Saleema Nawaz: How Bone and Bread had the most Montreal of origins

You have to wonder what author Saleema Nawaz would have thought had she prophesied, nine years ago, that the novel she had just dreamt up looking out on her Montreal balcony would end up in the running for Canada Reads 2016Bone and Bread, which Farah Mohamed is defending in this year's battle of the books, is a wrenching, illuminating tale of sisterhood and secrets - and was born in a cloud of bagel smoke.

In her own words, Nawaz describes the moment that sisters Beena and Sadhana first came to her - and what happened next.


Bagel magic
One day in 2006, I was in my living room, and I just had this first sentence that came to me like a gift: "My sister and I stopped bleeding at the same time." With it came an image of two sisters who lose their periods for two very different reasons. At the time I was living in an apartment that was as close to Fairmount Bagel, a Montreal institution, as you could get without being on top of it. My living room balcony overlooked a little alley where the employees went on their smoke break. I grabbed a notebook and started writing really furiously for 30 minutes. 

So it was in my living room, with that bagel smell and the smoke from the wood-fired ovens, that I got the first sentence and the subsequent storyline, which I hammered out in that intense half-hour. The short story that features the two sisters, Beena and Sadhana, "Bloodlines," uses that exact sentence as its starting point, and talks about those few months when they're teenagers, when Beena's pregnant and Sadhana is first suffering from her anorexia. What I wrote in that 30 minutes really encapsulates not only a lot of what happened in the short story, but the subsequent novel as well.

Revision vision
Bone and Bread really came about in the process of me revising the short story I had written about the sisters. I was at the writing studio at the Banff Centre, and at the same time that I was working on these story revisions, I knew that I wanted to take advantage of my five weeks at Banff and start a novel. I just found that I had so much to say about these sisters. I felt like I could write indefinitely about them, so it seemed like a really natural place to start. I wrote about 10,000 words of Bone and Bread's first draft while I was at Banff - the novel was born even before I published the short story. 

Learning process
I wish I had known about Scrivener [the writing software] when I started Bone and Bread. I had so many scenes written out of order in various unwieldy Word docs, and I would have saved hours - or years - of time, because Scrivener works really well in terms of organizing scenes, tagging them, etc. In the end, I did the whole novel in Word, and it took almost six years to write and edit. I charted the novel out a bunch of times, and definitely there were multiple documents I kept losing track of that said what happened in each year of the timeline. I would have to figure things out over and over again. But then again, in writing Bone and Bread, I was learning how to write a novel. Before you write a novel, you don't really have any idea how to do it. And maybe I needed it to take as long as it did.

Saleema Nawaz's comments have been edited and condensed.


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