Books·Magic 8 Q&A

Frances Itani on hearing voices... and trusting your own

The author of Tell answers eight questions submitted by eight other authors.
Frances Itani is the author of the novel Tell. (Norman Takeuchi)

Frances Itani is the author of the novel Deafening and its follow-up, Tell, which was shortlisted for the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize.

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

1. Lorna Crozier asks, "If you could write in any room anywhere in the world, besides your own writing room, where would that be? Please describe it."

I would be at the sea, any sea, in a small, comfortable room. The broad expanse of window would look out over dunes and marram grasses, sand formations and ever-changing waves. I would be safe in this room. I would have a small Fafard horse, a running horse, full of movement, on the floor or on a table beside me. On the walls, I would have a watercolour by Molly Bobak, blue lupins, perhaps; an oil by Shadbolt; a mask by Norman Takeuchi. I would have silence. No one would be able to reach me to tell me their troubles.

2. Andrew Pyper asks, "Have you ever been surprised — deeply and honestly shocked — by the violence of a reader's reaction to your work, whether positive or negative?"

Not violence, but vehemence, perhaps. I was surprised to receive an anonymous letter that arrived by post during one of the terms when I worked as a writer-in-residence. The letter was partly typed, with printed lines from a newspaper pasted in and around words. No name, no signature. A cowardly missive from a disgruntled person who decided to attack my work.

3. Shauna Singh Baldwin asks, "What did you learn from writing one book that you have used/can use/will use when writing the next?"

Trust. I've learned to trust my experience as a writer, to give it value. I trust that problems in a current manuscript will work out, that I am capable of finding solutions, that the storyline and thematic destination will inevitably be discovered. I trust that along with the joys and sorrows of my characters, the absurdities of life will also be revealed.

4. Zsuzsi Gartner asks, "Why do you write what you write and the way you write it?"

I choose to follow voice: the voice I might know, the one I would like to know, the one that is necessary to the story. I write about concerns I have for certain characters. In my new post-war (1919) novel, Tell, I have brought forward four minor characters from the earlier novel Deafening. Even after I finished writing Deafening in 2003, I knew there were back stories that had been left untold. Two married couples had problems to solve. They murmured along their rocky paths until I could finally get to them and intervene.

5. Shani Mootoo asks, "Do you find that you are influenced in any aspect of your writing by other art forms? If so, which and how. If not, why not?"

Oh yes (I love this question!): film, photography, music, dance, visual art — all of these inform my work in a highly personal way. I allow film to wash over me, but also to invade the subconscious. How does film solve its thematic problems? With visual art, I could weep over certain paintings while I'm working. Sometimes I visit a gallery and ask to see a specific painting that might have been put away in storage. And music, well, music invariably turns up in all of my work. I spent four years listening to wonderful recordings of Beethoven and Benny Goodman while writing Requiem. For Remembering the Bones, I listened to Django Reinhardt. With Tell, I paid attention to late Victorian music, attended choral society rehearsals, interviewed music experts, and read the memoirs of Nellie Melba. (All of these were important, because I ended my novel Tell with a 1919 New Year's Eve concert at a vaudeville theatre in a small Ontario town). Photographs, too, inform my work. I study period photographs for detail, pose, dress, attitude, all the little clues that can be found within the tiniest frame. As for dance, the choreography of the late Pina Bausch brings me to my knees. Every time I watch her company dance (or when I see Wim Wenders' Pina Bausch film), I run home and tear into my work.

6. Alexi Zentner asks, "Do you ever bribe yourself to write? What with?"

Dark chocolate. And perhaps one other reward. About halfway through a novel — when it's too late to turn back — I make a vague promise to myself that some day, some year, I'll actually be facing the final page of the novel. "Remember?" I ask myself (silently bribing). "Remember what that feels like?"

7. William Deverell asks, "Claims of suffering writer's block are just excuses for laziness. Agree or disagree?"

I don't experience writer's block. I experience demands on my time (from others). That's the reality I have to deal with. That's what women who are sandwiched between generations deal with. The demands occur, it seems, when the place I most want to be is at my desk. When I am finally ready to write, I fidget, pace through rooms, drink coffee, stare out the window. But I get to it. The work does get done.

8. Cordelia Strube asks, "What makes you believe what you write has worth?"

I don't know this for certain. I just have to believe. If the writer has confidence enough to write, then there is confidence enough to believe that the work is worth something to someone. (And then, think of all those letters that come in from readers. That helps.)