An Interview with Shannon Cowan, Fiona Tinwei Lam, and Cathy Stonehouse

Several years ago, busy writers Shannon Cowan, Fiona Tinwei Lam, and Cathy Stonehouse joined forces to edit Double Lives: Writing and Motherhood. Although some questioned whether an audience existed for a book like this, their faith in the project never wavered, and they proved the doubters wrong. They talk here about the process of working collaboratively and editing an anthology of essays.

(from left) Fiona Tinwei Lam, Cathy Stonehouse, Shannon Cowan

Q: What sparked the idea for this anthology?

A: Cathy had just had her first child, and was struggling with trying to find time to write. As a writer/parent she wanted to read something other than how-to books that spoke to her experience. Something nonprescriptive, more descriptive and nuanced. She felt she and others would learn better that way—through the poetic and rich, rather than flat and often patronising self-help.  As there was a dearth of material on the subject, she envisioned a project that would seek out the experiences of other women writers who had had children that could inspire other women in similar  circumstances.   We three already knew each other mostly through writing, and were exchanging parenting tips, so working on the project together arose naturally.

Q: Why did you choose an anthology of essays rather than poetry or fiction?

A: Nonfiction seems to speak more directly to our experiences as mothers, with real life events and experiences that readers can relate to. We considered various parameters (other art forms, other countries) but settled on these (creative non-fiction and Canadian) because they defined what we most hungered for. There were other fiction/poetry anthologies on this theme already. We wanted the writers to speak to the readers about their lived lives. Also, given how isolating both mothering and writing can be, we wanted readers to feel part of an ongoing, vibrant community, part of a continuum, irrespective of location, age, or circumstance.

Q: Does the essay genre offer something different to readers?  If so, what?

A: It provides real life, honest, unembellished stories that readers can identify with. It provides well-written (and therefore nuanced, complex) versions of people’s realities that readers can return to over and over again. With essays, you can use novelistic techniques or weave in poetry (as some of our contributors did), but the overall effect is one of truth.

Q: Tell us something about the editing process.

A: A number of essays were extensively revised, and some were rewritten.  There was a lengthy to and fro process between editor and writer prior to the review by the copy editor. We worked collaboratively on all aspects of the editing, which made the process time-consuming and complex but also rewarding. Having three editors review and edit each piece makes more work overall, but we had high standards and wanted the best deal for our writers. We did most of this work through email and after the kids were in bed. There were many late-night conference calls, because that was often the only time we were all available.

Q: What was the greatest challenge in getting this project off the ground?

A: Although the book didn’t take that long to place, we found ourselves convincing publishers/agents/editors that the project was worthwhile and had a market. There was a real misconception that the book’s readership would be a narrow one—yet when the manuscript came together, editors and reviewers alike chimed in that men, women, parents, and non-parents would all find something inspiring and captivating in the book. The writing spoke for itself, as we always knew it would.

Q: What has been the greatest reward, either in working on this book, or post-publication?

A: Knowing that many women across the country, of varying ages and at varying stages of their writing career, and even non-writers juggling children with work outside the home, have connected to the book, finding solace, wisdom, affirmation, support. We continue to receive many enthusiastic responses, whether in person or through others, and know that the book will have a long shelf-life.

Q: What advice might you offer to someone else who wanted to put together a collection like this?

A: A project like this is deceptively straightforward.  It is truly a labour of love—quite time-consuming. (For us, it took us sometimes many hours every week, over about three years.) Personal writing projects might have to go on the back-burner.  Tight deadlines can be almost impossible to deal with when one has young kids. Be prepared to work for virtually nothing and make sure you balance maintaining editorial control with finding a publisher earlier rather than later, so the work is not all for naught. Have faith in your writers.

Join Double Lives contributors and editors at:

Mother, Writer: Panel and Reading, Vancouver Public Library, May 5,
2010 at  7:30 pm

This Mother’s Day, celebrate the intersection of creation and
creativity with award-winning authors Catherine Owen, Rachel Rose, Luanne Armstrong, and Dorothy Woodend. Hosted by Cathy Stonehouse (Double Lives: Writers and Motherhood) and Cori Howard (Between Interruptions and The Momoir Project), this event will illuminate the rewards of nurturing children while pursuing the passion to write.

Wednesday, May 5, 7:30 p.m. Peter Kaye Room, Lower Level, Central
Library, 350 West Georgia Street. Admission is free.

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