Books·Magic 8 Q&A

Samuel Archibald on what it takes to be a writer

The Giller Prize finalist answers eight questions submitted by eight other authors.
Samuel Archibald is the author of the novel Arvida. (Frederick Duchesne)

In Samuel Archibald's incandescent collection of stories, Arvida — named for the real Quebec village of the same name and Samuel's hometown — the facets and facts of small-town life frequently push against the realm of reality.

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

1. Susan Juby asks, "What was the most memorable, good or bad, reader comment you ever received? How did you respond?"

Since I mixed a lot of facts and fictions in Arvida, some people got confused about what was real and fictitious in the stories, especially relating to their own lives, sometimes convincing themselves that tales of small-town crime, family feuds and abuse were actually about them. Some people came up to me, after readings or at book festivals, to rectify some facts in stories I had entirely made up. 

2. Joy Fielding asks, "How do you go about creating believable characters?"

Through empathy, above all things. That's the one quality a writer cannot lack. 

I like to think of myself as a method writer. I spend a lot of time trying to put myself in other people's places, I write about people and types I know well and I often conduct lengthy conversations with people I know to get the basis for a story or make sure I get the details right. 

3. Joan Clark asks, "What part does the subconscious play when you are writing fiction?"

An important one. For me, it's a reservoir of unspeakable truths, gargoyles, secrets and mysteries; something you must channel in order to add some eeriness and profundity to your writing. I never consider a short story finished until there are a few things in it that I don't quite understand or that I could not readily explain. 

4. Erin Mouré asks, "Do you like winter?"

I love winter. It's the season where everything gets beautiful. 

5. Nino Ricci asks, "Do you ever actually reread your own books after they are published, apart from the sections you read over and over again at public readings?"

Yes, I do. I like to reread books from time to time, and mine are no exception. 

6. Drew Hayden Taylor asks, "Do you think you or your books would have been successful, say, 50 or 100 years ago? Or has the style of writing changed too much in the passing decades?"

The style of writing has changed a lot but, just as I am still amazed to read tales by Maupassant or Henry James, I think that maybe there is some sort of timeless quality to some of my stories that could make them understandable for readers from 50 years ago (or 50 years from now). 

7. Patrick deWitt asks, "What is the least useful writing advice you ever received?" 

Write from the heart, or with your guts. Good fiction, for readers, can be heartbreaking or gut-wrenching, but any way you look at it, writing is still something you do with your head. It's about finding ways of conveying and inducing emotions, not about the blunt expression of good, sad or hard feelings. My cold-hearted two cents, anyway.

8. JJ Lee asks, "Superman or Batman?"

Superman. Basically, Batman is just an angry rich kid with toys. Superman, he's a gifted boy, with a good heart, and he was born at the end of nowhere. In some way, I can relate.