets of pillowy breads and platters of meat and cheese and vegetables. The unexpected was what made the night so memorable.
RV: What is always in your fridge and pantry?
TA: Turkish chunk honey. Buram brand. When I get down to the last spoonful I dash out to Yek O Yek on Main Street and stock up.
RV: What is the most important non-food thing in your kitchen?
TA: My husband. Our family is happiest when he is in the kitchen. All feels right in the house. When I’m in the kitchen we are living on the edge.
RV: Ha! I’d argue that living on the edge can lead to some pretty creative moments, especially in the kitchen. Who is the person you are most inspired by?
TA: My daughter inspires me. She asks the tough questions and she won’t accept a pseudo answer. She wants the truth. She makes me question why I colour a sky blue.
RV: What is the best piece of advice you have ever received?
TA: For a writer: Spend more time reading than writing.
RV: That’s a good one. It makes me feel less guilty for not writing as much as a think I should. Thanks for that! And thanks for answering our questions. It’s wonderful to get yet another perspective on the creative life. All the best for your next book–I hear it’s a novel! Can’t wait to read it, Théo.