Special to the Record
From a young age, Evelyn Lau knew she was going to be a writer, although she probably didn’t anticipate the dues she would have to pay.
The former poet laureate of Vancouver, who kicks off the Sid Williams Theatre’s Blue Circle Series season Sept. 12, was first published at age 13.
Her traditional Chinese parents were so opposed to Lau’s career intentions that she ran away from home a year later. Two years of street life included prostitution, drug use and two attempted suicides.
So powerful was her desire to write that at 17, Lau’s first book, Runaway: Diary of a Street Kid, became a bestseller. It was later made into a CBC movie called The Diary of Evelyn Lau.
“I was just one of those people who knew at an extremely young age what I wanted to do,” she reveals in an interview from Vancouver.
“And I was absolutely focused, and frankly don’t have any other skills, not even that many other interests,” she says with a laugh.
“Books were my life at a really young age – reading, language – words just absolutely captivated me. Being shy like a lot of writers, it’s a way to be able to communicate when you feel socially clumsy.”
After that debut book, published poetry, fiction and non-fiction followed. In 1992, Lau became the youngest poet to receive a Governor-General’s Award nomination.
A compelling public speaker, Lau will face the Sid audience with her intelligence, wit, poetry and life experience.
“It’s a different sort of attention, to respond to that,” she says. “I think it’s a more meditative thing … it’s really more about taking you away to a certain space.”
Lau enjoys sharing the context of a poem she is about to read.
“I like talking about my poems. I talk a little bit about each of the poems and usually the question-and-answer period is really lively because people do have lots to say and to ask.”
How much inspiration is there in her writing compared to perspiration?
“There’s quite a divide between poetry and prose. When I was writing prose, it was practically chaining yourself to your seat, just pushing yourself through, a kind of a routine of writing.”
Poetry is different.
“There’s much less actual writing and editing, and a lot of walking and thinking. I do a lot of my editing when I’m walking.
“You’re dealing with far fewer words on the page (with poetry). You’re working in miniatures, and every word has to count, and every line and stanza break is meaningful.
“To just sit and stare at your computer screen or your pad of paper, I don’t find it terribly helpful.”
Lau might have invented distracted walking.
“A lot of the time I’m just walking around going for epic solo walks, madly thinking about some problem I’m having with something in a poem – to the point where, if somebody stops me and asks for directions, it’s all I can do not to bark at them because you’re so completely immersed in your head.”
Lau says achieving the discipline every writer needs is not her biggest challenge.
“For a lot of writers, myself included, that is not so much the problem as balancing writing time and solitude with other pressures, whether it’s your day job or your family.
“You need to disconnect to get into that space. It’s really hard to explain that to non-writers.”
Evelyn Lau appears Sept. 12 at the Sid Williams Theatre in Courtenay as part of the Blue Circle Series. For details and tickets, visit www.sidwilliamstheatre.com, phone 250-338-2430 or visit the Sid box office at 442 Cliffe Ave. in Courtenay.
Mark Allan is a freelance writer and a former editor of the Comox Valley Record.