Saleema Nawaz’s short fiction has appeared in such literary journals as Prairie Fire, PRISM international, Grain, and The New Quarterly. Her first collection of stories, Mother Superior, was published in Fall 2008 by Freehand Books and was a finalist for the Quebec Writers’ Federation’s McAuslan First Book Prize. She was the winner of the 2008 Writers’ Trust of Canada/McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize for her story “My Three Girls.”
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
The best thing that happened with the publication of my short-story collection was the sudden freedom I felt to describe myself to other people as a writer. The project I’m working on now is a novel, so it feels very different in scope from other things I’ve written, even though I’m working with some of the same characters I’ve written about before. It’s a little more unwieldy.
2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
Fiction has always made up the bulk of what I read, though I’ve been trying to broaden my horizons. But at this point, fiction is what I know.
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?
I’m a slow writer, usually, but it means first drafts aren’t too far off from the final version.
Sometimes a few paragraphs or pages will come quickly and it feels like magic.
4 - Where does a piece 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?
Everything I’ve written so far has begun in a different way: a line of dialogue, an image, a strange fact I want to mention — and then I follow the story until it feels over. In the case of Mother Superior, I didn’t initially write the stories with the idea of putting them together, so in that sense they combined into a larger project, but it isn’t a linked collection. With the novel I’m working on, I knew at the outset I wanted to write something longer.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I enjoy the aftermath of readings: meeting readers and other writers, talking to people one-on-one. I’m on the shy side, so I tend to find readings themselves fairly stressful.
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?
While I’m writing, the theoretical concerns are mostly working in the background. I find I get bogged down if I have too specific of an agenda and I end up straying from the characters. Likely the questions I might cite aren’t the ones that are necessarily coming across anyway!
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?
I think writers inhabit all sorts of different roles. There are so many different kinds of writing and writers. In literature, we expect writers to tell the truth, and the best writing will show us ourselves and the world in a new way...or in a way we knew but didn’t understand until we read it.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
A good editor is essential, and the process of working with such a one is an invaluable learning experience.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Don’t worry, be happy? Also: avoid adverbs.
10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I like to try and work in the morning. Not in the early morning, but just to get up and start writing without wandering into the internet too much and even without having coffee at first. There’s something about that state of writing where it even becomes half dozing where I think my inner editor is still asleep and I can get productive while she’s looking the other way.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Other people’s writing.
12 - If there was a fire, what's the first thing you'd grab?
My Bleak House first edition. And my laptop, since I’d probably be working on it at the time.
13 - 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?
For me, books really do come from books. But movies and art and music can help generate ideas or moods or settings for a story.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I have a lot of favourite books and writers, most of them Canadian, but these days I’m trying to force myself out of my comfort zone a little and read new things. I’ve read four new (that is, new-to-me) writers over the past two months or so, and I enjoyed all of the books tremendously. I’d like to say I have a life outside of my work (in which life I imagine myself reading Dickens endlessly, and girls’ mystery stories), but at this point that would be a lie.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Finish a novel. Visit the Louvre. Learn how to throw a boomerang and do cartwheels. Oh, millions of things.
16 - 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?
High school Latin teacher seems likely, or librarian, though I’ve also always had kind of a hankering to go to law school. Not in order to become a lawyer, but just to memorize tons of facts and contemplate justice and take really hard exams. I like taking exams. But if I could pick anything at all to do, regardless of talent or temperament, I’d like to be a musician.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was in the first grade, and I’ve never seriously entertained any other career ambition. So for me it’s a vocation. I really didn’t feel like I had a choice in the matter.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I’m just finishing Nino Ricci’s The Origin of Species, which I’ve been loving. The last film I remember really liking was Three Comrades, a Frank Borzage movie from the thirties. F. Scott Fitzgerald helped adapt the screenplay.
19 - What are you currently working on?
I’m working on a novel based on one of the short stories in my collection, in which I pick up with the same characters twenty years later.