I enjoy living in Quebec City -- there is a difference in the way Quebec City treats its writers than Toronto. It may have something to do with the size of the cities, or the different cultures. In a city the size of Quebec City, you're known. And I've been very lucky -- the francophone press has given me a lot of attention from the very beginning. And it can certainly be very nice, although there are times when you need anonymity. I tend to walk a lot, let characters and situations spin in my head, and that's when you don't want to be interrupted. But you can find secluded areas in Quebec City -- there are not so many in Toronto.
I have no problem with inspiration: I get it from my life. Newspapers that I read, magazines, the news. I get it from talking with people. When it comes with fiction -- you can never predict where it comes from.
My writing process is an instinctive one. I never decide what I'm going to be writing. A novel or a short story will just suddenly sit up and be there -- I can't really explain how or why this happens. It just usually happens when I'm not thinking about anything: I'll be washing the dishes or in the shower and suddenly there'll be a character there, and a sense comes that there's something here, and a scene will shape around it.
The book I'm working on now, for instance. I'd finished Doing the Heart Good, and didn't know where I was going to go next. And then one day last winter, this voice started taking me into his world, and showed me this scene where he was getting on a train. And the strange thing about it is for some bizarre reason this story insisted that I write it by hand. I have always written either on a typewriter or a computer, because I have the worst handwriting you have ever seen. I have written notes to myself that I could not read two days later, so I've never dared writing fiction by hand. But this time I would take out some pencils and a notebook, and I found myself going to the St. Lawrence beach -- in the middle of winter, snow all around -- and just scribbling constantly, page after page. I don't know where it came from. I can't tell you. You're either blessed or have severe mental problems which you can channel into things called books. I'm happy to have it and I hope it never stops.
It's only once I finished the book that I can step back and look at it as a reader and see the themes. But none of it's planned, it just sort of emerges. I think it's lethal and dangerous for the imagination to write a novel with an agenda. To write so you can score these points, you start fabricating a character and a situation, and it feels fabricated. And characters have to be alive, be sentient beings, in your head.
I teach two creative writing courses at Laval University; that takes approximately two days a week, and the rest of the time I write. Teaching gets me out of the house for a couple of days, and it lets me do something I enjoy, meet a lot of interesting people, and it doesn't take away from the writing. And the class is all about what I do. I enjoy finding students who have talent and help them along (I have a couple of students who are ready to publish).
A lot of people have an idea of how a writer is, and a lot of people take creative writing because they think it gives them licence to spend the day drinking café au lait in a café somewhere, scribbling notes which will turn into their great novel. But that's not how it works.
If you're serious about writing, and want to write the kind of work that gets published, and eventually making some kind of living from it, you have to approach it as if it were your job. Which means -- on the days that you are free -- getting up in the morning. I tend to get up fairly early and start writing once my daughter is off to school. I'll sit down at the computer at 8:30 in the morning, with a cup of coffee, and I try to write all day.
If I write three pages a day, I'll be very happy. Some days I'll only write one or two, and then there are the days when I've had eight, nine, 10. You can't predict how the story will flow, and that's why you've got to have discipline and sit down there. And when you enjoy what you do, if you have the dedication and the passion, it won't be a burden. Neil Bissoondath's book Doing the Heart Good was released this month by Cormorant Press. He spoke to Rebecca Caldwell.