Books·Magic 8 Q&A

Why 'write what you know' worked for JJ Lee

The journalist, fashion columnist and author of The Measure of a Man answers eight questions from eight fellow authors.
J.J. Lee is the author of the memoir The Measure of a Man. (Melissa Stephens)

"The story of a father, a son and a suit," JJ Lee's The Measure of a Man traces the author's journey altering his father's old suit as an act of remembrance. A finalist for the 2012 RBC Taylor Prize and the 2011 Governor General's Literary Award for nonfiction, the memoir turns suitmaking into powerful prose — and one family's story into a tale of intergenerational reconciliation. The Measure of a Man is currently on the longlist for Canada Reads 2018.

JJ Lee answers eight questions submitted by eight of his fellow writers in the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A.

​1. Dianne Warren asks, "What do you think of the creative writing adage, 'Write what you know?'"

I would definitely encourage a new writer to do exactly that because that's what I did and it helped me immensely, but be prepared. Get a few chapters in and, especially if they're doing it right, in my opinion, they soon will find themselves writing about what they don't know. Writing can uncover mysteries, present forks in roads, can take a writer to places they never thought they would travel, it can draw upon a writer's empathy in unexpected ways. It's my favourite part of writing.

2. Jo Walton asks, "What's the most unusual thing you've ever made work in your writing?"

I once wrote about the Polish version of Saint Nicholas in the mountains of Silesia saving four boys by wielding an axe against a Lovecraftian monster. Okay, maybe only I thought it worked.

3. Padma Viswanathan asks, "How do others' books figure in your own writing or process?"

Lots of books mean much to me, but authors mean more. Michael Chabon, Julie Powell (Julie and Julia was my road map), Tolstoy and Melville (for their expansiveness). I don't know what I would do without their work and writing to lean on.

4. Lawrence Hill asks, "What do you do to steady your mind (if your mind is capable of being steadied), so that you can shut out the world and write?"

I live in a crowded and noisy house. I shut the bedroom door, put two fingers into my ears, and pretty much read really loud, adding to the overall volume of our boisterous family. That or I wait for everyone to leave and the moment I can hear birds singing, I feel at peace and ready to go.

5. Tracey Lindberg asks, "What book is on your nightstand right now? How long has it been there?"

I have a book called the Strayapedia: The 100% Fair Dinkum Guide to the World's Least un-Australian country. Now, guess where I am right now, 8ball? PS I have no idea what "dinkum" means.

6. Kenneth Oppel asks, "Would you ghostwrite a trashy book if you were offered enough?"

Yes. But it would have to be real trashy. I have a weakness for novels that discuss ballistics or the boring out of barrels to accommodate NATO ammo. Swords that glow turn me on. I haven't read a hot erotic fare since I was teen but sure.

7. Tomson Highway asks, "What keeps you going — first as a writer, and second as a human being?"

Honestly, I don't feel very successful as a writer. I feel more lucky. I still live much as I did when I was a university student with books and musical instruments everywhere. Our things come from thrift stores as much as anywhere else and I don't mean to make a sob story out of it. I'm letting you know it's my wife who keeps me going. I wouldn't be a writer without her. She pays the bills as I eke out a small living. She's the biggest believer in my stuff and the principal investor. My first book did okay but it didn't take us where we needed to go. And I'm working on my second (it's taking a bit of time). And gosh, she still believes.

8. Linden MacIntyre asks, "To what extent is Google becoming a substitute for experience, real research and even the imagination?"

Linden, my friend, that sounds like a reproach. I used Google to an embarrassing extent  in The Measure of a Man. Google Books at the time seemed to have greater open resources than it does now. Books from the 19th century were a few keystrokes away. Reading nautical bulletins, I discovered the horsepower of the paddle slope that Queen Victoria visited in 1837. The crew wore special jackets that became an indispensable part of men's closet. The ship was HMS Blazer. The horsepower, 137.