Books·Magic 8 Q&A

Roberta Rich has a secret stash of Ben & Jerry's, a Fitbit and a formidable mother

The author of A Trial in Venice answers eight questions submitted by eight other authors.
Roberta Rich is the author of A Trial in Venice. (N. Thullner)

Roberta Rich draws her bestselling historical trilogy to a close with A Trial in Venice. Set five years after the conclusion of The Harem Midwife, Rich sees her protagonist Hannah headed back to Venice and searching for her kidnapped son.

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

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

Writers are archaeologists who dig through their own emotional middens to unearth stories and feelings that have elicited laughter, tears, regret and love. Experiences that affect a writer will affect a reader. In my writing life, I favour large dramatic events. By contrast, my private life has been relatively calm and peaceful.

I do what I suspect many writers do, which is to take a relatively minor event and make it larger. So, for example, the loss of a beloved dog can be the basis of writing about a character's grief over the death of a child.

I often use settings I am familiar with. In the book I'm working on now, set in New York City, I have used my childhood home as the scene of a murder.

2. Alan Bradley asks, "Does the act of writing ever have a physical effect on you? If so, describe it."

I have never been asked this question. I like it. I find writing exhausting. Mental concentration can be as wearying as physical exertion. It also makes me hungry.

After three hours of staring at a computer screen, I feel a fatigue so numbing I can hardly walk to the fridge for that litre of Ben & Jerry's I have squirrelled away behind the frozen peas.

Sailors used to have a saying: "A tooth for every voyage." (To scurvy, I suspect). With each book I gain five pounds.

3. Karen Solie asks, "Do you listen to music when you write, or do you require or prefer silence? Can you work in cafes? Do you have a choice?"

I require complete silence. Good luck finding that. At this moment, I am writing in Colima, Mexico where I live for the winter. Our house is in the centre of town in an old neighbourhood, which by Mexican standard is noiseless. But there are chickens outside my study window including two extremely sexually active roosters (Hopalong and Brad III), fireworks, church bells, the sound of someone sweeping and my dog, barking at the roosters to pipe down.

I listen to music when I am cooking or washing dishes, particularly Jimmy LaFave — my much-loved song being "Bad Bad Girl" or Sixto Rodriguez's "I Wonder."

4. Lori Lansens asks, "If you could have dinner with one of your literary heroes, living or dead, who would it be? Where would you eat? What, besides books, would you talk about?"

I would invite Elizabeth Berg, Mary Karr and Jeannette Walls. We would eat in a Italian restaurant. I would order something impossible to spill or dribble on myself. We would talk about everything except current politics.

5. Nazneen Sheikh asks, "Do you have set writing hours?"

I write in the morning. If I don't get cracking by about 10:00 a.m., the day gets away from me and I find by 4:00 p.m. I have written nothing and am consumed with self-loathing. I keep a record of my word count, at least when I am pounding out a first draft — measure what you seek to improve. On this theory, I also wear a Fitbit, even to bed in case I have to get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom.

6. Paul Yee asks, "Do you think writing is a talent that you're born with or is it a skill that can be learned?"

Writing is a skill like playing an instrument or drawing or painting or riding horseback. The basics of the craft can be taught. With persistence, most people can become competent. But even doggedness cannot overcome a dull mind or a clumsy body. To excel at anything you need a modicum of talent.

Aristotle said it succinctly, "I can teach any thing but a gift for metaphor." Who am I to disagree with him?

7. Ausma Zehanat Khan asks, "What role does your mother play in shaping your female characters?"

My mother was a formidable woman who died at 93. But she was a famous beauty and had a quick, if wounding, wit. I don't believe I have ever used her in developing a character.

8. Edward Riche asks, "Readers want redemptive endings, do you give it to them?"

I like a redemptive ending myself. I am very moralistic, something that didn't become clear to me until I started writing. I am firmly of the view that evil should be punished, and good should be rewarded. But having said that, even fictional characters can't always get what they want. In my new book, A Trial in Venice, Hannah, my protagonist, did not achieve what she suffered so mightily for. I feel badly about that, but given the social mores of the 16th century, I couldn't find a way to make her completely happy.


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