Lizy Mostowski in Conversation with Aga Maksimowska

Lizy Mostowski: Aga, your short story "Why Yesterday I Keyed My Father’s Car" is the first chapter from your novel Giant, forthcoming from Pedlar Press. Does this in any way comment on how you first wrote the novel? I am aware that some writers construct their novels from a series of short stories; is that the case here as well?
Aga Maksimowska: Yes and no. When I first attempted this novel it was a different thing entirely: different title, different premise, more characters, albeit the same narrator and settings. It was during the second attempt that I gave myself a constraint of ten chapters, each one named after an event from the decathlon. (Decathlon was the title of the second attempt of the novel.) As a result, each chapter of the book was a sort of standalone story loosely inspired by a decathlon event. Mind you, I have a hard time writing short stories. I think they’re the most difficult thing to write; that’s why I admire short story writers so much.  The published incarnation of the book, Giant, has eleven chapters, so as you can see, the work has really evolved over time.

LM: I know that you were born in Gdańsk, Poland. I also know, as a Polish-Canadian myself, that some people live a sort of half-life, one that is here and there in almost equal parts. Do you feel this way at all? How often do you go back to visit? Do you still have family there? Is Poland a large part of who you are today?
AM: I was actually born in Gdynia, a former fishing village that’s now a modern, vibrant city near Gdańsk. It’s much less Gothic and Soviet than Gdańsk; I love it very much.
I wouldn’t say that I live a half-life. I think of myself as a Canadian first. I’ve made a pretty conscious choice a long time ago to immerse myself in Canadian culture and make this place my one and only fixed home—at a cost, of course. As a result, my spoken Polish is horrible for someone who only spoke that language for the first twelve years of her life. I’m ashamed of it from time to time, especially when I meet other Polish-Canadians who are beautifully and functionally bilingual. I do have moments when I feel neither here nor there, neither Polish nor Canadian. Those are pretty vulnerable, unstable moments. But I suppose many people feel this way—displaced somehow, whether physically, emotionally, spiritually, or what not. I tried to channel those feelings of belonging and isolation while creating the protagonist of Giant.
Finally, no, I don’t go back to Poland often, even though I do have oodles and oodles of family there. (I’ve been back four times since my family emigrated.) It’s prohibitively expensive. When time and finances for a vacation are available there is always the temptation to go somewhere new, somewhere unknown. I’ve also had other “homes,” because of work abroad and travel, that I am yearning to visit again one day: Australia, Spain, Italy, Mexico… But I will go back to Poland soon. I have to. The duty and drive to introduce that complicated and wonderful place to my daughter is definitely there. I just wish it were a little bit closer. I envy my Polish cousins and friends who live in the U.K., Ireland, or Germany. They have Ryanair!

LM: When did you decide that you were going to be a writer? What was your mother’s reaction?
AM: I don’t think I ever decided to be a writer, to be honest. I know—that sounds terrible. I always wrote, since I can remember. As a child, I wrote stories about girls with very English surnames and ‘published’ them with hardcovers made of shoebox cardboard and bound them with yarn I’d steal from my grandmother. My mother kept everything I did in these great big files that could be tied together with string. She still has boxes of my “work” somewhere. I have the best mom. But regardless of unconditional family support of my art form, I have never been able to say to someone at a dinner party, “Hi, I’m a writer. What do you do?” I suffer from a terrible case of A-type personality; hence I have always considered writing a hobby, not a viable career choice. Today, I’m a high school teacher. I love what I do. And, as it turns out, writing and teaching are agreeable companions, so I hope to continue juggling the two for as long as I can.

LM: Writers have various writing habits and schedules. What is yours? Is there a time of day in which you feel most productive?
AM: I used to be a morning person. Giant was written predominantly at 5 a.m., before the teaching day would begin. At the end of the day, there were always too many personalities, too many events, too many conflicts running through my head. It would have been a messy novel had I written in the evenings. However, now that I have other people relying on me at home, I will have to explore writing in the evenings. I don’t think creative writing at 5 a.m. will ever happen for me again, or maybe not until my daughter is a teenager. My former office is also now her bedroom, so I’m pretty sure that I will do the bulk of my work on the next novel at Robarts Library or at the dining room table.

LM: Do you write in any medium other than prose?
AM: No, but I would love to try my hand at a screenplay one day, which is a kind of prose but a very different genre of writing.

LM: Which writers do you admire? Who has influenced your writing style?
AM: Arundhati Roy, James Baldwin, Jhumpa Lahiri, Jeffrey Eugenides, Jamaica Kincaid, Camilla Gibb, Lawrence Hill, Heather O’Neill, Helen Humphreys, just to name a few whose work I keep coming back to consistently. I don’t know which one of them has influenced my style the most. All of them, I suppose. Each one of them humbles me when I read and reread their work and then reflect on my own writing. I’m learning all the time. I still have a long, long way to go. I’m excited to try all the tools and techniques I learned while writing this first novel on my second one.

LM: You recently graduated from Guelph’s MFA program. How do you feel about the workshop environment? Do you think that it is always a valuable environment for a writer to be in or does it sometimes feel stagnant?
AM: I loved the workshop environment. It really pushed me. It forced me to produce, but more importantly, it forced me to ask questions of my own work, and to rewrite. Plus deadlines. Deadlines are key to transferring one’s novel from the bucket list to the desk drawer, then to the hands of family and friends, and finally, out into the world, which I suppose is the goal of every writer. You want strangers to read your books, not just your husband and your best friend. The entire MFA experience was wholly valuable to me and I would recommend it to anyone serious about the craft of writing.

LM: Writers have to deal with a lot of rejection when they start out. What is your advice to dealing with it? What is the strangest rejection you have ever received?
AM: Oh Lord. I would like some advice on dealing with rejection myself. I think writers always deal with it, no matter what stage in their career they are at. I’m the proud owner of a four-inch-thick file folder of rejection letters from literary journals, and a Gmail folder packed with rejection emails from agents and publishers. The key is to see rejection as part of the process. Some of the letters can help you improve your writing. I remember an editor at PRISM who would send me lovely, hand-written notes of detailed feedback about my stories. I really appreciated the time he took and his generosity of literary expertise. This leads me to the weirdest rejection, which was an email from an agent that went on and on about how good my writing was and how alive the world of the novel was and how engaging the characters were but how he could never sell my novel—ever—because no one’s interested in Eastern Europe.

LM: Finally, what is your advice for young, emerging writers? What has been the key to your success?
AM: I was about to correct you and say, “What success?” but I suppose having a novel published is success in itself. My advice to emerging writers would be to keep going. Everyone’s got a story to tell, and if you have the desire, the talent, the interest, and the drive to tell it, do it! Don’t keep that novel in a drawer, or worse yet, in the back of your head. Work on it. Even if it’s an hour here and there. Write it, read it to a group of friends, organize a writing group, polish, rewrite, submit it somewhere. Take continuing ed. courses at your local university or college. That’s how I started writing this novel. Having a supportive, nurturing writing community will fuel you to get it done.

Aga Maksimowska lives in Toronto. She is currently Head of English at an independent day school for boys. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph, a Bachelor of Education from the University of Toronto and a Bachelor of Journalism from Ryerson University. Her work has appeared online and in print in Canada and Australia. Her first novel, Giant, is being published in May 2012 by Pedlar Press. Her short story, "Why Yesterday I Keyed My Father’s Car," has been edited as a stand-alone piece from the novel's opening chapter.