Books·Magic 8 Q&A

Taras Grescoe on why he'll never be a Canadian senator

The author of Shanghai Grand answers eight questions submitted by eight other authors.
Taras Grescoe is the author of the novel Shanghai Grand. (Katia Taylor)

Taras Grescoe has mastered the art of making the truth sound like the wildest fiction. In his latest book, Shanghai Grand, the author of Bottomfeeder and Straphanger looks into the stranger-than-fiction story of Emily Hahn, a writer for the New Yorker, and her jaw-dropping experiences in pre-WWII Shanghai.

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

1. Zsuzsi Gartner asks, "What are you so terrified of?"

All the time I've spent in the dark and the winter (catacombs and cemetery gates), set against the growing realization that life only offers so much light and warmth (Campari-sodas and sandy toes).

2. Vincent Lam asks, "At some point in the writing of a book, have you ever had a real low point? What did you hold on to to get out of that place?"

Every book has come with its nadir. Fear of litigation for breach of contract is usually enough to get me out of my funk. With Shanghai Grand, it was.

3. Samuel Archibald asks, "Cormac McCarthy once said: 'I felt early on I wasn't going to be a respectable citizen.' When did that realization come to you?"

When I decided to write a book about exploring the psychology of prohibition by sampling absinthe, coca leaves, illegal hooch and other forbidden substances around the world, I briefly mourned the fact that I was forever blowing my chance to be named to the Senate. This was perhaps premature: Had I really wanted to become a Canadian senator, it turns out I should have been doing much, much worse.

4. Lorna Crozier asks, "If you weren't sitting at your desk writing, what would you be doing instead?"

I would be — will be, in fact, later today — playing my part in the compelling drama of life with Erin, Desmond and the newborn Victor.

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

If I'm Superman, I'm the Bizarro version: "Me don't belong in the world of living people!" Not Batman, but a deuteragonist like Red Robin (who Batman caught trying to steal the wheels off the Batmobile).

6. Ian Brown asks, "How much of what you write as a writer is compulsion, and how much is choice?"

My teenage rebellion involved trying not to write. It didn't work. When I don't write — when I don't have the opportunity to make sense — my Id takes the reins and the horsecar of my life derails. That's when there's blood on the tracks.

7. William Deverell asks, "Claims of suffering writer's block are just excuses for laziness. Agree or disagree?"

Strongly disagree. While the Sitzfleisch necessary to write long texts is built up through long habit, there's no guarantee a writer will have a subject worth sitting down for. But then, given the ambient challenges to sustained attention these days, it's a miracle that the muse ever manages to find anybody.

8. Heather O'Neill asks, "What's the strangest thing you've done while researching a book?"

Getting really lost in a Bolivian valley populated by Nazi war criminals and their descendants and stumbling into a cocaine-making operation going full bore. Sure, it made for a good story — but it really, really wasn't necessary.

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