Daydreaming isn’t a waste of time. It’s not idle or lazy time for a writer. It’s an essential activity, a pure form of creative work. That’s my favourite part—sitting still, or better yet, lying back and daydreaming. I don’t have to be defensive about it. It’s useful and productive to be still and to be doing nothing but letting the mind rove. (My father turns over…) But most people, and I’m a good example, have to fight to find time to let this happen.
Find out the highs and lows of Sandra Ridley’s creation process as she discusses her intentions with and inspirations for her newest book, The Counting House. Find out more about The Counting House on the BookThug website, or read more about Sandra in her Author Profile.
What was your favourite part about writing The Counting House?
The second section of the book, “Lax Tabulation”, was written as an ekphrasic response to michèle provost’s art installation, “ABSTrACTS/RéSuMÉs: An Exercise in Poetry”, which was exhibited in 2010 at the Ottawa Art Gallery. She asked a number of Ottawa-area writers to respond to a multi-page text that she had collated: a compilation of words appropriated from critical writing(s) found in art magazines and curatorial essays. The other writers were jwcurry, John Lavery, Pearl Pirie, Carmel Purkis, and Grant Wilkins. All this to say that I have two favourite parts. They’re related.
The first was being able to respond to michèle’s work itself. The source material she sent excited me and it echoed off two books I was reading at the time: Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex and Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison.
My other favourite part was being able to hear the works of these five writers (and friends) who riffed off the same material but in different and unique ways.
Did any fiction or non-fiction texts influence or inspire you, leading up to or during the composition of The Counting House?
Foucault’s take on the history of the penal system interested me, especially his depictions of how discipline and punishment would play out within the medieval court. I saw some parallels to the counting house, to the ‘home’—specifically in how our identities can become tied up in duties, roles, and obligations to the home. There’s an issue of power relations, or power dynamics, there.
I was also curious about how Foucault placed emphasis on the body, the physical body, and how one would be constantly under the gaze within a proposed penal system—an imprisonment based on Jeremy Bentham’s “Panopticon” where there would be no escape from the ever present ‘eye’. In many ways, Bentham’s “inspection house” seems kin to a counting house.
In Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, I was drawn to her argument of women as ‘other’, as wholly other; and of women as ‘riveted to the body’, which I extended to the home. I wanted to investigate what happens when there is deviation from expected behavior.
I was also reading entries about interpretations of nursery rhymes, sourced through “The Roud Folk Song Index”: a compendium of about 200,000 references to 25,000 nursery rhymes, folk songs, ballads, etc. from the oral tradition. provost’s word list and the ideas of de Beauvoir and Foucault echoed many of the sinister interpretations of the children’s nursery rhymes that I was exploring. The sources began to talk to, and with, each other.
Did you compose The Counting House with any kind of “moral” in mind?
No. Morality is too shifty a compass—right or ethical conduct is contextual, instruction is always lacking, and doctrine is dangerous.
In a few other interviews, you have discussed the changing nature of your poems—particularly “Lax Tabulation”—as they can be read either horizontally or vertically, similar to an accountant’s tallies. Could you tell us a little bit more about the relationship between form and content in The Counting House?
With every poem, there’s a connection between form and content. I’m speaking generally here. They inform each other and each contributes to the atmosphere of a particular work or passage.
The section you mention does represent a form of tallying. It is in columns, but it’s non-linear (in terms of content) and contains gaps—lines are torqued and there is a lot of missing information. The content distorts. The perspective shifts depending on the reader’s chosen trajectory. And if a perspective shifts, then so too does the narrative. There is never one story or one true telling.
I think that lines can be an embodiment of either tension or release. Many of the poems in The Counting House (in a way, the whole book is one long poem) give space to the breath—a breath held back, and the rush of breathing. That kind of physicality. There is always the body, even if much of the work does have its structure loosely based on a form of crooked accounting.
What was your biggest obstacle in writing and assembling The Counting House?
Some anxiety came right at the end, in August, just a couple of weeks before the manuscript was to be sent to the printer. The page margins had to be scrunched up a bit, tightened, and that meant rewriting several parts, under the pressure of sending it to the printer in two weeks’ time.
The column format nature of “Lax Tabulation” meant this rewrite was inherently difficult; lines or words couldn’t be simply shifted or dropped down to following lines—doing something like that would alter the column alignment, which would create utter nonsense.
I absolutely adore the cover of this book—could you discuss the significance of the image?
michèle provost is the artist who created the work represented on the cover. This piece is a textured and tactile embroidery on canvas, which she made for the book. The blackbird and courtly manor are central figures within The Counting House, particularly in the book’s first section, “A General Tale”, which reconfigures or reinterprets several, somewhat obfuscated, nursery rhymes. The blackbird and house imagery originally comes from “Sing a Song of Sixpence”. Here’s one version of it, for those who aren’t familiar:
Sing a song of sixpence,
A pocket full of rye.
Four and twenty blackbirds,
Baked in a pie.
When the pie was opened,
The birds began to sing;
Wasn’t that a dainty dish,
To set before the king?
The king was in his counting house,
Counting out his money;
The queen was in the parlour,
Eating bread and honey.
The maid was in the garden,
Hanging out the clothes,
When down came a blackbird
And pecked off her nose.
I loved what she did with the dropped letters, the stitch-work twigs on the ground—the blackbird collecting them to form the inverted title on the back cover. It’s brilliant.
What is your favourite piece of writing advice, whether or not it was bestowed upon you directly?
To read as much as you can, from diverse genres. To read both Canadian and work from abroad. To read the newest pieces in literary journals and to read the classics. To read the work you love, as well as the work you loathe.
There is a stack of new books on my desk that I’ve wanted to read since late summer. It’s a few weeks from winter. I’ve brought in my snowshoes from the garage. My boots are filled up with little nests—a mouse, maybe, has chewed up bits of wool from last year’s mittens. There might be a poem here somewhere, but there is a lot I need to get to before I get back to that.