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On Craft and Publishing – Interview with Dr. Kelsey Blair

By: Santiago Eastman

Photo Credits: Kelsey Blair

 
 

 

Dr. Kelsey Blair is a theatre, performance, and cultural studies scholar, an author, and a freelance writer. She has studied at UBC, UT, and at Simon Fraser university in English with a designation in performance studies. She is currently an Assistant Professor at Concordia, where she focuses on Digital Writing and English.

 

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What was your academic path, so to speak? Did you always want to become a professor?

I didn't even know being a professor was an option to be honest with you. I mean, I obviously had professors. But it's certainly not something that I was thinking about as in high school or in my undergrad as something that I'd be interested in. In my undergraduate degree, I was also a basketball player, which is relevant, for lots of reasons. Partially, it meant that as an undergraduate, my real focus in lots of ways was I was interested in the school part, but I was also there to play basketball. So both of those things were happening at the same time. And it was only kind of later in my degree that I realized how much I was enjoying it.


In my undergraduate, my dad had a birthday, probably his 60th, maybe his 50th, I don't remember now. And I wrote him a big card type thing that was like - well, we're gonna call it "60 Memories of My Father for his 60th Birthday." And I realized that I really enjoyed doing that. It reminded me of how much I liked writing. And at that point, I was starting to really enjoy my assignments at school as well. So that was kind of in my late undergraduate. And then I went off and played professional basketball for a couple years. Eventually, I came back and applied to a master's degree. And I was interested in it but at that point, I wasn't really thinking about a career. I ended up doing my first master's at University of Toronto, and my second one at the University of British Columbia. And by that time, I'm starting to think that I want to be a researcher and teacher and writer.

 

If there can be like a before and after, how have your studies impacted the way you write?

I think my writing has improved massively. I mean, just one of the things that people don't realize so much about research and studying is - it's a lot of writing. It's a different kind of writing, like it's genre-wise very, very different. But, in terms of the mechanics... if I look back at my writing 10 or 15 years ago, I go oof. Just mechanically, stylistically, I'm stronger, I'm more malleable, I really can use the craft much stronger. And I think some of that is a result of just doing a lot of writing. One of the things about your studies is you do a lot of writing, and you do a lot of dense reading. And I think it just [makes] you interact with language in a different way. I think my research and my studies have impacted my writing hugely, particularly in terms of development of craft.

 

You mentioned something interesting, which is you read a lot of dense theory, even if it's for something like magical realism or Young Adult or something that doesn't necessarily seem as dense. Was that a conscious choice? Or was that something that just happened along the way?

It's something that just kind of happened along the way. And also, I really like theory. In my research life, I identify as a theorist. Like I really like theory, so I read a lot of it. I find it very inspiring and compelling and motivating. So by consequence, I gravitated towards it. And one of the things that's fun about theory, certainly from a creative point of view, is a lot of contemporary theory gets into a cross with playing with form, right? So it becomes more creative in its formal sense. Not always – there's still lots of the academic, traditional kinds of scholarly essay. But formally, you get to see a kind of experimentation in ways that can be really interesting in theory writing that you don't see as much in like history writing, for example. Although I'm sure the historians are gonna disagree with me…

 

So with theory - is it just general stuff? Or is it more like, "This is form. This is what Young Adult fiction as a genre form is doing, etc?"

I do multiple kinds of theory. I like what's called Performance Theory, which is related to performance studies, which is my research area. I like Affect Theory, which is thinking about emotions, and thinking about them from a philosophical standpoint. And basically, most of the theoretical stuff I'm interested in is like cultural philosophy. So thinking about how the world and how culture works, but from a more philosophical level. It just excites me and I think it translates well to some of the creative stuff.

I think if you wanted, the "what ifs" of magical realism often have resonances with the breakdowns of high dense intellectual theory, right? Of saying, "What if our world had this particular tweak that wasn't so different? What would that do?" And I think that a lot of time, that's the questions that theory is asking, or, you know, "how do we experience emotion?" Right? I think creative work tackles that by trying to prompt emotion often or trying to create experiences of empathy. I think intellectual work asks those questions through analysis and through detailed breakdown. I think there's lots of resonances between the two.

 

That's really cool. Is there a method that you use, like: "Okay, so I want to write about this universe and explore this story. So here's some theories that I want to focus on." Or how do you go about it?

That's an interesting question. Yeah, it can be that way. It can be, "I'm interested in this question. How do I represent this?" for sure. And particularly, (on the more, I'm going to call it, academic side), I have asked those questions. So like, "here's the content I have. What is the best form for this to take? Or how do I have resonance between what I'm trying to say and the formal aspects of the piece?" For example, I've done lots of more scholarly pieces that err on the creative side that have played with that idea. Things that are either non-chronological, that might use space on the page… I wrote a history that was feminist in its ethos. It was telling the history of a feminist film production company, and depending on where they were in their history was how much space on the page their history took up. So, I had multiple histories on the same page, and then thinking about the relationship between which history had the most space at the time. That kind of thing.


And then in some of my work, I thought a lot about what are called Performative Utterances. One of those types is a promise. And so I thought about it theoretically: what does it mean to say "I promise" and what are the theories behind that? But then also, how would we represent that artistically? Right? How do promises articulate in the every day? Whether that promise is like, "I promise I'll do the dishes later," or "I promise I'll change," or "I'll promise...” whatever. The logic of the promise is the same regardless of if you're looking at it from a theoretical, breaking-it-down standpoint, or if you're looking at it from a character place. What does it mean to translate that into something that's in an artistic format, and to explore that idea?


Sometimes it can be that way. Professionally, in terms of process, to begin with this idea, and then say, "how do we explore it in a different form and for a different audience?" There are things that you can explore in academic work that you just can't talk about in the same way in a creative piece. And there are things creatively that you can explore that just aren't going to be in an academic work.

 

When you read, do you find yourself having different modes? So, for example, reading just casually to enjoy versus analyzing step by step?

100%. I have a casual reading mode, where I'm just reading. I read really fast. So in that mode, I'm just powering through - because I like to. It's not because I'm powering, it's because that's just how I read. And it's always how I've read. As a kid, I would go to the library, take out 10 books, read them in that week in the summer, and then go back and do that again. All I did was read. I've always been that person.


Then on something that I'm analyzing, it’s a much slower read to figure out how it works. It's a sentence by sentence, it's a deconstruct. It might involve a pencil, right? It might involve notes. It's a drastically different kind of reading process. I like both. But to get to engage with a text at an analysis level is a really different read than a "I'm reading for pleasure." They're drastically different.

 

Do you tend to gravitate towards a specific kind of book to analyze it?

It depends. I mean, often it's the case that I will analyze things I like. (Although occasionally, I will do things I don't enjoy.) I'm interested in: content, formal innovation, style, how is something working? Why is it working? Why isn't it working? What's it doing? Was it intentional? Something with some depth, something that has earned its analysis, I suppose. There's not necessarily a genre there.

I think I get drawn to things where it feels like it's earned it. While also saying that doesn't necessarily mean that it's high art, right? I think there's really interesting questions around... I'm going to pick on The Hunger Games, for example. The Hunger Games is not super… if you read it sentence to sentence, it's not super well written. But it's incredibly popular. And so there's a question about why? Why is it incredibly popular? What was it doing? What was it doing in that time period? You know, and same thing if we go to historical texts, right? It's saying, "Why this? Them? Why this story? Why did this catch on?" Because it's not always logical when you read it. And with more contemporary stuff, too. I just read Celeste Ng's latest novel that I really enjoyed. And that's something I might analyze later. Right? There's certain things that I'm more drawn to for sure.

 

What was the process like when you first started? Because you've written actual books, right - how did that go?

One of the reasons I talked about my basketball journey in writing is because I saw that as a writing retreat at the time. I just graduated from my undergrad, I was hired to go play professional basketball in Sweden, I had a ton of time on my hands because we practiced once a day. We played all over Sweden, but, functionally, I had two or three hours of commitment per day, so I used the rest of that time to write and practice. I did a ton of writing, most of which I've done nothing with, like, it's all fine. But I wrote a lot that year. And I came out of that, and I went, "I've done a lot of writing, I'd like to do publishing."


It was kind of a "Write what you know." I ended up writing kind of middle grade fiction, which means 10- to 13-year-olds, not middling of quality, and sports fiction. And basically, in that instance, I wrote the novel. Then I sent it into the publisher. And exactly a year later, I heard back. I was about to be like, “I guess this hasn't gone. They say these things don't go.” Exactly a year later, I heard back, and they offered me a contract. And then it went through multiple rounds of edits, and then eventually got published. In terms of process, that one was by far the most laborious edit, because I hadn't done one before. Just going through the editing process, that [one] had three, maybe even four really big structural edits to get it to be what it was. But yeah, that's what the initial one looked like. And then from there, I was able to do more, be more specific in my pitches... I didn't write in advance of a proposal, that kind of thing.

 

That's wild. Wait, so you only sent it to one publisher and that one publisher...?

Took it.

 

Wow! That's fantastic.

Thank you. Yeah. A year later, almost to the day, I got an email.

 

There's so much, not necessarily bad, but confusing information online about, "You need a literary agent first. And then once you get that, then you can publish." It's interesting that you sidestepped that completely with your first book.

Yep. And you can do that certainly with smaller presses, you know? Yeah, if you're going to go with Penguin in the States, you have to have a literary agent to get through them. But there are lots of presses where you don't. I would encourage people, when you're starting out - sure, we'd all like to be published by… whatever, the biggest publisher on the planet...

 

Harper Collins.

Right. But in truth, you're still being published at a smaller press, and it's quite a bit more accessible. It's hard to get to those bigger presses without an agent, without the infrastructure. Hard to get an agent without publication, and so on and so forth.

 

That makes sense. You'd recommend starting locally, if possible, and then branching out in case it works?

Yeah, if possible. I mean, it's all kind of a lottery, right? In some ways, local makes sense because, you're going to be near what you know. You might have some connections, you might know the scene. But if you want to publish with an international press, your piece needs to appeal internationally. Does your work appeal internationally, actually? Or does it appeal at a more local, national level? It might do both, right? Publishing is an industry. And so, I think I recommend that people start, not small, but local, then national. Start with what is familiar to you, and then go from there.

 

All right, final question. Do you have any words of wisdom or maybe some advice for people like me that are either finishing their degree or want to get into the publishing realm, but don't really know what to do?

Write and send your stuff out. I mean, I think the biggest thing is send kind of indiscriminately. You can't send anything if you don't write. So write, share it with people, and send it out. That's the way to get published. There is no other way to get published, no matter how you go around it. Create the work, continue to create space for that if publishing is your goal. You can also write for your own purposes and never publish anything if that's what's meaningful to you. But I think the biggest thing is, do the work of the writing. Whatever that means for you. It might mean writing at 11pm on a Wednesday, it might mean doing your 1000 words a day. It might mean doing it in the summer. Whatever that looks like for you, send it out. Send it out to realistic places, but send it out.

 

So no New York Times.

Right. I mean - or maybe one New York Times, but not only the New York Times. And this one I'm stealing. I'm totally stealing - like, you can Google this - but it's good advice, which is to aim for a certain number of rejection letters every year. Because if you get rejected, if you get 50 rejection letters, chances are you sent out enough to get accepted. Right? This idea, it's less about the success of being accepted and more about sending out your work.


It's labor. The other thing I would say, which is not advice, but is that of the writing process, in the publishing work, the sending out is labor. It's work. It's work to tweak your stuff. It's work to hit the different things. It's work to have those communications. So yeah, I like the idea of saying: aim for 20 rejections a year. Probably, if you get rejected 20 times, you get accepted five, right?

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