It is always a thrill to see a new work come available for us readers to enjoy. Liz Harmer has been in my social-media network for a while now and her novel “The Amateurs” is being published on April 24, 2018by Knopf Canada. Liz was kind enough to answer a few questions about her novel and provide some insights into her writing style.
1) First off, could you give a bit of an outline of “The Amateurs?”
At the centre of The Amateurs is “port”, a product released by a tech company called PINA, which proves to be nearly irresistible. People buy it, use it, and soon the world depopulates. The novel focuses on two groups living after this kind of rapturing apocalypse—a few dozen people living in Hamilton-like former steeltown, and nearly a thousand holing up on the PINA campus in California—who are grieving everything and everyone they’ve lost, afraid of and desperately curious about the ports, and trying to figure out what’s next. The novel moves from the steeltown group to California and back.
2) How long did it take you to write the book? Was there anyone or anything that inspired you to write it?
One big inspiration was a fantasy of the good life and how to find it, which involved having good friends you’d live close to and share life with as well as access to art and fewer cars and concerns. I had a picture of an economy somehow happily collapsed by technology. This mutated, of course, and I ended up thinking a lot about hinge moments in life in which I might have, for example, completely screwed up my marriage—just the sort of fantasies one has around time travel and do-overs. I thought the idea that portals promising a good life might create one inadvertently was funny. My husband Adam was finishing his PhD in Philosophy around the writing of the novel, and we share an interest in the paradoxes of time travel (among other paradoxes), which was another spur.
From the first attempted pages, the book took around fifteen months to write, but I had been writing character sketches of Marie and Jason for much longer than that. Then the editing and revising took another year or two. It’s hard to find the boundaries around that kind of timeline.
3) “The Amateurs” has been listed as part of Knopf New Face of Fiction program. How did the novel get chosen for that program?
I don’t know how that happened—but I am so thrilled to be on that list and to be publishing with Knopf.
4) Who are your favourite writers? What are you reading right now?
I love Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen, and I’m also very enthusiastic about Zadie Smith, Rachel Cusk, Heather O’Neill, and Elena Ferrante. Ottessa Mosfegh’s stories and her novel Eileen were some recent favorites. I’m currently reading Ruth Franklin’s biography of Shirley Jackson—it’s excellent—and I’m just starting Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook.
5) Your website states you also write essays and short pieces of fiction. Do you find any differences between the two forms of writing? Is there one form you prefer over the other?
Yes, and I’ve also been recently trying to write poetry. Each form provides something different, though I have a lot of trouble knowing for myself what that difference is. My nonfiction tends to be memoir, and I like all my work to be exploratory and open-ended as I’m very uncomfortable with definitive statements, at least in my writing. I tend to prefer whatever I’ve been working on—right now, I prefer fiction and feel most comfortable within it—I like to create a voice and get to know a character.
6) Are you working on anything new right now? If yes, are there details you care to share?
Yes—many new things, actually. Partly because I am very busy with young kids and too many responsibilities, and partly because my personality likes novelty, I’m always working on lots of projects at once. I’m several drafts into one new novel (a realist novel about commitment to marriage and to religious belief) and part way into a first draft of another; I’m working on a bunch of short stories; and I’ve been working on and researching a long nonfiction project to do with mental illness in my family.
7) You seem to be active on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. How do you like using those sites? Are you planning to use those applications to connect with fans of your writing?
Definitely. I’m on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and I’m trying to figure out how best to use them. I used to really love blogging, which I think led me to write more nonfiction, and I want to figure out how to enjoy social media that much.
8) Are you done any public readings of you work? If yes, is it something you enjoy to do? Are you planning a book tour with the release of “The Amateurs?”
I have done a few readings over the past few years, of stories and essays and parts of The Amateurs. I think it’s a skill I’m getting better at, especially with some practice I’ve had reading poetry aloud. I enjoy it and tend to like events—I like going to readings also. My tour will take me to Southern Ontario in May, to start with, with more events to follow.
9) Your biographies have you listed as having moved from Hamilton, Ontario to California. How do you like living there now? Do you get back to Canada much?
I do get back to Canada fairly frequently, both with and without my family. We moved because of my husband’s academic job, which we were extremely lucky to get, but I suffer from a lot of homesickness. I miss the changing seasons—even the grey skies of the endless Southern Ontario winters—and it was hard to leave friends and family behind, especially when our kids were so young. But we have made wonderful friends here, and pomegranate trees and blue skies can be nice. I was writing The Amateurs during the move—had finished the first part during my last summer in Hamilton and started the second part before we even had an internet connection here—and my mentor with the U of T, Charles Foran, joked with me that I was going through a kind of portal while I wrote my portal novel.