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Karma Brown: ‘A first draft is like a first date’

Award-winning journalist-turned-novelist Karma Brown's first book, Come Away With Me, became a Globe and Mail bestseller soon after it was published last year. Her new novel, The Choices We Make, was published earlier this month by Mira. Brown lives outside Toronto with her family.

What's the best advice you've ever received?

This isn't writing specific, but it's to do the things that scare you most. In my former life, I worked for a small, entrepreneurial consulting company and one of its owners was a big believer in the idea of fear being a useful motivator – in a positive sense. When he explained the concept at a company meeting, the idea of doing something every day that scares you, it stuck with me. That mantra has been in my head ever since, and I've had some of my best experiences thanks to this advice. The best writing advice I've come across is to write every day – it's amazing how prolific you can be if you make daily writing a habit.

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What's your favourite word to use in a sentence?

I'm a big fan of the word "shenanigans." Probably because I'm a rule follower, and so I love the idea of shenanigans – the word just sounds fun, doesn't it? But it's a tricky one to work into my manuscripts, so I try to use it at least once a day with my eight-year-old daughter. It's a word guaranteed to make her smile, because I'm usually referencing something silly we're planning to do. Like, "Let's go get some ice cream and then see what kind of shenanigans we can get ourselves into."

What scares you as a writer?

First drafts terrify me. It's a little like diving into a black lake without first checking if there are rocks below the surface … or at least that's how I always feel when I start a new story. A first draft is like a first date, where you know nothing about the other person except they have brown hair, blue eyes (you're nearly positive), and they're allergic to cats. I'm much happier when I get to revisions, which remind me of the "Netflix and order-in takeout" stage of a long-term relationship. Things are a lot more comfortable in revision land. Maybe one day I'll get over my fear of the first draft, but then I remember the advice to do the things that scare you most …

Which book got you through the darkest period of your life?

Quite honestly, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. I was 30, had just been diagnosed with cancer, and had been gifted three copies of Lance Armstrong's It's Not About the Bike – which, for the record, is not the book to give a cancer patient as a pick-me-up. Reading about gruelling chemotherapy while going through gruelling chemotherapy? Not inspirational. So after my first chemo treatment I picked up Philosopher's Stone instead, and was transported to the magical world of a boy-wonder wizard. Harry Potter will always remind me of that summer, and just how far I've come.

What's the best death scene in literature?

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For me, it's that scene in William Golding's Lord Of The Flies where Roger pushes a boulder at Piggy, who then ends up falling to his death. It has stayed with me since I read it in Grade 10 English. The description of Piggy's death fall, his body smashing into the rocks below – "His head opened and stuff came out and turned red" – made me hold my breath while I read it, and to this day still makes me feel a little breathless when I think of it.

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