Books·Magic 8 Q&A

Harold R. Johnson on why endings are harder to write than beginnings

The author of Firewater and the upcoming memoir Clifford answers eight questions from eight fellow writers.
Harold R. Johnson is the author of Firewater: How Alcohol Is Killing My People (and Yours). (House of Anansi)

Harold R. Johnson is a former lawyer and writer of fiction and nonfiction. In 2015, he published the sci-fi novel Corvuswhich takes place in a dystopian society where the divide between haves and have-nots is more distinct than ever before in an environmentally-ravaged North America.

His nonfiction work includes Firewatera book about alcoholism in Indigenous communities that was shortlisted for the Governor General's Literary Award for nonfiction, and Clifforda loving memoir centred on his deceased brother. Johnson is of Cree and Swedish descent and lives in Saskatchewan.

Corvus is on the Canada Reads 2019 longlist. The final five books and the panellists defending them will be revealed on Jan. 31, 2019. The 2019 debates are happening March 25-28, 2019 and will be hosted by Ali Hassan.

Below, Johnson takes the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A.

1. Eden Robinson asks, "What is your first childhood memory?"

I was one year old and opened the door to the cabin. When my eyes adjusted from bright summer sunshine to the cabin interior, I saw my mother and my aunt to my right sitting at a table near a window.

2. Louise Bernice Halfe asks, "Do you believe in the spiritual process of writing?"

I do not "believe" in the spiritual process of writing. I "know" through observation and testing that what I write, the stories I tell, the word images I create have spirit to them and manifest themselves in the real (this) world.

3. Susan Juby asks, "What was the most memorable, good or bad, reader comment you ever received? How did you respond?"

I was compared to Jack Kerouac and Don Quixote. It surprised me. I hadn't thought of myself that way before.

4. Oana Avasilichioaei asks, "What are some of the ways by which you enrich/feed the language or languages with which you write?"

I write in English and don't always follow the arbitrary rules of written grammar. I write it the way I would say it and expect a hardrock miner or a lumberjack to understand what I said.

5. JJ Lee asks, "Describe the desk upon which you write."

Solid.

Made of oak, four feet by five and a half feet top, deep dark colour, covered with an assortment of important things like a cup with a broken handle from Harvard University, a tiny painting on an easel, a medicine wheel made from porcupine quills. But it's not the desk that's important. It's that the desk sits in the loft of my cabin and I can see out a window to the lake.

6. Esi Edugyan asks, "Some years ago I read a piece about discussions going in the world of chess as to whether chess playing could be called a sport, given the enormous physical stamina required to sit for so many hours in silent thought. Writing asks a similar physical discipline. What exercise (or otherwise) do you do to counteract the hours of stillness? Do you write standing up, or use a treadmill desk? What physical activity do you do?"

I write for a few hours in the early morning when I am still close to that dream world, then I go outside to play. My ideal day is to write for four hours, then go build something, or go get firewood, or take the dog team out for a run, or cut some logs for my sawmill, or cut some lumber to build something, or go fishing, or trapping or hunting, or gathering berries or mushrooms or medicines.

7. Emil Sher asks, "What roles have editors have played in shaping your narratives?"

I do not rewrite and rewrite and rewrite. I usually send the first draft to the publisher. That rewrite and scratch your head stuff and rewrite and rewrite, that's editor's work. We are what we do. I want to be a writer so I write. I don't want to be an editor so I don't do a lot of editing. The more we practice any craft the better we become at it. I am constantly practicing writing. If I wanted to be an editor I would do the rewrite stuff.

I find that a good editor doesn't change the voice, the work sounds the way I would say it. If an editor changes the voice in even a small way, I notice because it doesn't sound true.

8. Esta Spalding asks, "Which is harder for you — the beginning of a piece of writing or the ending? And why?"

The ending is definitely harder.

I get an idea and start writing it. It never goes where I thought it was going to go, then before I have exhausted the story, I have to figure out how to end it and the ending sometimes doesn't want to cooperate, the story wants to keep going and going and I have to say 'enough now, let's put this to rest.'

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