Books·Magic 8 Q&A

Why Jean McNeil writes about her characters' dreams

The author of The Dhow House answers eight questions submitted by eight other authors.
Jean McNeil is the author of the novel The Dhow House. (ECW Press)

Jean McNeil is a Canadian writer who has lived all over the world and writes everything from poetry to memoir to fiction and beyond. Her latest is The Dhow House, a novel set in an unnamed East African country where Rebecca Laurelson, an English doctor, has to leave her post and move to the coast to live with the family of a wealthy aunt she's never met, in the midst of terrorist threats and civil unrest.

Below, Jean McNeil answers eight questions submitted by eight of her fellow writers in the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A. 

1. Cathy Marie Buchanan asks, "Do you know how your story will end when you begin writing?"

I don't think I've ever known the ending when embarking on a novel or a short story. When I read novels I often stop short of the ending because I don't want the book to end (i.e if I stop reading, it never does... irrational but effective). But I do have a horizon that I write to. The ending appears to me as a vague landscape feature or a mirage or even a note of music that I want to hear — the linguistic equivalent of a coda. I write toward this.

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

I've spent a lot of time in the Antarctic and the Arctic. I am a trained safari guide and have worked in South Africa and Kenya. So the natural world — if we define that as the world beyond the human — has inspired my work in the last 10 years in particular. It's a challenge to write about a realm where language is simply often not up to the task of description or transmission of knowledge, because so much of what happens in such a realm is not relatable to humans, strictly speaking.

3. Padma Viswanathan asks, "What is the place of dreams in literature, or, for you, the relationship of dreaming to writing?"

There's a writing prompt I sometimes use with my students: "What did your character dream the night before the story started?" They duly write out the dream, which they hadn't even conceived of before, and this often reveals the deeper meanings of the story they have written. I think there is always a moment zero, usually unrecognised and unrecorded, before something happens, and it might hold the key to everything which is about to unfold. On the other hand, my agent has said to me, "Cut the dreams, Jean" — there are too many dreams in my fiction, apparently.

4. Cea Sunrise Person asks, "Have you ever scrapped an entire manuscript, and why?"

I not only scrapped an entire novel, I forgot I wrote it. I was looking through the files on one of my old Macintosh laptops — this particular one dated back to the mid-1990s and amazingly still works — and I found a large file entitled "Natural History." I started reading it and thought, who wrote this? I realised it was me — it was a finished novel which I had given up on in the late 1990s and had completely forgotten about it. (After reading it I remembered why I had abandoned it.)

5. Bill Richardson asks, "Have you ever regretted dedicating a book to someone?"

No, but I can see how this could happen.

6. Vivek Shraya asks, "Who is a Canadian writer you aspire to write like and why?"

The short answer: Anne Carson, Michael Ondaatje, Alden Nowlan. The long answer: I've lived in the U.K., Latin America and Africa for the last 26 years so am not as well-versed in contemporary Canadian authors as I could be. But when I was growing up in Canada and going to university I read a lot of poetry. Poets have always inspired me because as a writer I am interested in the sentence level of fiction, in the way words commute between the abstract and the concrete. In my experience, poets do this better than prose writers.

7. Nino Ricci asks, "If one day science manages to make us immortal, will fiction still be relevant?"

I think it's highly likely that within 200 years, 300 at the outside, death will appear for humans of the day as an unfortunate historical malady their forebears had to put up with, much in the way we look back at bubonic plague. The abolition of death and impermanence as near-universal themes in fiction may well dilute its moral purpose. Instead we'll have generations of novels dealing with the stupefying boredom of living forever.

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

I wish I had, or could. I can't paint, draw or sing. I can play several instruments but it became apparent to me years ago that writing — not only the physical act of writing but the task and time and competition involved in becoming a writer — meant I had to drop everything and focus on writing. Maybe one day I'll go back to playing the fiddle.


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