Books·Magic 8 Q&A

Why Fanny Britt wields her fiction writing as an instrument for conquering real world anxiety

Fanny Britt's new novel Hunting Houses explores temptation, heartbreak and the meaning of life.
Fanny Britt is a writer and playwright based in Montreal. (Julie Artacho)

Hunting Houses, the latest novel from Montreal-based Fanny Britt, explores a few days in the life of Tessa, a 37 year-old real estate agent who finds herself questioning her marriage and family life after a fateful encounter with an old ex-boyfriend. By way of engaging and incisive prose, the book delves into themes of temptation, heartbreak and the imperfect mundanity of everyday life.

Britt, author and winner of the 2013 Governor General's Literary Award in Drama for her play Bienveillance, takes CBC Books' Magic 8 Q&A, and answers eight questions life from fellow authors.

1. Kate Pullinger asks, "What relationship does your writing have to your own childhood, both in terms of where you grew up as well as whether or not you were a happy child?"

I think my writing is very much haunted by my childhood, even though it wasn't an unhappy one. I wouldn't say that I was a happy child: I was (and remain) riddled with anxiety about the world and about my own fate, so it made for a pretty serious child — I was also very curious and loved observing adult behavior — their secrets, their dynamics as friends and lovers, the power struggles. Very quickly I started writing down how I felt and what I saw, which to this day is a powerful anxiety remedy for me.  So all of this has certainly influenced how I approach writing — worrying about the world, observing my fellow humans, and then finding some solace in telling.

2. Helen Humphreys asks, "What is the best piece of advice about writing that you have ever received?"

It was not given to me specifically, but all of Annie Dillard's The Writing Life has spoken to me on a fundamental level, and has given me the guts and humility to dive in and go on:

When you are stuck in a book; when you are well into writing it, and know what comes next, and yet cannot go on; when every morning for a week or a month you enter its room and turn your back on it; then the trouble is either of two things. Either the structure has forked, so the narrative, or the logic, has developed a hairline fracture that will shortly split it up the middle — or you are approaching a fatal mistake. What you had planned will not do. If you pursue your present course, the book will explode or collapse, and you do not know about it yet, quite. 

This happened to me with a play recently that I had to entirely scrap and start over. Painful. And necessary.

3. Peter Robinson asks, "Can writing be taught?"

I do wonder about that. I studied playwriting at National Theater School of Canada in Montreal, where I certainly learned about style, and structure, and dramatic effect, and trying to keep the audience interested — but I believe that it is mostly time and reading and listening to the sounds of the world that have taught me how to write.

4. Cordelia Strube asks, "What keeps you writing?"

Dissatisfaction with previous work.

5. Anita Rau Badami asks, "What is your relationship with your characters: is it possible to separate yourself from them or do they always reflect some element of your own psyche?"

I need to love them a little. I don't know that I see myself in all of them, although I do see myself in many, especially the children. They can be jerks and tyrants and vulgar and neurotic, but I still do need to feel some empathy toward them to stay interested in writing about them. Loving and unforgiving: this is how I generally feel about my characters.

6. Alexi Zentner asks, "Do you ever bribe yourself to write? What with?"

Constantly. I bribe myself with lunch with my best friend after finishing my morning's work. I bribe myself with baking cakes, and taking walks, and the promise of an Aperol Spritz at the end of a fruitful day.

7. Johanna Skibsrud asks, "What non-literary inspirations inform your work?"

I'm a failed musician, so music has always been a crucial part of my inspiration. Leonard Cohen's writing and music have both been fundamental to me, as well as old country music (Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn forever!). I had a big Early Music phase in my twenties and became a Tallis Scholars junkie — which I'm aware is the dorkiest answer possible. I also deeply love to be in the audience, whether at a music show or a play — that feeling of going through the shock of receiving art with other people is pretty awesome, and I think I keep digging for ways to take that feeling to the page.

8. Jalal Barzanji asks, "How did you feel when you finished your most recent book?"

Relieved. And terrified.  

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