Books·Magic 8 Q&A

Victor Hugo and Cervantes are cordially invited to Dominique Fortier's next literary reading

The author of The Island of Books answers eight questions submitted by eight other authors.
Dominique Fortier is the author of The Island of Books. (Martine Doyon)

In Dominique Fortier's exquisitely crafted historical novel The Island of Books, a distraught and illiterate artist exiles himself to a monastery and is tasked with copying a manuscript by hand. The book won the French-language Governor General's Literary Award for fiction, and is now available in English in a translation by award-winning translator Rhonda Mullins. 

Below, Dominique Fortier answers eight questions submitted by eight of her fellow writers in the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A.

1. Teresa Toten asks, "Where in the writing process (from first draft to waiting for reviews) do you feel the most vulnerable?"

At the beginning of a book, when you sort of close your eyes and jump and have to figure out, in midair, a way to build a platform to land on, it is difficult to focus on anything other than the fact you don't know how to fly. This feeling takes a while to subside, but once you have built a string of little islands to inhabit, you stop fearing you're going to crash or drown, and you can begin to enjoy the process.

Waiting for reviews is nerve-racking even if it shouldn't be; at that point, there is nothing you can do but try to write again, even if you swore your last book would be the last.

2. Vincent Lam asks, "For you — what does the 'Ultimate Literary Event' look like?"

Romain Gary would be there (I spent most of my youth dreaming of meeting him), as well as Victor Hugo, Marguerite Yourcenar and Cervantes. Even Emily Dickinson would come out to join us for a while. So, basically, a bunch of dead people speaking different languages.

3. Shani Mootoo asks, "Is the writing life a selfish indulgence, a narcissistic quest or a plain crazy way to try and make a living?"

A bit of all three, I suppose. I don't think anyone ever writes purely out of selflessness, for the good of others; there's always the need for a personal journey, an escape or a conquest. And it does feel selfish at times to close the door behind you and spend the day with your imaginary friends while life carries on outside.

4. Dianne Warren asks, "What do you think of the creative writing adage, 'write what you know'?"

I don't understand that piece of advice. Nobody tells actors to play only parts that resemble them, or painters to paint things they have actually seen. In order to stay interested, I can only write about what I don't know.

5. Will Ferguson asks, "Do you socialize with other writers? Why or why not?"

I do. I quite like writers.

6. Jo Walton asks, "What's the most unusual thing you've ever made work in your writing?"

There was a recipe for plum pudding in my first book, very exact and exhaustive: you have to let it sit in the kitchen for months before finally setting it on fire on Christmas day. At the time, it didn't strike me as particularly unusual. More bizarre was the fact that people then actually expected me to prepare it for them.

7. Paul Yee asks, "Do you think writing is a talent that you're born with or is it a skill that can be learned?"

When asked the same question, Amélie Nothomb answered: writing cannot be taught, but it can be learned. That is, the answer won't come from the outside, and you do have to have talent, but there are ways to get better at it. They have to do with reading a lot.

8. Riel Nason asks, "Where in Canada haven't you been yet that you really want to visit?"

It's more of a when. I long for the landscapes, villages and towns of the 19th century. I would love to be able to experience Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland at the turn of the century. And I would have liked to see the Manitoba that Gabrielle Roy grew up in.


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