Aaron Schneider Interviews Lisa Pike
Lisa Pike (1969) was born in Windsor, Ontario. Her fiction, poetry, and collaborative translations have been published in various anthologies and journals including Re: Generations: Canadian Women Poets in Conversation, Columbia Journal, CV2 and VIA: Voices in Italian Americana. She has lived in both Italy and France and holds her PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Toronto. She is the author of the novel My Grandmother’s Pill (Guernica Editions) and the poetry chapbook Policeman’s Alley. Most recently, her collaborative translation with Anna Chiafele of Silvana La Spina’s Penelope (Bordighera Press) received the American Literary Translator’s Association 2022 Italian Prose in Translation Award.
Aaron Schneider: Can you talk about the origins of this book? Where did it come from? Did it emerge as individual stories that then coalesced or did you know from the beginning that it was going to be a collection of linked short stories?
Lisa Pike: Yes, I had initially envisioned the book as a collection of linked short stories. For me, the form arose organically out of the content: intergenerational multi-voiced stories grounded in a particular era and geographic locale. But I also wanted the stories to reflect the experience of oral storytelling and the act of listening. More often than not, this experience is characterized by a delay in understanding the full picture or course of events. All the details about something or someone might not be divulged for instance, in one sitting. There might even be a contradiction of events and details that remains and that is natural. And, the listener has a role to play by putting some of the pieces together and being a participant in the making of meaning.
Aaron Schneider: The stories in this collection are interwoven, drawn together by characters, events, etc. There’s a fairly long tradition of linked short stories in Canada. Did you see this book fitting into that tradition? And what influenced your decision to tie the stories together like this?
Lisa Pike: The stories, in my mind, are naturally tied together by the subject matter. It’s an intergenerational way of living where the lines between individual and collective identities are not easily drawn and, perhaps, shown to be an illusion. But I think this way of living is now of a different time, era (at least in certain cultural traditions). The stories “The Two Stellas” and “Wally’s Baits” for instance, show how individual identities blend and dissolve into the collective: two cousins growing up together born three months apart, both named Stella by their mothers who are themselves sisters; two Walters who are father and son, Walter and “Young Walter”. And then these people as part of a larger family collective with, as the narrator of the story “Two-Bit Tommy” says: “aunties, and great-uncles, and cousins, each branch of the family having at least two or three Stellas, Walters, and Wandas among them […] ” In terms of literary traditions, I like to cast a wide net to go beyond the confines of national identities. Particular authors and collections that come to mind for the way they deal with place, character and language are: Olive Senior’s Discerner of Hearts, Michael Crummey’s Flesh and Blood, V.S. Naipaul’s Miguel Street, Sam Selvon’s Ways of Sunlight, Junot Díaz’ Drown, William Gay’s I Hate to See that Evening Sun Go Down, all the short fiction of Jean Rhys and Who Do You Think You Are? or The Beggar Maid of Alice Munro.
Aaron Schneider: How do you think about the short story? Do you see it as a fixed or a fluid form? And how does your understanding of the form impact your writing?
Lisa Pike: I guess I think of all forms as fluid to varying degrees. I like experimenting with language and form, that’s part of the enjoyment and pleasure of writing for me. When I was writing this particular book, I had been thinking a lot about the origins of the short story within a European literary tradition. So texts like Bocaccio’s The Decameron and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, both of which are linked to the French troubadours. The idea in those early traditions is that the audience already knows the stories: they are set pieces revolving around, I would say, human emotion. Unrequited love, betrayal, feeling covetous, murderous, falling in love. The range of human emotion in its entirety. But also for those early European traditions, the skill of the storyteller (since things like event and plot were already known beforehand by the audience) was measured by how the story was told. Creating meaning through juxtaposition, rhythm, and interrogation of language itself – things that pertain to poetic craft and inquiry – were integral to the repertoire of the storyteller. I was also thinking about a few modern texts and writers while working on Industrial Roots. Joyce’s The Dubliners for the way open-ended stand-alone stories come together to portray a specific collective way of life rooted in place. And also Faulkner for his experimentation with language and the contours of character, setting whether in his short fiction of longer novels.
Aaron Schneider: What is your writing process like? Has it changed over time? Did you approach different stories in the collection differently?
Lisa Pike: I have a very open organic approach to writing. A story usually starts with an idea or with a particular line that comes to me. That line can be a bit of dialogue or a line of prose that is usually image-based and I work from there. I also write each day, even if it’s a journal entry or bits and pieces of things, observations, thoughts, ideas that come to me and I keep for later, unsure of where exactly they’ll fit. I’ve always worked this way. At times I may work simultaneously on different stories – something I did for Industrial Roots. The working titles for “The Two Stellas” and “Wally’s Baits” for instance were simply “Stellas” and “Walters” and I saw them as companion pieces around which many of the other stories revolved. Relatedly, the challenge for this book was to find the line on which the story could both stand alone and be part of the larger narrative similar to the kind a novel might have with all its different characters and individual trajectories.
Aaron Schneider: I’m interested in craft at the level of structure, but also at a more granular level, at the level of the sentence. Can you pick a sentence from the collection, a sentence that is one of your favourites or that you really had to wrestle with in the writing process of composing it? How did you think about it? What decisions did you make? And why did you make them?
Lisa Pike: I like to work closely with rhythm and image at the granular level. I’m also a translator so I know what it means to weigh each word on its own and also in relation to those it stands together with to make meaning at the sentence level. For me, sentences are about leading the reader through a particular image or creating an image through the placement of detail. The choices of sequence in a sentence work to create a cumulative effect that is emotional in nature; this is particularly important for the opening and closing of a story. I like to think of it as hitting the right emotional note. For the end of a story especially, I want the image and emotional note to reverberate like it does in a poem. The final line of “Mother’s Bones” is a sentence I worked with in this way – building a kind of emotional momentum through image and sequence of detail.
Aaron Schneider: This book is rooted in place, in Windsor and South-Western Ontario. Can you talk about your relationship to this area and how you see the relationship between place and writing?
Lisa Pike: I was born in 1969 in Windsor, Ontario, and grew up there during the 1970s and 80s. That era seemed very free to me, especially the 1970s. In part it was because the energy and vestiges of the 1960s – the women’s movement, the civil rights movement, the breaking away from previous norms and conventions – were still in the air. In part it was because of living in a border city where the experience of somehow simultaneously being “here” but also “there” colours existence. The Detroit skyline looms and blends somehow with Windsor’s. In that era the border was also very fluid, people crossed easily back and forth and most everyone had friends or relatives that either lived or worked “across the river”. Personally, I also grew up with a very young mother and also with my grandmother who was just 44 when I was born. And she, my grandmother, was herself born in 1925, emigrating from Poland with her family, originally to Winnipeg and later in the 1950s to Windsor with some of her brothers and sister who, like many people from eastern Europe or post-war Europe, were grateful for steady jobs in the factories. So I grew up between two generations in a place where life seemed to be between two countries and cities – Windsor and Detroit. And those times and rhythms of life were shaped by shift work but also by a very strong union presence – the UAW and later the CAW. Most all my uncles worked in the factories and some were also very active in the UAW. It was a very male environment, but there was also a sense of people coming together for a purpose, to change things for the better.
So these are some of the things that formed me as a person and also as a writer. Place absolutely shapes us. I think, however, that we are losing this in the 21st century as our quotidian experiences are almost always mitigated by some form of technology. There is, in my opinion, a diminishing sense of lived experience and of embodiment. An absence of the sense of the corporeal. I have also noticed this in how people write today. I think a lot of people are simply writing off the internet rather than from the experience of spending actual time in a particular place, understanding its geographical and cultural landscape over time.
Aaron Schneider: Why did you choose the title for the book?
Lisa Pike: The book had a few working titles that came from two of the stories in the collection: “Mother’s Bones” and “His Little Douchebag”. “Industrial Roots” is more implicit - an an idea that runs throughout the book, signalling the whole. I also chose it for the way it works as an image, bringing together the organic natural world and that produced, for better or worse, by human endeavour. It also echoes ideas of individual and collective life rising out of a particular place and time.
Aaron Schneider: These stories are deeply concerned with class. They are filled with characters who are economically precarious and low or working class. I found it particularly interesting that you placed more conventional working-class characters alongside a precariously employed academic. Why did you choose to focus on these kinds of characters?
Lisa Pike: Some of these stories grew out of a chapbook of narrative poems, vignettes of working-class life during the 1950s and 60s in a neighbourhood in Windsor nicknamed by its residents “Policeman’s Alley”. Post WWII, there was a national effort to provide returning vets and their families with housing. This neighbourhood was part of that effort; the government put your name on a list and you waited for the opportunity to purchase one of these small homes. This is part of my family history – it was the neighbourhood where my mother grew up and where her mother raised a family. But in essence you had a neighbourhood where all the men were returning vets at a time when things like PTSD were both unheard of and unrecognized. Many of these men turned to alcohol and violence within the home was commonplace. There were no supports for people. And divorce at the time was highly stigmatized so people tried to cope the best they could. Each day was survival. The chapbook Policeman’s Alley and later the collection Industrial Roots was a way for me to try and give voice to some of these lived experiences, and specifically to put the women’s voices centre-stage – those women who had worked so hard both in and outside the home under such difficult conditions. These women – and men – were often people with little formal education and their knowledge was based in what they could remember. The lived experiences, stories, things that had been stored through memory and transmitted orally, but not as a conscious practice.
Institutional education has been and is – perhaps now more than ever – presented as a way out, a way up the economic ladder. But I think today that has in large part become a failure. Formal education has been reduced to a means to an end and universities in particular are run on a business model. The story “Go Ask Alice” lays bare some of the mechanisms and effects of the recent corporatization of the Academy - the use of precarious employment practices and forcing students into several years of debt to obtain a degree. However, I also think it’s important to consider as the Guyanese writer Wilson Harris asks: what kinds of emotions are at the base of our institutions? I think this is an especially important question in the current moment where there is an unprecedented effort to decolonize institutions and bring about meaningful change in systemic ways. How can social change and true equality come about in places where things like fear, manipulation, and ultimately coercion still set the agenda?
Aaron Schneider: Finally, what question do you wish someone asked you about this collection, and can you answer it?
Lisa Pike: Well, I might ask: did you find it difficult to find a publisher for a book that is experimental in its form and approach?
The answer is yes, I did. While a few of these stories did appear in Canadian literary journals, people were much less enthusiastic about publishing the collection as a whole. Those who were interested wanted to fundamentally alter the ways in which the stories were entwined. For instance: I was asked if I could make each story more markedly “different” from the other (ie: remove the element of interconnection); or, I was asked to standardize the speech patterns (make the dialogue and language of narration more grammatically correct). In fact, I had one book contract cancelled due to editorial differences. For me, making these changes would have destroyed the integrity of the project. To no avail I repeatedly made the claim: “If I’d wanted to write a collection of different stories in a standard, grammatically correct prose, I would have!” I also had the very bizarre experience of being ghosted by another small Canadian publisher even though the proofs had been sent for me to review. After that, I decided to try something different and contacted a press in the UK. Indeed, I’m very grateful to Héloïse Press and founder and publisher Aina Martí-Balcells for taking a chance on Industrial Roots.
Aaron Schneider is a queer settler living in London, Ontario. He is the founding Editor at The /tƐmz/ Review, the publisher at the chapbook press 845 Press, and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Writing Studies at Western University. His stories have appeared in The Danforth Review, Filling Station, The Ex-Puritan, Hamilton Arts and Letters, Pro-Lit, The Chattahoochee Review, BULL, Long Con, The Malahat Review and The Windsor Review. His stories have been nominated for The Journey Prize and The Pushcart Prize. His novella, Grass-Fed (Quattro Books), was published in Fall 2018. His collection of experimental short fiction, What We Think We Know (Gordon Hill Press), was published in Fall 2021. The Supply Chain (Crowsnest Books) is his first novel.