25th Trillium Award

FICTION CRAFT BY SHAUN SMITH, ET AL

 
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INSIDER INFORMATION

With Anne Fleming, Barbara Lambert, Peter Dubé, Anakana Schofield, Julie Oakes, Vicki Delany, Steven Heighton, Basil Papademos and Robert Rotenberg.

As Fiction Craft continues to examine the process of writing fiction, this month I asked nine writers to answer the question: How does reading other writers of fiction inform your work?

The main thing I?ve learned from reading other writers is that, as a writer myself, I should strive to stay off the page, to stay out of the way of the reader. To me, the moment the reader is aware of me, The Writer, the work is failing. Perhaps it comes from my film-school training, where the golden rule was to shield your viewing audience from the fact that there?s an entire production crew off screen, to say nothing of a piece of celluloid winding through a projector upstairs. Suspension of disbelief is always my goal when writing fiction (or one of my goals). So when I read fiction, I keep half an eye open for that moment when it feels as though there is no media between myself and the narrative, when I forget that I am reading. This is a sign of great skill, and frankly, the number of writers who can achieve it at a high, sustained level are few. (If you want to read a master at it, try Elmore Leonard.) When I find such work, the trick is to try to understand how it was achieved. This is very, very, very, very, very difficult, because such work is seamless. It feels organic, like it grew in nature, as perfect as an apple. Ever try critiquing an apple? And the truth is, fiction achieves that quality because the author has had the courage to strip his/her ego off the page, removing the little flourishes of ?poetic prose? that seem so beautiful, making the language plain. So what you are trying to understand is what the author has not put on the page, what has been removed or left out. That?s almost impossible, so a good exercise is to read the opposite stuff, the florid, poetic stuff, the strivingly intellectual stuff, the ultra-hip stuff, etc... If as you read you find yourself thinking about the language rather than the story or characters, odds are you?ve found it. Then, read closely to understand what not to do. Okay, sure, there are plenty of readers crave such stuff, and there?s plenty of it around for them. But that?s not the aesthetic I aim for, though it is very much a part of how other writers inform my work.

Now let?s see how reading affects the works of some more writers.

Anne Fleming is the author of the novel Anomaly, and the story collections Gay Dwarves of America and Pool Hopping. She lives in Vancouver, BC.

There are times when I am intensely in the middle of a fiction project that I will choose to read only non-fiction or poetry because I do not want the intrusion of other people?s fiction in my head. But those times are rare. The rest of the time fiction is the main dish. What I get from it, besides the myriad things that must creep into my work unconsciously, is a most welcome reminder of how much is possible in fiction. How many different ways there are to be good. Because I?d like my fiction to be wildly successful, I can get caught up in thinking it ought to be different than it is ? that it ought to have more of a plot or more of an external plot or a more recognizable plot (it always does have a plot) or that it be more clever or experimental or that it be less clever and drop any pretence of experimentation ? and then I read someone like the Swedish-Finnish Tove Jansson and am blown away by these little narratives that appear to do nothing but are so satisfying. In A Winter Book, for example, she has a story about a kid bringing home a stone. That?s it. For a little while as I read I was waiting for the story to begin. For her to get home, meet the other characters, have them tell her she can?t bring a stone home or that she?s late and dirty or whatever. But gradually I took in that that was not going to happen. It was only about the kid and the stone, which was heavy, and took great effort to move. Similarly, a friend loaned me American writer Joanna Scott?s book of stories, Various Antidotes, and it had these stories about scientific discovery, historical characters wrapped up in their science or in beekeeping or some other obsession. These were not the relational dramas I was used to in short fiction (though relation to others came into them), and I found them refreshing, absorbing, and delightful. I guess the main sort of lesson I take is to stay true to my own sense of rightness in my fiction.

Barbara Lambert is the author of the novels The Whirling Girl and The Allegra Series, and the story collection A Message for Mr. Lazarus. She lives in Penticton, B.C.

The sky was an azure bowl.

It was a cattle drive as I recall. The smell of sage, the taste of dust, the banter of hard-riding men. A young woman disguised as a boy. A strong-jawed foreman with a brace of silver pistols. The sexual tension, too, which a nine-year-old reader felt sparking on her skin.

But what she will remember best, in the years ahead, is that the sky was an azure bowl.

Not like one. It was.

To the girl who had managed to sneak another Zane Grey novel past the disapproving eye of the librarian, this was more exciting than the half-understood whiff of sex in the desert air. What words could do.

I was a lonely girl and I read and read, and though I had no idea that one day I would be a writer, what I read informed my imagination, certainly. Greek myths, the tales of Ovid distilled for tender minds, The Jungle Book (?Look well oh wolves...!?), those Westerns, too. But just when I began to think I myself might try writing, I hit upon the stories of Saki, which almost wrecked me with their neatness; and of Katherine Mansfield (who?d made even Virginia Woolf despair).

Then one day when I was grown, with young children of my own, The Lives of Girls and Women came my way, providing not exactly inspiration (for who could attempt to emulate Alice Munro?) but a whooshing sense that a story could be almost anything, as long as a fearless eye was fastened on the squirming complexities of being human. Ah, and as long as it was told in such a sharp, acerbic but engaging way.

Then came Marcel Proust: (?For a long time I used to go to bed early.?) How could I help being lulled into a book that began this way, even if reading those long sentences was like eating chocolates with the wrappers on, chomping through to the sudden fusing moment when the sweet-tooth hit another perfectly expressed nugget. With Henry James, much the same; though the nuggets tended to be disguised in crinoline or bombazine.

So, how does reading other writers inform my own work, now?

I still read as internationally as I can. But I think my greatest debt, these days, is to other Canadian writers. The depth of work in this country is staggering -- and the breadth of subject, place and time. What a gift, to be able to absorb such diverse views, to step into other minds, other souls. What an inspiration, to see how many ways there are to tell a story. Yet to see, again and again, how it?s not the ?story? itself that gives most pleasure, but how it?s told -- as long the telling is twinned with the prying-out of those squiggling truths that fiction best reveals. And to have affirmed again and again, too, the heart-stopping conclusion that as writers we are each on our own. Under the azure bowl.

Peter Dubé is the author of numerous works of fiction including the novels The City's Gates, Hovering World, At the Bottom of the Sky and Subtle Bodies. He lives in Montreal, PQ.

Reading?s impact on writing is a fascinating question and it doesn?t get asked nearly often enough. This is especially the case in a world in which creative writing programmes are central to literary practice, and in which they can focus largely on workshopping (though there are happy exceptions). In fact, the vehemence with which some folks, including some students, proclaim their ambivalence about too much reading ? usually on questionable grounds like the fear of ?influence? (as if it were possible to avoid it) ? shocks me. Of course, they?re shocked when I tell them not reading voraciously, and subsequently feeding off such reading, condemns them to never really writing as well as they otherwise might? so it?s a fair trade. The fact is, reading is invaluable to improving anyone?s writing and it is certainly central to my own practice.

I say this with nervousness; after all, in championing the importance of reading as a source, I take an apparent stand against some of the great existential claims concerning writing ?commonplaces like ?write what you know,? ?writing from life? and ?capturing the truth of experience.? Assertions freighted with a magical, circular logic suggesting that a highly disputable ?authenticity? is simultaneously the truest source and highest achievement of our art. I feel differently; life is a busy, crowded, messy and confusing thing ? not desirable qualities in one?s novel. Life ? though interesting ? isn?t where one learns to condense time, move with minimal disruption from scene to scene, convey character with a telling detail, summarize profound emotional exchange in a line or two? you know, the stuff that actually constitutes well-made fiction. One learns that from reading, ideally from reading great books and shamelessly pilfering technique (if not content). As importantly, there have been a lot of influential books over the centuries, some of which have shaped our very understanding of life. How could one write about a dangerous relationship without the specter of Heathcliff appearing? regardless of whether or not one has actually read Wuthering Heights because, first-hand knowledge aside, it has informed hundreds of other stories swirling around the zeitgeist.

Being a partisan of the imagination (and its products), I see the world, or whatever you care to call the consensus we?ve all sort-of agreed is ?reality,? as just a convenient starting point, not as my goal. Overwhelmingly, what I get from daily life is raw material. Almost everything else comes from another place, one I know is fed and nourished by culture: by the art and music I love and, since I work with narrative, by film and books. Lots and lots of books. I don?t merely accept this fact, I embrace it; rather than write from experience, I write with the hope of creating new, deeper experiences.

Anakana Schofield is the author of the novel Malarky. She lives in Vancouver, BC.

The act of reading is more important to me than the act of writing. Reading fiction is central to my daily literary-vascular system, if you like, providing the nutrients that feed my chronic percolation and interrogation. Though reading criticism and non-fiction are also part of my brew.

I wish there was a machine, like the one that measures earthquakes, one could attach to each ear lobe which as you read would produce a graph that recorded where in the brain the words had nestled. Then in turn, when you wrote the same ear probe would record and transcribe which area of the brain was being drawn on. Until that time, I can but speculate. I speculate the reading of poetry, fiction, criticism, and non-fiction all equally inform my work. The combination of ingesting all four satisfies my primary need for departure points.

I'm always after departure points: wondering, wandering and churning. I have a hearty appetite for what many might consider redundant information! If my curiosity is piqued in a particular title/writer or topic or fleeting notion I will high tail it to a bookshop or library (in the dark if necessary) to find the work, right now, as in 5 minutes ago.

As a writer and a reader I?m happy to paddle with uncertainty. I'm constantly perplexed and puzzled and questioning. Departure points come in all kinds of forms, thus they aren't necessarily delivered by being satisfied. Dissatisfaction can be a great springboard.

When we read for the moment or the paragraph, rather than the whole we also do not demand that every piece of literature serve the same purpose or hit the single high note. I enjoy collaging paragraphs or sentences from different works that speak to each other. This is especially true and necessary in a local literature.

Publishing has become a very singular act, but reading will never be that. Reading demands plurality, it's hungry, it wants more flavour, more thought, more pages, other pages, the other's pages. I have great faith in readers and we're living in a time when readers are ambitious, embracing technology and engaging with a literary evolution where the novel may become a portal to a new media blend of varied art forms. I'm right in there with the best of them, clicking, swiping and still bending the corners of the faithful page.

Julie Oakes is the author of the novel Hooks. She lives in Vernon, BC.

Reading other novelists indirectly informs my writing.

I read daily in two categories, the novel and philosophy. I write in the early mornings before the day is peopled. I follow with a run and then currently The Divine Comedy by Dante is my morning read, dictionary by the side. I make lists of words with definitions. Even if it is a word that is familiar to me but I am not precisely sure of the meaning, I look it up. I do the same with my night read but in the evening I am not as active with this practice. I use these lists as I write in the mornings.

My night read is a novel. I read more than one novel by an author but usually syncopate them with another author?s work. I like to mull on style or atmosphere or more specific influences such as the ethnicity of the author. I also look with anticipation to returning to an author?s work.

I am seduced by reviews. I pay attention despite the fact that the book may not fall within the trajectory of my interest. If the novel has received the respect of the powers-that-be, then I am willing to be advised but I may begin the book with an objective interest rather than my usual abandonment to the journey.

Historical works, plays, myths, spiritual beliefs and opera feed more directly into my writing. I may paraphrase a historical text as in Hooks (pages 62 and 73) I have paraphrased the words of Hamlet from Shakespeare but I consider a novelist?s literary personality too specific to directly inform my writing.

The style might influence me. I may use more dialogue if I am in the middle of Catch 22 but more related conversation if I am reading Allende. If I am planning on using or have used a similar format I pay more attention. In Allende?s Island Beneath the Sea, when Tete speaks the text is italicised and separated into new chapters with her name as the headings. Hooks is in two voices and at one time I was anticipating Karma?s passages being italicised. During editing, it was decided that the reader could distinguish the voices by using the character?s name as a heading. It works as well.

One novel can determine the choice of the next. Pearl S. Buck?s The Imperial Woman provoked me to search out the Pillow Book which followed with The Concubline?s Daughter by Pa Kit Fai.

Some novels have a more intimate impact. Allende?s Paula, affected my personal strength and inspired me to accept my circumstance with more rigour.

Hooks had to be researched for some elements were not a result of perception. In Hough?s The Stowaway, The Culprit or Mable Stark, I can appreciate the smooth purr of the machine without being aware of the nuts and bolts. Hough doesn?t reveal his slight of hand but grants me the aesthetic sense of the skill.

Other novels inform my writing tangentially, feeding into my center like spokes to the hub of a wheel.

Vicki Delany is the author of numerous works of fiction, including the novels Gold Mountain: A Klondike Mystery, Burden of Memory and Among the Departed. She lives in Prince Edward County, ON.

I read a lot, and I always have. I was raised in a book-reading family and have book-reading children of my own. Over the years I?ve read countless authors, and I?m sure all of them have had some impact on me.

For the last, say, twenty-five years, I?ve read crime fiction predominantly. It?s what I write, and I write it because it?s what I like to read.

One single incident turned me into a crime reader. On CBC?s Morningside radio programme, Peter Gzowski was interviewing a new writer by the name of Sara Paretsky who?d just brought out the first of the V.I. Warshawski novels. Sara said she decided to write a mystery novel herself because she was so sick and tired of all the tough guy crime novels where you knew right away that if a female had sex then she was the bad guy. (I?m obviously paraphrasing here, trying to think back twenty or more years.) Wow! That hit a cord with me because until then I thought crime writing was either about a bunch of tough, misogynist guys or little old ladies drinking tea, and neither of those stereotypes had any appeal to me. Sara sounded interesting, though. And so I read her book.

I loved it.

I bought another mystery novel by a woman with a female protagonist. And I loved it too.

And the rest, as they say, is history. In my life anyway.

I?ve never been one for the classics of crime. When we get together crime writers will talk about the influence on them of Agatha Christie or Rex Stout or John D. MacDonald: I can?t say those people influenced me at all. Perhaps because I came late to reading mysteries, I generally only read contemporary books.

I?ve moved on from reading only those pioneering female authors and their tough female detectives, and now I devour almost all sub-genres of crime fiction because the variety of styles and types is so great. The themes are universal, the questions they ask important, the characters fascinating and real, the settings either familiar or someplace I?d like to visit.

I read a great deal, mainly because it?s my primary form of recreation, but also because I really that reading good books makes one a better writer. I?m always amazed when I hear authors say they don?t read much. Reading is how authors learn ? learn what works and what doesn?t, as well as learn what people are reading and enjoying today. You might have been influenced by Dorothy L. Sayers, but I can tell you that if you try to write like her you won?t be published.

Reading is how authors keep their skills sharp and-up-to-date. Like doctors read medical journals and teachers take professional development courses. If you want to be a writer, you have to read.

Fortunately, it?s fun!

Steven Heighton is the author of numerous works of fiction including the novels The Dead are More Visible, Afterlands and Every Lost Country. He lives in Kingston, ON.

Marcel Proust was so acutely sensitive to the influence of other writers? prose styles that after reading a work of fiction he would assign himself a task: write a brief pastiche, or parody, of the author?s work. Presumably the aim was to exorcise the influence of the other writer?s style by outing it?making it explicitly conscious?so it wouldn?t work on him subconsciously, infiltrating his syntax, colonizing his diction, making his work subtly derivative.

A writer has to be a reader. That goes without saying. But for a certain kind of writer, exposure to the words of others?especially others with a distinctive, attractive, adhesive prose style?bears a risk. The writers most susceptible to the styles of others are stylists themselves, writers with ?good ears,? many of them also skilled linguists, moonlighting musicians, naturally deft mimics, all of them basically aesthetes. (By the way, I?m not implying any kind of hierarchy here; Proust is a great writer, but many aesthetes are not, while there are non-stylists or indifferent stylists, like Dostoevsky, who are great writers.)

Anyway, I?m one of those susceptible types. If I?m in the middle of any prose project, I have to be wary when reading a distinctive stylist. Being far lazier than Proust (aren?t we all?), my means of exorcism is not a copycat assignment but a furlough from the work of serious reading, to give my mind and body time to metabolize the addiction/infection/infatuation and return to equilibrium. I go cold turkey. And soon I stop craving, say, the run-on, Book of Revelations rhetoric of Cormac McCarthy; James Salter?s Old-World-weary parataxis (the arc of each sentence a bridge of sighs); Alice Munro?s beautifully demotic deadpan; Richard Hughes?s jittery syntax and bizarre punctuation.

My other way of assimilating influences: if I happen to be leading a workshop while mainlining one of these stylists, I bring into the classroom some samples of the work and enthusiastically, in fact passionately, discuss them with the participants. It flushes my feelings out into the open and diffuses them?possibly, I admit, at the cost of infecting the entire workshop. But that?s OK. We grow as writers through a long series of survived infections (addictions, attractions).

As time passes, a writer gets smitten by a style less and less often. In my twenties it happened constantly. In my thirties it happened several times a year. Now it happens only occasionally, which must mean that for better or worse I?ve found?or rather formed and consolidated?a style of my own, and can?t easily be swayed to either side of it. A necessary tempering, for sure, though who at times wouldn?t miss those heady days of being totally open, susceptible, molten?

Basil Papademos is author of the novels Mount Royal and The Hook of It Is. He lives in Toronto.

I?ve sometimes heard authors say they make a point of not reading other writers while they?re in the middle of putting together a new book or story because they don?t want their ?voice? being influenced. Sure, I get that, but I do find it a bit precious ? and anyway, it assumes the author has total control of everything he or she is communicating.

When I?m working on a piece of writing, I?ll read all sorts, old favorites and new material, vaguely hoping my own stuff will get a boost of some kind. If a piece of prose truly reaches me, maybe its effect will be visceral and not just cerebral - I mean make me feel differently, see things differently. Something like that can help validate unformed and even unrecognized concepts of my own and bring them to life. Besides, I?ll take all the help I can get.

But what I really love is when a writer tells one story on the surface - the direct narrative ? but then there?s a whole other set of meanings beneath, working between the lines, so to speak. Handled by a skilled practitioner, an entirely different tale emerges. And I don?t mean symbolism ? more like what amounts to a parallel world of unanswered questions and mysterious possibilities. The beauty of that is to wonder how much the writer consciously intended and how much of this submerged story is the reader?s projection.

In the same way, I get a big kick out of a reader mentioning something they understood from a passage I?ve written but their interpretation wasn?t what I?d meant at all ? at least not what I thought I meant. So it can be the reader who tells the writer what the story is actually about, forcing the writer to reconsider their own motives and methods.

It makes me appreciate writers who always push the outer edge of that tenuous ground, not entirely sure what exactly they are revealing about themselves and what is being communicated with absolute certainty. Among modern fiction writers, someone like Jeanette Winterson gets to me that way, or John Banville, William Burroughs, Angela Carter and Michel Houellebecq, to name a few. It?s a thrill to see them handle an idea so deftly and work it so subtly. Like a great rock?n?roll hook, on the surface it might seem simple but can evoke an unexpected emotional response that takes you to places you?ve never been and could not have predicted.

Robert Rotenberg is the author of the novels Stray Bullets, The Guilty Plea and Old City Hall. He lives in Toronto, ON.

?Read a lot. Write a lot.? Wise words from Steven King in his seminal book, On Writing. I?ve always been someone with a ?book on the go,? but since my life has changed from being a criminal lawyer who writes, to becoming a writer, who is a lawyer, I?ve come to see that reading is a crucial part of the job.

Now I read much more strategically. Duke Ellington once said, there are only two kinds of music: good music and bad music. That?s how I feel about writing. I hunt for great prose and when I find it, I savor it. I?ll take a well-formed paragraph, a passage of tight dialogue, or even just a real smart sentence, and read it over and over again. I?ll write it out by hand or read it out loud to my dog.

When people tell me nice things about my books, I always ask them three questions: Did you laugh? Did you cry? Did the pages turn? That?s what I look for in other writers. Here are some specifics:

Acton: How did they keep the book moving and yet make me care about the characters? Plotting: How did Ian Rankin bring in that guy from the edge of the action and make him so important at the end? Character: How did Vincent Lam make me fall for his scoundrel protagonist in his new novel? Tenderness: My new favourite writer is Tim Winton. He can make me drop a book in awe at how he can make a small story so universal and touching. Confidence: I?ll read a John LeCarre novel just for that comfy feeling of being in the hands a surefooted master. Humor: I love the Italian writer Andrea Camilleri. One of the few who can make me laugh out loud every time.

There?s never enough time to read and always too many books cluttering up my side of the bed. So I try to read smart. But always, always, still make sure I?m reading for the sure joy of it.

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Read past editions of Fiction Craft:

April 2012: What is your best advice on how to write the ending of a novel?

March 2012: What methods do you use to get the story moving forward again when the writing stalls?

February 2012: How do you approach the use of conflict in storytelling?

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Shaun Smith is the author of the YA novel Snakes & Ladders and the non-fiction collection Magical Narcissism: Selected Writings on Books, Writers, Food & Chefs, which is currently available for Kindle, and is forthcoming in print from Tightrope Books. He has published journalism with CBC.ca, Quill & Quire, Toronto Star, The Globe & Mail and numerous other outlets. His book blog "Shaun Smith's Sunday Sundries" appears each Sunday (no kidding!) on Open Book Toronto.

Follow Shaun on Twitter.

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