Books·Magic 8 Q&A

Governor General's Literary Award finalist Erin Bow may be writing in a garden shed right now

The author of Stand on the Sky answers eight questions submitted by eight other authors.
Stand on the Sky is a YA fantasy novel by Erin Bow. (Studio J, Scholastic)

Canadian author Erin Bow has scored her first Governor General's Literary Award nomination for her YA novel Stand on the Sky

The book follows a young girl named Aisulu who longs to train eagles like the boys in her nomadic community do. Aisulu secretly takes in an orphaned baby eagle when her parents travel to a distant hospital with her brother.

The Governor General's Literary Award winners will be announced on Oct. 29, 2019.

Bow is also the author of the acclaimed Plain Kate (a debut that landed her a six-figure, two-book deal) and the thriller The Scorpion Rules.

In 2017, CBC Books challenged Bow to answers eight questions submitted by eight of her fellow writers. 

1. Zsuzsi Gartner asks, "What role do faith and science play for you as a writer?"

As a writer I'm interested in unsolvable questions, in unwinnable dilemmas. (I tend to make them literal — my "what do we do with our dead" stories have ghosts in them.) I write genre and I write for young people, and I know the reputation of both those things — but I don't like stories that are tidy and easy. Stories are my answers to unanswerable questions. But inside the stories, I often have characters reaching for one of the great toolboxes, science or faith. Or 
both. Through them I am slowly figuring out the answer to this question. 

2. Marina Endicott asks, "Can you love a book written by a lousy human being?"

My hunch is no. I often have such a sense of the author on the page, a sense of a wonderful human being that I feel as if I know and love. (Or, on a few occasions, know and wish I could punch in the nose.) I know this intimacy could be an illusion or a lie, but I would like to believe in it. 

3. Linda Spalding asks, "Did you feel loved and protected as a child? How has this affected your writing?"

I absolutely was loved and protected. It's been a huge advantage for me creatively. What it comes down to is that when my writing is terrible and I feel like a fraud and a failure, I still feel worthy of love. It's enough to get me to the next revision, and thank God. 

4. Drew Hayden Taylor asks, "If you were to have a dinner party, which two characters from everything you've created would you like to have sit at your dining room table and chat with?"

My poetry gives me the chance to pick people like Marie Curie and God, but that feels like cheating. I will stick to fiction.

If I could be confident he wouldn't kill me, Talis (from The Scorpion Rules) would make good dinner company. He's smart and snappy and likes mundane human things like food, mostly for the novelty. You can't make a character who's 500 years old and not want to pick their brains a bit. I have also always had a soft spot for Cricket, the storyteller character from Sorrow's Knot. I love storyteller characters and Cricket is the best of the several I've created. He could tell Talis his own origin story. He could — in his quiet, unassuming way — bring Talis to his knees.

5. Robert Currie asks, "What writers do you read, not only because you admire their writing, but because you think you can learn from them?"

Every once in a while I flip through Tolkien for technical reasons. He can make you feel as if great distances have been travelled or long periods have passed in the space of a page or two. In the early parts of The Lord of the Rings he managed an ensemble cast of nine characters. The last time I put four people in an enclosed space I was tempted to kill one of them to make the blocking easier. 

I am also a big fan of certain realist writers — Alice Munro, Barbara Kingsolver and Mary Gordon spring to mind — who can draw a whole character just by having someone make a cup of coffee. 

I would like to meet Anthony Doerr and find out how he pulled off his collection of short stories, The Memory Wall. Each of them felt like his personal story, the kind of story you write about your people and your hometown — but since they take place across three continents and half a century, that seems unlikely. 

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

Oh, I terrify myself. I terrify myself on a mundane level — my scary stuff scares me. I wrote Sorrow's Knot, which is basically a ghost story, in a literal (rented) cabin in the woods. One night I was sitting in the lighted kitchen in front of the darkened window, unable to see anything of the night but the bulk and movement of the trees, the creak and the quiet. And then someone knocked. 

It also scares me that I can write some of the darker things in my books. After all, I have nothing to work with but what's inside me, and when I read (say) the bit with the apple cider in The Scorpion Rules, I am utterly horrified that that was inside me. 

7. Will Ferguson asks, "If you weren't an author, what would you be? (And don't say architect. Everyone says architect.)" 

I'd be a science writer. In fact, I AM a science writer, with a great half-time gig at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. This lets me combine my otherwise useless education in physics (High-energy particles! Quarks and stuff!) with my talent for writing. It's great. I get to really grapple with terrific ideas at the cutting edge of modern physics, without actually having to put in the work. 

8. Kenneth Oppel asks, "Do you resist all distractions during the working day, or welcome (and even invent) them?"

I have the attention span of a goldfish and the self-discipline of an eight-week-old puppy. I have to be ruthless about paring away distractions. For years I have done my writing in a rented office with no internet, no phone and no doorbell. Alas I've had to give it up, so I am currently winterizing a garden shed. 

Contrariwise, if you ever come to my house and find it spotless, that's a Very Bad Sign.