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On Misanthropy, Mental Illness and Marpole, with Local Author, Carleigh Baker

Last Woman book launch at Odd Society Spirits. Photo by Ryan Wagner / Good Side Photo.

The most recent book by teacher and award-winning local writer, Carleigh Baker, is a collection of short stories called Last Woman, released by McClelland & Stewart on March 5th, 2024. We shared our early anticipation via a shout out to the title in our Scout Book Club, Vol. 9; but after actually getting our hands on a copy and devouring its contents, rather than feeling adequately sated, our curiosity about the stories’ author was only exacerbated. Fortunately, Baker was more than happy to answer our lingering questions…

Carleigh Baker, photo by Ryan Wagner / Good Side Photo.

Last Woman is now available from various local independent bookstores around town (including Baker’s own personal fave, Iron Dog Books). Whether you’ve already consumed it or not, you can add an extra dimension to your reading by checking out our recent Q&A below:

The collected works in Last Woman range wildly in genre and setting – from decades ago to Covid-19 times and the distant future…a small town, Vancouver and outer space. What is the common thread running through these 13(ish) stories, if any? What was conspiring in your life – internally and externally – to produce such a variety of circumstances?

This is such a great question. Aside from the thematic stuff — loneliness, intergenerational misunderstandings — the stuff they put on the book cover, the thing that drove me while I was writing (or sometimes just assembling, because some of these stories are previously published) was how I hoped readers would feel after reading the collection. I wanted to give them a good ride, but I also wanted them to feel less isolated and a little bit hopeful. I say a little bit because it seems absurd to expect any more than that in this hellscape timeline.

For those just discovering your fiction: how would you describe your writing style/ethos in just one or two sentences?

My style is conversational and usually irreverent, but I write my stories with an open heart.

For those already familiar with your work, via Bad Endings, how have you grown or evolved as a writer since your first short story collection was published seven years ago?

Bad Endings is very autobiographical (some people call this style autofiction) – partly because at the time I wasn’t as confident inventing characters and scenarios, and I had plenty of material from my life to write about. I was in awe of writers who could create entire worlds out of their imaginations. I’m still in awe of those writers, but with Last Woman I turned my focus out to the world around me. I leaned hard into my imagination and my love of absurdism. Like most writers, I still pull moments from my life to use in stories. I found writing like this to be very rewarding, and I might never go back to autofiction.

As a writer myself, I’m fascinated by others’ writing processes. Are you the sort of writer who is most productive being isolated or insular? Or do you need to be stimulated by constant experience?

I like to be very isolated. Years ago I had the honour of attending the Berton House Writers Residency in Dawson City, Yukon. I asked to go in the dead of winter, when it’s -40 degrees Celsius and the sun only rises for a few hours a day. The selection committee told me they don’t usually let the Vancouverites go at that time — we’re too squishy. But I insisted. And I loved it. But I also have to mention that the good people of Dawson City have seen a million urbanites like me, convinced we can watch a few survival shows and get through a Northern winter. They were very generous, making sure I got enough face time to keep cabin fever at bay.

How much of ‘you’ is in these stories/their characters?

I’m grateful that you asked this, because my first book was almost entirely autobiographical fiction, and this book is not. In some stories it’s obvious – like, I’m clearly not an alien. But since these stories are still written in my chatty, informal voice, it comes across that way. I will say that there are some very silly people in Last Woman, and those people are probably based on me. But there are also a lot of world views and opinions I don’t agree with. Writing from those perspectives was interesting, but they aren’t mine.

If you had to pick a ‘favourite’ among your characters in these stories, who would it be? If they materialized into real life, and you had the opportunity to meet them and spend the day together, what would you do?

I tried to come up with a clever answer for this question, but honestly I just want to give the protagonist of “Patron Saint of the Hesitant” such a big hug. It’s the only pandemic-adjacent story in the collection, and it’s about loneliness and parasocial relationships. She’s a challenging character, and I hope she makes people laugh sometimes, but I also hope people see that she’s struggling.

The characters’ relationships with their environments, and BC/Vancouver in particular, are very complicated and nuanced. What is your personal relationship with the city?

Yeah, it’s complicated. We’re on Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh land. No amount of territory acknowledgements are going to change that. My Métis family are from Treaty One, near St. Boniface, and the rest of my family are settlers. I have responsibilities to the nations whose land I’m living on — as a person in the world and as a storyteller. When I wrote “The Midden”, which includes some history about the Marpole area, it was important to make the distinction that the story may be fictional, but this historical information is real. Those sections may seem formal compared to my usual character voice, but that was by design. I’m grateful to have worked with editors who understood that. I also have stories about gentrification and unliveability in the collection. It’s getting pretty hard to live in Vancouver without working three jobs. In the story “Co-Op”, I chose to invent a scenario that wasn’t from my personal experience, but I have been reno-victed, and I have friends who are leaving the city because they can’t afford to stay.

You’re also a teacher. What is one lesson – about writing or something else entirely – that a student has taught you, that has made a lasting impression on the way you write/live?

I had a very interesting conversation with a student about writing characters who are experiencing mental health issues. I have an anxiety disorder that was diagnosed many years ago, so it’s something I write about sometimes. In class, I mentioned that I seldom name conditions (such as anxiety), specifically in my stories, because I’ve seen readers react strongly to a named condition, as opposed to describing various symptoms and letting the readers figure out what’s going on inside the character. The student disagreed, saying that directly naming a condition might give some readers pause, but it would allow other readers to feel seen and acknowledged. I’m not saying either of us is absolutely right – fiction writing is not an exact science. But I deeply respect the courage it took to disagree with an authority figure, and I’ve reconsidered my teacherly urge to give tips like this in class. Writing advice can be helpful, but it can also be a hindrance.

What kind of reader are you? What was the last book that you read that left you in awe/made a heavy impact on you, and what are you currently reading?

I have a lot of different books on the go most times. I need to sit myself down and finally finish Elif Batuman’s The Idiot, the problem being that it’s so good I keep getting inspired to work on my own writing. The last book that made a real impact on me was Ros Schwartz’s translation of Jacqueline Harpman’s I Who Have Never Known Men. It’s dystopic and speculative, and I would call it a true tragedy, in that the ending may not be happy, but it’s deeply satisfying. We don’t see a lot of those in Canadian fiction. And I’m currently reading brilliant short fiction by Danila Botha; her new collection is called Things That Cause Inappropriate Happiness and it’s fantastic.

Your choice of launch party location, Odd Society Spirits, definitely piqued Scout’s interest! I’d love to know: why this choice in venue? And what’s your cocktail/drink of choice?

When it was time to start planning the book launch for Last Woman, Odd Society was always our number one venue choice, with Iron Dog as our on-site bookseller. It’s less common (though not unheard of) for book launches to happen at bars, but Odd Society is very important to me — I’ve spent many Friday nights tucked in the corner of that room in those cozy chairs, enjoying the glow. The decor is cool, but not precious. The owners and staff have always made us feel welcome. One bartender even bought my first book when it came out years ago! And of course, the drinks! My favourite is a Wallflower gin martini with a twist, but I can only have one of those per evening, so after that I switch to a gin and soda with rosemary and cucumber.

What’s your favourite Vancouver neighbourhood and why?

The misanthrope in me loves walking through Shaughnessy’s gilded emptiness, because it’s like being in that video game, The Sims. But I will always go to Hastings-Sunrise when I want to eat, drink, and be merry because I lived there for years and it’s the friendliest place with some of the best hangouts in town. And of course, Iron Dog Books is there! We love those humans, and we love that space.

Your favourite place to escape the city to?

The west coast of Vancouver island. It’s so quiet there! These days I appreciate the comfort of a bed while travelling, but camping at San Josef Bay, on the northern west coast, is the most beautiful place I’ve ever been.

Your favourite bar/hangout?

On the East Side, it’s Odd Society Spirits, no question. Though I have to give a shoutout to Jackalope’s. On the west side, where we live now, it’s the Stable House on 13th just off Granville. Not a lot of upsides to the pandemic, but the new South Granville street plazas have created this wonderful, street socializing culture, and the Stable House has the best charcuterie, a fantastic wine selection (and friendly staff who don’t mind answering my silly questions about them), and now this amazing outdoor space.

Carleigh Baker. Photo by Ryan Wagner / Good Side Photo.

Any plans to write a novel in the future? If so, any chance you can give us a teaser? What’s the general theme or setting?

Yes, my next book is a novel. It’s about a woman recovering from drug addiction who goes to work at a honey farm. She assumes working with bees will be her biggest challenge, and oh boy, is she wrong!

Awesome! Lastly, what else is currently in the works for you that readers can seek out or look forward to in the near future?

I’ve got a few things coming up, but I really recommend coming to the Vancouver Writers Festival event at the VPL on May 15th. I’ll be in conversation with Shashi Bhat, who is hilarious and brilliant. I don’t think the event is posted yet, but folks can check out my website for updates.

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