Books·Magic 8 Q&A

Deborah Willis on déjà vu and unconventional thinking

The author of The Dark and Other Love Stories answers eight questions submitted by eight other authors.
Deborah Willis is the author of The Dark and Other Love Stories. (Darshan Stevens)

Deborah Willis's first book, Vanishing and Other Stories, was nominated for the Governor General's Literary Award for fiction in 2009. Now Willis is back with The Dark and Other Love Stories, a collection of strange tales that explore the depths and fringes of human attachment.

The Dark and Other Love Stories was longlisted for the 2017 Scotiabank Giller Prize.

Below, Willis answers eight questions submitted by eight of her fellow writers in the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A.

1. Karyn Freedman asks, "Is it important for you that your characters adopt a moral viewpoint that you endorse?"

No, that's not essential to me. Characters are like real humans, in that they come in all types. And some stories need a villain — where would we be without Lady Macbeth, Iago, and other terribly flawed fictional individuals? I need to be able to understand my characters, to see them as complex and vulnerable, but I don't need to agree with them.

2. Xue Yiwei asks, "Would you feel comfort with the success of your book translated into a language you have no knowledge of?"

Oh definitely! I think that would be delightful. My first book was published in Hebrew and Italian and to my shame, I can't speak those languages. But I was told by readers that the translations were excellent. Translators are wonderful artists in their own right; I feel grateful any time one of them wants to put effort into my work.

3. Bill Richardson asks, "Have you ever regretted dedicating a book to someone?"

Ha! No, I haven't, but I can see how that could happen. Dedicating a book to someone is like getting a tattoo of their name on your bicep.

4. Elisabeth de Mariaffi asks, "Are you a dreamer? Do you remember your dreams — and if so, are they notions or vivid with detail? Do you have a recurring dream?"

I sometimes have anxiety dreams, though never recurring ones. Recently I dreamed that no one attended my book launch and I was standing beside a towering stack of books that would never be sold. But I'm not sure if my dreams are particularly vivid. What I do have lately is a high incidence of déjà vu. What is that? What does it mean? No matter how often I look it up, I never find satisfying answers.

5. Bill Waiser asks, "Do you work from an outline or freestyle?"

Freestyle forever! I think this makes the longer form of the novel more difficult for me and it means that the work takes a long time. But I love to be surprised by own characters and their actions. That way I can be sure that the reader will be surprised too.

6. Emma Donoghue asks, "What quality or tic in your writing, or flaw or dearth in your works as a whole, makes you blush?"

I might like dashes too much — I just think they're such a useful, elegant form of punctuation. And sometimes I think my work can be overly dark, though recently I gave up eating sugar and now I feel happy all the time. So now I wonder if my work will be affected by my diet. Will my fiction become overly cheerful?

7. Sharon Butala asks, "What do you think of the age-old notion that the best writing comes out of a life led outside the bourgeoisie, where so-called 'rules' of normal middle-class life are deliberately broken and impulse is your guide, rather than duty or convention?"

I don't agree with any rules. Alice Munro proved that genius can flourish in the "conventional" life of a wife and mother. George Saunders was a technical writer, geophysical engineer and is now a professor of creative writing — so I assume he hasn't been down-and-out or ever thrown out the rules of middle-class existence. But his writing is fabulously original. What is probably more essential is that writers be unconventional in their thinking, that they question the structures of our socioeconomic system and our conventional moral biases. But the idea that impulse must be one's guide in life, just as experimentation is in art, seems to me to be a convenient excuse for having affairs or addictions.

8. Russell Smith asks, "What is the musical soundtrack to your latest book?"

I don't listen to music when I write, but I associate artists or songs with certain stories. I listened to Górecki's Symphony of Sorrowful Songs when I was travelling in Russia and researching the country for one of my stories (even though Górecki was Polish, the music seemed to fit my mood and the weather and the atmosphere of St. Petersburg). I listened to "Beeswing" by Richard Thompson when writing a story about addiction. And when I was writing about girls at summer camp, I listened to the music that was played when I was a kid at camp in the '90s: Ani DiFranco, R.E.M., The Tragically Hip.