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Exclusive: Nelly Furtado on How Reading Inspires Her Music and How CBC Opens Her Mind

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In the run up to the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize, broadcast live on CBC tomorrow from Toronto at 9pm (9.30 NT) on Bold, and streaming live on CBC.ca/books - we managed to snag an exclusive interview with the multi-platinum Canadian singer-songwriter, Grammy winner and all round superstar Nelly Furtado. At tomorrow's gala, she's presenting one of the six nominated books, Esi Edugyan's book Half Blood Blues, "an electric, heart-breaking story about music, race, love and loyalty, and the sacrifices we ask of ourselves, and demand of others, in the name of art." We spoke to Nelly about the book, how reading inspires her music, and her own creative writing dreams.

How are you enjoying the book?


It's very entertaining. I like it because of the musical aspect, but it just kind of pulls you in. I think if you're into prose, if you're in to a unique perspective then you'll definitely enjoy it.


For anyone that hasn't read the book, please tell them why they should...


It's very colourful. It's extremely visual and really beautiful. The writing style is very unique and fun. It's also historical, a lot of the book is based in Germany, from 1940 - 1945, so you get another perspective of Nazi Germany.


How do you feel about the Giller Prize Gala, the performance by Lang Lang, your fellow presenters and meeting the author?


I'm excited about it! I'm thrilled! Lang Lang is really exciting. I mean, he's such a well loved and amazing performer, and I love Robbie Robertson! I'm a big fan, he's super influential, I love him. It's going to be a lot of fun. And it's interesting, Esi Edugyan studied a creative writing program at the University of Victoria and at one point I was still deciding between pursuing music and doing a creative writing degree, actually at the University of Victoria. I got in to the programme, but I never showed up! I left when I got a record deal and never went back... I believe I'm still enrolled!


Have you ever considered going back to the writing, trying it out again?


Yeah, totally, it's still a dream of mine. I mean, I definitely promised my writing teachers over the years that I would pursue more writing. I recently wrote an article for The Globe & Mail, it was kind of like unleashing a whole other side of my brain that I kept dormant for a little while. I definitely want to get back in to it.


When you're on tour, going from one city to the next, is that when you like to read?


I read a lot. I really love books, you know. I'm kind of excited that one of my favourite authors is nominated at the Gillers, Michael Ondaatje. His books are some of the first books I really truly fell in love with as an adult. Yeah, books can inspire songs. I'm writing my new album right now, and I'm finding nothing creates a better mental stimulation and inspiration than a novel. The last book I read before this one was Isabel Allende, Island Beneath the Sea, and I just thought it was incredible. It's about Haiti in the 1800s, about slavery, about the French. It inspired songs that are on my new album. 


On the road, yeah, I bring a book with me all the time. I read on the plane a lot too, I actually read a lot of newspapers on the plane but I also like audio, I like listening to talk radio, things like that.


Do you listen to podcasts?


No, I've never really got in to podcasts, I probably should!


There are some amazing CBC ones you can check out...


I listen to CBC a whole lot! I learn quite a lot, I think it's about perspective, you know. As a song writer, as whatever kind of writer, in general I think - especially today - things are moving so fast it's great to just get fresh perspectives on things. When you hear a lot of different opinions on different subjects on things going on in the world, be it politics or whatever it is, it's exciting for the brain. It opens your mind and books do the same thing.


This book is set during WWII, and you said the other book was set in the 1800s, do you prefer period books or do you like modern books too?


It just depends, I mean, my favourite author is Paulo Coelho actually. I can relate to him because I really believe that art, while it doesn't have to be, is most wonderful when it attracts lots of people but can be quite profound and life changing at the same time. When it's done right, it can be amazing, and can change people's lives. I think Paulo Coelho's work can do that. I think he's changed many lives, through books such as The Alchemist. That's got to be a valid thing, that's got to mean something. I'm not afraid of things like that, I pursue that in my music too and I always have. The funny part is that I'm reading Half Blood Blues right now, but I was also reading a book by another Canadian author - she used to work for CBC - Karen Levine who wrote Hana's Suitcase. It's about the holocaust, and then this book came to me, Half Blood Blues... I love when that happens! It's exciting, it's like you've gone on a journey without even leaving your bedroom! When I was a kid, you know, books took me there. Locking yourself in your room and just living inside that book. It's fantastic.


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Half Blood Blues and author Esi Edugyen (top), Karen Levine's Hana's Suitcase (L) and Paulo Coelho (R)

The Scotiabank Giller Prize Gala will broadcast live at 9:00 pm ET on Bold at 9pm (9.30 NT) and rebroadcast at 11:05 pm (11:35 NT) on CBC TV.

The gala will also be live streamed on CBC Books with a concurrent live chat.