How I Wrote It

M.G. Vassanji on how an idle thought grew into several big ideas

The author reveals the creative process behind his speculative novel Nostalgia, which was a Canada Reads 2017 finalist.
M.G. Vassanji is the award-winning author of seven novels. (CBC)

In Nostalgia's indeterminate future, humans have discovered a way to live forever by erasing memories and rejuvenating human bodies. In this alternative world, created by author M.G. Vassanji, science has accelerated beyond medicine as we know it today, but society's conflicts are as familiar as ever.

The novel was defended on Canada Reads by Jody Mitic.

Below, in his own words, M.G. Vassanji reveals the process of writing his novel. 

Facing today's problems... tomorrow

"This was an idea I had just sitting on the porch one day. How would it feel to be rid of memories?

"It was just a thought and then the idea grew. If you somehow medically got rid of your past, could you then put in a new past? What kind of a past? Who could afford it?

"The poor cannot afford, even now, the life expectancy in North America. Life expectancy in Canada would be, I think, at least 10 years greater than in some parts of Africa. Maybe 15 years. In the kind of world where you can regenerate organs, a new body and new memories, who could afford it?

"Then, of course, problems like inter-generational conflict come in. If you lived to be 120 years old, there would be a lot of young people saying, 'When are you guys going to die?' because they can't get jobs."

Taking the plunge

"It was not easy. I didn't know where it was going, like many of my other novels. I wrote a couple of chapters. I thought about it. I created my main character early on. Then I changed computers. I lost that manuscript. I started again. I discovered some of these small diskettes and found some chapters. I could use some of the ideas from the past, but I know once you have them, unless you're going senile, they're around somewhere in the brain.

"I was also writing my travel memoir and another novel. I came back to this one and I thought, maybe now's the time to just finish it. With every novel, I will always have ideas and play around with them and do some research. I don't know where it's going, but I'm still working at it. Then comes a time to take the plunge. There's no coming back for me when I plunge. I don't throw it away. I will change it, but I don't throw it away."

Hard copy

"I have to see the whole thing, printed out, bound. Scrolling gives you no sense of length or coherence. I have to be able to go back and forth, write on the backs of the pages and so on. Sometimes I write 10 versions of the book. There were maybe six or seven versions of Nostalgia. I think you know when a book is done when you come to the right ending. This one I had a sense because the book already tells you that in some way he's going to discover himself. The question is: how, and what happens in between?"

M.G. Vassanji's comments have been edited and condensed.

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