Books·Magic 8 Q&A

How First Novel Award finalist Catherine Cooper bribes herself into productivity

The author of White Elephant, an First Novel Award finalist, answers eight questions submitted by eight other authors.
Catherine Cooper is the author of the novel White Elephant. (Jonáš Koukl)

Catherine Cooper's novel White Elephant takes place in Sierra Leone. It follows a Nova Scotian family struggling to adjust to their new home in West Africa. It's Cooper's debut novel and it made the shortlist for the First Novel Award.

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

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

Like a lot of people, I have a hard time working when I'm online. I can always find an excuse to check my emails or "research" something and then suddenly three hours have passed and I'm off on some ridiculous tangent. When I'm writing in a place where there's an Internet connection, sometimes I open lots of tabs with articles I want to read. Then I minimize my browser and tell myself that I can only read those articles once I've written for a set period of time without interruption. It doesn't always work out, and often I just end up reading all the articles anyway.

2. Jalal Barzanji asks, "How did you feel when you finished your most recent book?"

There were lots of times when I thought I had finished it. But it still didn't feel finished when my publisher told me that I only had one more chance to look at it before it was sent to the printer. At that point, I felt a lot of things: worried that there were still things that should be changed, relieved that I didn't have to keep looking for them, excited to move on to something new and a bit sad to leave behind the world that had been such a big part of my imaginative life for so long.

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

I haven't written it yet, but it's the final scene of my new novel. I always love the things I'm going to write most because once they are written down they can never live up to what I had planned for them. The idea of that scene keeps me going through the more challenging aspects of writing this book.

4. Caroline Pignat asks, "How do you know when a manuscript is 'finished'?"

When the publisher tells me it's my last chance to look at it before it goes to the printer. With both of my books, I was still finding things I wanted to change right up until the last moment. I never knew that they were finished, but I did eventually have to accept that they were.

5. Roo Borson asks, "What would you like to do in writing that you haven't yet tried?"

I don't think there's anything I want to try that I haven't tried, but there are things that I don't think I will try again. Poetry is probably one of them. Also blogging or any other form of autobiographical writing. I admire people who can write about their own experiences in ways that feel genuine but when I try it myself I end up feeling like a big phony. I prefer to write about personal things through fiction, where the distance makes it easier to be truthful.

6. Matti Friedman asks, "If you were rendered unable to write, what would you do?"

I'm sure I would struggle because writing is such a big part of how I process things. Then again, I might be more content without the constant anxious feeling that I ought to be writing. Probably I would just focus more on my other passions, especially relating to food and medicine. I already work part-time as a cook, so I would likely spend more time doing that. I hope I would read and meditate more. But I would still find it difficult because writing is central to how I think and communicate.

7. Alisa Smith asks, "If you could pick an era to live and write in, when would it be?"

Now. I don't have any romantic notions about the past.

8. Dianne Warren asks, "What two Canadian writers, living or dead, would you like to see interview each other? Why?"

The first two that came to mind were Leonard Cohen and Mavis Gallant. I don't know if they knew each other, but they would have had an interesting chat.


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