Books·Magic 8 Q&A

Why award-winning author Melanie Mah loves to write in libraries

The Toronto writer's debut novel The Sweetest One won the 2017 Trillium Book Award.
Melanie Mah's debut novel The Sweetest One won the 2017 Trillium Award. (Cormorant Books)

Melanie Mah won the 2017 Trillium Book Award for her debut novel, The Sweetest One. The book follows Chrysler Wong, a 17-year-old living in a rural Alberta, whose elder siblings have met terrible fates after venturing beyond their town's borders. After winning the $20,000 award, judges praised Mah for telling an "under-told Canadian experience with deft, humour and so much grit."

In our Magic 8 Q&A, Mah fields questions from fellow Canadian writers like Lawrence Hill and Yann Martel.

1. Lawrence Hill asks, "What is the worst job you ever had, and what kind of good material did it give you?"

The worst jobs I ever had were in retail. They were low paid and disempowering to the max. But they didn't give me a lot of material, as I was too busy feeling bitter about them to collect any. A better job, one I've written about, was the one I had at my parents' clothing store. Working with family members is a unique and fascinating way into their lives. Plus, we have a wide client base — I grew up serving farmers, people working on the rig, tourists, Indigenous folks, etc. — and sometimes the clothes people are looking for and how they look for them can say a lot about them. The store is in a small town, so I served many repeat customers, lots of friendly people who let you into their lives and also I was privy to gossip. It was, in a way, the perfect place for a curious person like me to grow up. 

2. Michael Winter asks, "Do you have a writer's outfit? A costume you put on before you write?"

I write in a library. I am what some might call temperamental about temperature. So I usually don't wear skirts or sleeveless tops to the library. In my giant library bag, I'm usually carrying a couple of sweaters. Discomfort distracts me. I need to be comfortable while writing, so I don't wear anything tight or scratchy or anything that rides up too much with wear. Turns out, I'm temperamental about lots of things…

3. Yann Martel asks, "What's the favourite sentence (or scene) that you've written?"

I find it hard to choose! I think part of our job as writers is to make every sentence or every line, every scene, as good as it can be. My sentences can feel like babies I'm ushering into the world, things I'm trying to guide into better versions of themselves. So it's hard to pick.

But I do love some of the scenes in The Sweetest One where Chrysler is remembering things about her family. I also like some of the scenes where she's with her parents. Chrysler's family is very close knit, and the depth and magnitude of her love for them is obvious. And there's a bittersweetness to these scenes because of things that end up happening in the book. There's a happy-sad, noisy-quiet, nostalgic-empty thing I like about this book that comes primarily from the scenes with Chrysler's family.   

4. Rachel Cusk asks, "Have you ever tried to express yourself in another art form?"

In my late teens and early 20s, I was into photography. I got pretty serious about it and was decent. But dividing my attention between photography and writing did not work for me. I was convinced that I couldn't get good at one until I dropped the other. So I dropped photography. It didn't stand a chance, though I still miss it. 

5. Jen Sookfong Lee asks, "What book do you wish you had written?"

I'm not sure I wish I wrote anyone else's books. I'm having trouble with my current project, so part of me wishes I'd already completed it. Who do I wish I could be as amazing as? Junot Diaz's writing is without parallel, but there's an energy to it, a kind of fierceness, and frankly a kind of intelligence I'm afraid I just don't have. Miriam Toews' work has so much heart and beauty. It's so emotionally replete. I wish I could someday be as good a writer as she.

6. Douglas Coupland asks, "What does your family think of you being a writer?"

There was a long time during which my family probably wished I was doing something else. I got the typical immigrant kid talk of, "You should be an engineer or doctor or lawyer or basically anything other than an artist." But now that I've found a bit of success, I think they're more able to stand with me, though I'm sure that they still worry.

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

To be honest, I've found that inspiration comes from everywhere — from stories on the radio to movies to plays to books or articles I'm reading, from conversations I have with various people in my life to memories or dreams, from things I'm thinking when I'm walking, cooking, cleaning, etc. to things I've seen or overheard in public or private. I'm very much a "free association" kind of person; I find so many things inspiring. As such, I don't find any kind of inspiration unexpected. 

8. Elisabeth de Mariaffi asks, "Do you read fiction when you're writing fiction? Why or why not?"

Yes, definitely! I find I read from a variety of genres — I think fiction writers can learn a lot from reading poetry and nonfiction writers can learn a lot from reading both fiction and poetry, etc. — but sometimes if I'm having trouble getting into a fictitious story, I read other fiction writers to see how they did it. Reading works of the same genre as the one you're working in can really jog you, but it can also hinder you, depending. Finding just the right thing to read is key, I think.