Below is an interview with Sheryl Loeffler, author of the newly released A Land in the Storytelling Sea: A North American in Malta.
When did you first start writing?
When I was 12 years old, I gave my father an illustrated book of original poetry for Father’s Day. I wrote the first poem I can still remember, however, when I was 11.
I began writing poetry in earnest when I was in university and continued writing in the years immediately afterwards. I took those poems to a writers conference, for workshopping with the late American poet John Ciardi. He had a profound influence on both my beliefs about poetry and on my writing. Then, despite his praise and encouragement, or perhaps because of it (there is terror in praise from the great), I stopped. I didn’t write creatively for decades. In 1998, I took up writing poetry again. Why? Long story short department — it was a time of great optimism and happiness for me, and I returned to writing with energy and increasing confidence.
What’s the story behind your latest book?
My husband and I lived in Malta from 16 April, 2005, to 4 May, 2006. It was a year of discovery for us. We immersed ourselves in Maltese culture, geography, history and story, and both embraced and were embraced by its people. That year, Malta became our theme. This book is the distillation of thousands of words and images from that year and from subsequent visits to Malta. I originally intended to write a travel piece — a My Year in Malta sort of piece— on the order of Tim Parks’ Italian Neighbours. Instead, I found myself writing poems.
What motivated you to become an author?
Curiosity — I wonder if someone will respond to my work. And incredulity — if that work can be published, surely my work can be published, too. The path to publication — if you have never ventured down it — can be hard on the ego. It looks something like this: No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, maybe, no, no, no, no, no, yes. But the yes at the end of the road is worth every bumpy no.
What is the greatest joy of writing for you?
Word play. Polishing. Once I have a viable working draft of a poem, I begin to play with its words, rhythms, and rhymes (in the broadest sense — alliteration, assonance, and consonance).
What are you working on next?
For the past three years, I have been working on (and not working on) a series of narrative poems based loosely upon the life of a woman who starved to death in an abandoned farmhouse after her release from a mental health facility. She lived for three months on her wits and apples from the farm, until the apples were gone and she was too weak to seek help.
What is your writing process?
I am a morning person. I do my most productive writing in the early hours of morning when the world around me is sleeping. The process itself, however, is simple. Sketch and polish. Sketch and polish. Word by word, by word.
Where did you grow up and how did this influence your writing?
I grew up in Canton, Ohio. I had / have a loving family and a happy childhood. I have written many poems about life from the perspective of that childhood. I have a second manuscript (in limbo for the past six months — neither rejected nor accepted — in a publishing house in the United States [US]) that is more or less autobiographical (all poems are autobiographical, to some extent, because they come from within; all poems are fictional, to some extent, because the creative process transforms experience). The poems reveal a life very much like mine from childhood to not-quite-old age.
The first geography that found its way into my imagination, however, was not that of my hometown, but that of my mother’s hometown, Ironton, Ohio, 250 miles south of where I grew up. Ironton is a sleepy town on the great Ohio River, where Ohio, West Virginia and Kentucky converge, as do Northern and Southern sensibilities and identities. The glacier that bulldozed the plains of the central US stopped in Ohio and Ironton’s craggy foothills grow into the Appalachian Mountains to the east. This geography enabled a second geography to find its way into my imagination — that of Malta.
What inspires you to get out of bed each day?
The imagination-filled, solitary hours just before dawn when summer birds sing matins (in desert Canadian winter, it takes imagination just to remember these things). And, of course, the promise of coffee.
When you’re not writing, how do you spend your time?
I work. I serve as Director of Philanthropy at a social service agency in Kitchener, Ontario, and as Director of Music (organist and choral conductor) at a church in Waterloo, Ontario.
I play. My husband and I walk the forested trails of our region. We go to theatre (one of North America’s best repertory theatre companies is a 50-minute drive from our home). We watch films. Because we’re both classical musicians, we listen to classical music. But we rarely go to concerts. Busman’s holiday. And I work as a whatever-you-want-me-to-do for a small theatre company.
Do you remember the first story you ever wrote?
I remember one of the first poems I wrote. I was 11 and the poem was a limerick:
A lady, most thoroughly stout,
was as tall as she was round about.
She sat on a pin
and became very thin,
because all the air was let out.
What do you read for pleasure?
I read fiction, memoirs (I prefer autobiography to biography), and travel writing for pleasure. I read poetry — at least one poem — every day. One of my wicked (but not guilty) pleasures is black humour — like Marina Lewycka’s Two Caravans or DCB Pierre’s Vernon God Little. I bought Jonas Jonasson’s The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared at the Toronto airport, to read on my way to Malta. But didn’t. No reading lights for the whole of the 8.5-hour transantlantic flight. So I’m reading it now.