Books·Magic 8 Q&A

Nazneen Sheikh on the power of bedtime stories

The author of The Place of Shining Light answers eight questions submitted by eight other authors.
Nazneen Sheikh is the author of The Place of Shining Light. (

A fast-paced adventure/thriller/spiritual quest, Nazneen Sheikh's The Place of Shining Light takes the reader from Pakistan to Afghanistan to Islamabad in search of a sacred 5,000-year-old statue.

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

1. Andrew Pyper asks, "Have you ever been surprised — deeply and honestly shocked — by the violence of a reader's reaction to your work, whether positive or negative?"

Yes, from a family member when my first novel, Ice Bangles, came out. It was a negative response and what shocked me was that it created a dossier of gossip which I gather still floats around.

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

The continuity in the storyline worked. I had three protagonists with very baroque life histories. Yet I had to flesh them out so the reader would understand their behaviour and responses to events. Decisions needed to be made as each one could have been a complete novel. I had to exercise creative restraint and was amazed that it worked.  

3. Sharon Butala asks, "Someone once said to me, 'It's a sin not to write,' meaning that if you have the gift you do not have the right not to use it. Is writing something given to you by the gods and thus it is your duty to pursue and develop it?"

I have mixed feelings about the first part of the question. There is no "sin" in not writing despite having the talent to do so. I do believe that writers are born and not made. However, writing is not a duty but a deep pleasure and, yes, a form of brilliant insanity.

4. Joy Fielding asks, "How do you go about creating believable characters?"

You have to have an intimate knowledge of them. I draw upon life. People fascinate me. When they do I become a stalker. I once told a man "You are a bloody book" and a year later inserted him in a novel. 

5. Patrick deWitt asks, "What is the last thing you read that made you feel actually jealous?"

I experience many emotions, but jealousy has never been one of them. I admire, wax lyrical and get obsessively rapturous, but never get jealous about an author's work. I was raised in a culture where, if one lost, then one immediately shook hands with and complimented the winner. Finally, anyone's literary success becomes part of me as well. I loved Undermajordomo Minor, Patrick. For a while I became Lucy.    

6. Erín Moure asks, "Do you like winter?" 

Ha ha! Hell of a question. Yes, I love the bracing effects of the cold. The snuggle factor. It is good for writers. Sometimes the heat turns your brain into mush. That must not happen! At least not for me.

7. Karen Solie asks, "Has a mentor or teacher profoundly influenced your writing or decision to become a writer? Who is this person and what have they taught you?"

I would say there have been three. First was my English teacher at school. When we handed in weekly essays, she would read mine out to the class. That was the first inkling but I was too young. For one year, my mother was missing from my life as she had gone abroad for her Master's degree. An aunt would visit and tell me the most incredible bedtime stories. I was enthralled. I instantly wanted to write them out. Then came my literature prof at university, who accused me of being a dilettante. That seemed to hurt my pride so I surprised her one day by actually mailing her a short story.

8. Dianne Warren asks, "What do you think of the creative writing adage, Write what you know?"

I think that is correct up to a point, yet fiction gives you that wondrous ability to transport and change at will. Knowing is not enough; one has to have a riotous imagination as well.


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