Books·Magic 8 Q&A

RBC Taylor Prize finalist Graeme Smith on dodging bullets and downing iced capps

The 2014 RBC Taylor Prize finalist answers eight questions submitted by eight other authors.
Graeme Smith is the author of The Dogs are Eating Them Now: Our War in Afghanistan. (May Jeong)

The former Globe and Mail correspondent and RBC Taylor Prize finalist for The Dogs Are Eating Them Now lays bare about his lowest point as a writer, why Canadians need to be less polite, and the vice that's made him "skinny fat." 

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

1. Charlotte Gray asks, "What is your Kryptonite?"

Tim Horton's iced cappuccinos: those evil things are so delicious. There was a Timmy's counter inside a shipping container at Kandahar Air Field, and creamy frozen beverages go down smoothly in the summer heat of southern Afghanistan. They turned me into a skinny fat person.

2. Helen Humphreys asks, "If you weren't a writer, what would you be, and why?"

Am I a writer? I'm not sure what my profession is, honestly. I spent a dozen years working for newspapers and now I'm at a think tank, doing research. My guess is that I will spend the rest of my life figuring out what's happening in the world, and what we can do to make it better, and then communicating those ideas. The professional categories don't really matter.

3. Andrew Pyper asks, "Authors often speak of an Ideal Reader they think of as they write, a generally sympathetic kindred spirit who understands and endorses the work-in-progress.  But do you have an opposing presence in your mind sometimes too? A kind of Demonic Reader who mocks and challenges and titters at your efforts, and whom, if the finished book is successful, you look forward to seethingly telling to stick it in their pipe and smoke it?"

As my mother will tell you, I've always enjoyed a good argument. I'd make reasoned cases about bedtimes and the colour of my new bike. That's still part of my personality: my ideal reader does challenge my efforts, because tough dialogue is essential for hammering out good ideas. I wasn't being facetious when I thanked my critics in the acknowledgements of the book; they disagreed with my conclusions about the war, but I thrived on their feedback. Canadians are way too polite in their public discourse, especially on issues of real importance, so it's valuable to find some intelligent demons.

4. Donna Morrissey asks, "What are the biggest hurdles to overcome in your personal life while you're creating a book?"

I've been nomadic for most of the last decade and it took a serious toll on my personal life. I still enjoy travelling, breathing in the smells of new places, but I've developed a craving for a permanent home. I want a place with bookshelves. There's a button on the New York Times website that shows you what you've been reading, and of course I spent the most time in the world news section — but my second-most visited section was Great Homes and Destinations. Embarrassing, but true.

5. 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?"

If you feel the heavens inspiring your work, great. I'm sure that's a nice feeling. My writing is more prosaic. I just pay attention to what I see and hear and smell, and type it up. No particular gifts are required. This reminds me of the way Michael Ondaatje once described his poetry: "It is an artifice, it's a chair, it was made by somebody." I think he was trying to make a different point, but his words stayed with me because I like the idea of writing as craftsmanship. It's hard work, not magic.

6. Vincent Lam asks, "At some point in the writing of a book, have you ever had a real low  point? Can you tell us about that, if you feel comfortable doing so? What did you hold on to to get out of that place?"

When I was listening to my audio recordings of firefights in southern Afghanistan, I found a moment when I had decided to close the door of a British vehicle and take shelter inside — and then, shortly afterward, bullets hit the door. I was very lucky. Listening to the high-pitched sound of the bullets ringing off the armour plating made me queasy. I'm not sure why. There was something about that sharp sound that set my nerves on fire.

7. Kate Pullinger asks, "What relationship does your writing have to your own childhood, both in terms of where you grew up as well as whether or not you were a happy child?"

I was a very happy child, growing up in a small town in rural southern Ontario. I've no idea how that background ended up propelling me into a war zone.

8. Cordelia Strube asks, "Do you think your work will still be around 50 years from now?"

No, probably not. I hope my work is useful to the world, but I expect to be forgotten.