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An Interview with Maurice Mierau, Recipient of the Manitoba Arts Council’s 2017 Major Arts Grant

Maurice Mierau has been awarded the Manitoba Arts Council’s 2017 Major Arts Grant. This grant will assist the Winnipeg-based writer to work on the manuscript of his second memoir.

The photo was taken by Alex Kopychko in October 2016 at the front in eastern Ukraine, near Avdiivka. Third from left is Edward Kulinich, a national hero for his volunteer work supporting the Ukrainian army, and for surviving a brutal internment by Russian separatists. Maurice Mierau is on the right, beside his translator, Olga Kalambetova.

Maurice Mierau is the author of Detachment: An Adoption Memoir, which won the 2016 Kobzar Literary Award and the Alexander Kennedy Isbister Award for Non-Fiction. He has published three books of poems, Autobiographical Fictions, ReLit Award winner Fear Not, and Ending with Music. He was born in Indiana and grew up in Nigeria, Manitoba, Jamaica, Kansas, and Saskatchewan. Maurice now lives in Winnipeg where he works as a writer and editor.

Thank you for joining me today Maurice. First of all, I would like to congratulate you on receiving the 2017 Major Arts Grant. Could you tell us about your project?

This project will be a memoir about cultural, national, and individual identity, focused on the current war in Ukraine and my family’s roots in that country. The new book follows on my previous memoir, Detachment, which dealt with the adoption of my sons in Ukraine, and with my Mennonite father’s traumatic childhood as a refugee of World War II, fleeing Soviet Ukraine. But this new book deals with the existential crisis that Ukraine now faces because of the war there, and also with the issues my sons must work out—just like any adolescents—to address their own sense of belonging.

To write the book I travelled to Ukraine for two months last fall. I went to the front and felt the earth shake beneath my feet from shelling near Donetsk, in the only war going on right now in Europe. It is a so-called frozen conflict between Russia and Ukraine, but it also produces two casualties every day. 10,000 people have died since Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, and more than 1 million have been internally displaced. I interviewed dozens of people, from soldiers to volunteers, refugees, journalists, politicians, even a few Ukrainians who support the Russian intervention. I should express my gratitude to the Access Copyright Foundation and the Shevchenko Foundation for supporting my travel.

I also met most of my sons’ birth family in the western end of Ukraine. I want to tie that individual and personal story to the larger one of the country’s struggle to establish itself as a European democracy. As a Canadian, I want to include the voices of some war veterans in Manitoba, as well as some recent refugees who have arrived from war zones of their own, so they can talk about their sense of national and personal identity.

The book will move between oral history and interviews, and my own situation, including ones where I appear uncomfortable and even ridiculous. How else could I look except as a war tourist, a representative Canadian both idealistic and absurd.

Much of your previous publication history has been as a poet. Can you speak about the difference for you between writing poetry and prose?

There are a lot of differences, so I’ll focus on two.

Because I write, like most contemporary poets, in short forms, poetry puts tremendous pressure on small bits of language. Placing syllable stress, sound effects, possible double or ambiguous meanings, allusions to other poems — the things that make poetry translators crazy — these technical issues preoccupy me when writing poetry.

The other large difference is the feeling with prose that you are writing for an audience that goes beyond your immediate peer group of other writers. It is perhaps impolite to say this, but in this country, for reasons I could moan about at great length, there exists almost no audience for poetry. But prose does reach a broader audience. My last book of prose, Detachment, has almost sold out its print run, and I’ve gotten emails from across Canada from readers who are unrelated and unknown to me, saying how much they enjoyed the book. Since writing is something you do alone, that feedback makes a big difference.

Can you tell us about your writing process in general?

I am tempted to say no! My process contains a lot of chaos and inefficiency, which matters to the final product: I want to struggle with the medium itself in terms of narrative, sentence construction, everything, so that readers get a jolt rather than a sponge bath. Or maybe both within a few pages. For example, in this project I am dealing with transcriptions of over 50 interviews that were live-translated from Russian and Ukrainian. The challenge is incorporating all these voices into the book, along with my own, while building enough narrative momentum to hold a reader’s attention.

I’m fascinated by narrative construction, and part of my writing process is constantly reading and studying people who are really good at it. I just finished the memoir My Life as a Russian Novel, by the French writer Emmanuel Carrère, and it plays with reader expectations and conventions in a way that I much admire.

What is the biggest challenge for you in living as a writer?

My biggest challenge is making a living while continuing to produce new work. Canada is a very small market for books, and almost no creative writer in this country makes a living primarily from book royalties. Therefore writers—and other artists— benefit tremendously from programs like the Major Arts Grant from the Manitoba Arts Council. Without such programs, people like me would still write books, and other artists would make films, paint, dance, and have artistic careers. But the work would suffer, because all of us benefit so much from the focus that comes from direct financial support. The provincial government spends considerably less than one percent of its budget on the arts, and that investment makes a gigantic difference not just to artists but to the whole community as we enjoy books, performing arts, movies, and art galleries that speak out of our local experience and not just out of the experience of Toronto, or Los Angeles, or New York—marvellous as those places are.

As the recipient of the 2017 Major Arts Grant, what advice would you give to emerging writers?

Read a lot, especially in the genres in which you want to write. Read not only contemporary and Canadian literature, but also literature from other centuries and languages. Learn another language or two. Live abroad for some time in a culture as different as possible from the one where you grew up. Read literary magazines from all over the place. Read book reviews. Get as much education on literary subjects as you can. Make sure you know how to type. Finally, learn a trade that you do with your hands, so you can make a living more easily than someone like me. You won’t take swinging a hammer home with you, and then you can type in the evenings. And read.

Maurice, thanks again for taking the time to speak with us. It’s been a real pleasure getting a glimpse into your work.

To learn more about Manitoba Writer Maurice Mierau and his previous publications, visit www.mauricemierau.com.

 

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