Books·Magic 8 Q&A

Elizabeth Hay on back-seat inspiration and Jane Austen's ghost

The author of His Whole Life answers eight questions submitted by eight other authors.
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Elizabeth Hay is the author of His Whole Life. (Mark Fried)

Elizabeth Hay is author of the Giller Prize-winning novel Late Nights on Air, as well as the bestselling books Alone in the Classroom and Garbo Laughs. Her next book, due out in the fall of 2018, is the memoir All Things Consoled. The book follows Hay's transition from being a daughter to becoming her parents' caretaker.

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

1. Sharon Butala asks, "Writers often use their own life as a springboard for fiction. Could you relate a real incident in your life and then tell us how it got changed into fiction?"

About fifteen years ago, my son asked from the back seat of the car, "What's the worst thing you've ever done?" The question became the starting point for a story told in the first person and the present tense. Then a few years ago, I moved the beginning of the story into the third person, past tense, and it became the beginning of my new novel, His Whole Life.

2. Camilla Gibb asks, "Do you have an unpublished novel lying about somewhere?" 

No novels, but plenty of pages. Piles of pages, in fact, representing attempts at stories that never went anywhere. They often prove useful as raw material for my novels.

3. Jalal Barzanji asks, "Why do you write?" 

I write to keep myself company and to feel more alive.

4. Alison Pick asks, "What is your middle name?" 


5. William Deverell asks, "Ever wanted to throttle an interviewer? Tell me about it." 

I've wanted to throttle myself as an interviewer. During my days in radio I asked some stupidly insulting questions. An interview I did with ex-politician Judy LaMarsh in Winnipeg in 1979 still flames into my mind from time to time. It makes me rather more tolerant of interviewers in general.

6. Alexi Zentner asks, "What's your worst writing habit?" 

Rewriting the first page so often it becomes pathetic.

7. Pasha Malla asks, "How important is it for a country to have an identifiable, national literature?" 

Think of England without its literature. 

8. Frances Itani asks, "If you were to have a silent conversation with a now dead writer, which writer would you choose, and from which period? Or perhaps you already converse with dead writers?" 

Silent conversations with dead writers are the best. I sat at a dinner table next to A.S. Byatt once and could not think of a single thing to say. And it depends what we mean by conversation. In my case, it's more a matter of feeling a wordless presence. So Jane Austen sometimes hovers in the air. Or Penelope Fitzgerald. I wouldn't want them to be ashamed of me. So I try not to be a jerk.