Books·Magic 8 Q&A

The best surprise Jocelyn Parr had while writing her debut novel

The author of the Governor General's Literary Award-nominated novel Uncertain Weights and Measures takes the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A.
Jocelyn Parr is the author of Uncertain Weights and Measures. (Mark Mann)

Set in post-revolution Russia, Jocelyn Parr's debut novel, Uncertain Weights and Measures, follows a promising young scientist named Tatiana, who falls in love with the man she meets in a bookstore the night it is bombed. But when Tatiana starts working in a state-sponsored research institute, she begins to question her relationship and her naivety towards the revolution. The book is a finalist for the Governor General's Literary Award for fiction.

Below, Parr takes the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A and answers eight questions from eight fellow authors.

1. Rudy Wiebe asks, "Why do you write?"

I always tell my students that writing isn't the product of thought but the production of it. I say this because my experience is that my first thoughts on most things don't get me very far, so writing seems to make space for better thoughts, as though the more interesting stuff can only be accessed once the first thought has been gotten rid of. So I guess that's my answer: I write to think, to feel, to create and to get past the hurdle of my first impressions.

2. Ray Berard asks, "What is the hardest thing you find about writing?"

Unfortunately, the hardest thing is finding time. At the beginning of every semester I diligently carve out a few blocks in my week where I plan to write, and I do, for the first few weeks, until the marking and the course planning and the committees take over. Beyond that, it's hard to be honest. Beautiful sentences can be so beguiling.

3. Shani Mootoo asks, "What was the best surprise you had in the process of writing your latest published book?"

It was a surprise that the editing could eventually bring me to something I loved. It also surprised me that once I'd established a clear tone for the book I could then create brand new scenes that needed no editing at all, as if they'd emerged from the book itself, already breathing and full of life.

4. Johanna Skibsrud asks, "What non-literary inspirations inform your work?"

For my past book, I read a lot of scientific literature from the early 20th century. What surprised me most about it was just how literary scientific writing can be. One of my favourite books, for instance, was Santiago Ramon y Cajal's Advice to a Young Investigator, which reads like Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet, but for scientists. I also spent a lot of time in anatomy and specimen museums, like the former Musée Depuytren in Paris, or the Medical History Museum in Berlin.

5. Eden Robinson asks, "What was the most unexpected inspiration you've ever had?"

A four-page article about a Soviet brain museum that was more propaganda than science and more reliquary than anyone cared to admit.

6. Nazneen Sheikh asks, "Have you ever been frightened by what you write? How and why?" 

Occasionally, I've written scenes that come from my own experiences. I'll typically try to alter them in some way, but the essence of them stays the same, which means that they make me feel naked and exposed.
7. Russell Wangersky asks, "Which do you like better? The heady rush of the first draft, or the controlled precision of the edits and re-edits? Why?"

Absolutely the edits. My first drafts are the worst!
8. Nino Ricci asks, "Do you think you would be a better writer if someone just gave you a big whack of money and you didn't need to worry anymore about earning an income?"



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