Sara Tilley dishes on the demands of writing a novel straddling fact and fiction, and literally donning a mask to get into her characters heads
St. John’s-based writer Sara Tilley is a bit of a Renaissance woman. Her debut novel, Skin Room, was nominated for a slew of prestigious literary awards, and she continues to explore theatre through European clown traditions and mask-making. Based on a hidden trove of her great grandfather’s private writings, her new novel, Duke, explores some rough emotional terrain as well as an expansive geographical territory which stretches the country.
Atlantic Books Today chatted with her in her downtown office, surrounded by the artifacts of her research, and talked about the challenges of making Duke a reality.
It’s been almost seven years since your debut Skin Room was released. Why so long between novels?
I suppose there are a couple of reasons. I also work in the theatre, as well as being a clown performer and teacher, and for most of those years I had a part-time day job as well. I am not someone who writes every day. I go back and forth between intense periods of writing and theatre creation, and I guess this makes me comparatively slow in terms of how often I publish.
Duke also demanded a lot of time because of the nature of the work. I was drawn to the story immediately, but didn’t know how to tell it. I wasn’t sure, at first, if I was writing a novel, an epic poem or a monologue for theatre. It took a year just to transcribe and order the source documents, and then I had to figure out what I wanted to do with them, and how to access the characters, and invent the mask-writing process as I went. All in all, this was an eleven-year project. I started working on it before Skin Room was even accepted for publication.
I definitely pursue risk in my work. I like to dare myself to step closer and closer to the unknown, to keep trying things that have the potential to fail.
Some readers may not be aware of the fact that Duke was a real person – your great-grandfather Marmaduke Tilley. What was it you found so compelling about him?
The first thing that caught me was Duke’s use of language—it was poetic, sad and funny, peppered with rhyming couplets and mysterious references. There was a story to be found in the way his handwriting and the length of his phrases degenerated over the years, in the things he crossed out, and the way he ignored most punctuation, making his correspondence surreal and dreamlike to read. His voice was seductive, and I knew pretty much right away that it would become the basis for my next major writing project.
The novel is a marriage of fiction and journal entries and letters. How did the process compare to your first novel?
It’s a big departure. There were no source texts for the first novel, it started from my desire to record some of the sense memories I still held onto from my childhood in the Northwest Territories. Fictional characters and story bloomed from those memories, until I found myself writing a novel.
For Duke, I started with a source document which, when assembled, was over 200 pages long, typewritten: letters, log book entries, postcards. I did a lot of research into the time period. It felt like detective work at first, as I built up a world inside myself from which to write. I also worked with a mask process adapted from my Pochinko clown training, so that was a huge departure from my earlier work. I was having trouble writing freely from Duke’s point of view, because it felt like trespassing, so my clown mentor suggested that I try making a mask for him. This experiment in physically embodying the character really opened the door to the book for me. It gave me access to a wholly different voice than my usual one, so much so that I was often surprised by the handwriting left on the page when I slipped the mask off and ‘came to’ again.
Clearly, you like risks with your work. Is that a conscious decision, to go out on a limb and challenge yourself, or do you let the voices and source material guide you?
I suppose it’s a bit of both. I definitely pursue risk in my work. I like to dare myself to step closer and closer to the unknown, to keep trying things that have the potential to fail.
At the same time, I don’t want to take risks for no reason. They have to be tied to the core of what is being investigated. In that way, the source material or the creative impulse is the boss, and I give myself over to what it needs in order to be fully expressed. The stylistic risks in Duke are part of the very fabric of the story itself. You couldn’t have one without the other.
Your bio talks about how your artistic work bridges writing and theatre. You’ve been trained in Pachinko Clown Through Mask technique. How was Duke influenced by your theatre work?
As I mentioned earlier, I used the Pochinko mask technique to physically embody Duke, and his daughter Eva as well, who appears in four sections of the novel. After meditating on a piece of source text that I wanted to focus on, I would put on the mask and physically take on the character, and then let that character do the writing. The practice was a bit like clown, a bit like writing, and a bit like having an out-of-body experience. I would take the pages of raw mask-writing to the computer and begin to type while still influenced by the mask’s energy, opening out the passages into full scenes.
I’ve since had some writers ask me why I bothered with the mask at all, as it is true that many writers feel like they are ‘channelling’ something or taking on a character when they write. All I know is that the mask was necessary to me in the creation of this particular work. It let me own the story as a story. It hurtled me over a barrier of worry about trespassing, into an unknown, uncharted land.