Books·How I Wrote It

Why Becky Blake wrote a story about understanding the world and our place in it

The two-time winner of the CBC Literary Prizes discusses how she wrote her debut novel Proof I Was Here.
Proof I Was Here is the debut novel by Becky Blake. (Wolsak & Wynn, Kara Blake)

In Proof I Was Here, Becky Blake shares the story of a young Canadian woman starting over in the streets of Barcelona.

The debut novel marks another literary milestone for Blake, a two-time winner of the CBC Literary Prizes. In 2013, she won the CBC Short Story Prize for The Three Times Rule and went on to impress judges with Trust Exercise, the story that won the 2017 CBC Nonfiction Prize.

Blake says that while her novel has been described as a coming-of-age story, it's also a "coming-of-understanding" story — the main character matures over the course of the book and comes to a new understanding of the world and her place in it.

In her own words, the Toronto author tells us how she wrote Proof I Was Here.

Pickpockets, separatists and squatters

"I wanted to somehow write a story that included all of the things that interested me most about Barcelona when I lived there. I was fascinated by the pickpockets and there's a huge squatting community, which I found really interesting.

"I would see people sitting on benches around the neighbourhood, tearfully telling their woes to whoever would listen that they had just lost their wallet. I became so fascinated in seeing these people every day, seeing the different responses and thinking about that smaller loss as a sort of practice run for some of the larger losses in life.

"In Spain, it's sort of a social project for some people to take an abandoned building and make it a community centre. It would be a place for themselves to live of course, but also to give back to the community that they're in. As part of my research I actually went to a squat outside of Barcelona in an abandoned leper colony that had been stigmatized and people weren't really using it anymore. I worked there for a day as a cook in exchange for a tour and got a handle on the philosophy behind why they live that way. 

"The third thing I saw was the Catalan separatists — so pickpockets, separatists and squatters. I wanted to see if I could write a story that includes all three of these groups and see if I can find any connections between these groups of people."

Different types of loss

"The only way, in my opinion, to confront loss and impermanence is to have the best life you can, knowing you can't let that stop you. In the case of Niki, the protagonist, she's an artist and she's lost a lot.

"It's tempting to be defeated by that, to stop making things and stop caring. But I did want to have her find a way to continue making art — even with the idea that maybe no one will ever see it."

First-person voice

"The story just came to me in the first person. I did some writing for theatre and I'm drawn to first person because it's the most like a monologue. However, now that I've written the whole novel in first person, I don't know if I would do it again anytime soon because it's a bit limiting and people often think that the book is about you when you write in first person. People have surprised me when they ask questions about when I met various characters in the book — and I have to remind them I have never met these people as they're fictional characters.

"To a degree, I think the part of myself that's in Niki, the main character, is that I really strongly remember my first time being outside of North America — and the shift that created in my thinking. The feeling of travelling to an unknown place opens people up. The memories that we make in those moments stick with us a little more than your everyday memories."

The feeling of travelling to an unknown place opens people up. The memories that we make in those moments stick with us a little more than your everyday memories.

Exploring through a fiction or nonfiction lens

"I really enjoy working in both genres. I use them as a break from each other and find that they speak to each other really well. The nonfiction I write is creative nonfiction, which means it uses narrative techniques to look at your own life or the life of other real people through a narrative lens and see whether there are any shapes or meaning that emerge.

"With fiction you're creating those shapes completely from your imagination and not looking for shapes in true material. You have total freedom. I love creating characters that allow me to explore some element of being that I may not, in my real life, have a chance to do. I love research so I often choose characters that are going to force me to do some immersive research.

"When I was an actor, I used to say I wanted to be one so that I could have lived many different lives and then maybe evolve to a writer so that I could tell people what it's like to live those lives. Now that I'm not an actor anymore, I've focused more on that, giving people a chance to imaginatively experience other characters and expand their own. For myself, it's a way to practice empathy and hopefully be able to give readers that experience as well, just being able to put themselves in another person's shoes."

Becky Blake's comments have been edited for length and clarity. You can read more interviews in the How I Wrote It series here.

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