Books·Magic 8 Q&A

Shauna Singh Baldwin on "the seams between scenes"

The author of What the Body Remembers answers eight questions submitted by eight other authors.
Shauna Singh Baldwin is the author of the novel What the Body Remembers. (David J. Baldwin)

The author of What the Body Remembers and The Selector of Souls answers eight questions submitted by eight of her fellow writers in the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A. 

1. Helen Humphreys asks, "What is the best piece of advice about writing that you have ever received?"

For my book The Selector of Souls, the best piece of advice came from Helen Humphreys. We were at a joint reading at the Toronto Public Library and she said it was important to know when to throw out your work and start over. Her words percolated in me and the story that became The Selector of Souls came to life after I threw out three hundred pages, moved the story forward ten years, and started over.   

2. Lynn Coady asks, "Why do you write fiction? That is, why is it your chosen genre? What is it about the genre that you think makes it distinctive and/or important, vital?" 

Imagination can go where experience, history and facts cannot. I believe fiction is vital to enlarging our understanding of those we deem Other, because it alone among all the art forms demands that the "I" in a reader's head be someone else for a while. Fiction is distinctive in that it demands the setting up of a problem and then finding a solution. Real life may allow us to repeat mistakes or evade the hard work of finding solutions, but fiction won't — my characters often surprise me by finding creative solutions in what I consider crushing circumstances. 

3. Vincent Lam asks, "What is your favourite editorial stage, and your favourite type of editorial conversation?"

My favourite editorial stage is when I'm dealing with the seams between scenes, with balance, pacing, story flow. At that point, the imaginative side is almost complete and I can permit my critical side to take over. I am not patient with raw text, particularly my own, and find it much easier to criticize than to create. 

4. Drew Hayden Taylor asks, "Which comes first, the title or the book?"

For What the Body Remembers, the title came in a dream and for the longest time I didn't know it was the title of the book I was writing. For The Tiger Claw, the book came first and I tried several titles. For English Lessons and We Are Not in Pakistan, the titles were from stories that best represented the whole collection. The Selector of Souls had several titles until a long discussion with my husband resulted in this one. Writers in my novel writers group liked that the title takes on different meanings from the first chapter to the last. 

5. Drew Hayden Taylor asks, "Other than writing novels, what other art form (i.e. plays, movies, music, visual art) do you wish you possessed or had a better grasp of?"

I wish could play the piano and the guitar better. I'm learning to write for film, now, since The Tiger Claw has been optioned for film. I want to write more plays.   

6. Pasha Malla asks, "Who is one writer, living or dead, you wish could edit or critique your drafts?"

I can't appoint one person, living or dead! I used to design computer systems and we would choose beta-testers from the population most affected by the problem we were modeling. For The Selector of Souls, which is about two women, Hindu and Christian, with different beliefs who must learn to work together to ensure the survival of baby girls and women, my test readers were spread all over the world. 

After working through their comments, I sent the manuscript to my wonderful editor, Anne Collins at Knopf Canada. She shared my vision, entered into it, read and — this is key! — reread the manuscript several times to polish it at every level. Anne is a GG-winning writer turned editor. She has a great sense of voice, and a well-honed sense of the time management and pacing required to tell a story. Her questions inspire creativity. I would be delighted to work with her again. 

7. Pasha Malla asks, "How important is it for a country to have an identifiable, national literature?"

I think it's important for a country to have identifiable writers who comment on the world. Fiction shows relationships and increasingly, those relationships are cross-border. 

8. Shyam Selvadurai asks, "What is the hardest thing about being a writer?"

I became a writer the day I took responsibility for my words by signing my name beneath them. And since my first publication in 1992, some have liked my work, some have not. Some have even sent hate mail. But once a book is printed or an article published or an email sent, I can't take a single word back. So I feel that emerging from the anonymity of a crowd and claiming words by signing my name was the first step, and the hardest. The prospect of claiming my words goads me daily to try and write better. 


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