Dimitri Nasrallah is the author of three novels, most recently The Bleeds (Véhicule Press, 2018), which was named a best book of the year by La Presse and the Montreal Gazette. He was born in Lebanon in 1977, and lived in Kuwait, Greece, and Dubai before moving to Canada in 1988. His first novel, Blackbodying (DC Books, 2005), won the Quebec’s McAuslan First Book Prize and was a finalist for the Grand Prix du Livre de Montréal. His second novel, Niko (Véhicule Press, 2011), won the Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction, and was nominated for CBC’s Canada Reads and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. He lives in Montreal, where he is the editor for Esplanade Books, Véhicule Press’s fiction imprint, and is currently translating Éric Plamondon’s 1984 Trilogy from French to English.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Publishing my first novel, Blackbodying, back in 2005 gave me validation for what, at the time, felt like a very precarious and risky path to pursue. I was only 26 years old when at the time, and it gave me permission to save up some cash and quit my full-time job so I could continue writing. It was a naïve decision, only one a 26 year old me would have made. I’m relieved it happened when I was still young enough to not second-guess it. I thought I’d give myself a year to finish a second book. In the end it took six years, a marriage, one kid, and a cat for my next book to come out.
Last year, I published my third book. It still took me 6-7 years to get it to publication. I find that even though I’m much more confident and pragmatic about what I want my books to do and say, one thing that doesn’t change is the length of time it takes me to get them to publication. Every step is still a challenge, albeit one that I’ve cycled through a few times now.
2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
When I was an undergrad at York University, I took a second-year literature course in satire. The professor let us write a short story instead of an essay if we got a good-enough grade on our first paper. I ended taking that short-story assignment very seriously. I guess it showed, because the professor wanted to talk to me about the story I wrote afterwards, and for the time in my university life that I was singled out for being good at something. Quite honestly, I hadn’t been giving my university education my best effort up to that point; in fact, I was actively looking for an excuse to give up on my first major as a business student, chosen by my parents and heading toward disaster after two years.
I’ve never had a poet’s mentality or perspective. Poetry was intimidating to me. It had so many rules, and people in the late 90s/early 2000s would get so worked up and angry about poetry and poetics. But non-fiction is a different story. Once I quit my first and only office job, I supported myself as a factory of cultural journalism for many years, publishing over 400 pieces along the way, from cover stories to quick 150-word reviews, mostly to do with music and books.
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?
It doesn’t take me long to get started, but it does take me forever to get it right. I’m practically a mystic when it come s to writing these days. I will sit down and write whatever comes to mind without having an idea or direction in mind, and trust that something of meaning will eventually come out if I do that. So I will start a writing project that way, knowing I have ideas somewhere in my mind but no sense that I need to articulate them until, at some point days or weeks or even months down the line, all that productivity results in a realization.
I’m not a notes person, and my first drafts are notable mostly for going in the wrong direction. But I don’t really mind anymore that it takes a while to figure out the right path forward. I write many drafts, seemingly in an effort to go down all the wrong directions before finding the right way. Incrementally, I get what I want to say down, and eventually I fill out what the novels wants to do. I try not to stick to a plan and instead listen to what the material is most open to developing into.
4 - Where does a work of 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?
New fiction usually starts as a reaction to what I’ve already written and published. With each successive book, I feel like I’m writing in the same broad direction but changing the variables of how I’m addressing the subject to draw out different questions and answers. Along the way, I’ve come to the realization that I am a political writer, who needs his writing to serve some social function, to be part of a larger conversation about the world, if it is to matter to me for the length of time I’m going to spend writing it.
I’m usually working on a book from the very beginning, but I’m pretty loose in my approach as the idea settles into place. Over the years, since I’ve grown only more mystical about where stories come from, I’ve accepted my place as a conduit for letting them come out of my hand and onto the page. It really is less stressful to not have to worry about inspiration striking, to just have some tea and move my fingers across the keyboard till it makes sense. At which point an altogether more intellectual process kicks in to finesse and shape what I’ve let out. I’m as curious as anyone what will come out of me. I don’t mind being a spectator to my own creations, and not working too hard to control the impulses, fits, and starts of the creative process.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
They’re okay. I don’t mind them and see them as a necessary part of the promotion process. I’d sooner sit on a panel and discuss ideas though. A good chunk of my work life has involved public speaking in some variation, so being in front of people and reading is a pose I’m comfortable with, or have at least experienced enough to develop strategies for how to draw the best results out of it. I don’t know that my writing is always best served my reading aloud. It’s better off being read in silence.
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?
I love the approach of political filmmakers such as Costa-Gavras, Gillo Pontecorvo, or Ken Loach. I ask political questions through fiction, and it’s rare that I write a story that doesn’t have a social question in its tissue. So in terms of theoretical guidance, I look for the most effective way to convey that underlying purpose in my writing.
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?
Writers are a halfway house between artists and intellectuals. They write about people and so, in that way, are socially engaged. In times of social change, it falls to writers to sketch, magnify and embellish the many questions and rhizomes and obstacles that arise.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
As someone who is an editor to writers and translators at Véhicule Press, I consider an outside editor essential. A novel is a major imaginative undertaking, several hundred pages coming out of one individual’s personal headspace as a communication to strangers. Bringing the whole package to fruition, from coaxing its themes, to sharpening its approach, to pruning its excesses, works better as an act of collaboration. I usually implement 95% of what an editor suggests. I am a grateful pushover and believe it is up to the writer to ask the right questions of what any editorial reader will register as inclination. Some edits are a matter of perspective, and others require sculpting. I’ve yet to see a book finish off worse for intensive editing. Perhaps this is a tendency I’ve developed from journalism and copywriting. The fundamental fact of writing is that it will be read, and so it needs to have some mode of sharpening itself via consensus for it to be a credible publication that stands on its own in a crowded culture.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Don’t give up. Or at least pick your own ending.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (novels to translation)? What do you see as the appeal?
Translating is an exercise in aesthetics; how can you best replicate a story from one language and culture, to another. What I enjoy about translating is the condition that I cannot invent the story. That necessary task has already been undertaken. I’m just writing in service to it.
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?
When I’m writing, I try to be consistent about it. I wake up at 6:45am. Coffee, pack lunch, kid off to school, dog walk. I’ll write from 8:30-9am to about noon. Then I’ll do other work. I’ll aim to do that five days a week, Monday to Friday.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
When I stall, it’s usually because of my mood or attitude. I try to write through it, aware that the impediment is a psychological reaction, my sense of the writing and not the writing itself. I’ve found that I can’t always trust my self-reflections in the moment. May write something that I find fascinating at the time, but months later it will feel brittle. Yet pages that felt uninspired when I wrote them turn out to later read as precise and evocative. So sometimes I write despite myself, put in the hours and effort, and leave the decisions till later.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Home cooking. Dog.
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?
Relationships. Books come from participating in the world and accepting fallibility.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Because of the cultural journalism, interviewing, and other engagement that I do, I’m often compelled to delve deeply into the work of particular writers, to learn about their lives. Recently I’ve spent long stretches with the works of Wajdi Mouawad, Michael Ondaatje, Marlon James, a lot of Quebecois literature, the Esplanade writers I edit, the numerous non-fiction writers I teach in my classes. I find that if you look at another writer’s work long enough, you can begin to see the intersection at which it affects your life and what you want to share with the world. Ideas are protean by nature, and need to pass through many hands to stay alive.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Answer Question 20.
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?
For a number of years, I had a parallel freelance career in music journalism and promotion. In 2012, I gave it all up largely because I’d arrived at a point where it was either become one of those grizzled industry people in the shadows of nightlife, or give that time over to my own writing. I was at a point where I was too tired to do both. I still hang out in the shadows of nightlife, but at least I’m not doing it to pay my bills. I chose to do this instead. If I wasn’t doing this, I’d be doing that.