Wednesday, November 10, 2010 |
Fiction writers, for the most part, spend the better part of their working lives in controlled environments. By that I mean their primary job is to create (or re-create) believable worlds.
Lawrence Hill transports you into the past in The Book of Negroes. William Gibson reinvents the present in Pattern Recognition. Terry Fallis guides you through the complex (and comical) world of politics in The Best Laid Plans. And in Bottle Rocket Hearts, Zoe Whittall makes mid-1990s Montreal come alive.
To create these worlds effectively, writers need to establish one crucial thing: trust. They have to create complex characters and realistic landscapes that you, the reader, can believe in. Writers arrange words on a page in the hopes of making you think, smell, taste and, most important, feel. Every word spoken, every thought expressed, every action undertaken is carefully crafted and chosen. Dialogue pushes the plot forward, characters face obstacles at pivotal moments, desires and dreams are built up, then shattered, then built up again. Everything must be perfectly rendered.
In other words, writers tend to be control freaks.
For me, the fictional worlds I grew up creating and inhabiting were places to escape to. It was comforting to tuck my teenaged self away in an imaginary landscape of my own making; a place where I held the puppet strings; a place where I controlled everything: what people wore, what they said, what they thought.
The trouble was that my imaginary world always butted up against the real world; the one I couldn't control, in spite of my determination to master the art of mental telepathy. (I'd sit in my high school class with head-quaking, red-faced concentration, willing people to turn around, drop a pencil, scratch an ear. Some of my teachers must have thought I was suffering from constipation.)
Flash forward to 2004: About a month before my book Fruit was published, I turned into a complete basket case. As the publication date approached, a sense of worry and dread began to balloon inside me. I couldn't figure it out. Why was I such a mess? Wasn't this a time to be celebrating? Hadn't I been looking forward to this moment my entire life? I desperately wanted to be published. I wanted the validation of that book in my hands. I was finally going to become an author.
There was just one obstacle: I hadn't considered that people were going to read my book.
Life has its strange paradoxes, doesn't it? A writer can spend so long working on a book and then find himself paralyzed with fear by the thought of someone actually reading it.
Looking back, I realize what I was really afraid of was not people reading the book, or what people would think about the book or about me. I wasn't afraid of criticism or success. I was simply afraid of not knowing what would happen. I was about to send my carefully controlled fictional world into the real world and I didn't have a clue how things would turn out. The control wasn't in my hands any more.
And that scared the bejesus out of me.
I felt something similar when my editor called out of the blue one day to tell me Fruit had been picked for Canada Reads. Suddenly, I found myself on the edge of a cliff. There was a wide expanse of unknown territory in front of me. I was about to be placed on a national platform I'd never experienced before.
I suspect some of the Top 10 authors might be feeling a similar way. Ultimately, what happens past this point is out of their hands. The decision on whether they make it or not to the final round of Canada Reads 2011 rests solely on the discretion of five strangers. More specifically, the five Canada Reads panelists. Five people we don't know yet, but will soon enough.
Losing control isn't always easy, but it does make the ride more exciting.
Brian Francis is Canada Reads' resident blogger. His debut novel, Fruit, was the runner-up in the Canada Reads 2009 debates. His second novel, The Natural Order, will be published next year.