Deborah Campbell on the small histories that tell the big stories
Deborah Campbell won the coveted 2016 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction for her powerful book, A Disappearance in Damascus. The book chronicles Campbell's time as a war journalist in Syria and her friendship with her fixer, Ahlam.
Below, Deborah Campbell answers eight questions submitted by eight of her fellow writers in the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A.
1. Saleema Nawaz asks, "What is your favourite part of the writing and publishing process?"
The fieldwork. I love immersing myself in the lives of the people I'm writing about, learning the small histories that tell a bigger story about the world. The great curse of modern life is that people think about themselves all the time, and when I'm doing fieldwork I'm freed from that. It's an act of discovery. Later, of course, I have to sit and think and give form to the discoveries. But in the writing, I also stay open to serendipity, since good writing comes from the same place as good fieldwork.
2. Jordan Tannahill asks, "What is the worst sentence you've written that made its way into print?"
Early poetry, for sure. And I've written a lot of bad sentences since. I like to think I've axed them, or an editor has, before they are published. A sentence is an experiment, and a bad sentence is often a route to a good one, through revision. The ideal is to write sparely and clearly, allowing the sentence to earn its right to be there on the weight of what it has to say. As Orwell said, "Good prose is like a windowpane."
3. Bill Richardson asks, "There is no word in English for the horrible feeling of finding a typo or some other grievous error in your own printed book. What should that word be?"
No words but a scene: Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now, describing "Horror," in exactly Brando's voice. Just to be melodramatic about it.
4. Adam Haslett asks, "Is the solitude of writing more a pleasure or a prison for you?"
I enjoy solitude, but the solitude of writing can be a special kind of hell when the writing isn't going well. But when it is going well, it's better than any feeling. Like all creativity, it's an escape from the prison of the self.
5. Michael Winter asks, "Do you have a writer's outfit? A costume you put on before you write?"
6. Louise Penny asks, "What do you know now that you wish you'd known when writing your first book?"
I wrote my first book in three months and it was published nine months later. I thought it would always be that easy. I wish I had known that most books take much longer and are fraught with difficulties at every stage, and that perseverance is everything.
7. Tomson Highway asks, "What do you think of the Bible as a piece of literature?"
Years ago I had a wonderful professor of Near East religions. She gave an overview of the many anonymous writers, usually known by letters of the alphabet, who contributed to the mixed-bag anthology we call the Bible. The standout contribution would have to be Ecclesiastes. So many great lines. Just to choose one, Ecclesiastes 1:18: "For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief."
8. Anita Rau Badami asks, "Looking back, can you pinpoint the moment when you decided that you would be a writer? Is it something you had always wished to do?"
I think writing chooses you, you don't choose it. I had several pieces published in a small way before I thought of myself as a writer. But it was only when writing became hard work that I knew I was a writer.