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  (Rachel Idzerda for The Globe and Mail)


(Rachel Idzerda for The Globe and Mail)

Atwood, MacIntyre, Vassanji and Clarke talk writing and the Gillers Add to ...

MacIntyre: Did you keep them? Did you lock them in a drawer someplace?

Atwood: Alas, no. I do have one in which somebody goes mad. I was quite fond of writing those. People go mad in peculiar ways. I was reading Poe. Then I thought I was going to be a journalist. I announced this to my long-suffering parents, and they were biting their tongues so hard they practically choked. They dredged up a real journalist, they knew one, so he came over and had dinner, and said female journalists who worked at his paper worked either on the obituaries or the ladies’ pages. And I could not expect anything else. So that was the end of that.

MacIntyre: There was also a widely held view back in those days that if you wanted to be a serious writer of fiction, you should avoid a day job that required you to type a lot, and you should avoid taking English in university.

Atwood: Yes, I understood that later, and had several well-meaning male poets telling me I would never amount to a hill of beans unless I was a truck driver.

MacIntyre: For me, the hard part was learning how to do it. You read a lot, and you grow up in a storytelling culture, where the most failed human beings in the place seem to be able to tell stories. When I sat down to write page one, I made a whole bunch of mistakes. I didn’t understand the consequences of setting out in the first-person voice, for example.

Clarke: Getting the character from this table to the front door; I thought I had to follow every step and explain the problems.

Vassanji: For me, I come from a culture where there’s no writing about ourselves as such. There are a lot of oral tales, and so for the first time to write something about people who’ve not been written about at an intimate level, there’s a big hurdle. I overcame it, for some reason, I found the guts to do it. But living here, I thought, ‘They’ll never read it anyway!’

Atwood: And you were wrong!

What do you tell young writers if they ask for help?

Atwood: Stop, now!

Vassanji: I tell them: Talk less, write more. These young writers just love to talk about what they’re doing. I think they wear themselves out. Maybe it’s the new generation; they don’t know how to do it. But if I start talking about what I’m doing, I’ll never be able to write.

MacIntyre: For me, writing is something that goes on all the time in your head. Then sometimes you have a moment to sit down and type it up. Sometimes you type it up prematurely, and that stuff gets thrown out. Sometimes you type it up and you know, as you’re typing, that somebody’s going to read this. The challenge is always original invention, turning ideas into activity, as opposed to just writing up the idea, which is always the temptation of the amateur. Mercifully, I don’t sleep well after about 4:30 in the morning, so I’ve been making use of the time to get stuff typed up. It’s amazing how frequently you just slide into a zone and suddenly it’s three or four hours later, and you’ve got a thousand words on the page.

Atwood: Must be a nice feeling.

MacIntyre: Until you read it!

Vassanji: I used to do that when I started: wake up and write something down. Then I realized, much later, that if it was worth it, it’d come back.

MacIntyre: Exactly, if it’s worth remembering, you’ll remember.

Atwood: That holds true up to a certain age.

One of the things that’s impressive about the Giller is how aggressively it puts literature in front of the public. The volume is turned up on writers in society. What do you understand to be your responsibilities, if any?

Clarke: Why must we have a role and responsibilities?

Vassanji: I think the public puts an expectation on you.

Atwood: But why do they put that on writers?

Vassanji: There are people who feel their histories, their stories – they would like them to be told. And when you do that in your writing, they feel that you have done something for them, and that puts a burden on you.

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