Books·Magic 8 Q&A

Madeleine Thien just described our dream literary dinner

The Governor General's Literary Award winner answers eight questions submitted by eight other authors.
Madeleine Thien is the author of Do Not Say We Have Nothing. (Babak Salari)

Madeleine Thien's latest novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, centres on three gifted musicians whose lives are profoundly impacted by the political shifts of 20th century China, including Mao's Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square protests. The novel won the 2016 Governor General's Literary Award for fiction and the Scotiabank Giller Prize, and was a finalist for the prestigious Man Booker Prize.

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

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

I'd like to write a libretto or a cantata. I'd like the words to be necessary but secondary to the music.

2. Jane Urquhart asks, "Is there a difference in the way that male and female writers are valued by the literary establishment and by society?"

Short answer, yes, with positives and negatives for everyone. But the values of the literary establishment or society don't have to be ours. And, also, values are fluid.

3. George Bowering asks, "If someone publishes a book you had not finished writing at your death, is that okay?"

Yes, but it should stay unfinished and messy. (How thrilling to think that after I'm dead I won't have to apologize for it.)

4. Anita Rau Badami asks, "Looking back, can you pinpoint the moment when you decided that you would be a writer? Is it something you had always wished to do?"

It sounds mad, but I think it was the day I learned to read. Maybe that says more about how much I loved (and needed) reading itself.

5. Peter Robinson asks, "Can writing be taught?"

I think new ways of perceiving can always be found. I also think we can learn about language the way we learn about cellular structure, musical architecture or how to make oil paint. But seeing the world, listening to it, desiring it, troubling it... I think those qualities can't be taught, they are pursued with different degrees of obsession.

6. Lori Lansens asks, "If you could have dinner with one of your literary heroes, living or dead, who would it be? Where would you eat? What, besides books, would you talk about?"

Oliver Sacks. We'll talk about music and language and neurology and the future and what it's like to have passed through this life, to have completed it. I'll ask Cathy, my cousin in Melbourne, to cook Malaysian-Hakka food.

7. Nazneen Sheikh asks, "Have you ever been frightened by what you write? How and why?"

Not frightened, but deeply uneasy. Maybe because a passage has gotten too close to something I'd rather not see. Or because I'd rather not know what part of myself — of my mind, consciousness or memory — certain words come from. But that's the nature of art, it scrapes up against those ugly places and concedes their existence. Which is very different from performing, fetishizing or objectifying that ugliness, resulting in something closer, along the spectrum, to spectacle rather than art.

8. Tomson Highway asks, "What keeps you going — first as a writer, and second as a human being?"

As a writer: stubbornness, love, habit, obsession. As a human being: this is a question I often ask myself, and I don't really have an answer. Writing keeps me going. I don't want to be done with the world before it's done with me.