The questions on your mind

When I’m speaking about Sons and Fathers, either at a formal event or in conversation with a friend, readers often ask me five very interesting questions. Here they are, along with my typical answers.

How do you find the time to write with a young family and full-time job?

Ah, the million dollar question! I think we’re all so conditioned from reading advice from the likes of writers like Hemingway that we assume a writer has to write at certain time each day, ideally in a particular place, and either for a certain amount of time or else produce a set number of words or pages.

This approach definitely works for some writers, but it’s difficult for most of us who have careers that we love and that demand a lot of our time and attention, as well as families that we love even more and that demand as much time and attention: it’s hard to tell your five-year old that you won’t build that Lego set with him on Saturday morning because you have to finish writing about imaginary people!

I remember reading an interview with Canadian writer Annabel Lyon in which she described her frustration at not being able to find time to write regularly after the birth of one of her children. Life was just too busy. At a certain point, she decided to let go of conventional wisdom and rather than feeling frustrated at not being able to produce a certain amount of writing each day, she would write when she could and be happy with whatever she was able to accomplish, even if it was just one line. This new approach netted her the novel The Golden Mean.

This was incredibly liberating for me. From then, I wrote when I could, and perhaps more counter-intuitively, whenever I wanted to. I didn’t force myself. I didn’t treat writing as a job or a duty. So sometimes I’d write a bit in the evening after our children had gone to sleep, or in the morning before they’d woken up. I might write a few lines during my lunch, or while waiting in the car while my wife went shopping. As a result writing was always fun, more like a sport or a game than a chore that had to be completed each day.

Was it difficult to find a publisher?

Immensely so. I wrote the book while I was still living in New Brunswick, and I sent the manuscript off to a couple of Atlantic Canadian publishers I liked and admired. Both rejected it. Then we moved to Ontario and I sent the manuscript off to a couple of Ontario publishers that I respected. Both rejected it. I also tried querying agents in the hope of landing one who might be able to put my manuscript in front of a major publisher. But again I had no luck. Then we moved to Alberta, life and work was even busier than before, and I put the manuscript in a metaphorical drawer and kind of gave up on it. I assumed it would never be published.

But for my forty-third birthday in 2013 my wife Kara bought me the wonderful Charles Foran biography of Mordecai Richler. I was so inspired by the way this scrappy kid from the Montreal Jewish ghetto turned himself into a writer through sheer dint of hard work and desire that I decided I had to try a bit harder. I brushed off the manuscript and sent it out again. Within three weeks it had been accepted by Linda Leith Publishing out of Montreal. Linda was wonderful to work with – although she did put me through my paces – and it was very nice being published by someone in the city where I grew up.

Do you have another book in the works?

Well, I have a book of poems coming out with Cormorant Books in April 2015. Called Catullus’s Soldiers, it’s been in the works for a long time, with several of the poems in the book first appearing in literary journals over the last number of years.

And I have a first draft of a second novel that I’m currently revising. I think it’s healthy to always have something on the go. I think as a writer that each time you finish a project you have a mini-crisis of faith or at least of self-confidence: you find yourself wondering if you can ever do it again, wondering if you’ll somehow forget your craft or lose that inspiration that kicks everything off and that gives you the momentum to keep going through 250 or 300 pages.

Some writers experience this quiet terror on a daily basis when they’re writing a novel and resuming their writing each day. It’s a terrible feeling and writers seem to have various superstitions about it, like stopping each day before you want to – the old stopping in mid-sentence trick – or stopping when you know what you want to make happen tomorrow. I’m not sure if people in other fields of endeavour experience so regularly this fear of not being able to continue. It would be like a baseball player feeling anxious that he’d forgotten how to throw or catch every time he started a new game.

How much of Sons and Fathers is true, and which of the three characters do you most identify with?

I didn’t set out to write an autobiographical novel, and since the book is told in the first-person voices of the three protagonists, the three sons of the novel, that’s a good thing because then it would mean I was schizophrenic! But the novel was influenced by some of the experiences I’ve had, including working in communications and as a freelance journalist, and interacting with political people and journalists, as well as being a Canadian male growing up at the end of the twentieth century and growing into middle age in the early part of this century. There’s also the fact that on one level the novel is about the process of becoming writer. And so I draw on these various experiences.

But many things are completely made up. So, for example, the character of Adam Tredman is very much inspired by my own father, and yet in many ways he’s completely different. My father published a book of poetry and taught English his whole life but was never a wildly famous poet. And he never swore as regularly as Adam Tredman!

I think as a writer you always have a soft spot for all your characters, the way you do with your children. I identify a little with all of them, but probably the most with Eli. He’s the most ambivalent and paradoxically the most guarded in what he reveals about himself but also the most personal in that he tells us a lot about his family. In other ways, he’s the most formal and restrained of the three sons, which is in keeping with how I think I live my life. I’m a big believer in Flaubert’s advice to writers, which is to “be regular and orderly in your life so you that you may be original and violent in your work.”

Was Sons and Fathers hard to write?

It could have been but it wasn’t. Let me explain. There is a very linear and rational approach to writing fiction, which necessitates starting with the first sentence, which leads logically and inevitably to the second, which creates room for the third, and so on. This approach intuitively makes sense to most of us because it’s the way we live our life, from birth to death. It follows the general laws of physics and time. It’s logical. But art doesn’t have to be this way. And for some of us, thinking you have to write this way is a perfect recipe for writer’s block.

In late 90s and early 2000s I was feeling frustrated with my lack of progress in publishing my poetry and so I thought I’d try something completely different. I attempted to write an espionage thriller. But every few chapters, I’d run into a wall. I couldn’t figure out how to resolve the next plot point. I thought I had to figure it out before I wrote any subsequent sections and as a result I’d be blocked for weeks at a time. In the end I gave up on that apprentice novel for three years. But it didn’t have to be that way.

I remember feeling completely liberated when I read an interview with the great and recently late British detective novelist P.D. James in which she described her novel-writing process as being similar to how scenes in a film are shot: out of sequence. She knew where she was going and more or less what she wanted to do but she didn’t know exactly how one thing would lead to another. But she realized she didn’t have to write each chapter or section or even scene sequentially. She jumped around as she composed.

This suited me perfectly: I wrote the scene or dialogue or part of chapter that I really wanted to on that particular day when I had twenty minutes or more to spare. I actually wrote the last sentence of the book first, so I always knew where I wanted to end up.

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