If you didn’t already know her name from her essays and stories, you certainly know it now. This year may just be remembered as the year of Liz Harmer. The National Magazine Award winner published her debut novel, The Amateurs, in April as part of Knopf Canada’s prestigious New Face of Fiction program. But don’t let the “new” label fool you; Liz has been writing for years. We caught up with her via email—just after the Journey Prize shortlist was announced in September—to learn more about her path to publication, and how her life influences her art.
You’ve been the recipient of and nominee for a number of awards, most recently the Journey Prize. Is there one accolade that’s been more meaningful to you than the others?
When I was in high school, I won the Power of the Pen award a couple of times, which meant that I got to have my picture with my story in the Hamilton Spectator, and to speak at an event at the Hamilton Public Library, AND to get a hundred dollars worth of books from Bryan Prince Bookseller, which, until this year, was a fixture in Hamilton. It was a very Hamilton award, and it meant so much to me because it affirmed me when I was young and needed that affirmation.
But the Journey Prize is a very big deal for me because I’ve been reading the anthologies for many years. When something happens that you can’t control for—that you can only yearn for—it seems magical. Though because I don’t believe in magic I don’t know what to do with that.
Tell us about your book. How did it come about?
At the center of my literary speculative novel, The Amateurs, is an accidental portal device. A monomaniacal CEO in Silicon Valley invents ports, releases them, and then, with the other survivors, watches as the world empties of people. Much of the book takes place in a mostly depopulated city based on Hamilton, Ontario, where a group of people tries to make a life together while they also try to figure out where everybody went.
I wrote it partly out of an interest in ideas of rapture and post-apocalypse. I’m attracted to end-of-days crises in art, but also to stories of early people before there were many people, and I think of the book in some ways as a thought experiment. What are people like when you strip civilization away? What is the nature of temptation?
You’ve written movingly about being a writer and a mother. How do the other facets of your identity—including editor and teacher—inform your writing?
Classrooms and smart people who nevertheless screw up their lives show up in lots of my stories. Embarrassing teachers or bad ones. The protagonist in the Journey-finalist story, “Never Prosper,” is a philosophy professor. There are grad students in my current manuscripts. A recent story I wrote includes a freelance editor who wants to throw herself into a terrible affair with an organic farmer. Oh, gosh, this is revealing! I also have set stories in Christian communes, and at nursing homes, and at Christian summer camp. I was raised in a Dutch Christian subculture, which is something I’m trying to write about. I have had many touches with mental illness, so I’m trying to figure out whether and how I identify as a madperson, and I married relatively young. All of that is going into a long work of non-fiction I’m beginning to work on (and was the subject of many essays I’ve written).
How did you find the experience of working with your Humber writing mentor? What insight into your writing did you gain through the mentorship process?
Working with Richard Bausch through the Summer Workshop was formative. His mentorship and subsequent friendship helped me embrace the idea that I was any good at writing. But more than this, he models an exuberant and unequivocal love for the life of the writer, which is refreshing. He led me to think about writing in all sorts of new ways. It was perfect timing. I managed, inadvertently, to follow him to Southern California.
Before that, I worked with Joan Barfoot, whose typewritten letters of encouragement and help were very much needed at that time in my apprenticeship.
Please compare the experiences of taking the Summer Workshop in Creative Writing and the Correspondence Program. How did your writing evolve from one experience to the next?
I took the correspondence program in 2007, just after leaving a PhD program to jump headfirst into writing and motherhood. I was pregnant with my first daughter and trying to write a novel that I thought would be the start of my career. The experience helped me get through a full draft of a novel, a milestone—it’s hard to make it all the way to the end of a story that length—but when I was done I realized that I wanted to develop short stories and to improve my prose before attempting to publish a novel.
I attended the Summer Workshop in 2010, after having worked on short stories in isolation for a while, and having had two children, so time away with a community was a desperate need at the time. I felt that I was ready to leap into professionalization and the life of art with more confidence after that.
Photo Credit: Scott W. Nichols 2015