Books·Magic 8 Q&A

Paul Yee on plot twists, dreamless sleep and the ties that bind

The author of Ghost Train answers eight questions submitted by eight other authors.
Paul Yee is the author of the novel Ghost Train. (Wong Photos)

For Paul Yee, the past is always contained in the present. And as part of the Chinese-Canadian community, that often means tales of the railroad and its Chinese builders. Yee's 1996 Governor General's Literary Award-winning young adult novel, Ghost Train, follows a young girl from China to North America in search of her father, a railroad builder. And Yee's original story, "Each Era Has Heroes," revisits this theme as part of CBC Books' "Heroes and Antiheroes" literary series.

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

1. Helen Humphreys asks, "Which of your books is your favourite?"

I like Saltwater City: An Illustrated History of the Chinese in Vancouver because in a work of nonfiction, the focus stays on the people of that place. With fiction, I find there is more focus on me, the writer. But I always say that my writing is really about my ties to a Chinese Canadian community.
2. Graeme Smith asks, "As the American performance artist Laurie Anderson said: 'What I really want to know is: Are things getting better? Or are they getting worse?'"  

No, things aren't getting better because the writing doesn't get any easier. Yet, with each book that gets published I'm glad that my imagination proves itself, always coming through for me.
3. Charlotte Gill asks: "What does your afterlife look like?" 

A dreamless sleep that brings peace at last!

4. Frances Itani asks, "When you have presented your work to an audience in the past, what was the question you were not expecting? The one you thought about for a long time afterward, the one you wish you'd answered differently? How would you reply to it now?" 

The question was "Who do you most want to read your book, and why?" At the time, I gave an answer that sounded like, "My grade 12 English teacher, who was never very impressed with me." Now, my answer would be, "My dad, who died when I was five months old."

5. Cathy Marie Buchanan asks, "Do you know how your story will end when you begin writing?" 

Not the exact detail, but I work toward a twist at the end that will get the reader to quickly review the assumptions that s/he has held all along the read.
6. Erin Bow asks, "Do you love your villains?"

Love is too strong a word. I feel sorry for my villains. They aren't strong enough to stand up against the negative social forces of their world. 

7. Jalal Barzanji asks, "Why do you write?"  

So we don't completely lose the past.

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

I'm greedy, ambitious and very impatient, but also willing to do the work. 


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