Books·Magic 8 Q&A

Ryan North explains why stories are really 'empathy machines'

The author of How to Invent Everything answers eight questions from eight fellow authors in the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A.
How to Invent Everything is a nonfiction book by Ryan North. (Connie Tsang/Penguin Random House Canada)

You know that feeling when you've travelled to the past, but then your time machine breaks down and suddenly you're stranded in place where bread and penicillin and farming hasn't been invented? Ryan North has just the thing.

How to Invent Everything is a guide for lost time travellers so they can bring the present's modern comforts to them. From steam engines to tea to birth control, North covers a range of inventions to satiate thirst and hunger, cure minor medical conditions and make cool stuff.

Below, North takes the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A, answering eight questions from eight writers. 

1. Jeff Lemire asks, "If you could choose any other writer to write your biography, who would you choose and why?"

Aha, Jeff, you didn't specify that the writer had to be alive! Given this new, more liberating question, I will go with William Shakespeare — if only to see how astounded he was at all things in my life we take for granted. "Forsooth!  You say you can pay monie to fly like a birde through the aire in a metallik tube?"

2. Susan Juby asks, "What gets you through the inevitable hard parts of writing a book?"

For me, it's the fact that I've done it before. I think we all reach the point where we think "Oh no, this project I've started is impossible, I have made a huge mistake" — especially in a book like "I'm going to condense all of civilization down to 450 pages or so" — but once you've been through it once, you learn to recognize that writing projects aren't impossible, they're just really, really hard. And you can work with really, really hard.

3. Billie Livingston asks, "What's the most peculiar thing you've done in order to research a story?"

For To Be or Not To Be (my choose-your-own-path version of Hamlet), the player has the choice to murder Polonius, and then has to cover up that murder. I remember reaching that point and thinking, "Wait, I don't know how to actually get rid of a body!" So I did what everyone does, and Googled "how to get rid of a body." Actually, first I Googled "attention NSA: what I'm about to look up is for a story," then "how to get rid of a body," then "thank you, NSA, for your kind consideration in this matter." I have not been arrested by any Americans, so I think it worked.

Oh, and if you're wondering how to get rid of a body, the answer is "carefully."

4. Kenneth Oppel asks, "Do you resist all distractions during the working day, or welcome (and even invent) them?"

Oh gosh, I'm the worst at this. I like to operate with three monitors going: the main one for writing, and to the left I have controls for music, and to the right I have email. This is extremely distracting. I usually start with this, but once I start to get into the zone, I cover up my email with my calendar — so no new distractions can pop up — and set the music to something instrumental that I can ignore. And then several hours go by like magic! You would think I'd just start with that setup, but I've found I counterintuitively get more done by sort of easing into it.

5. Durga Chew-Bose asks, "What is one of your own, real-life experiences of a plot twist?"

The closest I've had is when I was a kid, when a long-lost uncle suddenly appeared. This guy had not been known to any members of the family for decades. I'm still not entirely clear on what this uncle did to disappear — or to convince us all of his legitimacy — but I was a kid, and I was told it was not polite to ask. So, I suppose this is less of a "plot twist" and more of an "unsolved mystery or at the very least a short story prompt."

6. Yann Martel asks, "What's the favourite sentence (or scene) that you've written?"

It's actually at the end of How to Invent Everything, my latest book. It's a guide for time travellers, so that they can reinvent our modern world — from scratch — no matter what time period they find themselves in. My goal with the book was to write something that (if time travel existed) would be the most dangerous book in the world, because it would allow anyone to rebuild civilization however they choose. Here's how that works out for the reader:

Reading this book has transferred knowledge of humanity's greatest achievements from the palm of your hand to the interior of your mind.  Earlier, we remarked that this text, once stranded in the past, was the single most powerful and dangerous thing on the planet.  That is no longer true. 

You are.

Go get 'em, tiger.

7. Marie-Claire Blais asks, "Do you believe in writers' solidarity for each other?"

I believe that stories are basically empathy machines — reading one is the experience of understanding another person and how they go through and perceive the world — so that makes the job of the writer to be as empathetic and understanding as possible. Which is to say, I believe in writers' solidarity with each other because I believe in writers' solidarity with everyone.

8. Hartley Lin asks, "Of all the things you could do with your life, what on earth drew you to writing books?"

I feel like this answer may be pretty universal, but I write books that I'd like to read but which don't exist yet. If every book I wanted to read already existed, I wouldn't write at all, and it would save me a lot of trouble!