Books·Magic 8 Q&A

Novelist Grace O'Connell on her CanLit heroes and favourite YA fantasy series

The author of Be Ready for the Lightning answers eight questions submitted by eight other authors.
Grace O'Connell is the author of the novel Be Ready for the Lightning. (Phil Rudz)

Be Ready for the Lightning, Grace O'Connell's latest novel, swings tempestuously between a tense past and violent present. The book revolves around Veda, a young woman who is taken hostage on a New York City bus, and the story of why she left her family, job and friends behind in Vancouver.

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

1. Eden Robinson asks, "What is your first childhood memory?"

I am notorious amongst my family and friends for having a terrible memory, especially of childhood, but I think the first thing I remember (that can't be traced to just having been told about it and internalized the telling) is the way the headlights on my parents' car lit up the unpaved road to the cottage we had when I was a kid. We'd always arrive in the dark because the drive was long, and the feeling of the bumpy road, and the way the light looked so buttery and thick and private, insular somehow, in the very dark darkness was all mixed up with a feeling of homecoming and safety and family. It's more of a feeling than an image, but every once in a while, when I'm driving in the country in the dark, the light will look a certain way and the memory will ping a deep dive of feeling.

2. Michael Christie asks, "What is the book you're most embarrassed to admit that you love?"

My truly honest top 10 favourite reads would include a heavy helping of YA fantasy. Specifically two of the early series by Tamora Pierce: the Wild Magic quartet and the Song of the Lioness quartet. It's not embarrassing, exactly, because she's an absolute titan of the YA scene and deserves all the respect in the world, but it's not what an adult novelist is expected to love. But those are the books I go to when I want the best of the best in storytelling — her plots are flawlessly constructed, her characters are so alive. I could read those books a thousand times and not get tired of them.

3. Vivek Shraya asks, "Who is a Canadian writer you aspire to write like and why?"

There are so many! Lisa Moore for gorgeous sentences and emotional depth, Timothy Findley for amazing depictions of madness and grief, Alice Munro for building worlds within paragraphs. Kathleen Winter for deep empathy and unexpected beauty. Robertson Davies for dry humour and totally unexpected, wild plots. Margaret Atwood for perfect similes and deeply human characters. Brian Francis for huge range and a keen emotional understanding of people. I'm sure I'm forgetting favourites, but that's what springs to mind today.

4. Nick Cutter asks, "How much of your fiction have you mined from your own life? If so, has it ever gotten you in trouble?"

Not much, to be honest. I'm a cagey lady — it makes me itchy to think of people seeing me up close, so autobiographical work is my personal hell (not reading it, which can be fantastic, but writing it). Plus I think my writing is the most interesting part of me — my life wouldn't make a very good book. That being said, it all leaks in, doesn't it... she said, cagily.

I did write one short story that was heavily, literally autobiographical and I was actually very proud of the result. I added plenty that was simply made up, but there was a significant amount of truth to it. I asked the other person involved and he gave permission before I published.

I have had people in my life though see themselves in my work where it wasn't intended. Once someone is convinced they are the basis for a character or a plot point, you'll never talk them out of it, in my experience.

5. Michael DeForge asks, "How often do you feel jealousy towards other writers? Do you feel guilty about it?"

Is this a trick question? Is there a writer alive who doesn't feel jealous of other writers? Oh God, maybe there is. I wouldn't say often, but certainly I've felt jealous many, many times. But, instead of guilt I have a "good wallow" rule for jealousy or rejection or a bad review: I let myself have a good, temporary wallow and a nice, satisfying rant to an unlucky loved one (or two), and then that's that. You have to let it go or you're not going to make it through a whole life of writing; you'll go nuts. It helps when good things happen to nice writers. The wallow is a little longer when good things happen to jerks.

6. Kelley Armstrong asks, "Which has been harder for you: becoming an author or staying one?"

Staying one, because the becoming was something I did with my head down, never really thinking it would happen and was sort of stunned by. Becoming one is crawling through the vents, trying to infiltrate the building where the big party is happening. You do it alone, with no one looking and it doesn't matter how many times you bump your head. But staying one is trying to figure out how to talk and eat and drink and operate once you've dusted yourself off and realized you have actually, successfully, snuck in.

7. Johanna Skibsrud asks, "What are some of your biggest frustrations while you work? In what ways do you continuously fail at what you do?"

The process of writing a novel seems to me, to be: getting a good idea, executing it in a way that falls far, far, far below the way you hoped/expected it to go, and then editing and editing and editing until it's less worse. So the whole process is sort of a long failure with a little uptick of getting a bit better at the end. But I think the Vaseline lens version of your perfect novel, which exists in your head at the beginning, isn't really real. It's hard not to feel that way though when you're deep in the muck of draft three and the ending doesn't work and the characters feel flat and the voice is too distant. Feeling like a failure is a constant challenge for a lot of writers (me included) through the writing process. But most of the ways to define failure or success in writing are illusory and even dangerous to a long, healthy writing life, so I try to chuck as much of that thinking out as I can.

8. Hoa Nguyen asks, "What is your writing area or desk like? Please share a description."

I always like to be comfortable. I mostly write in bed, or on a squishy armchair or lying on a couch. It's probably really bad for my back, but writing at a desk gives me too much to whine about. I need to appease my body so it's not making a fuss and will shut up and let my brain do its thing. So, comfy space and preferably something to snack on. And always alone and at home or in a home-like atmosphere. I've never, ever been able to work in a coffee shop or library or anywhere where there are people. The more alone, the better.