Books·Magic 8 Q&A

Why Gary Barwin thinks everyone is a writer

The Scotiabank Giller Prize finalist and CBC Poetry Prize juror answers eight questions submitted by eight other authors.
Gary Barwin is the author of the novel Yiddish for Pirates. (Adela Talbot)

Gary Barwin never turns away from the strangeness of life — though, in a Barwinian universe, strangeness really means possibility. The poet, musician and author's new novel, Yiddish for Pirates, is no exception —  it's a rollicking tale of Jewish pirates in the late 15th century, as told by a parrot in a present-day Florida nursing home. The book is a finalist for the 2016 Scotiabank Giller Prize and it was shortlisted for the 2016 Governor General's Literary Award for fiction.

Below, Gary Barwin answers eight questions submitted by eight of his fellow writers in the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A. 

1. Karen Solie asks, "Has a mentor or teacher profoundly influenced your writing or decision to become a writer? Who is this person and what have they taught you?"

That's easy. As a young man, bpNichol profoundly inspired me as a person and a writer. His exploratory creativity. His wide-ranging interests and intelligence. His heterogeneous enthusiasms. His wit and empathy. His sense of "every(all at(toge(forever)ther)once)thing" is possible. I learned that writers can explore any type of media or approach and it can transform and be transformed by their curiosity. And as a person, bp's immense generosity, his interest in, and support of, other writers was the model of what I aspire to be as a member of the creative community. 

2. Katherine Govier asks, "Do you feel, when you've finished a book, that you got at the questions you wanted to write about?"

When a book is finished with me, I feel that I begin to understand what questions it is asking. (And not only, "You think it might be time to get back to a socially normative regime of regular personal hygiene?") I do feel that the process of writing a book is a process of discovery. Of discovering what are the questions (often the questions behind the questions that you began with) that you didn't know you wanted to ask. 

3. Frances Itani asks, "If you were to have a silent conversation with a now dead writer, which writer would you choose, and from which period? Or perhaps you already converse with dead writers?"

I love that this question asks about a "silent" conversation. Would Chaucer be able to keep quiet? James Joyce? George Eliot? I think I'd love to pack some granola bars and apples and go on a silent hike through the Rockies with Franz Kafka. I'd worry that his intensely human eyes might melt the glaciers but I'd make sure to show him bears. I'd want our silent conversation to console him, to let him know that, in the end, the world can console. And that the world is grateful for the difficult consolations of his writing.

4. Robert J. Sawyer asks, "Yes, sure, you're a writer, and many good writers eschew adjectives. But if you had to prepend one and only one, which would it be? A Canadian writer? A feminist writer? An ambitious writer? An entertaining writer? A literary writer? A reclusive writer? Why that choice?"

What? Eschew the refulgent delights of profligate adjectival lexiconjury? Bet you can't use just one. Ok. Here's one. Engaged. I'd want to call myself an "engaged writer." Whatever writing that I attempt, I hope to be fully engaged in its possibilities. And I hope that my writing might engage the world, might be entangled with it. I want to be an engaged writer, engaged by the world, engaging in it. 

5. Nazneen Sheikh asks, "Do you forget all the angst when the book actually arrives from the printer?"

I actually wouldn't characterize the writing of a book as an angst-filled experience. Not that it doesn't have its challenges and moments of great doubt and stress, but truthfully, I am always profoundly grateful for the remarkable opportunity and possibility of writing. Books. Words. Readers. Language. The brain. What remarkable things we have in the universe. (But have I spread copies of a new book all over the bed and rolled around over them? Not actually, though I've thought of it.)

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

Do I wrap myself in the hairshirt of self-doubt and don the ball cap of grandiose ambition? Do I have a complete Walt Whitman outfit, complete with clip-on godbeard? A full Michael Winter bodysuit? No, but it is true that I've heard my daughter walking up the driveway after school and realized that I'd better run upstairs and get out of the pyjamas I'd worked in all day.

7. Zsuzsi Gartner asks, "What role do religion and spirituality play in your writing?"

In the Jewish Passover seder there's a plate with symbolic foods. For example, there's a kind of apple and nut paste which represents the mortar used by the enslaved Jews to make bricks. And there are bitter herbs which recall the bitterness of slavery. But there are two places for bitter herbs. I remember my kids and I looking up what this second bitter herbs represented. "They're just there so that children will ask questions," was how one rabbi explained it. This is the kind of religious and spiritual goal that I hope to have in my writing. To ask questions. To wonder. To be witty and philosophical at the same time. To surprise and delight. To have us curious about what it all means.

8. Anita Rau Badami asks, "Looking back, can you pinpoint the moment when you decided that you would be a writer? Is it something you had always wished to do?" 

I never decided to be "a writer." Ever since I can remember, I felt if I had words, I could make stuff up. I could play with words. I could tell stories. I became a writer because I just never stopped. In Grade 6, I self-published my first book for the school's white elephant sale. It was called Cosmic Herbert and the Pencil Forest. Sales were good but I was unable to retire from the royalties. I never wanted to become a writer, but I always wanted to write. But then again, I think everyone is a writer. To me, to have words and to be in the world is to be a writer. 


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