Canada Reads·Video

The Canada Reads authors answer 5 big questions

CBC Books gathered the five authors with books on Canada Reads 2020 — Jesse Thistle, Megan Gail Coles, Eden Robinson, Samra Habib and Cory Doctorow — for a conversation about what it means to be a writer.

The 5 Canada Reads authors answer 5 big questions

3 years ago
Duration 6:53
CBC Books gathered the five authors with books on Canada Reads 2020 - Jesse Thistle, Megan Gail Coles, Eden Robinson, Samra Habib and Cory Doctorow - for a conversation about what it means to be a writer.

Canada Reads 2020 will take place July 20-23. Over four days, the five champions will bring their diverse perspectives to this year's theme: One book to bring Canada into focus.

CBC Books gathered the five authors for a conversation about what it means to be a writer. Watch their conversation above or read an edited transcript of their discussion below.

The contenders and their chosen books are:

Q: How do you bring focus to personal, social and political chaos in your writing?

Samra Habib (SH): I like to do that by actually humanizing people who are impacted by turmoil and chaos. I like to do that by sharing individual stories and sharing people's fears and their hopes and dreams, which are shaped by events that have happened to them. 

Megan Gail Coles (MGC): So, I suppose one of the things that I'm striving for is a kind of honesty that is at least safer in between the pages of this book than the kind of honesty that I actually want to demand from the Canadian public. I am trying to meet people where they're at and they're not necessarily ready to meet Megan Gail Coles in the street who's gonna demand that they stop lying to themselves about the things that they do. Because they don't deserve that. That's unfair to them. They're just trying as well.

Cory Doctorow (CD): I mean, we've just done 40 years of telling people that everything is about individual responsibility, right? Like, if the climate is changing it's because of your recycling habits personally.

MGC: Lies!

CD: Being able to show where the system starts and where it ends and where the person picks up from there, I think is a profoundly political decision to make.

Eden Robinson (ER): My writing process is incredibly messy. I have a huge nebulous manuscript and I pull it apart and then look at all the pieces and try to see, which one is the most effective. Until I do that, until I focus myself, I can't really focus anyone else's attention.

Jesse Thistle (JT): I like to take the reader and just drop them in the water. Throw them in the ocean and make them swim.

ER: You are that uncle.

JT: And I think through, by just showing life, how it is, that you can expose a lot of the violence of colonialism and the things that are happening in our country. As well as the good things. There are a lot of beautiful things in this country too. You can get to that minutia by just immersing people in worlds.

Jesse Thistle talks to Shelagh Rogers about his best selling memoir, From the Ashes: My Story of Being Métis, Homeless, and Finding My Way.

Q: What is your role as a storyteller?

CD: I write and work on all these super abstract technical issues that are boring and complicated but super important. When you turn these abstract potential future harms into stories — where you're living in the skin of someone who's in the world in which we fail to do anything about it — it helps make people understand what's at stake so that they can act before it's too late. As the problems start to arrive, it gives them a vocabulary for understanding it. Think of how often we use science fiction to talk about what's going on in the world: "That's so Orwellian."

ER: My role as a storyteller is to bear witness and that's a very specifically a Haisla Heiltsuk thing. When you were at a potlatch, your job as an attendee was to bear witness to the events and to tell, to retell it to anybody who asked you about it truthfully.

Cory Doctorow on his Canada Reads contender Radicalized: Four Tales of Our Present Moment, a collection of four SF novellas.

Q: As the famous phrase goes: "The pen is mightier than the sword." How do you wield this power? 

CD: I think science fiction is one of those genres that is really well-poised to intervene in the world because its main gimmick is the contrafactual. What would it be like if a thing were different? What would Walmart be like if it were non-exploitative, right? What would the internet be like if it were non-extractive?

JT: I think as someone who's gone through multiple systems, like the justice system, courts, rehabs, I think my way to show that the pen is mightier than the sword is just to write about those everyday experiences and expose them so people know and understand. If I came out and I was angry about it instead of just presenting it, I don't think it would have the same impact.

Shelagh Rogers talks to 2019 Giller Prize nominee, Megan Gail Coles, about Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club.

Q: What do you wish was easier about writing a book?

MGC: The thing that's very pragmatic and unglamorous and no one really wants to talk about is there's not enough money for writers to write. There never has been and there's less now than there was 10 years ago. And so that first draft is underfunded. Where do you get the time? I had 10, 12, maybe 15 jobs while I wrote Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club. It was stressful.

ER: Yeah and the older you get, the more you get sandwiched.

MGC: Sandwiched.

ER: You got your kids, you've got your parents, you've got community responsibilities.

SH: I don't know, Jesse if you can relate to this, but the psychological trauma that comes with writing a really personal memoir. 

JT: Yes, I do.

SH: Oftentimes when I'm just talking about my book, sometimes I feel re-triggered.

ER: How do you guys even do readings?

SH: It's tough.

JT: A lot of self-care. A lot of spa visits. A lot of playing with my cat. That's how I do it. I don't know what others do.

SH: Seeing your therapist a lot. For me, that's my self-care, just seeing my therapist a lot and saying: "Hey this is, like, you know, I feel a bit re-triggered and, like, yeah, I just need to talk about it and unpack."

Samra Habib talks to Shelagh Rogers about her memoir, We Have Always Been Here

Q: Will you be watching the Canada Reads debates? Why or why not?

SH: Are we watching it together?

JT: I hope not.

MGC: Are you going to get competitive, Jesse?

JT: I don't know if I'll be able to watch it actually.

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