Books·Magic 8 Q&A

Why Arthur Ellis Award-nominated crime writer John MacLachlan Gray doesn't write for success or fame

The author of the thriller The White Angel answers eight questions from eight fellow authors.
John MacLachlan Gray's novel The White Angel is set in 1924 Vancouver and is inspired by the cold case of Janet Smith and the mystery surrounding her death. (Brian K. Smith Photo/Douglas & McIntyre)

Playwright and author John MacLachlan Gray's latest novel, The White Angel, follows the unsolved death of a Scottish nanny living in Vancouver. Set in the years following the First World War and at the height of Canada's anti-immigration campaign, Gray put his spin on a real-life cold case. It's currently a finalist for the 2018 Arthur Ellis Award for best book, which recognizes the best in Canadian crime writing.

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

1. Gail Bowen asks, "If you could live in the world created by another writer, what fictional world would you choose, and why?"

The "other world" of Haruki Murakimi in Kafka on the Shore, to restore my sense of wonder. 

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

I love working with a line editor, no matter how picky. It's like the right brain talking to the left brain — especially exchanging emails back and forth. Up to that point it's a lonely business.

3. Nicolas Dickner asks, "Which writing skill would you like to improve?"

It takes me a ridiculous amount of time just to figure out what the hell is going on. And when I develop an idea about whodunnit, I'm always wrong, so plot outlines are worse than useless. What I'd like to improve is my ability to stop over-thinking and just stay with the scene until the story emerges.

4. Kara Stanley asks, "Who is your Ideal Reader?"

Taking your question literally, Anne Collins. When Random House dropped me as a commercial disappointment, it was like my prom date had dumped me because her parents didn't approve. 

On a more abstract level, it's a reader who can laugh at my jokes. My background being theatre, I agree with Tom Stoppard that "laughter is the sound of comprehension."

5. Shani Mootoo asks, "Do you find that you are influenced in any aspect of your writing by other art forms? If so, which and how. If not, why not?"

Music. At some point I find myself playing something over and over. With A Gift for the Little Master, it was Howard Shore's soundtrack for Cronenberg's Crash; with The Fiend in Human, it was Rare Von Williams; with The White Angel, it was The Threepenny Opera. It's not a decision I make beforehand; at some point I just find myself playing certain music over and over.

6. Saleema Nawaz asks, "What's the best response you've ever had from a reader?"

I do book clubs quite often, and my favourite part is listening to readers talk about the book among themselves. (My book — not someone else's.) Book clubs are nearly all women, so I get to hear what women think about all kinds of things, starting with my female characters. 

7. Robert Wiersema asks, "If someone were to create a comic book based on your life, what would your hero name be, and what would be your special gift/skill?"

My hero would be Zoot Capri, and I would be spectacular on the dance floor.

8. Kevin Hardcastle asks, "What would you say to a younger version of yourself, or another emerging writer, who doesn't know what you know now about writing and publishing or how long that road can be?"

I would tell myself/them that "success" is a description, not an experience. So is "fame" — other than as a Orwellian state of being observed all the time. Same with "interesting" — that people who find themselves interesting, aren't.   

So if you're writing to be successful or famous or interesting, forget that. Do it for its own sake or be prepared to live a life of perpetual disappointment.


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