Books·Magic 8 Q&A

'Write about love. All forms of love': Kurt Palka on the best writing advice he's ever received

The author of The Hour of the Fox answers eight questions from eight fellow writers.
The Hour of the Fox is Kurt Palka's seventh novel. (Heather Chisvin)

Kurt Palka's latest foray into historical fiction is The Hour of the Foxa 1970s set story following a successful corporate lawyer named Margaret Bradley. When her son dies suddenly, Margaret abandons her life to mourn him at her family's summer home in a small town called Sweetbarry. But peace is not to be found in there, as the son of Margaret's lifelong friend is accused of a violent crime that has rocked the community.

Below, Palka, whose books include the bestselling novel The Piano Makertakes the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A.

1. Cassie Stocks asks, "Did you have an epiphanic moment when you realized writing meant something special to you or was it a slow reckoning?"

I have been wanting to be a writer, and working on becoming one, ever since high school. Writing seemed like the perfect way to deal with the world, not to be overwhelmed by it but to slow down and take it apart and look at it and understand it and put it back together in the way I saw it.

2. Tanya Talaga asks, "Who is your most feared critic?"

That would be the critic with low emotional intelligence, or E.Q. In the writing community a good I.Q. is common. It's the people with high I.Q. but low E.Q. that are to be avoided. They like things written on the nose and tend not to be able to read below the surface, what's behind the mere words, which is often what the real story is all about. In addition to that, they often have an axe to grid.

3. Ian Brown asks, "Do you get dressed to write? Or do you get to the computer as fast as you can?"

Interesting question. I do get dressed. At the beginning of the day, the mere act of getting dressed for work seems to begin to concentrate the mind. The other day, someone asked me if I treated writing like a job, and after a moment of reflection I said, yes I did. But like a very good job that I took seriously and valued.

4. Joy Fielding asks, "How do you go about creating believable characters?"

By learning everything I can about them. By liking and respecting them. I sit with them in my mind and I gain their trust and listen close to what they have to say.

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

Dreams are useful. They may even be important. My characters learn from their dreams. Most powerfully, their dreams can show them what is really going on inside, what they are avoiding.

6. Marc Raboy asks, "What is the most helpful advice you ever received from an editor?"

In my experience, the most helpful thing that can come from an editor is not advice, but unexpected sideways questions. Such as, "What about..." In terms of advice, the most helpful advice I ever received came not from an editor but from a woman friend. It was, 'Write about love. All forms of love.' And that is what I'm doing. Love and courage, which comes to the same thing.

7. Susin Nielsen asks, "How did your dreams of being a published author, square with the realities of being a published author?"

Very nicely. Writing is what I do. Who I am. Frankly, and as her grandmother advises Margaret Bradley in The Hour of the Fox, it is the gift that I continue to organize my life around.

8. Rio Youers asks, "You can jump into the mind of any other writer for just one day. Whose mind do you choose, and why?"

That writer would be William Faulkner. Or two writers, Faulkner and Tolstoy. Check out Faulkner's The Tall Men for a terrific example of not writing on the nose, and Tolstoy for the final inner journey of a man in The Death of Ivan Ilych.