In Conversation With: Liz Bugg on the Personal and Public Performance of a Writer
Liz Bugg is a lifelong performer: musician, actor, writer and teacher, the last of which I would argue is one of the most exhausting gigs imaginable. (No fourth wall to hide behind when you're standing at the front of a classroom.) I met with Liz to record her reading a short passage from her debut mystery Red Rover (Insomniac Press), and we got to chatting about music and the place of performance in our lives as writers.
Julie Wilson: Last winter, you followed my Twitter trials as I tried to learn the guitar. You have an extensive performance background—you actually taught guitar at one time. I joked that I wanted to learn the guitar to keep company with all the lonely campfires in the world. What first drew you to the instrument?
Liz Bugg: I became interested in the guitar, when I was about fifteen. Up to that point my musical focus had been primarily piano. I was fortunate to grow up surrounded by music. I guess you could say it was the focal point of my family. so when I was five years old, I was carted off to the conservatory to follow in my siblings’ footsteps.
The guitar was my idea. It was the 60s, and I was tired of playing classical piano. I was really into the whole folk music thing: Peter, Paul and Mary; Ian and Sylvia; people like that. We happened to have an old guitar in the basement. I don’t know where it came from, maybe my older brother. I dug out this relic. It was in terrible condition. It only had three strings, and the wood on the topboard had warped and separated from the rest of the body. None of this deterred me. I got a chord book from somewhere, and sat on my bedroom floor practicing on those three strings, until my mother took pity on me, and ordered a slightly better guitar from the Sears catalogue. It could be that she didn’t want me to appear in public with the old guitar, because a couple of friends and I had formed a group, and had actually managed to book a gig of sorts.
So I guess your reason for wanting to play the guitar isn’t all that different from mine, except that instead of campfires, I wanted dimly lit coffee houses.
JW: I’m about nine years old. I’m in my family’s living room, Burton Cummings on the 8 track. I can’t remember if it was "Stand Tall" or "I’m Scared"—and come to think of it, neither is heavy on guitar—but I was pretend-wailing away on a borrowed guitar. All posturing. Even so, my mother walked past and tells that I was so into the performance that she was convinced I’d become an overnight virtuoso. There’s the desire to play and the desire to perform. Was your desire to perform core to the folk scene in the 60s? Pre-writing, do you think the guitar was your first attempt at sending a message?
LB: I’m sure that for those a bit older than I was, those who had a political or social agenda, the opportunity to reach an audience through the performance of their music must have been a powerful draw. For me, and for the people with whom I associated, it was more just the enjoyment of the music, and the sharing of it within our own community. In those days you really only had to be able to strum a few chords and you were good to go. All you needed was a space, some tables—preferably with checked tablecloths and candles—a pot of coffee, some people, and you had your event. I wasn’t a hippie. Far from it. Nothing I did was politically motivated, or anti-establishment in the least. I just really liked the music and it didn’t take a lot of work to get some pretty decent results.
But, yes, the guitar was instrumental (no pun intended) in my first attempts to send messages. I didn’t actually start writing my own songs until I was an adult, and all the first songs were composed on guitar. Around 1990, I bought an electronic keyboard with a built-in synthesizer and started using a computer program to compose multi-track pieces. Unfortunately, this kind of relegated lyrics to secondary position; some pieces didn’t even have lyrics. If I wanted to send a message now by means of music, I would go back to using the guitar both in the creation of the song, and as an accompaniment to the vocal performance.
JW: I’m curious, did you ever get into Laurie Anderson? Just thinking about artists of the time who were using synth in similar ways.
LB: Oh my. You really have the knack of shining a light on some of the less visited corners of my past. No, I never exactly got into Laurie Anderson, but her music does provide the soundtrack for an interesting experience. I hadn’t been in Toronto very long, so it was probably 1982. My first stage work in the city was at the Theatre Centre in Samuel Beckett’s Ghost Trio. It was part of a rather avant-garde collection of short pieces, which had been put together to comprise an evening of theatre. All of the performers were squashed into a tiny dressing room getting ready for the first time with an audience, when over the loud speakers came the most unusual and haunting music I’d ever heard. It was Laurie Anderson’s Big Science album, and it was used as the pre-show music every night of the run. It really set an atmosphere that was not only appropriate, but also beneficial for the experimental nature of what would be happening in the theatre space. So although I haven’t followed her career, I do have a great respect for Anderson’s work.
JW: I saw her in concert about fifteen years ago. The theatricality. The layers. The performance. I wondered if there might be a connection. (Also, I'm considering a side career as a medium. Two degrees of separation on this one. Not bad.)
As a writer, you're alone with your words. You are the instrument. How do you enjoy public readings?
LB: Like many writers, I’m an introvert. As a child, I was painfully shy. It was only because of my drama training that I was eventually able to step beyond that barrier and interact with people more comfortably. When I do a book event, I love the on-stage part of it. Although my inner critic is wincing at the words in the book, and finding ways I could have improved them, the performer in me is thoroughly enjoying the act of reading and talking to the audience. It’s the off-stage mingling that’s sometimes stressful. I can do it, and I know I have to do it, but it takes a concerted effort, and I find it really exhausting.
JW: To cycle back to Twitter then, are you more comfortable performing off-stage mingling in an online space?
LB: Certainly communicating online gets rid of any stress I might feel in face-to-face mingling. It also gives me the luxury of being able to contemplate and edit what I say. Not to mention being able to do it all wearing my pyjamas.
On the other hand, having technology as the carrier of the message can be a bit too impersonal sometimes. It’s also easier for misunderstandings to arise, when you can’t see the person’s expression, or hear the intonation. I only became involved with Twitter and Facebook because of the opportunities they provide for spreading the word about my writing. I do sometimes enjoy them on a more personal level, but if they disappeared tomorrow, I wouldn’t really miss them.
I guess the bottom line is this: People are important, and communication is important, and there are pros and cons to the various methods of communicating with one another. I’m willing to work with the technology, and I’m willing to be a little uncomfortable from time to time meeting people in person. I think in the end, everything can work together.
JW: How about some tips on how to give an effective reading?
Liz Bugg’s Top Five Tips on How to Give an Effective Reading
(This may sound like advice I would give to an acting student, and for good reason. Doing a public reading of your book is a performance. It’s a live advertisement.)
- Find out as much as you can ahead of time regarding specifics of the event: length of passage required, physical layout of space, if there will be a Q & A, particulars about the expected audience, etc.
- Have at least one alternate passage chosen and ready. Things can change. The other reader may not show up, or when you see the audience, you realize a different passage is more appropriate.
- When you’re doing the reading, make sure to connect with your audience visually; don’t have your eyes glued to the page. Remind yourself that you are telling them a story.
- If you are reading a passage with dialogue, try to bring the characters to life through change of voice or physicality.
- This is the most important one, so I’ve saved it for last. If you do this well and consistently, most other things will fall into place. Prepare your passage. Choose it with care. Have the beginning, ending and any page jumps marked, and make sure it fits the time parameters you’ve been given. Once you’ve done all of that, PRACTISE. Read it over out loud, several times, until you have it the way you want it. This will do wonders for your confidence and enjoyment, as well as the enjoyment of your audience.
Listen to Liz read from Red Rover.
Liz Bugg is a Toronto teacher, actor and mystery fan. Red Rover is her first book. She's currently at work on a second Calli Barnow mystery. Follow her on Twitter at @mysterybugg or at www.lizbugg.com.