Books·Magic 8 Q&A

Michael Harris on the importance of being alone

The author of Solitude answers eight questions submitted by eight other authors.
Michael Harris is the author of Solitude: A Singular Life in a Crowded World. (Hudson Hayden)

Whether it's one hour or one week, Michael Harris stresses the importance and benefits that being alone can have. In his latest book, Solitude, Harris takes readers on his personal journey of finding solitude, and how he has been able to reflect and recharge because of it. 

Below, Michael Harris answers eight questions submitted by eight of his fellow writers in the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A.

1. William Deverell asks, "Claims of suffering writer's block are just excuses for laziness. Agree or disagree?"

Agree. But can I switch out "laziness" for "impatience"? I believe that boredom, blank days, lonely walks, etc. are far more productive than they seem. The mind does so much work when we aren't looking. To call that empty space "writer's block" is to lose faith in the longer arc of your work.

2. Zsuzsi Gartner asks, "How do faith and science intersect for you as a writer?"

Whatever sense I have of the sublime (or the holy) comes to me through new scientific understandings. But the revelation itself comes when I'm reading, not writing. For example: the first time I read Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene I felt I could never look at life in the same way again. And I haven't.

3. Shani Mootoo asks, "What was the best surprise you had in the process of writing your latest published book?"

While writing Solitude I spent a week alone at a cabin — no people, no phone, no Internet. And I was surprised to discover that, underneath the mania of daily communication, there was still this little child-writer waiting to be remembered. My 12-year-old self was still happily writing stories at the back of my head.

4. Eric McCormack asks, "Honestly, what does your writing tell you — both the good and the bad — about yourself?"

On good days, my work tells me I can communicate with the dead — that I can join a conversation that's been going on for centuries. On bad days, the same work says I'm retreating from the real world.

5. Jalal Barzanji asks, "How many times do you revise your manuscript before you submit it for publishing?"

I'm always revising. Initially on my laptop and then (once I have something I can call "the first draft") on paper. I tell myself there are three of these hard-copy drafts but the dividing line between one draft and the next is really just the point where the amount of mark-up becomes depressing. Then I input all changes, press print and start again.

6. Paul Yee asks, "Do you think writing is a talent you're born with or is it a skill that can be learned?" 

I think writers become writers because they're dissatisfied at some early stage in their lives. Something about the way people talk around you doesn't sit right, so you become very interested in creating an alternate voice. It's probably easier to be talented — as a writer, a painter, a composer — if you're born with that germ of dissatisfaction. But when I call someone "talented" I'm responding to their craft. And that means their labour — the plain, butt-in-seat work.

7. Yann Martel asks, "Is there a great book that you actually hate? Why?"

I could never hate a book. I barely have enough energy to hate people. That said, there are famous books that aren't my thing: Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep, for example, I find beautiful but boring.

8. Padma Viswanathan asks, "How do others' books figure in your own writing or process?"

I think of writing as a direct byproduct of reading — maybe a kind of pollution. My fingers on a keyboard are like tailpipes, coughing words out as my brain consumes books. That sounds awful but I don't mean it in a negative way. I mean that, in the best of all possible words, my finished books are a response to those other (more beautiful) voices.


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