Alicia Elliott (@WordsandGuitar) is our 2017 Nonfiction Contest judge and the first ever interviewee for our Get to Know series! This series will be dedicated to getting to know our contest judges, magazine contributors, and writers we love.
Alicia Elliott is a Tuscarora writer living in Brantford, Ontario, where she worries she may one day die. Her writing has been published by Room, Maisonneuve, Grain, The New Quarterly and The Malahat Review. She has a monthly column with CBC Arts, and her essay “A Mind Spread Out on the Ground” won Gold for the 2017 National Magazine Award. She’s currently working on a collection of short stories and dealing with the fact that her only daughter is nearly a teenager.
Prose Editor Kyla Jamieson has carefully curated some great questions, including what Alicia looks for in a submission.
1. What’s happening around you—either right around you or outside of where you are?
My daughter keeps walking back and forth from her bedroom to the kitchen. I suspect she’s raiding the recycling bin to make more amazing crafts. There’s a pile of clean laundry on the couch behind me that I’m trying to pretend doesn’t exist. It’s a fairly uneventful time.
2. Why do you live where you live?
I live in Brantford, Ontario because it’s as close as I can get to my home rez of Six Nations while still being able to get to work.
3. What’s your morning routine?
Wake up, eat breakfast, check Twitter and email, probably go back to sleep for another hour. I really need to create a more adult, productive routine.
4. What advice would you give a young writer?
Take the books you love and figure out why you love them. Read them with an eye towards how they’re working on a craft level. This is always hard when a book is so great you just get swept away by its power, but it really is the best way to learn – and learn from those you admire.
If you’re a fiction or creative nonfiction writer, I’d also recommend (strangely enough) reading a book on screenwriting. The way books like Amnon Buchbinder’s The Way of the Screenwriter or Robert McKee’s Story go in depth to explain character, plot and showing character through action will really help you get a better handle on structure, form and craft. I always had a hard time understanding the elements of a story before I read those, but now I can talk about stories in all sorts of forms and why they do or don’t work.
5. What’s one risk you’re glad you took?
Using money my husband and I could have used to put a down payment on a boring old house and instead using it to quit our customer service jobs to take a year off work and focus on writing. I didn’t get as much done as I wanted to in terms of output, but I watched so many movies and read so many books, analyzing how they worked. I basically taught myself my own master’s program. Our budget was super tight that year, and we eventually had to go back to our customer service jobs, but it made so much of a difference in our development as artists.
6. What are you most proud of?
My daughter. She’s an incredible human being and I’m so amazed that I’ve been able to witness her become what she’s becoming.
7. Is there any advice you like ignoring?
I always ignore when people give advice that is essentially trying to rewrite my story the way they’d do it instead of acknowledging what I’m trying to do. I’d rather hear what’s working and what isn’t working towards my goals than what might work towards theirs.
Bonus Question: What can prospective submitters do to awe you with their stories?
There’s a difference between a writer who puts their ego into the story and a writer who puts their heart into the story. If you put your ego into a story, you might not listen to what your characters and story are telling you they need. If you put your heart into a story, you’ll want to get it right because you know your characters and subject matter deserve that. Put your heart into your work. Be vulnerable. Be brave. Be willing to surprise yourself. Do what’s right for the story, even if it’s not what you originally had in mind.