Books·How I Wrote It

How Rachel Cusk rewrote the writing rules and scored two Scotiabank Giller Prize nominations

The author discusses how she wrote her latest novel, Transit, which is shortlisted for the 2017 Scotiabank Giller Prize.
Rachel Cusk was a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2015 for Outline. She's on the shortlist for the 2017 prize for Transit. (Siemon Scammel-Katz/HarperCollins)

The risk in trying something new isn't always worth the reward, but for author Rachel Cusk, breaking from plot-driven writing has earned her critical acclaim. Outline, the first novel in her trilogy of books that splits from conventional storytelling, follows Faye, a writer, professor and mother who has left her husband. Outline was a finalist for the 2015 Scotiabank Giller Prize. The second instalment in the trilogy, Transit, puts the author on the Scotiabank Giller Prize shortlist once more. In it, Cusk explores themes of identity and isolation.

Below, Cusk discusses how she wrote Transit.

Goodbye, convention

"There was a long period of feeling that I had come to the end of what I guess you would call conventional narrative technique. I wanted to try to describe a different phase of life. Middle age can leave a lot of people feeling like they don't quite believe in conventional structures anymore. Sometimes that's through the very literal process of divorce or dismantling family life or trying to change your reality to some extent. It struck me that it would be very difficult to do that in fiction, without using those same structures. So I wanted to find a new way of writing that didn't necessarily have a narrative. This particular form arose out of that simple decision: the book would have no story to tell, it would have no prior knowledge or that everything that happened would become visible on the surface of the book.

"If I say to somebody, 'I'll meet you at the church on the corner.' I don't need to describe those things. People know what a church is. They know what a corner is. It was a very liberating way of working. I was giving myself permission to be much freer, but asking myself to be much clearer and bolder in the statement I was making."

Writing the rules for anti-writing

"Everything happens before I start writing. I thought about it for a very long time and realized what I wouldn't be able to do and the kind of sentences I wouldn't be able to write. There were a lot of rules involved in doing this. At every point in the past where I might have turned left, I knew I had to turn right.  So it was anti-writing. As soon as I actually started putting this stuff on paper, I realized this was completely uncharted territory for me. 

"I do have an old-fashioned belief in any artistic practice being much more about technique and discipline than many may think. The people who read and look at creative works might imagine it's catharsis and some unconstrained outpouring, but in fact, it's a discipline. So rules work quite well. It makes it easier in a way and the process was a very pleasurable experience for that reason." 

Honouring the plotlessness of life

"I tried to bring the constructs of the novel much closer to an experience of consciousness. The way that conventional narrative works, the consciousness of a character is merged with the narrative undercurrent of the book and in fact, that isn't what living is like. Living is being an isolated eye — being seen but not being able to see yourself. You are looking for reflection in other people and other things, trying to get a sense of who you are from that." 

Rachel Cusk's comments have been edited and condensed.