Nestled in the Southern Gulf Islands of British Columbia on Salt Spring Island you’ll find Pearl Luke and her partner of ten years Robert Hilles (author, poet) and their children. Pearl has been writing for twenty years and works full time as a novelist accompanied by the occasional online mentoring. She has two books published and a third on the way. I hope you enjoy getting to know this accomplished Canadian writer.
Moe: Looking back, did you choose the writing profession or did the profession choose you?
Pearl Luke: Both. Because I was an avid reader, I’d always been good with words. Initially, I used that ability in a sales career, but at the age of twenty-eight, it occurred to me that someone had to write all the books I read. I began reading biographies of writers I admired, and inevitably, they all had degrees in Literature, so I went to university, too, eventually got a master’s degree in English Literature, and graduated from writing essays to writing novels. Making the decision to go to university was the best life-change I ever made.
Moe: When did you ‘know’ you were a writer?
Pearl Luke: My first English Literature professor singled out the first essay I ever wrote, and read it to the class. As I had enrolled in university to learn how to “become” a writer, her praise supported the idea that I might be on the right track at last.
Moe: Were you a child writer?
Pearl Luke: I always wrote secret diaries that recorded my emotional responses, and wrote very long letters, but it didn’t occur to me that I could “be a writer” until I was almost thirty.
Moe: What inspires you?
Pearl Luke: Almost everything inspires me! Good or bad. The landscape, a mood, the way someone treats me, something I overhear or read, friends, loved ones, events, travel. Everything I see, hear, and feel—actually anything I remember—inspires me to write about it at some point, not directly, but the details come out in characters, settings, and events.
Moe: Every writer has a method to their writing. On a typical writing day, how would you spend your time?
Pearl Luke: I always get up at seven am. I drink a protein shake and meet my daughter at the gym at eight-thirty because I find I’m more creative if I exercise first. By mid-morning I’m at my computer. I live in a beautiful location on the water, so I take a ten or fifteen minute break every couple of hours to walk around outside briefly or sit in the sun, but I usually write or mentor until at least five, and I try to maintain a balance between those two activities. On days when my routine is interrupted by an outside appointment, I work after dinner as well, sometimes until ten or eleven at night. Ideally, I prefer to keep my evenings and weekends free for reading and activities with friends, but if I’m nearing the end of a project, I can get quite obsessive about it, and sometimes I have to remind myself to maintain that balance between work and relaxation, because I’ve learned that balance keeps me productive.
Moe: How long does it take for you to complete a book you would allow someone to read? Do you write right through, or do you revise as you go along?
Pearl Luke: My partner is a novelist as well, so we share our work on a daily basis, but I’ve learned not to show anyone else until the book has been reworked a few times, so it could be two years before I show the story to anyone else. And while I sometimes wish I were a “through-writer,” in fact I’m a “fiddler.” I start each day by rereading the chapter I’m working on, and I make changes all the way through until I get to the end, and then I’m pumped to write new material.
Moe: When you sit down to write is any thought given to the genre and type of readers?
Pearl Luke: I always consider audience in the planning stages, where I make some decisions about character, plot, setting, structure, etc., based on the type of reader I hope to attract. However, once I immerse myself in the fictional world, my writing is focused on the narrative and characters I’m striving to create, with as little contemplation of the audience as possible.
Moe: When it comes to plotting, do you write freely or plan everything in advance?
Pearl Luke: As I am working on one book, I have an idea, situation or character in mind for another, and over time, I jot down any ideas I have concerning that as yet unwritten story. When it is time to actually begin work on the book, I consider everything I’ve collected, and try to come up with a workable outline for the plot. I carefully decide on the major plot points and fill in ideas for key scenes first, and then conceive of others to fill in the narrative, until I have a full synopsis. For each section, chapter and scene, I also write a statement of purpose—what I want the scene to accomplish in the narrative, and also who wants what. Then I begin writing, introducing the setting and character—and this is when my carefully written synopsis begins to cause problems, and I have yet to stick to the original plan. But, for me, it’s important to start with that plan and revise it as I go along, because it keeps me focused. I’ve also learned from past experience that if I don’t have it, I write a lot of beautiful scenes that never find a place in the final story because they don’t move the narrative in the direction it needs to go, and that wastes a lot of valuable time.
Moe: What kind of research do you do before and during a new book? Do you visit the places you write about?
Pearl Luke: The kind and amount of research really depends on the book. My first novel, Burning Ground, was a contemporary love story, set at a fire tower, that required considerable research for one element of the story—fire. Many of the other details came from experience, as I supported myself through university by working summers on various fire towers. My second novel, Madame Zee, was an historical story about a real person—the mistress of a cult leader—and it required extensive research, on every page, in every aspect. At times, I could hardly write a sentence without having to stop and investigate a detail. In the first few pages alone, I needed to research dozens of particulars: Which plants grow in an English meadow? What sort of dolls were available in the late 1890s, and what were they made of? What clothing did children wear? What diseases commonly killed them? As the book progressed, the list became endless. Larger concepts required weeks and months of research, in libraries, on the Internet, in community archives, and as often as was feasible, on location. My third novel is another contemporary novel, and the research required, while still substantial, is far less intensive.
Moe: Where do your characters come from? How much of yourself and the people you know manifest into your characters?
Pearl Luke: Sometimes I create characters from scratch, and other times I encounter real people who inspire me—someone I read about in a newspaper, for example, or an historical figure like Madame Zee. I first encountered Madame Zee in a History Channel documentary, and she immediately intrigued me, but when I tried to learn more about her, I found very little written about her. This freed me to create a fictional life for her that, combined with historical fact, would account for her mysterious behaviour later, as the mistress of the Brother, XII, a 1920s Canadian cult leader. That said, wherever the characters originate, as I create the particulars of their lives—their traits, their actions, etc.—everything is filtered through me and my experience. So I may recall a snippet of conversation had or overheard and give it to one character, or I may remember a birthmark on one of my friends and incorporate that into another character’s appearance. Some imagined event might spark a memory of my own emotional response to a particular situation, and I may have a character respond similarly, or differently. Writing is a fantastic game of dress-up, where the author sorts through memory and imagination to come up with exactly the right combination of wardrobe, personality, and events for characters of his or her creation.
Moe: Do you ever suffer from writer’s block? If yes, what measures do you take to get past it?
Pearl Luke: I suffer from procrastination, and I think it may amount to the same thing. Sometimes I simply don’t know where to go in a story, as my character faces some insurmountable challenge I don’t know yet how to resolve, for example, or when everything I have written seems flat on the page, and I can’t see any way to make it more lively. Then I will feel “blocked” and will do everything I can think of to avoid working. I suddenly remember my armpits need waxing or we’re out of soy sauce, and those items take top priority. For me, the remedy is usually, first, to be very clear about the challenge I’m facing. I ask myself, “What is the purpose of this scene? Or even more simply, “What does this character want, and does she get it?” Second, I allow myself a break to let my imagination work on the problem. Whether I need an hour, a day, or a week doesn’t matter, as long as I’m fully conscious of what I’m avoiding. If I allow myself to relax, while also keeping the real challenge clear in my mind, it’s often not long before I think of some way forward.
Moe: What do you hope readers gain, feel or experience when they read one of your books for the first time?
Pearl Luke: I believe fiction provides a tremendous opportunity to understand a wider range of human behaviour than we might otherwise, so I always hope that readers have been drawn into the fictional world and feel they have gotten to know a character, and can empathize with the character’s choices, even if they wouldn’t necessarily identify with a similar person in real life. If a character sticks with a reader even after the reading is over, I have succeeded.
Moe: Can you share three things you’ve learned about the business of writing since your first publication?
Pearl Luke: Gee, which three of the many? 1. A book contract is incomplete until it includes an addendum clearly stating the proposed publicity plan. 2. Always keep a “Suggested Q & A Sheet” handy for interviewers who have not read the book. 3. It is useful to create email contact lists sorted by city, as it makes sending email invitations easier during a tour.
Moe: How do you handle fan mail? What kinds of things do fans write to you about?
Pearl Luke: I’m always thrilled to hear from readers, and I always answer their letters and emails. Normally, people write to tell me that the book or a particular character deeply moved them, or to share a story of connection. Occasionally readers write to ask if they can hire me to visit their book club or an event, and some of those visits have been the highlight of my career.
Moe: What is your latest release about? Where did you get the idea and how did it evolve?
Pearl Luke: Madame Zee is the story of a young clairvoyant woman who, in struggling to understand and accept her dubious gift, ends up as the mistress to the Brother, XII, one of Canada’s most notorious cult leaders. I got the idea for the story after seeing a History Channel documentary about the Brother, XII, and his allegedly cruel mistress, Madame Zee. My first response was to wonder if Zee really had been as cruel as the documentary suggested, and I set about finding out. As a result, I learned very little was known about her, and her bad rep was based on a few incidents that might have been explained by other factors, such as the resentment she faced at the colony, mood swings, or post-traumatic stress disorder. So I incorporated those possibilities into the story.
Moe: What kind of books do you like to read?
Pearl Luke: I read and enjoy so many different kinds of books—fiction, non-fiction, poetry—but I have a particular affinity for literary novels that combine the whole package: an excellent plot, memorable characters, beautiful language, interesting settings, and a thematic exploration of ideas and values. I guess I’ve also defined the kind of fiction I try to write.
Moe: When you’re not writing what do you do for fun?
Pearl Luke: Writing is such a sedentary activity, and I live on a beautiful island, so when I’m not working, I like to be as active as possible. I work out, garden, walk, cycle, swim (in the pool, lake, and in the ocean in a wetsuit); I occasionally play table tennis, badminton or tennis, and kayak; we have a fabulous arts centre on Salt Spring Island, so I attend events there—musical and dramatic; sometimes I create in other ways—I make mosaics and like to develop real estate. And of course I also like to read and enjoy time with friends and family.
Moe: New writers are always trying to glean advice from those with more experience. What suggestions do you have for new writers?
Pearl Luke: Write! Writers write. My advisor told me that in university, and I have never forgotten it. Over time, I’ve only become more disciplined, and I think it’s crucial to set goals and meet them. Decide how many hours a day you will write, or how many pages or words, and then make no excuses. Meet the goal. Also, take every opportunity you can to learn about craft. Having a way with words is only the jumping off point. It’s important to learn in any way you can—by analyzing existing texts, in writers’ groups, in classes, with a mentor, from books. There are so many simple techniques that make writing stronger, but you need to bring yourself into contact with those who know them.
Moe: If you weren’t a writer what would you be?
Pearl Luke: On difficult writing days, I ask myself that very question! I used to teach English Literature, and I still happily mentor emerging writers online. But if I had to choose something unrelated to writing, I’d either be a real estate developer or an architect. I love to plan space—inside or outside—and I particularly love small spaces.
Moe: What is your favourite word?
Pearl Luke: Propinquity. I love how it sounds and how it looks.
Originally published 5/20/2006 at Literary Fiction, BellaOnline.