5 Questions with Catherine Graham

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Catherine Graham discusses her debut novel (Quarry), the 80s in southern Ontario and juggling different writing projects in our Five Questions series. She’ll be participating in IFOA Weekly’s ‘What’s Life Got To Do With It?’ panel discussion on Wednesday, March 7th at 7:30 pm.

IFOA: Quarry is your debut novel. Tell us a little bit about the different creative processes you went through while writing your first novel?

Catherine Graham: As a poet, writing prose was a very different experience for me. With poetry, I work with fragments, images and often incomplete thoughts to give the reader space to develop their own interpretation. Prose, on the other hand, demanded expansion. It was a place to round out thoughts and images by building scenes and bringing them to life through character, description and dialogue.

The image of a coiled spring comes to mind when I think of the difference between the two—compact for poetry, stretched for prose.

When writing Quarry, I started with poems I’d already written and then wrote bridges of prose between them. I liken the process to learning how to ride a bicycle—the poems were my training wheels. Once I felt confident enough with the prose, I could let the poems go. Looking back now I see how I was trying to transition myself from one form to another.

IFOA: The story is set in 1980’s southern Ontario. The title is Quarry. What’s the significance of “place” in the story?

Graham: The central image in the novel is a water-filled limestone quarry. At its edge, sits the bungalow in which Caitlin Maharg and her parents live. As the story builds, the quarry serves as metaphor for Caitlin’s journey. Layers of stone, watery depths and seasonal changes all connect to the complexities of her inner and outer lives and often mirror what’s happening to her.

IFOA: I understand you grew up beside a water-filled limestone quarry and like Caitlin Maharg, you lost your parents at a tender age. Is Quarry more fact than fiction?

Graham: Yes, like the protagonist in Quarry, Caitlin Maharg, I too lost my parents as a quarry-cover-jpeg-2teen/young adult. Even a cursory glance at my life story will reveal many of the same touch points that anchor my novel. Some have asked if this story is autobiographical. The answer is—it’s complicated. While Caitlin Maharg and I share many experiences, the novel is certainly not an autobiography.

Of all the characters in the book, the two most true to life are Caitlin’s parents: Donald Maharg and Mary Ellen (Rusty) Maharg. Their portrayals more or less accurately depict my own parents, including their first names. This was purposeful as I saw the book as a tribute to their lives, a way of keeping them alive, having lost them before I could know them as people and not just as parents. The novel was a way to mark the places they once held in this world like fossils in a limestone quarry.

The rest is largely fictionalized. Although, as with most novels, certain living people may see themselves as characters. I share many of the experiences of my protagonist—working as a lifeguard, selling bus tours in Niagara Falls, attending university and struggling with body image issues.

Quarry contains elements of my life but Caitlin’s story is not mine and neither is my story hers. I hope readers will take the book as a whole unto itself and won’t be concerned with what’s real and what isn’t. Besides, what is the truth? As Caitlin Maharg discovers: All of life is a bend of the truth, the curve in the question mark.

IFOA: You are also launching a poetry collection in the fall. Were you writing Quarry and The Celery Forest at the same time? How easy was it to switch back and forth between genres?

Graham: I had to concentrate on each genre separately. I carved out writing space for both to avoid switching back and forth. My editors—Alexandra Leggat of Two Wolves Press for Quarry and Paul Vermeersch of Wolsak & Wynn for The Celery Forest—are happy with the results. I respect them both so much that their affirmations gave me comfort. It was time to let these two manuscripts go. It just happened to be during the same year.

IFOA: You also teach creative writing at University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies. What is the ultimate advice you give the emerging writers you mentor about the stories they write?

Graham: I tell them to make time for writing, even if it’s five minutes a day. Try and keep some kind of connection to the writing life to avoid resistance. It’s easy to tell yourself: I’ll write tomorrow. And then tomorrow turns into a week, a month, a year.

In terms of their overall writing journey, I encourage them to keep learning the craft. Read more, take more courses, join a writing circle or work alone. Keep writing, reading and learning.

Catherine Graham. Two Wolves Press. Quarry. Catherine Graham is the author of five acclaimed poetry collections including Her Red Hair Rises with the Wings of Insects; a finalist for the Raymond Souster Poetry Award and the CAA Poetry Award. She received an Excellence in Teaching Award at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies where she teaches creative writing. She was also the winner of the IFOA’s Poetry NOW. While living in Northern Ireland, Graham completed an MA in Creative Writing from Lancaster University. Her work has appeared in journals and anthologies around the world. Quarry is her first novel.