An Interview with Amber Dawn
by Freerange Nonfiction’s Marie-Hélène Westgate
Amber Dawn is the author of the Lambda award-winning novel Sub Rosa (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2010), editor of the Lambda Award-nominated Fist of the Spider Woman (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2008) and co-editor of With a Rough Tongue: Femmes Write Porn (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2005). Her award-winning docu-porn, “Girl on Girl,” has been screened in eight countries and added to the gender studies curriculum at Concordia University. She has toured three times with the infamous Sex Workers’ Art Show in the US and was voted Xtra! West’s Hero of the Year in 2008. Amber has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia. Currently and she is the Director of Programming for the Vancouver Queer Film Festival.
Marie-Hélène Westgate: “Sub Rosa” is the story of a teenage runaway who stumbles into an underground society made up of magicians, ghosts and missing girls. In her journey she encounters everything from grotesque enemies to strange allies and complicated memories. How did you get started writing “Sub Rosa”?
Amber Dawn: I love form. I have a bit of a form fetish. And I never thought I would write a novel. My master’s thesis was poetry and I scrapped it all in my second year. I was starting to feel really discouraged about being a poet. I just realized I was writing a rather rarefied genre with pretty rarefied or marginalized content that would maybe get published in obscure niche journals. And my publishing credits were moving, but very slowly. I understand rejections are part of it but I was at a point where I just didn’t want another one of those.
So I thought, I should write a novel. I should write a novel. And then I thought, Shit, I have to write a novel! I don’t know how to do that. I’m a poet.
I needed a structure. I needed to look for a template to write a novel. So I chose milieu. “Alice in Wonderland” is in a milieu and “Gulliver’s Travels” is a milieu. The strength of a milieu is that the reader will align herself with the protagonist and follow them on a journey. I knew that if I was going to write about what I was going to write about, the readers had to be with me. They couldn’t be looking down, or from a distance. They had to be right there.
Structure is hot, it’s sexy – like, I want to have a threesome with Fabula and Suzette, the Russian Formulist sisters. Fabula is like the guts, the content, and then Suzette is how it’s all organized. She’s the pragmatic sister. I think it’s harder to get Suzette’s underwear off but it’s more rewarding.
So in speculative fiction there are two major narratives. One is the disruption. I think the one we see the most in the contemporary world is suburbia disrupted by a scourge of zombies. And then there’s the other one which is the milieu narrative, which is what “Sub Rosa” is. The milieu story has a relatable person: a protagonist for whom the reader can feel pathos and whom the reader can agree to follow on a magical journey. And the milieu story always ends with that person having a homecoming.
MW: What’s your writing process like?
AD: I’m lazy. I’ve been to other writers’ houses where they don’t have a TV or a DVD collection. They just have a bookshelf and a desk. They don’t even have a cozy couch that you’d want to get into. I’m not like that. First of all, I watch over three hundred movies every year. I love film. And I have a full-time day job in film curation.
I often start my writing practice with the word “credo” at the top of the page. I have an Italian background. Credo literally means, “I believe.” I write out my statements for what I think I’m up to, what the book’s about, and then start my free writes and allow myself some time to dick around online or read some textbooks about miracles. I also like to draw Venn diagrams, and outlines are good. I think anyone who’s written a book would say, just make an outline and if you go off your path, that’s great, but have something that grounds you.
MW: What do you struggle with in your writing?
AD: I struggle with something different for every new project. Currently in my life, I have a job in the arts sector and somehow my novel continues to get me gigs, and with everything that an artist like myself does that gets attention, somehow we can become more relevant and then more people come knocking. What I’m struggling against right now is, How do I respond to that knocking? Last year I kind of went from being a queer-core writer with a really select audience to getting different types of offers to speak in more mainstream literary and arts settings. I wanted to be part of a larger dialogue, but I’m still adjusting.
My content is candid and I’m talking about some very topical issues. My readers often want to talk about sex work. And I care a lot about what readers think. I care in the sense that I want readers to align themselves with my values. I want people to think about violence against women. I want people to think about feminism.
My dilemma was, how can I write a book where I’m not stigmatizing the characters? How can I write a book where the reader will not get caught up in moral dilemmas or the physical act itself of exchanging sex for money? There are much more critical issues regarding sex work than black and white moral debates. I am utterly exhausted of the discussion as to whether sex work is “right” or “wrong.” To me, this seemingly tireless debate just keeps us, as a society, from actually doing a damn thing to understand, protect and include sex workers within the social fabric. I am often asked if I consider Sub Rosa an “outsider” story. One in seven teenage girls will runaway and/or face homelessness, in the USA. In a metro Canadian city like Toronto or Vancouver, at any given time there are upward of 10, 000 people (mainly women) working as prostitutes, and this only accounts for stats that can be collected and measured.
MW: What role does internal struggle play in a writer’s life?
AD: Writing is sort of survival. I don’t think that my journey as a creative person is really that different from my journey of just surviving as a person. That idea of, do I deserve to be here? Is this going to sustain my heart but also my ability to live, have a home, eat? Will people see me, will I be witnessed, will I be invisible? I don’t think it’s any different than non-writers.
I also think writers are very lucky. They get to spend a lot of time with themselves and they sit with things that are of interest to them and deeply personal.
MW: How do you approach research?
AD: I’m reading The Miracle Detective. I’m doing research on miraculous apparitions and how local communities respond when apparitions take place. It’s bananas. I just read a lot about the Vatican and how they go about determining whether something is a miracle or a delusion; all of these different camps within the Vatican.
I’m also studying Theme Park Theory. It’s the study of the creation of atmosphere in false urban fantasy settings impacts our human psyche and how we respond to these settings.
And here’s the reason why: my next novel is set in my hometown of Crystal Beach Ontario. It’s a hamlet within a township, population 3,800, across the border from Buffalo, on the southernmost tip of the Niagara Peninsula. I looked at Buffalo a lot.
In this little tiny, tiny town of Crystal Beach, I acquired a lot of personal trauma about growing up in a small town and being queer at a very, very young age. I remember my mother sitting me down and telling me I had to stop touching my babysitter. I was like this unstoppable homo baby in a town full of churches and fraternal lodges and this amusement park called Crystal Beach Amusement Park. The amusement park closed in 1989. I was a younger teen when it closed. It had been open for 100 years. 100 years of this fantasy land existing in this small community was interesting. There’s not a lot of writing about it. There are definitely some community-based oral history projects about it though. I’ll go this summer and hit the libraries and talk to the townies. I’m going to have a protagonist who returns there in 1990 right after it closed. She’s duked it out in Toronto for five years then comes limping back home to live with her mom.
So in Crystal Beach this huge structure, this amusement, has been taken away and now there is just a ghost town flanking the amusing park where all the burger and fry shops and kitschy beachside shops used to be. They’re all empty now. I knew kids who wanted to stop living with their parents and started renting these empty, gutted burger shacks. They had a kitchen and a working bathroom and they were just these weird places.
Weirder still is that if you’re driving to Crystal Beach from Toronto, the exit you take to get to the beach is called Sodom Road. If you’re driving down Sodom, one of the intersections is Goram Rd. So there’s like a Sodom and Gomorrah crossroad because before it was an amusement park town it was a land of religious zealotry. And it’s totally haunted, and just fucking ripe for writing. The working title is Sodom Road Exit.
It’s gonna be a queer novel. Sub Rosa is like, is it a queer novel, is it not? I think it is but if someone reads it as not, that’s fine. But Sodom Road Exit will really be more overtly queer in the way that the older protagonist will know who she is.
MW: When Shameless Magazine interviewed you, they asked how your identity as a queer woman informs your writing.
AD: We love the word “inform” don’t we? As a queer person who writes queer content, I have to ask myself: what does queer content look like? What has it looked like to have a protagonist who exists in queer relationships? I did an experiment once. I sent out a poem that was like a lovely love poem, very Canadian: crickets singing at night, some serious landscape action, and a relationship therein. The pronoun attached to the desired person was “she,” and my own name is most clearly a woman’s name. When the poem was rejected, I was like, hmmm, just as an experiment I’m just gonna change the pronoun and send this back out. I was happy to get a publication the second time around, but very disillusioned that that was the only change I had made.
And I let it be published. I bit it. I sold out! I wanted to build my resume. I wanted to apply for grants. Then a little later on, a literary journal wanted to take one of my very first memoir pieces about being a sex worker and publish it in a local Vancouver magazine. It was this very Vancouver story, you know; I was on the kiddy stroll in what had become a very iconic neighborhood in East Van, and the editor asked me if I could omit my partner from the story because he – the editor – thought that it would be too much for their readers to wrap their heads around: the fact that not only was I a street walker but I was also queer. It was too much difference. And I didn’t do it. I felt like the one experiment was enough for me. The story found another home.
So I think the publishing world hasn’t quite caught up to the idea of intersectional feminism, and intersectional feminism is a late 1980s, early 1990s notion. It simply means understanding that you’re not just this one thing, you’re a lot of things! And these things all happen at the same time! It’s dehumanizing to try to separate out sexuality from class, for example, and it doesn’t give the reader enough credit either.
MW: There’s a precarious balance to strike when it comes to how much difference to include in a story. How do you decide how many dimensions a story can accommodate?
AD: I think in the publishing world there’s this idea that of there being too many of one kind of story on the market. But it’s bullshit because there can be a bazillion fucking stories about a white, male, self-made man who takes a turn with alcoholism and is displaced within his role as a father and a husband. There can be a bazillion of that. There can be a bazillion fucking stories about the guy who for whatever reason is at odds with his family and then has to go back home because his father is on his deathbed and then comes to terms with his goddamned childhood. There can be bazillions of those goddamned stories even though not every single one is interesting. Men’s stories certainly aren’t more interesting than women’s stories.
I know women who wrote survivor stories – good ones – in the wake of [Dorothy Allison’s] Bastard Out of Carolina coming out and their stories wouldn’t be touched because publishers seem to think that only a few survivor stories can exist in the market at one time.
Women’s stories are lesser than, or to be feared, or too complex, or too guilt-generating because they compel the reader to become implicit in the content. Whereas you can read about that guy who goes home to deal with his dad on his deathbed and easily just watch him navel-gaze, these women’s stories implicate you. They make you say, holy shit this is going on in the world.
I do believe that women telling women’s stories is still too complicated to really exist in mainstream media, to be on Top 10 bestseller lists, to be picked up by publishers with confidence, to be anywhere. It’s up to us to write those stories and to read each other. I mean, university lit and writing programs are populated by women, so what the fuck?
You know, I’ve started to be invited to larger writing festivals where it’s like, I’m the lady. I just know: I’m the lady at this festival! It’s not changing. I mean it’s changing because there’s a movement of people who will create an environment where these stories are always going to be told but women have to build the house for their art to live in. There isn’t a house that’s standing yet. Maybe there’s like one of those burger shacks. We have to move into those ghost town burger shacks.
MW: Speaking of festivals, congratulations on your Lambda award last May. How was the awards ceremony?
AD: The lifetime achievement went to Edward Albee. He rose to accept his award and make his speech and his speech was just riddled with defensiveness about not wanting to be seen as a queer author, almost like being a queer was a demotion in his literary career. I guess he grew up in a different time. He’s a boomer, and he’s a white guy, and I guess that’s what he had to say for himself. I don’t think it’s a very ballsy stance but I get it. People who write from the margins have to be careful, it’s just kind of how it goes.
MW: Is there value in getting to know what people’s assumptions are, if only to trick them into reading something they wouldn’t normally gravitate towards?
AD: Yes! You can trick them! I still struggle against that. I also struggle against people saying, Thanks for writing Sub Rosa, that book was important to me. I’m not the awesom-est at receiving compliments. I come from a culture where we spit on our babies to keep the evil eye away. So I’m like, Ohhh all this attention – something bad’s gonna happen! It’s a pretty awesome dilemma to have.
MW: Do you have any tips for emerging writers?
AD: Read! Read out loud! Read in front of an audience!
You’re not alone in your suffering. Find your kin, find your people. Find other writers and put a fire under each other’s asses, cheer each other on. It will help. And then go to readings, go to open mics, read blogs and literary journals. Read, but not only the canon. See who’s out there now. Encourage each other, especially women. I know it’s easy not to give our creative projects the time they deserve. Anyone who knows what the publishing industry is like probably feels pretty scared to take too much of their life and pour it into something that’s not necessarily going to float. But it probably feels even worse not to do it. It probably feels even worse to say, I had this window where I had this idea, this creative energy, this thirst, and I fucking buried that thirst under my day job because I had a fear and I couldn’t make the time for myself.
For writers, there’s very little immediacy. Writing’s not immediate. You can work for over a year and not even know if what you’re up to is good. You’re in the belly of the whale, you know, but again I feel like being in the belly of the whale is better than not doing it at all. It’s kind of like unrequited love: are you gonna take a chance and try to connect with the person you have a crush on or are you just going to decide not to?
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