The Author Spotlight Series shines a light on writers creating heartfelt and original work across genres, giving them an opportunity to talk about their books and why they do what they do.
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“Benjamin Lefebvre lives in Kitchener, Ontario. His edited books include the three-volume critical anthology The L.M. Montgomery Reader (winner of the 2016 PROSE Award for Literature from the Association of American Publishers) and an edition of Montgomery’s rediscovered final book, The Blythes Are Quoted. In the Key of Dale is his first novel. He can be found online at benjaminlefebvre.com.”
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Shortly before my eleventh birthday. I can’t pinpoint anymore what prompted this realization, but I remember telling a classmate in the schoolyard one morning that I’d decided to become a fiction writer—or, more accurately, that I was a fiction writer—even before I’d written anything or had any clear sense of what I wanted to write. Little did I know that this way of putting the cart before the horse would turn into a lifelong habit I’m now trying to be more mindful of.
Do you remember the first thing you ever wrote?
One of my first writing projects was about a group of sixth graders who had all kinds of funny adventures together, some of them involving my protagonist moving to a new house and discovering secret passageways in it. One version was called Don’t Ask Me Why, a phrase the protagonist said over and over as he narrated (this was evidently modelled on Judy Blume’s Then Again, Maybe I Won’t, which I must have just read). Although the story probably had the advantage of some degree of authenticity since I was in the sixth grade when I wrote it, I have zero recollection now of what happens. I still have some hard copies of it somewhere, and one of these days I may find the courage to sit down and read them.
How did you develop your skills?
I studied literature after high school, and some of my courses were in creative writing. Even now, although I continue to read widely for enjoyment, there’s a part of me that’s keeping an eye out for details or phrasing I like or techniques I find effective—that’s probably why I rarely read without a pencil. My reading includes screenplays of television series I’ve watched as a way to learn about structure and dialogue, advice columns to learn about conflict and resolution, recent fiction to study trends in the marketplace, and work that’s outside the genres I want to write in simply as a way to stretch my brain.
I also carry a notebook with me as well as several sheets of lined paper that I keep folded in the pockets of most of my pairs of pants. I’ve never written down anyone’s secrets, but I often jot down turns of phrase I hear in conversation or just randomly on the street. Part of the reason I do this is that people often say witty things that are just too good to be lost, and another part is that studying other people’s speech patterns helps to ensure that my characters don’t all sound the same.
Who are some of your biggest literary influences? Do you have a favourite book/author?
The author whose work I’m best acquainted with is definitely L.M. Montgomery (author of Anne of Green Gables), given that I’ve been studying her work for over twenty-five years. On the surface, our writing styles aren’t at all alike—she was the queen of nature descriptions, whereas physical description of any kind is something readers of my drafts frequently ask me for more of—but there are some aspects of her writing style, like unexpected turns of phrase and her blending of comedy and drama, that I try to include in my own work.
Montgomery also wrote voraciously, and her lifetime body of literary work includes twenty novels, five hundred short stories, five hundred poems, several essays and miscellaneous pieces, and a diary she kept for half a century. While there’s absolutely no way I could match that amount (or would even want to, frankly), her dedication to her craft, even on bad days, is a good reminder about the importance of perseverance when it comes to writing fiction.
What’s your writing process like?
When writing a longer work of fiction, I like to plan ahead enough to know where I’m going but not so much that there isn’t anything left for me to discover along the way. This means I decide ahead of time how a story ends and what the main character’s arc is before I start drafting, and that gives me a framework to help me figure out the remaining pieces.
Typically my writing process has involved writing and a lot of rewriting, which in my case has often meant beginning each writing session by retyping everything I wrote before. As a warm-up exercise, writing this way helps me polish my writing as I go and discover nuances and details I hadn’t thought of before, but the drawback is that I spend so much time rewriting that it often takes a while before I add anything substantial to the total word count. I’ve also been in the situation where I’ve spent so much time tinkering over details that I can’t face the prospect of making big changes later on or cutting a scene entirely—in short, a problem distinguishing between the forest and the trees. What I’m trying to do now is to embrace the notion of the messy first draft—to focus first on nailing the story down and worrying about finalizing all the details later.
Tell us about your most recent book.
I’ve had two new books out in the last year: the first is an edited collection by L.M. Montgomery called Twice upon a Time (The L.M. Montgomery Library/University of Toronto Press), which consists of a selection of her short stories that include early incarnations of well-known characters, storylines, or settings in her books, particularly Anne of Green Gables and its many sequels, and the second is my debut novel, In the Key of Dale (Arsenal Pulp Press), which tells the story of a queer sixteen-year-old music prodigy who starts writing letters to his late father. Although they both had a long development period, the two books are pretty dissimilar to each other. The edition required me to select stories from her much larger body of work, ensure that I’d transcribed them accurately, annotate anything that might not be readily apparent to today’s readers (such as archaic turns of phrase and literary allusions), and write a preface and an afterword that placed this work within the broader context of Montgomery’s life, career, and times. In contrast, the novel gave me the opportunity to think creatively about the longer-term effects of grief and to find a new spin on the coming-of-age/coming-out story. There are also one or two shout-outs to Montgomery in the novel, although I’ll let interested readers discover them for themselves.
What are you working on now?
I’ve started a sequence of short stories that focus on queer protagonists facing a wide range of endings, from death to outgrown relationships to professional dead ends. Two of these stories appeared last fall in The Antigonish Review and Plenitude Magazine. I’ve also been working on a new novel about a queer teenager for whom coming out involves something else besides sexuality. My next Montgomery volumes will collect several multi-chapter fiction serials that Montgomery published over a thirty-year period, many of which contain more cool parallels to her novels that haven’t been noticed before. And although I wasn’t planning on writing a sequel to In the Key of Dale, I’ve started jotting down some ideas for one, having discovered that I’m curious to see what’s next for him.