25th Trillium Award


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What's it all about?

With Stacia Brown, Jason Dean, Peter Geye, Andrew Kaufman, Eleanor Morse, Benjamin Nugent, Nancy Richler, and Christopher Ward.

This month in Fiction Craft, we asked a group of writers: How do you navigate thematic considerations while writing a work of fiction?

I believe that when we write fiction, the thing that can be called the ?theme? of any given work is present with the writer from before the start. I believe it may, in fact, be the thing that compels us to write any particular piece of work. However, it is not necessarily there in the forefront of a writer?s mind from the start, but it looms large beneath the surface.

It was not until I was well into the writing of my novel Snakes & Ladders that I realized the book was about heroism. That is it?s theme. It is a book about rising above oneself and it is the result of the accumulation of a lot of life experience that informed my opinions, feelings and beliefs about heroism. May Sarton wrote ?One must think like a hero to behave like a merely decent human being.? That quote appears as an epigram to one of my favourite John Le Carré novels, The Russia House, which is a novel ostensibly about spies, but covertly, if you will, about publishing and writing. Having worked in the book world for decades, I have never been able to reconcile the often reprehensible behaviour I have witnessed from people engaged in selling and publishing books that are themselves born of great and noble ideas and impulses. Naïve yes, but in simplicity there is often truth. I won?t go into details, except to say that today I wonder if much of the industry isn?t controlled by people who don?t read at all. My experience of the book world served as a template for my novel, and if there exists in the book a shade of disgust, it is because of those experiences.

As these themes surfaced in my manuscript, I acknowledged them but did not overtly engineer the writing to serve them. Instead, I trusted that this was the thing that was driving the process and I let it have control. Primarily, that meant letting the characters do what they needed to do. Of course, as I fine tuned the novel in later drafts, I worked to align the writing with the theme.

Heroism is not just doing the decent or right thing, heroism is doing the decent or right thing in spite of yourself, at great cost to yourself. And of course the opposite ­? cowardice ? is doing things that take advantage of others, that exploit their weaknesses for your benefit. This was the landscape of ideas, beliefs and opinions out of which Snakes & Ladders grew and I wasn?t fully aware of exactly what that book would say, of what its characters would do, until I was very near the end of the writing. So I navigated that terrain by trusting myself to create the book and by paying close attention to how I responded to my characters. By doing that, I feel I wrote the book I set out to write, even if I didn?t know what that book was going to be when I started.

Now, let?s find out how some other writers do ? or don?t ? navigate thematic considerations.


Stacia Brown is the author of the novel Accidents of Providence. She lives in Decatur, GA.

I don't. I think talking about themes is the death of good fiction writing. The story can't have pre-set themes or points that I want to get across. If it does, what I produce will ring fake. There's nothing worse than reading a novel where it feels like the author is beating you over the head with his or her "subtle" thematic considerations.

That being said, of course, it's hard to avoid thinking about themes?almost especially since everyone I talk to about my novel asks me about them.

I recognize that in a finished work of art ? whether fiction or poetry or music ? some notes or images will resonate in particularly important ways to readers. That's good, and that's something to celebrate once you're done with the writing. But you can't decide in advance what those notes will be. You can't decide that your novel is going to have "grace" or "light" or "diligence" as a theme. Or it will turn out to be the worst, sappiest, most over-the-top didactic portrait of grace and light and diligence that anyone's ever read, including yourself.

If key notes or images do emerge from the work, they should emerge from the form of the work and not simply from the content. (From how it's written, and not just what it's about.) I try very hard to trust the creative process enough to accept that if anything in what I'm writing needs to stand out or come to the fore, it will make itself known ? I do not need to go looking for it or, once found, to harp on it.

This is easier said than done. It's especially so when one is just starting out, as I am, and when one has to navigate all the challenges of finding and growing a readership.

Instead of navigating thematic considerations, I try very hard?and not always successfully?to do what old Hemingway once said: write the truest sentence you can find. The rest follows.


Jason Dean is the author of the novel The Wrong Man and Backtrack. He lives in Thailand.

For me, it varies from book to book. Generally, when I start out plotting my story, character and plot are at the forefront of my mind and I don?t think about subtext at all. It?s usually during the actual writing of the novel that a motif becomes apparent, but even then it?s always deep in the background, which is as it should be. Like most authors, I?m of the belief that a good theme should always stay beneath the surface and never intrude on the story itself.

Occasionally though, something will jump out at me very early on in the process and when that happens I can?t ignore it. For example, I came up with the title for my third book - ?The Hunter?s Oath? - quite early on and the story?s theme came directly from that. Although I hadn?t planned it that way at all, of course. All I knew at the start was that it was to be a revenge story based on a promise the hero makes to the victim of a vicious attack. But while I was plotting the thing, my subconscious began working overtime and I soon realized the title also referred to three other characters in the story as well. And that the overall theme developing was ?those who keep their promises and see things through to the end will always prosper.? I have to say that discovery left me with a very satisfying feeling as a writer. And when that happens I have to hope the reader will get the same level of satisfaction out of the story as I did.


Peter Geye is the author of the novels The Lighthouse Road and Safe from the Sea. He lives in Minneapolis, MN.

I spent more than ten years studying English. A lot of time. Probably too much time. I?ve published two novels and a handful of stories and written countless hundreds of pages of fiction and poetry that will, thankfully, never see the published page. I read no fewer than fifty books a year. I think almost exclusively like a writer. That is, as if real life isn?t quite happening, as if it?s all merely a backdrop to my imagination, which is where true life is. In other words, I ought to be prepared to talk about how I navigate thematic considerations in my work.

But I find myself at a loss. Maybe it?s a good thing. To be so unselfconscious about my method. Maybe (and more likely), it?s evidence of my lack of introspection. Probably it?s a bit of both.

In any case, when I sat down to write my first novel, I did so without characters or a plot. What I had in mind instead was a vague notion that I wanted to write a sad book. And I wanted it set on the North Shore of Lake Superior, a region that holds an almost supernatural power over my imagination. In a sense, I suppose it is my imagination, or at least its main source of sustenance. It?s no coincidence that the two instincts went hand in hand.

I admit it?s not much of a place to start. From the standpoint of creating a story, it?s practically a recipe for disaster. And it?s the reason it took me ten years to write a 250-page novel. On the other hand, staying true to my instincts allowed me to write exactly the book I had in mind, and that?s no small thing.

Though I wouldn?t have described those instincts as thematic issues back when I was starting out, I see now that is exactly what they are. A theme is, by definition, a unifying idea. For me, what holds fiction together?what unifies it?is almost always the feeling it evokes. If this is true, then I guess thematic considerations are as important as anything. Maybe the most important thing of all.

I?ve evolved as a writer. I?m more organized than I was when I started writing my first novel. I plan better. Conceptualize better. Execute more efficiently, hopefully. Because of this, it took me only two years to write my second book. But even as these things are true, I try always to be guided first by the feeling I hope to evoke. In other words, I start with theme. I try to end there, too.


Andrew Kaufman is the author of numerous books of fiction including Born Weird, All My Friends Are Superheroes and The Tiny Wife. He lives in Toronto, ON.

I don?t. For me, plot is theme?but I think this is entirely because I don?t write realism. Almost all of the stories that I write are set in a world were make-believe things happen. I do this because I don?t believe that realism is a very good way to capture the world we live in. Realism can show what things look like, it can document dates and facts, but it?s not very good at expressing how it feels to be in it. In realism, a couple goes on a date, it?s not going well, so we get a lot of description about a couple just sitting there, not getting along. In a non-representational story, the girl gradually gets thinner and wispy over the entrée and then blown away with the wind after dessert, just before the check arrives. To me this stupid little example illustrates of plot can be theme: it?s a story about the consequences of the inability when people fail to connect with each other. So I guess I navigate theme by ignoring it and just making fantastical, unreal things, up.


Eleanor Morse is the author of White Dog Fell From the Sky, Chopin?s Garden, and An Unexpected Forest. She lives on Peaks Island, Maine.

For me, writing a novel begins and ends with its characters. I may have themes in mind at the outset, but they are secondary to the development of what I hope will be complex, intriguing, believable people.

In the case of my latest novel, White Dog Fell from the Sky, set in southern Africa during the 1970s, several themes presented themselves at the outset:

  • the reality of apartheid and the displacement of African people, both as refugees to other countries and within the country of South Africa;
  • the uneasy connection between Africans and white foreign professionals working within the country;
  • the balance of land use between indigenous people and animals, and cattle ranchers;
  • the failure of love, and the hope that follows the disintegration of a relationship.

I?d have to say that during the writing I was not consciously seeking to amplify these themes. My wish as a fiction writer is to create a vivid and believable world that brings a reader into territory that may be new or somehow revelatory. Because of the setting and time period of White Dog, politics is an important piece of the story, but my hope in the writing was that it would be politics as it affects people, not politics as polemics.

The three main characters in White Dog carried its thematic material on their backs. Or, said differently, to be true to the themes in the book, I first needed to be true to its characters. How did the system of apartheid affect Isaac Muthethe, and his mother and father and grandmother and sister and brothers? What happened to Alice following the disintegration of her marriage: what was the terrain she found herself in, and what became of her? How did she deal with her white skin in a country where, for the first time in her life, she was a minority person?

It?s important to me that what I write matters, that the themes are large ones, but the conveyance is always character and the details of a character?s life. If I lose my way partway through the writing, it?s from the characters that I seek answers. I turn to them, to the truths embedded in their lives, trusting that these will reveal the larger truths.


Benjamin Nugent is the author of the novel Good Kids. He lives in Boston, MA.

I often struggle to repress my desire to think about theme. Unchecked, I will weave thematic webs of great intricacy, and I learned the hard way, workshop after workshop, that no reader ever noticed them, ever.

I used to be addicted to symbolism. Stuff like: The pomegranate in paragraph four is implicitly linked via the puppet to the muffin in Chapter Nine paragraph six, which is a way of expressing the radically imaginative quality of memory. Occasionally a poet would notice some of the stuff I was doing. Maybe if I had persisted in that direction I would eventually have become a poet. Which would have been great. But I like the conventions of the novel. If nothing else, they give you something to break.

Instead I adapted a strategy of letting my characters think about what was going on in their lives. People do that, in real life. And ideally I am not any smarter than my central characters; they are able to make sense of their lives or not make sense of their lives to the same extent I am. I have nothing on them, by the end. The characters? attempts to make sense of their lives, their picking up one narrative to explain their circumstances and dropping it and picking up another one, that is the better part of theme in Good Kids.


Nancy Richler is the author of The Imposter Bride, Your Mouth is Lovely and Throwaway Angels. She lives in Montreal, QC.

My fiction always begins with voice and character. A line will come into my head, seemingly out of nowhere, I?ll write it down and that will be the first line of the novel or story. The line that comes into my head has an image or situation in it that makes me curious. I write to answer the questions that are raised, to pursue my own curiosity about the image or situation that that has come into my head. My goal as I write is to be true to the characters and voices that emerge as I flesh out situations, to find and tell the story or stories that feel true to the voice that has come to me.

Thematic considerations operate on a more subconscious level. In the course of fleshing out the originating line voice and character I?ll find that certain words or images keep appearing. I?ll be aware of them but I don?t actually work them hard or develop them in conscious ways. I have faith that if I am true to the characters? voices thematic coherence will take care of itself. In the case of my most recent novel, for example, the first line that came into my head described a newly married couple sitting in silence following their wedding ceremony. The question that I consciously pursued was why a newlywed couple would be sitting in silence. Subconsciously, however, the silence that was present in that very first line pointed to one of the themes that underlie and inform the entire novel, namely how the unspeakable is expressed intergenerationally, how what is not said manifests itself in other ways in the lives of individuals and families. Without consciously forcing the issue, silence in varying forms emerged in each of the characters? lives in ways that fit those particular characters and deepened what I was trying to convey through their actions and dialogues.


Christopher Ward is the author of the novels Mac in the City of Light and Dead Brilliant. He lives in Toronto, ON.

I don't think about it. For me, it's all about story and character. And laughs. Themes or motifs emerge in the process but don't dictate the shape or tone of the work as I'm writing.

In my young adult novel, 'Mac In The City of Light', the fourteen year old hero gets into a lot of trouble because of her curiosity, impatience and desire to do the right thing. In creating her character, I wanted to give my daughter an inspiring protagonist as her namesake. In a world in which the adults are mostly well meaning but often hopelessly bumbling, Mac reacts with loyalty and courage in taking on some big challenges. If we're looking for a theme, was it Heraclitus or Snape who said "character is destiny".

In setting the novel in Paris, where we lived for two years, I tried to be true to the city as I came to love it. The Parisians honour beauty and the plot revolves around someone trying to destroy the architectural monuments that define the city. The book also reflects the French obsession with style. A very chic scarf saves Mac's life atop the Cathédrale Notre Dame. Remember this a town where the cheese lady at the Monoprix is wearing a pair of strappy Louis Vuitton sandals.

I don't feel comfortable imposing a moral or sewing a message into the work. The goal is entertainment for me, not enlightenment. The latter is too much responsibility. Mac's story might be regarded as a coming of age tale, but to me it's an adventure and if that's the sound of pages turning I hear, then I'm happy!


SHAUN SMITH is a novelist and award-winning journalist in Toronto, Canada. His young-adult novel Snakes & Ladders was published in 2009 by the Dundurn Group. His book Magical Narcissism: Selected Writings on Books, Writers, Food, and Chefs is available on Kindle and is forthcoming in paperback from Tightrope Books in spring 2013. shaunsmith.ca

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