Madeleine Thien [photo credit: Rawi Hage] is the author of two previous books of fiction, Simple Recipes, a collection of stories, and Certainty, a novel. Her fiction and essays have appeared in Granta, The Walrus, Five Dials, Brick, and the Asia Literary Review, and her books have been translated into sixteen language. In 2010, she received the Ovid Festival Prize, awarded each year to an international writer of promise. She lives in Montreal. A new novel, Dogs at the Perimeter, will be published in May.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
When Simple Recipes was published, I was young, twenty-five years old. Publication took me out of my head and into a conversation with the world around me. I don't think I would ever want to let this conversation go.
2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
I came to poetry first, when I was a teenager, but soon realized I was a truly untalented poet. I needed the foothold of narrative, and I needed more words to build what I wanted to say.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
Strangely, no matter how many times I write a book or a story, it is usually the same size / length, even if all the words have changed. After three books, it remains a mysteriously slow and unpredictable process.
4 - Where does fiction usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I begin with fragments. I feel like I'm writing my way into the middle of a room, or the middle of the city, or the middle of a spiralling thought.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I'm shy and usually panicked, and yet I do enjoy them in the end. I like being part of something with other writers. I'm always happy that there are readers.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
Why is this the way it is? What have I known? What can I do?
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
To listen, to think widely, to question, to pay attention to the words.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Both, but I would be worried if it were not difficult.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (short stories to full-length novels)? What do you see as the appeal?
They seem to me like very different shapes and forms, and so some ideas make themselves known as stories, and others as novels. They have a different relationship with time and motion.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
Coffee, bagel, tea and writing.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I think the answer, for me, is plenitude--of experience, stimulus, people, life.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Everything, science, art, the way people live, not just here, but elsewhere.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Colin Thubron on travel, Antonio Damasio on neuroscience, the war correspondents who reported on the Vietnam War and the Cambodian civil war, and who welcomed me into their company when they gathered in Cambodia in 2010. The funny, brief emails that my mother wrote to me, and which are all I have left of the things she composed.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Travel the 6,000 kilometres of the Silk Road from Xi'an, China to the coast of Lebanon.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
A choreographer. I started off as a dancer, ballet and modern dance, and it's a part of my life that feels unfinished.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
A love of stories, a need for solitude, and a lot of things in my head that needed saying.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
20 - What are you currently working on?
Short stories, and a long essay about travels through the American South and mid-Atlantic.