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Heidi von Palleske Interview

 

Heidi Von Palleske is an award winning actress, author, poet, screenwriter and activist. Best known for her roles in David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers, which she starred in alongside Jeremy Irons and Genevičve Bujold; Ramona, for which she won a best actress award at the Spanish International Film Festival and the critic’s choice award at the Montreal Film Festival; and for many sci-fi films including, The Deadly Wake, opposite Malcolm MacDowell and The Cusp, Opposite Miahael Pare.

 

She is the author of They Don’t Run Red Trains Anymore, a recently released novel that received awards from the Toronto Arts Council and the Ontario Arts Council as well as winning the H. R. Percy Award for best manuscript in Eastern Canada. She has also written for screen and radio, hosting her own show on Talk 640. As an activist, she took on took both Canadian and International policy on the use and exportation of asbestos. When described to her as an upward battle of David and Goliath proportions, she replied, ‘Read to the end of the story and you will find that David won that one!’. She is also the founder of the boutique publisher, Smart House Books.

 

She currently resides in Toronto, Ontario but frequently escapes to an old brick house on the Saint Lawrence River.

 

Jeffrey Side has had poetry published in various magazines such as Poetry Salzburg Review, and on poetry web sites such as Underground Window, A Little Poetry, Poethia, Nthposition, Eratio, Pirene’s Fountain, Fieralingue, Moria, Ancient Heart, Blazevox, Lily, Big Bridge, Jacket, Textimagepoem, Apochryphaltext, 9th St. Laboratories, P. F. S. Post, Great Works, Hutt, The Dande Review, Poetry Bay and Dusie.

 

He has reviewed poetry for Jacket, Eyewear, The Colorado Review, New Hope International, Stride, Acumen and Shearsman. From 1996 to 2000 he was the deputy editor of The Argotist magazine.

 

His publications include, Carrier of the Seed, Distorted Reflections, Slimvol, Collected Poetry Reviews 2004-2013, Cyclones in High Northern Latitudes (with Jake Berry) and Outside Voices: An Email Correspondence (with Jake Berry), available as a free ebook here.

 

 

 

JS: You’ve had an interest in writing since about the third grade. Can you tell us a bit about how that interest came about?

 

HVP: I was late in speaking and early in reading. I was the generation that was changed by Dr. Seus, and so I started school knowing how to read. And perhaps his funny rhymes did steer me toward rhyming poetry at a very young age. But we always had lots and lots of books in our house and, perhaps because my older siblings didn't like playing with me when I was young, I learned that there were imaginary worlds I could slip into. I remember being very young and having the epiphany that my dolls or stuffed toys could have "conversations" in my head and that they didn't have to be spoken aloud and so they too could have worlds my parents and other adults knew nothing about. Creating secret worlds for my dolls made me feel more powerful at a time I got dismissed a lot. But books, books were worlds I could escape into. By my third grade, about the time I was eight, I tried to create those worlds in play form so that when I was both writing them and acting in them I could travel to more exciting, more glamorous and certainly richer worlds. Worlds of my own creation.

 

JS: So writing in play form enabled you to have two ways of “escaping” to imaginary places: one way being in the act of writing itself, and the other being in the performance of what you wrote?

 

HVP: Correct. It's strange because writing and acting are ways to escape but I think they are also ways of being very truthful. We all play roles in our lives and we can be different things to different people. Sometimes those roles are not really authentic. I think that acting and writing is an escape, almost a holiday from reality, but also an opportunity to be very, very truthful. One can expose so much more through art than in conversation. When I was young I wasn't really keen on team sports, I didn't belong to girls' clubs like the Brownies or Scouts. An early interest in writing gave me a place to belong, even if it was primarily in the world of the imagination. Once the play was written there were always lots of other kids who wanted to be a part of it and so the added bonus was instant friends. Later that no longer mattered and so I began to write poetry and stories. But I still had a strong desire to act as well.

 

JS: Tell us a little about the staging of these childhood plays. Did you have makeshift sets, costumes, props and an audience? Or was it just a group of kids imagining that they were “staging” a play?

 

HVP: Well there were scripts! I printed each one out for every "actor!.” But we hobbled together everything. Brought things from home. Made things. So yeah, we were a group of kids, aged 7-10, playing at being a theatre company. But to us we were staging a great play; it was Broadway! They were done in front of the class and the better ones in front of the entire school during assembly. The point is that we were kids in creative control from start to finish. It wasn't with teacher intervention. We became a band of performers and it helped us all get through the school year. By middle school I was in the school plays which were typical school productions. But that didn't inform me like the ones I wrote and directed as a very young girl because there was something rebel about it then. And I think that even now I much prefer being on an indie film set than the more traditional productions.

 

Also, I grew up on a small farm in the country. I actually knew nothing about plays. Had never been taken to a real play, The whole thing came about organically as a desire to create a different world. A desire to tell stories. Something that I had for no particular reason.

 

JS: You also developed an interest in poetry at an early age. Tell us a bit about that.

 

HVP: As I said, we had lots of books. My father was an avid reader. When he was a child, his mother used to read Rilke to him. His father hated that and wanted his son to be more manly. But my father always found comfort in poetry and I suppose he passed that down to me. As an interesting side note, my father worked at the Banff Springs Hotel when Marilyn Monroe was filming The River of No Return with Robert Mitchum. Anyhow his job was to work the freight elevator and Marilyn used to take it in order to not be mobbed by fans. They developed a friendship and she used to ask my dad for books. He introduced her to Rilke. I'm exploring that in a semi-autobiographical novel I am currently writing.

 

So we had poetry books on the shelves, amongst all the other books, and I discovered them. My mother liked anthologies. 1000 Inspirational Things. 1000 Great Poems. So if you searched hard enough, you could find something. I think I was exposed to a few of Shakespeare's sonnets in one of my mother's "1000 most anthologies." Certainly Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Thus my early love of the sonnet.

 

Once I started to write my own poetry it became an easy way to provide birthday and Mother's Day gifts. But then the poetry was expected and, for a time, felt a little like a chore because of it. It took a while before I realized that poetry could cut in more than one direction.

 

JS: That’s a fascinating aside about your father and Marylyn Monroe. That would, indeed, make for a good novel. You also had an interest in Shakespeare’s plays at a young age, didn’t you? Was it that and your childhood playwriting and producing that made you choose a career in acting rather than in writing?

 

HVP: The novel is split between 1950's Banff when it truly was "Hollywood North" and present-day small-town Ontario.

 

My decision to become an actor happened at 15. I was reading Antigone (the Jean Anouilh version) in the bathtub and I was stunned. I thought that if someone could write those words then I had to bring that kind of writing to people. I was, for a long time, a voice for others until I became confident enough to find my own voice. But it is all about stories, isn't it? Ideas and words. To me, an actor is to a writer what a musician is to a composer.

 

JS: Has your acting career had any impact on your approach to writing?

 

HVP: When I have a miserable time on set I say to myself, "that's okay, I am really a writer," and when I am stuck in my writing I say, "who am I kidding, I am actually an actor!"

 

In terms of writing, I think that acting has given me a better ear for dialogue. I do tend to read everything I write out loud so I pay very close attention to how things sound and I think that is also because of acting. And acting, particularly film acting, is about honesty and about "reacting."  It is about paying close attention, listening and then reacting in an honest way. You know a lot of people assume that actors are all great liars but I think the reverse is true. The profession allows you to be more emotionally open than in most other jobs. An actor can expose his vulnerabilities, albeit while hiding behind the shield of a character. I think that I really try to have that openness and vulnerability in my writing. To expose my thoughts and feelings within the protective shield of the written word.

 

When I began acting, when I went to theatre school, I was introduced to many great playwrights and, by extension, poets. In fact, in voice class, we often used poetry for breath control and diction. These writers had two effects on me. The beauty of their language spoke to my ear and their content spoke to my emotional being. It was because of my training as an actor that I understood that cadence, sound and meaning combined created a linguistic magic. I try to give every piece I writes, as well as every character I write an authentic, but different sound.

 

JS: What writing projects are you working on at the moment?

 

HVP: I probably have too much going on! I am editing my poetry book, Fourteen Strokes, and will launch that Valentine's Day, Feb. 14th. It is a book of sonnets written in all three of the most accepted forms: Petrarchan (Italian), Spenserian and Shakespearean (Elizabethan). They are not sentimental poems at all. I think, in some ways, my poetry has been more revealing than my prose. Or perhaps it is the subject matter as they explore the many facets of love and sex.

 

I released a novel this past spring called, They Don't Run Red Trains Anymore, and it is available through Amazon, Kindle and Kobo, and can also be ordered through most bookstores. That novel was a long time in the making and I probably really learned to write during the process of creating it. It explores the process of creation, (in this case, sculpture) the value of obsession, sex, suicide and the nature of love.

 

I am just doing a quick once-over of my next novel, Come on in, the Water's Fine. A friend of mine who is an accomplished painter read it and said, "You write the way Monet paints," which was a huge compliment because my intent was to create a new type of novel. Something not based on plotline and yet still be a story. More experiential. So as you read the book you are caught up in the moment to moment but when you step back you see that the fractured elements make up the story. This one is set between 1950's Banff, when so many stars were there shooting westerns, and modern-day Toronto. My father worked at the Banff Springs Hotel and during that time he had a friendship with Marilyn Monroe and would give her books. So that is one small element of the novel.

 

BUT... the new love affair is with something quite different again. It's called, Two White Queens and the One-Eyed Jack. A boy witnesses his best friend fall from a tree and lose his eye on a thorn bush. That chance fall causes him to meet Albino twin girls. Like the obsession I had with sculpture in my first novel, I am now focussed on the art of oculary and the history of glass eyes. Fascinating stuff. Did you know that it is one of the few professions that is still passed on through the family? Or that WW2 was the reason the acrylic eye was invented?

 

So I guess the short answer is that I have two books—the poetry and Come on In, the Water's Fine to polish, and then I can lose myself in the notion of glass eyes, punk music and Albinoism. 

 

Oh... and apparently I have a TV series that is coming back. I have to continue acting to support this writing habit!

 

JS: As an adult, have you ever thought about writing plays, given that as a child you wrote them? 

 

HVP: No. I prefer a more internal life than what plays allow. I am also, now, more interested in publication than performance.JS: You started (with a few other people) a publishing company called Smart House Books. It’s a fairly new venture, I understand. I think it was your idea originally. What motivated you to do it?

 

HVP: For a few reasons. I have always said that if I won a lottery I would start a small press. And so one day, as I was walking home I thought, why let something as arbitrary as money get in the way? But there is more... I watched as small and edgy presses, publishers who were interested in strong voices, got gobbled up by multi-nationals. It meant that the same voices would be heard. Of course there is some variation, but still, that raspy new voice would be ignored. So I came up with a way that would be inexpensive and yet still allow me to publish who, and what, I want. I see us as a small pinprick in the dark. And then again, I had a novel that had won so many awards that it was gob-smacking that no one wanted to publish it. I kept hearing how "difficult" it was. And yet it was praised by peers and jurors. I did not want the stigma of self-published attached to it and so I put it through the company I created.

 

JS: How did you go about starting Smart House Books? Presumably, with not having any former experience in publishing books, the whole process must have been challenging for you. Tell us something about that journey?

 

HVP: A dear friend of mine, Bob Blumer, The Surreal Gourmet, said to me, "If you want to do this, do not research it first. Just tell everyone you are doing it and then, when it's too late, start figuring it out." Great advice!

 

In some ways, it was far easier than I thought and then more challenging in surprising ways. And I am still learning. Now don't forget that the world of publishing has changed because of the self-publishing movement and because of print on demand. I thought, why not take what is best in traditional publishing and combine it with this new technology to create a multi-platformed access to the books. So that meant learning how to make the books available in immediate print, worldwide print-on-demand and on the various e-book services. (Audiobooks are next). The process was time-consuming. I would be up late on the computer, learning how to format templates or design a cover. It was detailed but fun actually. And finding interesting writers was easy; there are a lot of ignored first-time writers because of what publishing has become. The hardest thing was finding the time to do it all, the business and the creative. At this point, I would love to bring in someone else to help with the business side of things. You know, distribution, invoicing, ordering and marketing so that I can concentrate on editing and the look of the books. Maybe come under the umbrella of someone larger as an imprint!

 

The plan is clear for me. I have had 30 odd years in film. I do understand film distribution and this is not so different. A little less complicated. But really, it is very hard to be a new kid on the block. You are not welcomed into a competitive and struggling industry with open arms. It is hard to compete in the age of advertising with name recognition and brands. Gone are the days when people had the time to spend hours in a bookstore, leafing through the first few pages of books until something takes their imagination. Everyone wants a tried and true product. This is a huge challenge for Smart House because our commitment is to that original voice. As I said at or launch, "My hope is to scratch the surface of complacency with our raspy voices."

 

We will have to distinguish ourselves somehow. I am thinking of using what I know, film and TV to do that. I am negotiating with a producer to open an arm, Smart House Films so that our books can be considered for adaptation to film and TV. We'll see. In the meantime, it is small runs and P.O.D.

 

And of course, finding the time to write myself.

 

JS: The Smart House Films idea is pure genius! I can’t think of any other publisher that is doing that sort of thing. How many people are currently on Smart House books’ staff?

 

HVP: We have three, sort of. I say sort of because I pretty much do it all right now. I have an assistant who works part time and a partner who trouble shoots when it comes to the launches. Beyond that the film arm will be run buy an established producer. I will have a hand in it, but he will head up production.

 

JS: Being a new publishing company, how are you going about soliciting material (novels, poetry etc.) to publish? Do you send out regular “call for submissions” notices on social media etc., or do you approach authors and poets directly to solicit material from them? Or both?

 

HVP: It is pretty easy. Just start a website or a Facebook page and then you are overwhelmed by submissions. Right now the majority of my writers come from the film industry. It wasn't a choice, it was just the majority of my submissions came from there and, also, the best work so far.

JS: What are your long-term goals for Smart House Books?

 

HVP: Well, you do not get to the long-term without the short-term goals, and that is just surviving! I need to have eight titles out within two years. Smart House has just published the fourth and fifth book so we are ahead of schedule. Long-term would be to develop some of the work into film projects or limited series. I would like to be a solid, mid-size publishing house, still committed to work that pushes the boundaries without compromising our vision for commercial viability. Now, I think that we will never be huge as long as we maintain those standards, but maintaining those standards is important to me.

 

 

 

 

© Heidi von Palleske & Jeffrey Side