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Nominees for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize discuss the art of storytelling

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'Fiction has the ability to lower people's defences and introduce them to new ideas'

Omar El Akkad, Claire Cameron, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, Carleigh Baker and David Chariandy: Nominees for the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize discuss the art of storytelling

Omar El Akkad.

Omar El Akkad

Author of American War, published by McClelland & Stewart

What's powerful about writing fiction right now?

Fiction derives its power from the immediacy of its relationship with reality. And right now, reality seems to become more fictional by the day.

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How do you write characters that readers will care about?

Before I write anything down, I spend a long time (sometimes years) living with the characters in my head. By the time they end up on the page, I know at least that I care about them.

What can a good book do?

A good book can upend the world, make of its reader someone new. A good book is both the lighthouse and the storm.

What are your writing rituals?

I get up in the morning, procrastinate for about two or three hours, check my mail, take a shower, do anything I possibly can to avoid actually writing anything, then maybe write for 15 or 20 minutes. Then I start figuring out what to make for dinner.

Besides books, what other art influences your writing?

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I'm fascinated by profiles of great cooks. There's a show called Chef's Table I've watched religiously, partially because it's an interesting profile of some very obsessive personalities, but also because it explores the makings of a great culinary creation – balance, texture, the willingness to challenge the palette. A lot of this applies to writing, I think (or maybe I was just hungry at the time).


Claire Cameron.

Claire Cameron

Author of The Last Neanderthal, published by Doubleday Canada

What part of the novel came to you first?

The idea that I am walking around with DNA inherited from Neanderthals in my body.

Was there a book or some other work that revolutionized the way you consider storytelling?

My enduring love of Swiss Chalet dipping sauce taught me to follow my instincts and trust my tastes. They are never wrong.

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Is there a book, a story, an essay, a scene, even a phrase you've read recently that you're jealous you didn't write?

I've spent days figuring out the exact book of historical fiction I want to write and then realizing Annie Proulx has already written Barkskins.

What are your writing rituals?

I wear industrial-noise-blocking earmuffs. I started when my kids were small and now I can't write without them.

What can a good book do?

Help me understand how it feels to live another life.

What do you do when you're stuck?

I put the floor mat under the front tires and try to ease out slowly. I resist all temptation to gas it. Never make the wheels spin!


Leanne Betasamosake Simpson.

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson

Author of This Accident of Being Lost, published by House of Anansi

What's powerful about writing fiction right now?

I'm not sure there is anything particularly powerful about writing. But Canadians need to pay attention to what is happening outside of the white CanLit world, because as always, there is some pretty spectacular black and Indigenous brilliance that continues to be erased and ignored.

Was there a book or some other work that revolutionized the way you consider storytelling?

Anishinaabeg storytelling practices revolutionized my storytelling because they build different worlds, using different tools and a different body of story.

Is there a book, a story, an essay, a scene, even a phrase you've read recently that you're jealous you didn't write?

Both Full-Metal Indigiqueer (Joshua Whitehead) and This Wound Is a World (Billy-Ray Belcourt) are just beautiful gifts. I also love Gwen Benaway's phrase "Holy Wild."

What can a good book do?

A lot of what I think is good writing wouldn't be considered by major publishers or agents, wouldn't win awards, and wouldn't be reviewed in national newspapers. The system defines what "good" writing is and limits what a "good" book can do right now, and I think that is very unfortunate for audiences and artists. I like that this is starting to crack a bit.

What do you do when you're stuck?

I try and stay with it but not in front of the computer screen. When I'm stuck it's because I'm disconnected. So I return to the land. I run. I return to the body. I let my subconscious work on it.


Carleigh Baker.

Carleigh Baker

Author of Bad Endings, published by Anvil Press

What's powerful about writing fiction right now?

Fiction has the ability to lower people's defences and introduce them to new ideas. In a world where everyone seems to be fighting for ideological supremacy in the internet Thunderdome 24 hours a day, that's pretty powerful.

How do you write characters that readers will care about?

I write about people I'm trying to figure out, and particularly, empathize with. A lot of the characters in Bad Endings are based on me, and I'm not very good at being kind to myself. Maybe readers connect with this because most of us aren't very good at being kind to ourselves.

Besides books, what other art influences your writing?

Video games! Classy, I know. You don't see a lot of this influence in Bad Endings, but I'm writing a lot about video games and escapism in my new stories. I have a piece coming out in the Short Story Advent Calendar that's all about a post-apocalyptic video game called The Long Dark.

Which book have you reread the most?

Sjon, From The Mouth of the Whale. I keep rereading it because it's like returning to a dream. It's dense and grotesque and beautiful and heavily influenced by mythology I'm not familiar with, images that confuse me but feel important, a landscape I've never set foot on but have a blood tie to, through my mom's family. I read it every winter.


David Chariandy.

David Chariandy

Author of Brother, published by McClelland & Stewart

What part of the novel came to you first?

An image came first. I "saw" two very young brothers discussing the possibility of climbing a hydro pole. They wanted to see their neighbourhood from a better vantage point. I did, too. And so, I began to write.

Was there a book or some other work that revolutionized the way you consider storytelling?

Many books have done this. But maybe N. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn and Toni Morrison's Beloved? I've always been awed by the way each, in very different ways, structure historical and personal trauma. How they each so carefully negotiate telling and not telling, terror and beauty.

What are your writing rituals?

I wake very, very early in the morning before anyone else does. In the dark, I brew strong coffee. I write at this hour, when possibility is fullest, and my mind clearest. I encounter less possibility and less clarity as the day goes on. When I hit the hour of despair, and I notice myself destroy whatever I might have accomplished, I stop.

Besides books, what other art influences your writing?

Music for sure. Hip hop, specifically, although I'll have to admit that I've never been a true connoisseur. As a very amateur listener, I've admired the economy, constraints, code-switching, and sheer discursive mischief of rap. I've also admired turntablism – how through sure hands and wickedly creative minds, old voices, beats, and phrases can be mashed up and made new.


The winner of the 2017 Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize for Fiction will be announced on Nov. 14.

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