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Balancing life and writing with a little humour

Gauntlet Q&A with Calgary-based novelist Ali Bryan

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Ali Bryan is a Calgary-based writer who published her first novel in April. The book, Roost is about Claudia, a single mother of two who struggles to raise her kids and hold the rest of her family together after the death of her mother. Bryan will be at WordFest on Oct. 19 with Lynn Coady and Cassie Stocks to talk about the desires and the obsessions of their characters.

The Gauntlet: So the first question that comes to mind is, since this is your first novel, what inspired you to turn your life towards writing?

Ali Bryan: It’s interesting actually because I didn’t grow up writing stories beyond what I had to do in school. I didn’t think I was actually a particularly good writer. In university I was actually a commerce student and I didn’t do particularly well in university, which seems to be a common background among writers in this country.

I turned to writing a little more seriously after the birth of my first child. Part of that was not wanting to go back to work in a traditional setting. I had done a little bit of writing in terms of marketing and communications in my job. I took a very basic fiction course called Getting Started and that’s when I started to hone my writing a little bit. When I read out loud I found I had a bit of a knack for comedy, which I hadn’t really anticipated. It just kind of happened. And then from there I wrote for newspapers — just advertorial type stuff but it was still practicing the craft.

I’m not a good short story writer, so I jumped right into a novel and when that got to the point where I didn’t know where to go with it, I ended up going to Humber College and I did a one-year study under Paul Quarrington. I took it a little more seriously as the years went by. And then when I realized that I couldn’t control the outcome — I could send my manuscript in and never know whether I would ever see it again or hear anything back — that’s when I turned to a career in fitness. My main job was being a personal trainer and fitness instructor. Now I’m very carefully trying to balance all three between writing, parenting and training.

G: Part of your writing, especially for Roost, is this humour that you developed. It begs the question: how much of your writing do you base off events in your own life?

AB: There are people that know me well, so they can hear my voice in Roost as sounding to a degree like Claudia’s, particularly when she calls things assholes — ‘cause I have a tendency to do that in my own life. But at the same time it’s also separate. Before I got into writing the novel, I had a blog and that’s where I sort of really opened up —it’s me, 100 per cent.

But there are definitely little bits of it, particularly the scenes with the kids or the dialogue between the kids, that’s definitely more of a reflection of my life or of some of the things that I’ve said because they have just been so good I didn’t even change them. There’s one point in there where Wesley says to his mother before she’s going to leave the house, “Pick a number between 17 and 397.” She says 27 and the child says, “Slap yourself in the face 27 times.” That is verbatim what my six-year-old Hugo had said to me. That’s just too weird and too perfect, so things like that came right into my book.

But in terms of the other experiences, especially the plot stuff, very little. It’s funny because people are like “Oh you’re going to take this from your own life?” And then my poor mother, who’s alive and well is like: “No!” And my father who’s not a hoarder is like: “No! It’s not real!” And my husband is like: “People think I have puffy nipples?” I’m like: “No!” Fiction to me is fun, my blog is more the non-fiction, but yes there is a little bit of Claudia’s voice that I think I slip into once and a while.

G: Is it maybe because of the blog that you’ve managed to develop this eye for noticing where situations fall in between despair and absurdity and finding the humour in between?

AB: Humour for a lot of people is really a coping mechanism, but oftentimes in hind sight. When I blog about something, it could be very raw and maybe even painful in the moment but I’m able to see the humour in it afterwards — or even sometimes in the moment. When something is just so completely ridiculous, whether it’s something someone has said or those weird awkward situations out in public between your head shaking and thinking: “Wow, did that just happen?” I think I probably have always been very observant person but that has probably helped me fine tune a little bit. I like to acknowledge the things that people are often thinking or the things that people often notice but don’t often say.

G: What stood out in Roost was when Claudia is grieving and she just can’t stop laughing. It just seems so true to life but it’s something that most people would be very uncomfortable writing about.

AB: I had that too. Definitely for that scene and even some other scenes with the way that she speaks to her children. I had to look at, “Do I speak to my kids this way?” You have things like social media and you can really create this picturesque beautiful little story about yourself and we all know so much about it is not true. No one posts a lot of the real stuff that happens. So I try to be honest and be real. Otherwise it’s not going to be believable and if the comedy is not anchored with some real humanity that also doesn’t work.

Someone once said to me, regarding parenting, that the days were long but the years were short and that’s something that always stuck with me because it really does summarize up the experience.

G: One of the things, along with the humour that you managed to balance really well in the novel, is the chaos and the monotony in Claudia’s life. How difficult was it balancing those two aspects?

AB: It was a challenge. Of the more serious criticisms that I’ve had about the book is that there wasn’t enough of her emoting, that they wanted to see her grieve more. I’ve watched a number of people go through experiences lately where they’ve lost parents and life is such that unfortunately there is just not the time to grieve. It moved on and people move at such a quick pace that, it’s not that I don’t agree — maybe I could have pushed her a little further and she should have had more moments — but that’s so not the way it is in real life. You can’t necessarily just stop and take days off work. And, if you’re a single parent, you can’t escape from your children for any length of time to really sort of emote. It was hard because if I maybe pushed Claudia in that direction where there’s a little more pathos, a little more of her grieving, then I might have lost a little bit of the reality of her life, because that’s just not the way it was. She was sort of running on empty with her head barely above water before her mother’s death. And then of course her mother passes away and on top of that she ends up having to deal with her father. I had to be careful to stay true to what I thought was real.

G: How do you manage to balance writing with your job as a personal trainer and being a mother of three children?

AB: With a lot of discipline. It’s funny because sometimes I have to use the same sort of phrases that I use on my training clients, I have to use them on myself. Things such as: there’s no excuse or you have to find the time, you have to find a way, you have to be committed. And then I’m like: “Ugh, I hate myself, I hate listening to that.” But it’s so very true.

I started a writing mentorship through the Writers’ Guild of Alberta when my baby was three weeks old. And that was fun, let me tell you, because I ended up writing while breast feeding and I was typing with one hand that entire final draft. And it changes depending on naps and kids’ schedules. Right now I get up at 5:00 a.m. every morning when the house is quiet and I usually write for two hours and then I get my oldest two kids off to school and then it’s me and my daughter in the morning and then when she naps in the afternoon I usually do training stuff, whether I’m doing programming for clients or choreography. And then at night, when my husband is back home we split any kid-duties that we have to do, like one kid goes to jui-jitsu the other to dance and then I teach at night. It’s a lot of being organized and discipline and I usually take the weekends off writing. I’m usually just writing two hours a day, five days a week and then parenting 24-7 and then usually fitness weekends and evenings.

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