[Interview] Magdalena Ball

In earlier interviews, poet, storyteller and literary activist, Magdalena Ball talked about the factors that made her start writing, her concerns as a writer and about her debut novel, Sleep Before Evening.

Since then she has gone on to publish She Wore Emerald Then, a poetry chapbook written in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson. The chapbook was a finalist in the USA Book News 2009 NBBA Best Book Awards.

She Wore Emerald Then was followed by Repulsion Thrust (Bewrite Books, 2009), a full length, solo poetry collection whcih tackles subjects like quantum physics, astronomy, time travel, ecological destruction, and technological singularity, all viewed through the lens of the human condition.

Below, Magdalena Ball talks about the work she is currently doing:

How would you describe Repulsion Thrust?

My latest book is Repulsion Thrust, which is out from Bewrite Books. It's a poetry book which is in three sections. The first has an overall theme of "The Black Dog" (as in Churchill's - eg depression and pain), the second is environmentally and technologically/futuristically focused, and the third is an almost lighthearted (for me!) synthesis of the first two -- a kind of answer to the clash of the first two notions.

As always with my work, there's a fair amount of influence from the 'sciences', from quantum physics to psychology, geology, evolution, and astronomy.

I chose Bewrite Books because they published my novel, Sleep Before Evening, and I knew that they also published poetry, and above all, that they would provide a thorough editing process for me, which is what I wanted. I also knew it would be easier than going to a new publisher as I already had a positive relationship in place with them and a reasonable understanding of the process, although poetry was quite different to prose, and there was much still for me to learn.

Which were the most difficult aspects of the work you put into Repulsion Thrust?

Finding a neat structural framework for the poetry I had been writing was a little bit tricky. Also with poetry, there's always work involved in ensuring that you remove anything that is absolutely unnecessary to what you want to say. Every word has to work, or you dilute the effectiveness of the poetry.

With the framework, that was simply a left brain exercise. Sit down and think about the overall focus of the work and work out how a structure could support what I wanted to say.

In terms of the editing process, again, having someone else involved was very helpful. I had one superb reader (my mother -- say what you will -- she's a great editor), who went through every poem with me once I was done. I read them to her outloud, and she would ask questions or point things out. Often just the process of reading outloud showed me what didn't work and what did.

My Bewrite editor (Sam Smith) was also very good at spotting what worked well and where I was overly wordy (an issue I need to work on!), or obscure. We even removed a few poems he didn't feel were strong and replaced them with others. I even did a last minute edit after the final proofread.

What did you enjoy most?

To be honest, I really love writing poetry. It's a medium I find most natural, and the fact that you can complete an exercise in one relatively contained burst, and then have something to submit, makes it very satisfying.

I found that I was (and continue to) "allow" myself some poetry time at the end of a hard slog or difficult bit of writing as a kind of reward. The combination of short term (completion/submission) gratification, with knowing I was working on a longer term objective (a full book), was very pleasurable.

To be honest, it's kind of hard to stop myself and get back to a daily fiction schedule, which doesn't have that instant component.

I will though.

My next novel is over halfway done, so it has a kind of imperitive of its own.

What sets Repulsion Thrust apart from other things you have written?

This is my first full length poetry book (the others have been much shorter chapbooks), so it's a big thing for me. It's much more intense and inclusive.

I was able to have that chapter structure and to cover a much wider terrain. I'm very excited about it!

In what way is it similar to the others?

When I finished Quark Soup, I said I would leave science alone for a bit, but found myself even more drawn to it. Not only the language, although I do tend to find words like "catalysis" and "emulsification" very attractive (not sure why!), but there is, to me, something so breathtaking about looking at the world around us from a scientific perspective. There is so much that is beautiful to explore. The fundamental structure of a snowflake or rock formations are just startling. An aurora or solar wind is an amazing thing. The quantum world itself is so full of interesting absurdities that breakdown reality in ways that are seem out of sync with day to day relativity, but when you think about dreams, emotions, or perceptions, there are alignments which aren't absurd at all. So I play with those things in most of my work.

What will your next book be about?

Black Cow is the story of Graeme Archer, a well respected Chief Executive Officer of a large multinational corporation. When his health problems worsen, and his busy family life starts to disintegrate, he has to rethink the way he lives.

The story tracks the family as they move from a ritzy suburb to a small Tasmanian farm, and the challenges they encounter as they attempt to change their lives from super consumers to super conservers. It's a little funny (my funny, which is still reasonably black at times ...)

Do you have a target audience?

I'm sure I'd sell more books with a more specific target audience.

I embrace all readers and hope that my work, even the poetry, is clear and simple enough to appeal to all levels.

That said, my work probably will appeal more to a literary fiction, poetry loving reader who likes their work to resonate for a while, rather than to someone who likes fast paced, action thriller style work. That's what my son tells me, and I'm sure he knows best.

How would you describe your writing?

I'm one of those jacks of all trades who tends to write across genres.

I have been doing a lot of poetry recently, and my work seems to be very science oriented at the moment, though that can change, and tends to apply more to my poetry than my fiction and certainly more to poetry than to nonfiction, which can be on any topic from literary criticism to parenting.

No matter what I'm writing, it's always metaphor rich, with a certain amount of depth, and probably more run-on sentences than I should have. That's my natural tendency. Even my academic writing is metaphor rich, much to the horror of various supervisors that I've had over the years!

Which influences do you draw on as a writer?

So many authors have influenced or inspired me, that it's difficult to pinpoint specific influences. I could start from my earliest reading experiences, including such authors as Maurice Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are, Little Bear, In the Night Kitchen) and Dr Seuss (The Lorax still brings a lump to my throat. On Beyond Zebra still excites me) through to authors that inspire me now, from literary writers like Umberto Eco, James Joyce, Margaret Atwood, Peter Carey, Salman Rushdie, to Auden, Plath, Porter, Judith Bevridge to the incredible science writers like Hawkings and Dawkins. I'm sure I've left out some major influence, and could probably list names for many paragraphs.

And, like most writers, I also draw on my personal experiences in almost everything I write. I'm something of a magpie, so will pick at just about everything I've got - personal obversations, sensory experiences, overheard conversations, a story someone told me, the song my son is struggling to learn on the piano. If I burn myself on the stove, the pain will be in a story or poem before the sting goes.

As a writer, I always try to get at the core of something. To try and get at something meaningful and deep at the heart of our experiences. That goes for whether I'm writing fiction, comedy, nonfiction or poetry. It isn't always easy, but it helps to have good readers, who can test whether what you've said translates into what you mean for a reader. I have several excellent readers who I show final drafts to, and they don't hesitate to tell me when I'm not making sense or when I've written something trite.

Do you write everyday?

I do write everyday. It isn't always a lot, but I'll always schedule in some time for writing in my daily plan.

I would love to have a regular place and time, but with the juggling I do, I have to take whatever moments I get, so I'll usually just open something up in the morning that I'm planning to work on and whenever and wherever I get a chance I'll work on it.

If I'm writing a poem, I'll usually keep going until the whole thing is done (first pass - often there are several iterations later). That's the same for any short piece of work - flash fiction or a short nonfiction piece. For longer work like a story or a novel, I'll usually keep going until, through some kind of instinct, I feel I've had enough and it's time to stop (or I have to go pick up the kids from school or meet some other impending deadline).

It's probably the same for nearly every 21st Century person but time is my biggest challenge. Finding enough of it to do all the things I want to do.

I'm reasonally well organised and do tend to plan each day fairly well, listing key objectives to lead to the bigger objectives, but there's always a limit to just how much you can get through in a day, and in addition to my writing, I'm also parent to three young(ish - getting older all the time :-) children, have a reasonably big day job, have just started another Master's degree, have two websites to manage and a new book to promote, so time is always a challenge. I deal with it as best as I can, through planning and prioritising - standard time management processes, but I also sometimes have to ease off my goals and accept my limitations. My children won't be young forever, so they always have to take priority.

How many books have you written so far?

I've listed the books I've written below. I've collaborated on and participated in quite a few more anthologies and collections (say around six), but these are the key ones:
  • Repulsion Thrust, Bewrite Books, 2009, ISBN: 978-1-904492-96-2 - this is my just released full length poetry collection. Repulsion Thrust tackles big subjects not often the fodder of poetry: quantum physics, astronomy, time travel, ecological destruction, and technological singularity, all viewed through the lens of the human condition.
  • She Wore Emerald Then, 2008, 978-1438263793, (poetry chapbook - collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson), finalist in the USA Book News 2009 NBBA Best Book Awards. She Wore Emerald Then and Cherished Pulse are part of an ongoing "Celebration" series of chapbooks designed to replace greeting cards.
  • Sleep Before Evening, BeWrite Books, 2007 , ISBN-13: 978-1904492962 – 2008 Indie Book Awards Regional Fiction Finalist - this is a novel set in NYC that follows the adventures of 17 year old, Marianne as she discovers the healing power of music through an almost deadly journey into the deepest recesses of her own mind.
  • Quark Soup, Picaro Press, 2006 , ISBN 1-920957-23-5, ( Poetry Chapbook) - Quark Soup contains twenty eight poems which muse on topics like what it means to be human, love, loss, fear, longing, and transcendence. Avoiding cliché and the mundane, the poetry in this collection is accessible to the common reader, with a powerful intellectual edge and playful wit. As all good poetry should, this work uses sound, sense, and strong imagery to deal with everyday topics like depression, birth, growing old, love and death, all moving towards a large universal picture. As the title suggests, there is a strong astrophysical theme running through the poems.
  • The Art of Assessment: How to Review Anything, Mountain Mist Productions, 2003 , ISBN 1-920913-10-6, ( Nonfiction) , The Art of Assessment is a complete guide to the review process, from how to write good reviews, how to use interviews to add depth to your reviews, obtaining review copies, marketing your reviews, and plenty of examples and references to help you become a working reviewer.
  • Cherished Pulse, 2006 , re-released in 2009 as a print book, ISBN 978-1449546052 ( Poetry Chapbook - collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson) , Cherished Pulse contains twenty poems which look at love from a wise, mature, sensitive perspective. Never sentimental (forget Hallmark), the poems explore love in its many guises -- cherish, longing, sensuality, and that sacred place between desire and consumation.

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What a lovely interview with my friend, Maggie Ball. She forgot to mention our newest entry in our Celebration Series of chapbooks. This one is for fathers and "other masculine apparitions" (www.budurl.com/Imagining). I have to tell you that Maggie is a delight to work with, but you already knew that. (-:
Carolyn Howard-Johnson

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