Books·How I Wrote It

'It wasn't a joyful process.' — Gurjinder Basran discusses writing her sophomore novel

Gurjinder Basran began writing Someone You Love Is Gone, which explores a daughter's grief, while her mother was ill.
Gurjinder Basran's debut novel, Everything Was Good-bye, won the 2011 Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize. (Karolina Turek)

​Gurjinder Basran's sophomore novel Someone You Love Is Gone transports the reader between present-day Canada, where a daughter is struggling to cope with the loss of her mother, to 1960s India, where a young woman stands on the uneasy precipice of adulthood. This multi-generational tale explores how grief and loss is unwittingly passed down from parent to child.

Basran, whose debut novel Everything Was Good-bye won the 2011 Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, took a long hiatus from writing this new book while her mother's health was in decline. In her own words, she describes the emotional creative process behind Someone You Love Is Gone.

The 3-year break

"In 2012, I had been writing about aging parents and illness. My mother had been ill. Around the same time, I saw a rerun of an episode from Arthur C. Clarke's World of Strange Powers television series from 1985. I caught the tail end of it on PBS and it was about reincarnation and children who remembered their past lives. After I watched it, I read everything I could on reincarnation because I started to think about how a person's life would change if they had absolutely no doubt they had been here before. It really started there and then, actually, it stopped. For three years, I didn't go back to the book. My mother's illness progressed and other things in life took priority.

"Writing became too difficult. Life was difficult enough that I didn't want to spend any free time examining the topic [of a parent's death]. It was just too hard being in it. Even when I did return to write, it wasn't a joyful process. I remember writing my last book and just being filled with great naïve energy of writing something new and it felt like being in a new relationship. But the second book was almost just like something that had to be done. It was a compulsion that if I didn't do it, it followed me around. When I did do it, it didn't necessarily feel good other than I felt relieved to have written what I needed to write. It was really hard and quite exhausting."

The magic of music

"The only ritual I have is music. Everything I write has a sound or a soundtrack. While writing, I play the collection of music over and over. It's a meditative way to get into that other world.

"For Someone You Love Is Gone, I listened to a band called Alt-J. There's something about their sound that takes you to other worlds. It's always surprising. It can be a little bit angry, but there's a depth to it that really took me inside of grief. A lot of their music feels like grief from another time.

"For many of the parts that were set in India, I listened to old 1960s Bollywood soundtracks. It's quite joyful, but at times melancholy, so for me that really set the tone of the book. Simran's mother has a real sense of hope when she's a young woman, which later turns to melancholy."

Disliking your main character

"I was surprised how much I disliked the main character and how much I kept writing her anyway. That was hard for me — it's challenging to write about things you don't like and then the subject was difficult to begin with. I came to realize I didn't like her because she was honest. She's all of the things that we try so hard to hide about ourselves.

"It was a struggle to get her to the place where you might not like her, but maybe you could understand her. That was the challenge. I think we really don't like her at first because she's grieving so openly and, as a society, we seem to have an issue with people who can't compartmentalize their feelings, who can't get over it quickly or for whom the three days of bereavement leave is just not enough. I think that we don't like her because she makes us uncomfortable. But, is it realistic that a person goes back to work three or four days after a parent dies? Probably not. I think we set up a lot of people for silent trauma and depression because they can't express themselves, but this character is openly expressing and it's something we're just not used to as a culture anymore."

Gurjinder Basran's comments have been edited and condensed.


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