Books·Magic 8 Q&A

Emil Sher on the keys to literary fame and glory

The author of Away answers eight questions submitted by eight other authors.
Emil Sher's picture book Away was nominated for a Governor General's Literary Award. (Rafael Goldchain)

Emil Sher's picture book Away, which is illustrated by Qin Leng, captures the anxiety of a familiar rite of passage: being away from home for the first time. Sher is also a playwright, having adapted Hana's Suitcase and The Boy in the Moon, and a young adult author. His YA novel Young Man with Camera was nominated for a Governor General's Literary Award.

Below, Sher tackles CBC Books' Magic 8 Q&A and answers eight randomly selected questions from eight different authors.

1. Kate Pullinger asks, "What relationships does your writing have to your own childhood, both in terms of where you grew up as well as whether or not you were a happy child?"

My childhood doesn't inform my writing directly, by which I mean I don't spin moments or experiences from that chapter of my life into the fabric of the stories I tell. How it impacts my work is in the singular memories I have of the impression books left on me as a child and how I strive to do the same for readers who surrender to the worlds I've created. And it's because the joys of reading were stitched into my childhood that I look back on those years with a sense of fullness.

2. Paul Yee asks, "Do you think it's harder to write funny stories than serious ones?"

An age-old debate, which spawns another question: why don't we take humour writing as seriously as we should? We tend to see humour as carrying less weight than literary fiction, as if the two are mutually exclusive. But I digress. I do think it's more of a challenge to craft a story that makes us laugh. If writers filter the world from a perch where we're on the outside looking in, humorous literature requires an additional lens. You have to dig that much deeper to reveal the foibles and fallibilities that make us so utterly human, so laughable in our vain attempts to control our fate, to get things right when things are destined to go wrong, over and over again.

3. Charlotte Gray asks, "Do you think creative writing courses encourage or discourage originality?"

I've often pondered a question related to this one: can you learn how to write or do you have to have an innate talent that can be nurtured? More to the point, what role can a creative writing course play in a writer's growth and development? It would be a small-minded writing instructor who quashed originality. My assumption is that every writer has something original to say and that the best writing course would not only draw those stories out but equip writers with the tools to share them. My experience is that writers in a creative writing class can have as much impact as the instructor, by which I mean the stories crafted by one's peers can truly inspire... or reveal the potholes to avoid. This is a roundabout way of saying that I believe that in the right environment (this is the instructor's responsibility) creative writing students of all stripes can inspire originality.

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

I can't recall being frightened by a moment or passage that I've written but I do remember feeling frightened for a character. Perhaps that's the same thing, but I suppose I'm drawing a distinction between writing that elicits fear in me and writing that puts me in the shoes of someone enveloped in fear. I have had those moments, an encounter between two characters where one feels his or her insides have been excavated.

5. Yann Martel asks, "What's the favourite sentence (or scene) that you've written?"

In this excerpt from Young Man with Camera, a young adult novel, T—, the story's protagonist, is gearing up to help his best friend Sean bury his dog, Watson:

We spent half an hour sharing Watson stories. We could have spent another week but I knew we couldn't wait that long. I knew we had to head back to Sean's place and do what Sean didn't want to do. I didn't want to do it either.

If there's something you really don't want to do, it helps to have someone help you not do it.

Not right away.
Not for a while.
Not until you're ready.

6. Xue Yiwei asks, "How much, according to your experience, does a writer's fame rely on luck instead of diligence?"

There's a shopworn quote that may be frayed around the edges from overuse but it contains a truth: "The harder I work, the luckier I get." I believe there's an element of luck to literary prizes: the makeup of a particular jury at a particular time points to one writer that another jury might well have overlooked in favour of another strong contender. But to the degree that recognition and accomplishment go hand in hand, I believe it's diligence that paves the way to fame.

7. Ausma Zehanat Khan asks, "If you discovered a terrible secret about someone that you knew would make for an exceptional story, would you use it? Would you tweak to it protect the person's identity if you knew that weakened the story?"

This raises a compelling question for all writers, regardless of the genre (and here I'm thinking of playwrights): what responsibility, if any, do we have towards those whose personal pain is a ball of clay waiting to be pulled apart and stretched publicly on the page or on stage? I would have serious misgivings about jeopardizing a relationship for the sake of telling an exceptional story. And any tweaks that weaken a story is a tweak not worth making. All this to say, I see the challenge as continuing to till the soil of our own imaginations in the hope we'll one day hatch exceptional stories we started from scratch.

8. Ed Riche asks, "Is there a literary genre that you cannot imagine working in?"

This question brings to mind a conversation I had with a publisher. One always hears of publishers, editors and agents looking for a "voice," and I asked the publisher what that meant to him. His one word reply: "Authenticity." I couldn't imagine writing a romance novel because so much of it would sound utterly inauthentic. And so I leave that task to those who approach the process with the integrity that all storytelling deserves.


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