Schabas on point

Martha Schabas’ debut novel, Various Positions, explores the dark world of teenage ballerinas

Martha Schabas has her Masters in English from Queen's University.
Martha Schabas has her Masters in English from Queen's University.

1. What was the moment you realized you wanted to be a writer?

I don’t think there was a single, epiphanic moment for me. I’ve always written; it’s always seemed like the most natural way to make sense of the world. I imagine that, for most writers, books seem a bit sublime. Nothing can rival their ability to trawl the depths of human experience. When I was accepted into the MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, I decided to take my writing seriously for a bit. Now that bit seems fairly permanent.

2. You started off as a politics student at McGill, how did you end up as an author?

I’m glad to have the foundation in politics and history that I got at McGill, but when I was there, at the age of 19 or so, I felt a bit creatively starved. I got involved in the extracurricular theatre program, and then left McGill midway through my degree to go to George Brown Theatre School in Toronto. George Brown wasn’t a great fit either — I think I wanted to be an actor for all the wrong reasons — and I ended up finishing my degree in English Literature at the University of Toronto. It was the interplay between the practical study of theatre and the critical study of literature that had me thinking about art and books and aesthetics in new ways. Writing is a kind of consummate multi-tasking; it lets me be enterprising in so many different disciplines simultaneously. That may be what appeals to me most.

3. What inspired the theme of your debut novel Various Positions?

I knew that I wanted to write about young women and the politics of the body. I originally imagined my protagonist as someone in her twenties and able to editorialize on her experiences of physicality and sexism. But as I wrote, I became obsessed with the younger voice that I was discovering through flashbacks, and as the character got younger, I found myself dipping back into my own early teens, when I happened to be a serious ballet dancer. The fact that ballet was such a perfect metaphor for so many of the themes of feminism and femininity that I wanted to explore seemed like nothing other than a really lucky coincidence.

4. Was it difficult getting your novel published?

By the time I got a publishing deal in Canada, I had been plugging away at the book for two and a half years. That was the difficult part, the writing bit and all the professional and financial sacrifices that go along with it. There’s a constant temptation to calculate opportunity cost as an aspiring writer; it’s something you have to resist if you’re set on finishing a piece of work. The publishing bit was pretty easy actually, and didn’t have that much to do with me. I was lucky to secure a wonderful agent after my MA in England, and she took care of the business of it all. I just said yes, emphatically.

5. What advice do you give to aspiring authors?

I think the opportunity cost issue is a big one. It’s difficult to throw yourself behind a novel with the necessary single-mindedness when there are zero guarantees of its future beyond your laptop screen. But this single-mindedness is a must. The book will likely take longer than you bargained for and you may frequently feel like you’re wasting your time. So I think you have to decide that writing, in and of itself and regardless of what it comes to, is more important than law school and mortgages. In short, be stubborn and keep going.

6. What author, dead or alive, would you love to meet and why?

I’m tempted to say Virginia Woolf because she’s a favourite of mine and I’m a bit obsessed with the tensions between her aesthetic theory and her feminist views. But the problem with writers is that there can be a jarring disconnect between their authorial voice and the one they speak with in their day-to-day. I’d be pretty sad if Virginia didn’t like me and, judging by her diaries, she could be pretty caustic. What’s that thing she said about Joyce again? An adolescent scratching his pimples?

Martha Schabas responded to the Journal’s questions via email. She will be at this year’s Kingston WritersFest on Saturday at 11 a.m.

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