A Poet, a Novelist and a Toddler Enter a Room
Submitted by Teva Harrison
Do you ever wonder what it’s like to be one of those literary power couples, talent just oozing from their pores, words pouring from their pens, seemingly effortlessly? Meaghan Strimas & Nathan Whitlock are both exceptionally good company, witty, delightful, ready with witty banter, and damned fine writers.
I was curious about how much they influence each other, in craft, especially because Nathan writes novels and Meaghan writes poetry. They were kind enough to to take some time to think about my questions, somewhere between caring for their kids and Nathan’s treatment for cancer. Because these two are unstoppable.
Teva: You’re both writers. You’re also teachers and parents. I’m interested in how, amidst the chaos of the everyday, you support each other in carving out the time to write. Can you both tell me a bit about your process and how you incorporate writing into your home life?
Nathan: It’s an ongoing battle, and mostly the chaos wins. We still haven’t worked out a good system for getting shit done consistently. We have a toddler in the house, so that tends to shatter any system we do try to put into place. I think the only rough system we have is that I like to work first thing in the morning, before anyone else is up, and Meaghan likes to work late at night. Other than that, it’s like running a secret underground resistance movement behind enemy lines: there’s a lot of sneaking off, quietly closing the door behind you, frantic typing.
Meaghan: I am not nearly as disciplined as Nathan. I am easily distracted, but when I am writing, and writing consistently, I know I am an easier person to be around. I’m happier when I am writing everyday: my heart and my head are more at peace when I’m being creative. I love being a mom, but I was shocked when I first had Lou: I couldn’t believe that I just couldn’t walk out of the house…I always had to take this baby with me. I was like, WTF? Lou is 19 months now, and this past winter I think I finally felt like I was gaining some of my balance back, but then Nathan was diagnosed with throat cancer. Given the constraints we’re now under, you’d think I just give up on the whole writing thing, but it’s actually a lifeline.
Teva: Meaghan, you’re a poet and Nathan, you write fiction. Does the different approach you bring to form inform each other’s work? Do the edges bleed?
Meaghan: I admire Nathan’s prose a great deal. His sentences are so sharp and clean. His dedication to craft inspires me to work harder. Every word has to count and this is something any poet should honour. What I think we both share is a desire to make people laugh…or snicker…a little. The work can be serious, but it doesn’t have to take itself too seriously.
Nathan: I have absolutely no aptitude for poetry – that is something Meaghan is able to do that I can only marvel at. I think I’ve learned a lot from the way she is able to quickly shift between registers or tones – formal and dry one second, casual and conversational the next. I know I’ve stolen things from her: she dropped the line “liquor in the front, poker in the rear” into one of her poems, and it’s on like page two of my new book. Very romantic.
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Teva: Is there an advantage your different disciplines bring to the evaluation of each other’s work that you can share, that could be adopted by people working alone? A fresh approach, of sorts?
Nathan: I hover like an idiot whenever Meaghan is reading something of mine. The moment she laughs, I pounce: “What? What was so funny? Does that mean it works?” Making her laugh is the first test for anything I write. Nothing to do with Meaghan being a poet, just with Meaghan being Meaghan. If she doesn’t laugh, I question it for days, then usually cut it.
Meaghan: Nathan is an unsparing editor…when it comes to most genres, but he’s a little uncomfortable when it comes to poetry. He’s good at telling me if he thinks something is working, or if it still needs work, but he can rarely point to where I’ve really gone wrong. I have a new book coming out with Mansfield in the fall (Yes or Nope), so I’ve been working with Stuart Ross on the new material. He’s a huge help.
Teva: How often do you appear in each other’s works?
Meaghan: I don’t know that I’ve actually written a poem specifically about Nathan. I process things so slowly, but I suspect that I will be writing about how our life is right now, say, ten years down the line. Watching the person you love get sick, and then sicker, is horrible. Right now, I am living in fear. When the fear has passed, I hope I will be able to say something meaningful about this dark spell.
Nathan: I don’t think she has made a cameo in my stuff yet. I know I’ve borrowed things from her – phrases, slivers of her personality – and used them to flesh out other characters, but she has not yet appeared as herself. It’s hard to insert a real person into fiction: their reality starts to dissolve right away, and you begin altering fundamental things about them to make them fit. So much so that later you can forget you originally had a real person in mind.
Teva: Do you have systems in place to help keep each other on track, when the quotidian tasks of life get in the way?
Nathan: I nag her and act really annoying until she loses it and tells me to shut up. I have so little faith in my own talent that I feel like it will evaporate entirely if I don’t do a bit of work almost every day, whereas Meaghan – though she won’t agree with this – seems able to sit down after days or weeks, and start putting down amazing lines.
Meaghan: Nathan pesters me, yes, but his pestering has kept me going. And I am grateful for his belief in me. I’ve always worked a lot and I’ve always managed to keep writing, though not as much as I’d like. I’m just beginning to see the point of all those luxurious sounding writing retreats so many writers go on. I can’t even imagine having that kind of time. And I don’t have to keep Nathan on-task. It makes me crazy how disciplined he is…The man wakes up at 4 a.m. to work. I stay up late reading in bed, so we are often at odds: he’ll be telling me to turn off the light and go to sleep, and then a couple of hours later, I’ll be telling him to “shush up” as he is getting ready to go downstairs to work.
Teva: Since you’re both writers and you support each other, which is amazing, are there any pitfalls you help steer the other away from? Conversely, where do you enable bad habits?
Nathan: I think the biggest thing we’re able to offer each other is simply the assurance that whatever trough of self-doubt we’re in is a temporary thing, and that deleting all traces of the manuscript we’re working on is not the best plan.
Meaghan: We definitely have to give each other little talks of encouragement. I bet we must sound like the biggest babies when we are at our worst: “No one cares! Why do I even bother? Waaaaah.”
Teva: What do you do when you’re both in the thick of a project and somebody has to take care of a sick kid or a school emergency?
Nathan: I think we’ve done pretty well in terms of one or the other taking the lead on the boring stuff if there is something writing-related going on. Lately it’s been me that has been getting all the breaks, for various reasons, but I am genuinely eager to start giving Meaghan as much time as she needs to work. When I was desperately trying to finish the last draft of this new book, she let me check myself in for a few nights at a hotel out by the airport on my own. I went to our cottage in the middle of the winter to work on it for a few days, too. That was right when our youngest was still nursing and not quite sleeping through the night, so it was a hugely selfish thing for me to do, and a very generous thing for her to do.
Meaghan: The kids have to come first. I am very protective of my family. Like most women who have a career and a family, I live with a lot of guilt. I often feel like I am failing someone, and sometimes that person is myself.
Teva: What is the most fun thing about being married to a writer?
Nathan: Hearing gossip about other writers.
Meaghan: Gossiping is fun, but I’d have to say that I also like being with a person who understands what it is to need and to want to create. I don’t think I could stand coming home to a person who spent every night sprawled in front of the television.
Teva: Can you each tell me a bit about your most recent book?
Nathan: My newest novel is called Congratulations On Everything – it’s a kind of cringe comedy about a guy who dreams his entire life of owning his own bar-restaurant and finally gets it. It doesn’t go well. It’s out now: http://ecwpress.com/products/congratulations-on-everything. The book isn’t autobiographical, but I did work in restaurants, hotels, and bars for years, and took a lot that I saw, and that people I knew experienced, and stuffed it in there – sometimes exaggerating the reality, sometimes toning it down a little because it would seem unbelievable.
Meaghan: I am doing exactly what I want to do as a writer in my collection-in-progress, Yes or Nope. I’ve spent far too long worrying about what other people think, and I hope this book is funnier and more frank than I’ve been in the past. But I’m still hung up on my usual obsessions – morality, self-destruction, bad relationships, unhealthy friendships and creepy neighbours. All the really fun stuff of life.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Teva Harrison is a writer and graphic artist. She is the author of the critically acclaimed graphic memoir, In-Between Days, which is based on her graphic series about living with cancer published in The Walrus. It was named one of the most anticipated books of 2016 by the Globe and Mail, which also named the author one of 16 Torontonians to Watch. She has commented on CBC Radio and in the Globe and Mail about her experience. Numerous health organizations have invited her to speak publicly on behalf of the metastatic cancer community. She lives in Toronto.