Books·Magic 8 Q&A

Wayne Grady on family history, redemptive endings and the illusion of freedom

The translator and author of the recent novel Up From Freedom takes the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A.
Up From Freedom is a novel by Wayne Grady. (Gerry Kingsley)

Like his first award-winning novel Emancipation Day, Wayne Grady's new book Up From Freedom is inspired by his own family history. At the age of 47, Grady discovered that his father, whom he always thought was white, was a Black man that never shared the truth about his racial identity with his wife or child. Since then Grady has been absorbed in ancestral research.

Below, Grady takes the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A, answering eight questions from eight fellow writers.

1. Lawrence Hill asks, "What do you do to steady your mind (if your mind is capable of being steadied), so that you can shut out the world and write?"

Perhaps because I once worked as a magazine editor, i.e. in an office surrounded by other people, I seem to be able to shut out the world by just sitting at my desk. Mind you, my desk has to have everything on it that I need, besides my computer, so I don't have to get up: coffee, two pairs of glasses, my favourite pens, my phone, dictionaries, all my notebooks from the past few years and something to play with. I am currently trying to repair my reading lamp.

2. Robert Rotenberg asks, "What is the funniest letter you've received from a reader?"

After The Bone Museum, my book about dinosaur hunting in Patagonia and Alberta, a reader wrote to tell me about his own experience in Dinosaur Provincial Park. He wrote about working in the rain, which turns the clay in the Badlands into gumbo, and piecing together bits of newspapers found among the dinosaur bones, left by previous paleontologists. It wasn't exactly a funny letter, but it was warm and brought back a lot of fond memories.

3. Eliza Robertson asks, "What music do you associate with your work?"

I listen almost exclusively to jazz, and only jazz instrumentals. I can't write while listening to any music that has words in it: I can't seem to tune out words.

4. Caryn Lix asks, "Do you base characters in your story off of real people you know, and if so, do they know about it?"

Most of my fictional characters are composites. I'll steal a gesture from one person, a phrase from another, an ear here, a shirt there. In Up From Freedom, the character Tamsey is based on my great-great-great grandmother, but I don't think she knows.

5. Jeff Lemire asks, "If you could choose any other writer to write your biography, who would you choose and why?"

Matt Cohen. Because I think he would have done something quirky and brilliant with it. Once, when we were editing an anthology of Québécois stories together, he suggested we include one of his short stories and call it a translation (we didn't). I imagine him writing an absurdist biography of me and calling it a novel. I would love that.

6. Billie Livingston asks, "What's the most peculiar thing you've done in order to research a story?"

Eaten sea slugs. In China, while researching The Dinosaur Project, we were taken to a restaurant in Beijing and treated to the house specialty, called sea cucumber. We were not told what we were eating. I thought it was a kind of mushroom.

7. Ed Riche asks, "Readers want redemptive endings, do you give it to them?"

I don't think so. My novel Emancipation Day has a hard, unredemptive ending that surprised a lot of readers, including me, but which I think is the right ending. Up From Freedom ends differently, but I'm not at all sure it's redemptive. Redemptive endings — the killer being caught at the end of a mystery novel — are becoming rare, even in mystery novels.

8. David Chariandy asks, "Is writing for you an act of freedom?  How or how not?"

"Freedom" is an interesting word, in light of my new novel, Up From Freedom. One subtext of the novel is that freedom is often an illusion, a political or social construct that can be granted or taken away on a whim. I think writing can be a call for freedom, but is not in itself an act of freedom.

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