Canadian author Madeleine Thien, who is coming to town for the Singapore Writers Festival (1-9 December 2007), made her literary debut with Simple Recipes, a collection of short stories in 2001. The collection was nominated for the 2001 Commonwealth Writers Prize (Best Book Prize) and won the 2002 Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, among other accolades.
Her most recent work is her first novel, Certainty, which has been described as a "moving, richly textured and immaculately nuanced study of war, grief, displacement, love, renewal, photography, and much more" by the Association of English-language Publishers of Quebec. The novel was shortlisted for the prestigious Kiriyama Book Prize and won the Amazon.ca/Books in Canada First Book Award in 2006.
Amazingly, the 32-year-old author says that she does not feel pressured by her success - at least not when she is in the midst of writing: "all those feelings come later, when the book is out in the world."
Thien, who counts Alice Munro, Kazuo Ishiguro, Cees Nooteboom, Hannah Arendt, Antonio Damasio and Leo Tolstoy among her favourite writers, says that fiction has a responsibility to its readers. In an interview with Alden Mudge of Water Bridge Review, she describes the reading of All Souls Day by Nooteboom as "an incredibly powerful experience [that] touched my soul".
AsiaOne finds out what she means.
How did you start writing?
I remember always writing. Always being hungry for books and always wanting to make stories. I think it seemed the most straightforward thing in the world to do because reading was always what I loved best - all these lives and universes opened up for me - so it made sense to want to do the same, if I could.
Some writers focus on telling a story, some are more intent on techniques, while some write as a way of trying to make sense of the world, or to come to terms with certain aspects of their lives. How would you describe yourself as a writer?
I think I'm trying to make sense of the world through other people's lives, the worlds they inhabit, the choices they make, the people they love, the ones they find and the ones they lose. I think, for me, this seeking to understand is at the core of why I write.
Writing helps me to pay attention to the world, and to live a life that is more than just a single existence, a single lifetime. Other pleasures follow on the heels of that - the craft, the un-puzzling of things, the untangling of the story, the sudden moments of revelation.
Your debut collection of short stories Simple Recipes won multiple awards, while your debut novel Certainty has received critical praise, was shortlisted for the Kiriyama Book Prize and was named a Globe & Mail Book of the Year. Do you ever feel any pressure from your own success?
I'm grateful for them because, in the end, a prize or a nomination brings attention to the work, and hopefully, more readers.
In the end, writing is a bit like calling out into the dark, and a prize helps to shine a little light, to gather people to listen to the story you want to tell.
It's strange, I know, but I don't feel pressure because of the prizes. A part of me feels pressure not to let people down, the people who believe in the book and have taken a risk on it - editors, publishers, etc. But all those feelings come later, when the book is out in the world. I'm lucky that, during the writing, none of that external pressure exists yet. The work makes all the demands, and the thing that gets me out of bed in the morning is the struggle is to find the words that will somehow capture the story and the world that exists in my mind.
In an interview with Alden Mudge (Water Bridge Review), you said that books have to touch the soul, that people are increasingly turning to nonfiction because fiction is not giving them what they need. What do you think readers need from fiction?
Such a difficult question. I guess I brought it on myself! I think I said that one of the books that most inspired me during the writing of Certainty was a novel that had - as I awkwardly put it - touched my soul. I think the books that we remember, of any genre, are the ones that impact us, tear us open in some way, put words to things that once seemed inexpressible. They shake us.
I think there is room for all kinds of books, all kinds of worlds but, yes, for me, the lasting ones are the books that seem to peer right inside you, that make some part of existence that is transient and fleeting and muddy, suddenly, illuminatingly, clear - even if that clarity, too, is fleeting. A conundrum? Yes.
What do you think of 'writer's block' and how do you deal with it?
A professor of mine, a brilliant writer, suffered from writer's block, so I believe it exists. But I've been lucky enough not to experience it - the kind of debilitating block that lasts years and years and saps a writer's confidence.
I have the more mundane kind of block, which is usually a sign that something is not working - I'm going about the story the wrong way, or the thing I'm trying to figure out eludes me still. So the answer, usually, is that I need to go about things in a different way - a new draft, a new scene, a complete re-write; or a long, long walk.
Who are your favourite authors? What do you like about their works?
The authors I admire most: Alice Munro, Michael Ondaatje, Kazuo Ishiguro, Cees Nooteboom, Hannah Arendt, Antonio Damasio, Ryszard Kapuscinski, and Tolstoy. Also: David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, Ian McEwan's Atonement, Gil Courtemanche's A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali, Bao Ninh's The Sorrow of War, Harry Mulisch's The Assault, Janet Malcolm's The Silent Woman, and Jane Jacob's The Death and Life of Great American Cities.
It's hard to encapsulate what binds these authors and these works together for me. Craft, yes, but also a kind of fearlessness. Super-human ability. Wisdom.
Lastly, what advice would you give to budding writers?
There is only one thing to do, which is to write. If you can find a way to give everything to your writing and also be open to the world, then do it.
Meet author Madeleine Thien, whose debut novel 'Certainty' was shortlisted for the Kiriyama Book Prize and was named a Globe & Mail Book of the Year, on 1 Dec, 2007 at 1pm, The Arts House, Blue Room. For more information on the Singapore Writers Festival, visit the website.