Books·Magic 8 Q&A

Why Nicolas Dickner tries to never give advice to other writers

The author of Six Degrees of Freedom answers eight questions posed by eight fellow writers.
Nicolas Dickner's debut novel, Nikolski, won Canada Reads in 2010. (François Couture/Penguin Random House Canada)

The latest Nicolas Dickner novel, Six Degrees of Freedom, won the Governor General's Literary Award in its original French. Dickner's debut novel, Nikolski, won Canada Reads in 2010. 

Translated by Lazer Lederhendler, Six Degrees of Freedom is the witty and well-crafted tale of three characters with lives that intersect and intertwine in pursuit of a missing shipping container full of treasure.

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

1. Richard Van Camp asks, "What's the story you'll never write about that haunts you? It could be delicious. Yes, that's the one we want to know. What is your delicious that you'll never write about?"

I'm fascinated by the story of the 12 forgotten Gaspé Peninsula villages that were closed by the provincial government in the early '70s. Nobody talks about them anymore, but back then there was a clear feeling of social crisis — panicked politicians being flown in by helicopter, people protesting, priests acting like South American liberation theologists. I started writing a novel about it several years ago, but I somehow ended up convincing myself the story was of regional interest only.

2. Russell Wangersky asks, "Which do you like better? The heady rush of the first draft or the controlled precision of the edits and re-edits? Why?"

I'm more the "edits and re-edits" type. I like it when the text starts to feel like a well-structured, free-standing universe. You start to discover patterns and subtexts — as if the story had developed a life of its own while you were busy looking at the details. When you reach that point of a manuscript, it's more a matter of pruning than writing.

3. Robert Wiersema asks, "If you could give one piece of advice to a fledgling writer, what would it be, and why?"

I try never to give advice to other writers. There are so many different types of writers and books and career paths, I couldn't think of a single, universally useful tip I could give. There's no such thing as a "one size fits all" approach in writing.

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

They're happy — or relieved — that I managed to make a living out of writing, but I don't think they have a very clear picture of how my job works.

5. Jowita Bydlowska asks, "Do you have any writing rituals and if yes, what are they?"

I don't have rituals, but I'm very picky about my working tools: I have a hard time focusing if I don't have the right keyboard and the right software. I have a symbiotic relationship with my computer.

6. Vivek Shraya asks, "What are your favourite songs or albums to listen to when you write? What songs or albums inspired your last book?"

It keeps changing all the time, depending on the rhythm and colour I want to infuse the text with. When I choose an album, however, I can listen to it 10 times a day, for days on end. It helps creating a sort of "mood continuity."

7. Vincent Lam asks, "Does your personal relationship with your characters change over  the course of writing a book? If so, how?"

When I start working on a manuscript, the characters are usually mere narrative devices. They play a purely functional role. When I reach the end, however, they have often gained a depth, a complexity that makes them easier to relate to.

8. Rajiv Surendra asks, "If you had complete control of the cover design for your book, what would it look like?"

I wouldn't like to have complete control over the cover design of my books — it would probably end up in a mess. I've learned over the years to treasure the input and expertise of the many people that work on a book. Not only are these people usually more competent, but they might come up with ideas or interpretations you never would have had.