Books·Magic 8 Q&A

Michael Winter on swanky sunglasses and underground semicolons

The Canada Reads finalist answers eight questions submitted by eight other authors.
Michael Winter is the author of Minister Without Portfolio.

Michael Winter is no stranger to the world of literary awards — he's been nominated from everything from the Scotiabank Giller Prize to the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. (He's also a former winner of the CBC Short Story Prize.) His novel Minister Without Portfolio was a finalist for Canada Reads 2016, defended by former WWE wrestling champion Adam Copeland

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

1. Vincent Lam asks, "Does your personal relationship with your characters change over the course of writing a book? If so, how?"

I tend to look for reversals and contradictions. I want Harold to be monogamous, so then he ends up sleeping with three people in one day. Anya loves the colour green but after meeting someone with a brown cat and falling in love with him, she now enjoys the colour brown. I tend to push opposites right up against each other to seek a conversion. Readers like change.

2. Saleema Nawaz asks, "What's the best response you've ever had from a reader?"

A woman handed me a typed-out list of all her favourite lines from one of my books. The list was about five pages. And she had a good eye, they were pretty good sentences. I once did a reading using only these quotes she'd extracted. It was one of the best readings I've ever done.

3. Bill Richardson asks, "Do you truly understand when to use a semicolon?"

I keep a burlap sack beside my desk and, at the end of each day's work, I brush the semicolons off the top of my desk with the side of my hand into the burlap bag. Then I lace up my boots and — the dog loves this bit — I stroll into the backyard and take the spade hanging on a hook and dig a hole and bury the semicolons very deep. You have to make sure they can't see the light or they'll grow back vigorously come spring.

4. Billie Livingston asks, "I usually feel a bit lost when I finish a book. What do you do to distract yourself after you first send off your book to an editor?"

I withdraw my maximum daily limit of $300 from an ATM and ride my bike to Kensington Market. I buy myself a small puff vest that's too small for me and zip it up. It's like the vest is giving me an encouraging hug and whispering to me that everything will be okay. Then I pick up a swanky set of secondhand sunglasses at Courage My Love and try to look cool while drinking a coffee and before taking a number at Sanagan's Meat Locker and choosing a nice prime rib roast. Then I'll have a pint and some Japanese food and buy three magazines and a bottle of Bushmills 10-year-old whiskey, I'll have forgotten the roast along the way, but I'll give a kid on the street $20 dollars if they tell me a good joke. The rest of the money I'll just fritter away. I find that gets rid of the blues.

5. Zsuzsi Gartner asks, "What are you so terrified of?"

One thing. Of someone who begs me to let them love me. And when I allow it, and discover I've been ambushed by love too, then that person decides they can't love me — it's too impossible for them to be in love with me. I find that predicament terrifying.

6. Cordelia Strube asks, "What keeps you writing?"

I'll see something and I want to make sense of it. It can be a physical detail, like nailing down how someone is gesturing, or it could be recording something a person says or, rarely, taking note of an insight I have. For instance, I was just talking to a young woman who was listening on headphones to Korean pop tunes while shoving her hand down a full box of maple cookies. She had just arrived from a student shift at the Honda Plant in Alliston where she applies the decorative garnish to tailgates for the Civic. If I write that description down, I'll remember her when I'm 90. And, maybe, a slice of her will appear in a novel.

7. Timothy Taylor asks, "How important have your other work choices — i.e. the things you've done to make money — been to your literary writing?"

It's important to make friends. And sometimes work has made me fall into friendships I normally wouldn't have found. 

8. Kate Pullinger asks, "Have you ever written anything that you wouldn't want your mother to read?"

My mother often said, in response to my writing, "I'd enjoy it if I liked that sort of thing." Which is as praiseworthy and open-minded as she could get. My mother read everything I've published and never flinched. She's dead now, and she was quite religious and conservative in many ways, but I was always blown away by, for instance, the movies she'd recommend to me. She was full of life and experience and joy and she understood that I was trying to hammer down the truth of the world as I saw it. She didn't agree with it, but she was always interested in hearing my opinion. 


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