articles and short fiction have appeared in Canadian magazines and journals including Refuge Journal, Descant, The Dalhousie Review, Exile, White Wall Review, TOK: Writing the New Toronto, Room and The New Quarterly. Finding Edward is her first novel. Sheila’s writing has been supported by the Toronto Arts Council, Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Finding Edward is my first book, and although I can’t say that it’s changed my life, it sure has been fun. My previous work has been short fiction published in literary journals. They’ve never drawn much attention. But I’m hearing about the novel from all sorts of people, some whom I’d never have imagined would be so engaged with my characters, Cyril, and Edward, and their stories.
2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
I studied literary journalism in university for my Journalism degree. I rediscovered my love for writing there. After that I took a couple of creative writing courses, and started to explore short fiction. Fiction just came naturally. I’ve never written poetry, but have the greatest admiration for poets.
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 can say that the writing comes fairly easily once the idea is there. I don’t work from an outline, but head off exploring with the central character. I often have no idea what will happen until I’ve actually written it down. I rewrite a lot, but find that lots of what’s written in a first draft is generally fairly together, it just needs lots of editing — usually removing extraneous information and verbiage.
4 - Where does a work of prose 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 knew that I was writing a novel from its first pages. It had to be a long story because it was largely about one young character’s search for the history of a much older man. Lots had to happen over an extended period of time.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I do enjoy pubic readings. I prefer to read shorter pieces, and I love it when people ask questions. In fact, readings have been central to getting Finding Edward published. I’d given up on ever finding a publisher who’d take it. But a literary friend, who’d seen me read from the manuscript at least a couple of times, liked what she heard. So when my editor, Marc Cote, at Cormorant Books, met her for lunch and asked whether she had any writer leads, she told him about my book. The rest is my happy history with long form publishing!
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 do have a number of concerns about the questions I’m asking, and how my characters’ experiences will be perceived by different audiences. Central to my novel is an exploration of what it means to be racialized in Canadian society. Race is a social construct. That’s a concept that’s hugely challenging for all sorts of people. Both Finding Edward’s main characters are mixed race, Black and white. I’m challenging the fundamentals of systemic racism and revealing the Black histories that have been deliberately hidden from Canadian mainstream knowledge.
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 should do their best work, whatever it is. They should be as honest as they can be about what they know and how they feel.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I don’t have so much experience working with outside editors. But I do think that it’s essential. Having the work reviewed by someone who is fresh to your writing and story is such a privilege. And, of course, an editor is also invested in getting the best story that you as a writer can tell. My editor, Marc Cote, asked me to give him more: more from the minor characters, more history, more Edward, more Cyril. It was in writing the ‘more’ that I found the depth that I believe the novel now contains and delivers.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
If you’re having trouble writing, just set aside a few minutes to write one line; or one paragraph. Get something down, more will follow.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (short stories to the novel)? What do you see as the appeal?
It was relatively easy to move from short fiction to the novel. It’s true that the business of plot and character development needs a lot more attention. Timelines and other ‘minor’ details can really trip you up. I wrote the first draft of the novel when I was with a terrific writers’ group. Most of us had published short stories and were trying long form for the first time. So that helped a lot. One challenge is that it can seem a very long way to the end of a novel, but it’s certainly most rewarding once you get there!
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?
I’ve been out of any writing routine for so long that I can honestly say I don’t have one. I do my best work in the mornings, so when I do get back to routines, I’ll start with that. And if things are going really well, I might work for as long as four hours. I think I’m pretty much done for the day after that.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
If I’m feeling stuck I start reading. Only very good work by great writers. And I walk. A lot. Ideally in settings with lots of trees, or open spaces. And I listen, to the wind, birds, and overheard conversations
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
I wasn’t born in Jamaica, and I’ve never worked there. But I have spent many years going back and forth to spend time stretches of quality time with my parents. I love the scent that is immediately there in the hot, tropical air when you get off the plane and walk across the tarmac. It’s extraordinary: a spicy, fragrant, warm deliciousness that makes me feel immediately at 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?
I think stories come from many places and inspirations. I wrote a short story after seeing a contemporary art exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario. My character was an artist who made giant installations of organic materials. That was a really good story! I love writing about the process of creating art. One or two others of my short stories are structured around the enterprise of gathering and shaping materials into visual art forms.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
These days, I’m particularly drawn to nature writing in all forms. I want to know lots about our natural world. It’s so full of miracles and tragedy and magic.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
So many things. I have an endless list. What’s truly amazing is that some of those things will probably, actually, happen!
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?
I haven’t really been a writer. I’ve made a living doing other things, some in film and television production. Some in the non-profit world, particularly around social justice issues. These days I’m pretty much focused on climate change projects. But now that I can call myself a writer — you get to do that when you’re a published novelist, I think — I’ll stay being a writer for the foreseeable future.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I love the writing process. Somebody said, writing is a conversation that you have with yourself. That’s what it feels like to me. A lovely, long, rich conversation that tells me about my concerns and preoccupations, state of mind, fears and hopes. It often surprises me. When I’ve finished a piece I sometimes wonder where all of that character and story came from. But I know that it is a part of me.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
The last great book I read is The Salt Path, by Raynor Winn. It’s a memoir, a truly incredible story that had me from the start. When I finished the book I went straight to YouTube to find an interview with her. I needed to know more. That’s the first time I’ve had that experience.
It’s been a long stretch of pandemic and I haven’t been in a cinema for far too long. Toronto’s Hot Docs festival is one of my favourite experiences. Maybe next year.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I am working on ideas for the next novel. Now that I’ve had such a great response to Finding Edward, I’m pretty confident that I can write another. I’d started a couple of things over the past few years, and a new idea has recently come to mind. I need to decide which to spend my time on, and get started. Back to that morning routine with long walks in the afternoons!