Books·Why I Write

Jen Neale on the value of fiction with empathy and compassion at the centre

In this special CBC Books video series, Canadian authors talk about what literature means to them.

'As a writer, having empathy is of the utmost importance.'

In the latest episode of the CBC Books' video series Why I Write, the debut author talks about writing with empathy and offers timely writing advice for emerging authors. 2:49

Jen Neale is a Vancouver-based novelist and short story writer who won the 2012 Bronwen Wallace Award for emerging writers. She wrote her debut novel, Land Mammals and Sea Creatures, in 2018.

Land Mammals and Sea Creatures features elements of magical realism and themes of environmental protection, family, and life and death. It was a finalist for the 2018 Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize.

CBC Books talked to Neale for the latest instalment of the Why I Write series.

Understanding the world we live in

"The themes in Land Mammals and Sea Creatures are about grief and loss. There's also an environmentalism theme lying under the surface. I want readers to take away the idea that preserving life, both for us as a species and us as individuals, is really important. But if we aren't also preserving the quality of life, then it means a lot less."

Empathic engagement

"As a writer, having empathy is of the utmost importance. When you're writing characters, you have to be able to understand how other people feel, otherwise your characters are going to fall flat. 

"In finding your place as a writer in society, it's important to understand where different people are coming from — and how your work fits into that world."

Making it as an emerging Canadian author

"To young writers, I would say find a community of people. Get out to readings and meet your peers. And I know everyone says this, but do read widely and from different voices. 

"Defining success as a Canadian writer can be challenging. I definitely don't think of it solely in terms of book sales. Being able to connect with readers — and hearing that they got something out of the work — means a lot to me."

Jen Neale's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

The CBC Books Why I Write series features authors speaking on what literature means to them. You can see all the episodes here.

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