Canada Reads·Magic 8 Q&A

M.G. Vassanji on the sentence that changed his life

The Canada Reads finalist answers eight questions submitted by eight other authors.
M.G. Vassanji is the author of Nostalgia. (CBC)

M.G. Vassanji's novel Nostalgia explores a distant future where eternal life is within society's grasp. When extended lifetimes prove too much for the human brain to handle, people opt to erase their memories for fictional pasts.

Vassanji is a two-time winner of the Scotiabank Giller Prize for his novels The Book of Secrets and The In-Between World of Vikram Lall. Jody Mitic defended Nostalgia on Canada Reads 2017. The book was eliminated on Day Two of the debates.

M.G. Vassanji answers eight questions submitted by eight of his fellow writers in the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A. 

1. Kate Pullinger asks, "Is there anything in your own life that you would never write about?"

Even if I didn't want to write about something, there's no controlling it coming out one way or another. There are some subjects, I admit, that are difficult. But they have a way of emerging, even if in disguise, when the time is right.

2. Anita Rau Badami asks, "How do you choose your next novel or project?"

​The idea's been there for a while, perhaps a couple of years, in the case of the current novel, 10 years and more, and one day I just decide to take the plunge, come what may.

3. Rachel Cusk asks, "How would you describe your literary style?"

​Precise, not flowery; lyrical at times without (I hope) being overwraught.​

4. Nazneen Sheikh asks, "Have you ever been frightened by what you write? How and why?"

​Not frightened but nervous. For one novel I thought I might bear the wrath of fundamentalists — Hindu and Muslim. No such luck. ​Sometimes I get nervous about being misunderstood by those close to me.

5. Heather O'Neill asks, "What's the strangest thing you've done while researching a book?"

I've walked with tomes of books on a blistering winter day, before the days of the Internet; I've visited lonely places and travelled alone; I've slept in strangers' houses; but nothing has seemed quite strange.

6. Padma Viswanathan asks, "What is the place of dreams in literature, or, for you, the relationship of dreaming to writing?"

​If I remember a dream and it's powerful, I might use it. But I think your imagination perhaps overlaps with dream states, so if you give free reign to the imagination, you are not far away from what you might have dreamt.

7. Vincent Lam asks, "At some point in the writing of a book, have you ever had a real low point? What did you hold on to to get out of that place?"

After a particularly long novel I felt low, with a sense of failure. It's too long ago for me to recall whom I blamed then; now I would blame myself to a good degree. It was then I said to myself, "I'm going home now," and began a novel that had been germinating in my mind for a long time. I wrote the first sentence. That changed my life.

8. Frances Itani asks, "When you have presented your work to an audience in the past, what was the question you were not expecting? The one you thought about for a long time afterward, the one you wish you'd answered differently? How would you reply to it now?"

I don't recall this happening to me. My strategy with questions and interviews is to forget them as soon as the session is over.