For the latest in our interview series on the writing process, Madeleine Thien offers Chelsea Rozansky her honest and deeply felt responses about the possibilities and limitations of writing. Thien is the author of the award-winning novel Do Not Say We Have Nothing. She is also a contributor to Brick, and now member of our editorial board.
Brick: In your piece in Brick 100, you tell of an uncanny closeness you felt to Virginia Woolf while walking through the valley where she used to live and listening to Mrs. Dalloway on audiobook. And in Do Not Say We Have Nothing,touchstones to Chinese literature are woven throughout. It seems there is a literary canon alive in your work. Are you cognizant of your own writing’s placement in a literary history as you write? Why do you call upon tradition in your writing?
Madeleine Thien: I had been thinking a great deal about what literature can and, perhaps more painfully, cannot do. I imagined Do Not Say We Have Nothing as a book of books, existing during a time—in this case China during the Cultural Revolution—when history and memory are expected to serve the political orthodoxy. Believing otherwise, or expressing otherwise, becomes extremely dangerous.
In the novel’s book of books, life’s fragmentation and unorthodoxy are smuggled into fictional works. These hand-copied novels are like a hidden room, both as a text and within themselves. What does inner freedom look like? How do we live with it? Literature and art can’t save anyone, but they are a record of different attempts to see clearly, to remember and exist.
To answer the last part of the question, tradition does fascinate me, and also copying, newness, and originality—and their relation to politics. The Khmer Rouge in Cambodia called its revolution Year Zero, and in China, Mao Zedong was willing to sacrifice tens of millions of lives for his vision of the revolutionary society. Both regimes believed their citizens had to be purged of unacceptable ideas. I was more idealistic when I was younger. The idea of entirely reimagining the world and human relations is, of course, powerful and persuasive and moving. But people are full of illusions and partialities. Our knowledge is precarious, and we are easily won over by rhetoric. Most revolutions do, in the end, replicate the familiar power structures. So I think we might ask ourselves more difficult questions and find a way to articulate more painful answers.
Brick: In that same Brick 100 piece, you write, “I turn to writing to piece together character and time, to see the world that gives rise to action, twists inward to thought, and breathes out as character.” Is writing, then, essentially about character and time?
Thien: I think it could be, perhaps in the sense of the flux of both those things. Writing is linear, contained in time, and the mental images it creates are static—yet, if all goes well, those images and people move and transform before our eyes. So maybe writing is partly about attempting to hold something still while having the truthful experience that nothing at all is still, that the characters and the time expand far beyond the boundaries of the language. Everything spills over.
Brick: How do character and time work with one another in Do Not Say We Have Nothing?
Thien: I was experimenting with musical time, with the variations and canons of a piece of music that recurs throughout the novel, Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Bach’s motif (taken from a phrase in the opening aria) is rearranged with so much playfulness and rigour through thirty variations and canons. Unexpectedly, they give the listener a feeling of incredible freedom: we experience euphoria, sorrow, melancholy, joy. So the music is both a structure for the novel and a way of trying to make space for the vast inner lives of the characters. They are trying to survive, and believe in, a revolution that holds that there is no inner life, only a public one that must uphold the revolution and its ideology.
Bach always seems to me to be creating time. He makes space where there seems to be none and makes something feel eternal in a finite space. I thought a novel, which is also a book of books, could imagine something similar.
Brick: Do you have a writing routine?
Thien: Only to have a routine, which for me is so important! The regularity of writing and thinking, every day, inside the novel.
Melanie Mah is the author of the 2017 Trillium Award–winning novel The Sweetest One. She also contributed to Brick’s one hundredth issue with the thoughtful and charged “Grave, Prince Albert” and is currently at work on an intergenerational memoir. For our series on the writing process, Chelsea Rozansky had the delight of interviewing Mah about her craft.
Brick: I’m curious about the narrator’s voice in “Grave, Prince Albert,” which appeared in Brick 100. It is written in the second person and comes across both like an internal monologue and, at the same time, a recollection from a perhaps wiser vantage. For instance, you write, “Your father will tell you to slow down, even though you weren’t going that fast.” Why did you choose this perspective?
Melanie Mah: I used second person in this and some other essays in my upcoming memoir for a few reasons. First, I often find there’s something stodgy and less exciting about a lot of the first-person memoirs I’ve read. There’s something I dislike about the “I” construction at times, especially in memoir. Plus, baring painful truths I’ve rarely articulated to anyone outside my tiny inner circle in first person would have been too hard. It hasn’t read right in early drafts. Second person is a kind of barrier, a mind game I can play to feel protected enough to write the fullest truths I can about really scary stuff concerning myself and people I love. I also find second person stylistically exciting, much more alive in general but especially for this project.
It’s like I’m addressing myself as “you,” but for this to be true, there must also be a “me” doing the addressing. (It’s complicated, I know…) But then if there is a “me,” that’s great because then the space between “me” and “you” becomes a place where I, the writer, can talk. Realizing certain things about my life and the lives of my family members has been a real process for me. Our understandings of ourselves and the people we love can change, as can our relationships and conceptions of these relationships. This is something I’ve had to think about a fair bit while writing this book of “current” takes on things that happened in my own and my family’s past.
Brick: Is there a different process between writing fiction and writing non-fiction? I find myself working more comfortably in non-fiction, because I can mould my memories to the structure of a memoir or an essay—although that could be an act of fictionalizing. With fiction, plot overwhelms me. Do you start a work of fiction knowing where it’s going to end (which, let’s say, is the case with narrative non-fiction), or does it unravel as you work?
Mah: I would say I don’t usually know in advance where any of my stories will end. With memoir, I know what some of the facts will be, but often I begin not knowing much at all. The story in memoir for me is not just what happened; it’s also how I feel about what happened. And how I tell the story—with what kind of voice and style and which metaphors—and in what order I place which bits to make which stories and resonances. (This is doubly true, given that so many of the facts I’d like to have are lost to time or for various other reasons.) Being about a third of the way into this project, I’m coming to see that writing this memoir is actually way more exciting and creative than I thought it would be. And sure, parts of writing memoir feel like going on autopilot—like you learn x fact and then suddenly the story has a certain place it wants to go—but this is something it has in common with fiction. Like, I’ll be writing a piece of fiction, and then out of the blue I’ll have a strong image in my head that I’ll write down and that might change the whole direction of the piece. One might say that in fiction you have the latitude to change or omit things, and that’s true, but some details really want to stay in, and these details can give you tentative, or even more permanent, structure.
One thing that’s different between the two genres, obviously, is the level or kind of responsibility you have. In fiction, I try so hard to make everything just so. In non-fiction, too, but there there’s an added pressure to get all your facts right, and more pressure thinking about whom you might hurt with your truth and how you might avoid doing that. I don’t think fiction, even fiction inspired by real life, can hurt people as much as memoir.
Brick: I recently had a conversation about whether you can hear your own voice in your writing. I like when I read the work of a friend and I can tell, because I know how they talk, that what I’m reading came from them. There are similarities between the family in The Sweetest One and your own family. But beyond those autobiographical details, do you read yourself in your fiction? Can you hear your voice?
Mah: Given that part of my editing process involves my reading the piece over and over for how it sounds, I must. But do we always know what the sound of our own voice is? What I love about writing is that sometimes it gives me the chance or power to say something I never would in real life, or only to a select few. Often my narrators sound like me but more anxious or brasher or braver or more self-assured or in some other way different.
Brick: Do you have a writing routine?
Mah: Yes: Avoid writing at all costs. Clean the house, meet a friend, exercise, clip your nails, buy groceries, cook. When you’ve run out of everything else, you will be forced to start writing. Just kidding, sort of.
I try to write every day, often in a university library, usually in the early afternoon and into the evening. (I like it here because it’s clean and quiet, because there are lots of books around, because there’s somewhere to grab food if I’ve missed packing a lunch.) The best writing day is one when I have nothing happening at night—no family, friends, or boyfriend to see, no events to go to, etc. On those nights, my mind can stretch out like a long road or wide field. Having too much time can be hard on the writing, too, so I’m glad I only have one long night of writing per week. With one long night per week, I feel the need to make it count. Having a time limit can also help me churn out work.
I have a document that states the various contest and special issue deadlines (as well as residency and grant deadlines, etc.) I want to apply to. Some days, I start by looking at this list and seeing if anything that would work for a deadline is ready or close to ready. If so, I try to look at those pieces first.
If things are going well, I take fewer breaks. If the piece or its subject matter is too intense or scary, I might take more breaks. Another reason I write in the library is that I imagine the other people there are watching me and judging me if I check social media too much, even though I’ve seen people watching sports or music videos on their devices. (Do I judge them? I’m not at liberty to say.) Some people write without any kind of block. To the rest of us, I say play whatever mind games you can with yourself to churn out pages, within reason.
For Immediate Release – Madeleine Thien and David Chariandy join Brick’s editorial board
TORONTO/ May 2, 2018 – Brick is excited to announce two new members of its editorial board: Scotiabank Giller Prize–winning author Madeleine Thien and Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize winner David Chariandy. Thien and Chariandy will be joining current editors Michael Helm, Rebecca Silver Slayter, Laurie D. Graham, Liz Johnston, Martha Sharpe, and Dionne Brand starting with issue 102, after the publication of Brick 101 at the end of this month.
“Very humbled to join this magazine I’ve long loved,” Thien said, “and to read, think and be transported alongside its editors and writers. Brick’s celebration of the overheard, the deeply attentive, the comic, and the true has brought Canadian writers to the world, and writers from across the lines into our imaginations. I’m so thrilled to be part of it.”
Chariandy and Thien have a history with Brick. Both have been contributors to the magazine, and Thien has been a contributing editor since 2016.
Thien is a fiction writer, who has published a collection of short stories and three novels. Her most recent novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing (2016), won the Governor General’s Award for English-language fiction and the Scotiabank Giller Prize. Thien was born in Vancouver and now lives in Montreal.
Chariandy is the author of two acclaimed novels, and his third book, I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You: A Letter to My Daughter, will bereleased at the end of May. Chariandy grew up in Toronto and currently lives in Vancouver, where he teaches in the English department at Simon Fraser University.
Brick publisher Laurie D. Graham says of these new additions, “We are so lucky to have Madeleine and David join Brick’s editorial board. We are all great admirers of their work. Their literary sensibilities suit Brick down to the ground. . . . They were both a perfect fit in our eyes, and I’m thrilled they agreed to come on as editors.”
Thien’s and Chariandy’s inclusion on Brick’s editorial board will help the magazine further represent its widespread audience and publish work that better reflects the cultural breadth of the literary world.
“I know they’ll bring to the magazine exhilarating, beautiful writing from writers doing urgent work,” says Graham. “We’re excited about the places they’ll take Brick.”
Chariandy and Thien will be joining Brick’s editors after some changes to the board. Michael Ondaatje, Michael Redhill, and Linda Spalding recently stepped down, Spalding doing so after the publication of Brick 100 last winter. She took the reins as publisher in 1985 and was involved in making seventy-five issues of Brick. Over the past four years, Martha Sharpe, Dionne Brand, and Liz Johnston joined Brick’s board of editors.
Brick is an international literary journal based out of Toronto. Established in 1977 and published twice a year, Brick features essays, interviews, memoirs, travelogues, belles lettres, and unusual musings of all kinds by the world’s best-loved writers. For more information on Brick, please visit www.brickmag.com or contact Liz Johnston (details below).
Come melt away those winter woes and join us as we launch our Summer 2018 issue, Brick 101, on Monday, June 4, 7 pm, at the Gladstone’s Melody Bar, 1214 Queen Street West in Toronto. The event will be hosted by publisher Laurie D. Graham and feature readings by Lynn Crosbie, Geetha Sukumaran, Ahilan, and Canisia Lubrin.
Pick up our newest issue and bask in the resplendent words of contributors Tsitsi Dangarembga, Lynn Crosbie, J. M. Tyree, Eduardo Halfon, Rachel Andrews, Anosh Irani, Canisia Lubrin, and many more. We will have some hot summer deals for current and future subscribers!
The Gladstone Hotel’s Melody Bar is fully accessible, and it has gender-neutral washrooms. Further details about venue specifications can be found here, and please feel free to get in touch with Brick (firstname.lastname@example.org) or contact the venue directly if you have any questions or concerns.
Brick has been fortunate enough to acquire an extensive collection of Jim Harrison’s fiction, kindly donated to us by Robert Cove, to offer for sale to his devoted fans.
Most of these editions are first printings, published in Canada or the U.S. Included in this collection are variously signed editions of some of Harrison’s most notable works, such as Legends of the Fall, The Road Home, Julip, and The Great Leader.
Click on individual titles below to find detailed descriptions and photographs. If you have further questions before making a purchase, please email email@example.com.
For the second instalment in our writing process investigation, author Lynn Crosbie, never stopping short of candour, kindly answered some questions over email. Crosbie’s tender and sensitive essay “Francis Albert Crosbie, 2000–2017” will appear in Brick 101.
Brick: In your introduction to “Francis Albert Crosbie, 2000–2017” you note that you wrote the essay in a state of grief. Do you write about events as you immediately experience them? Does time and distance play a role in the work?
Lynn Crosbie: I generally do not write about things as I experience them, unless I wish to reduplicate my condition. I wrote Paul’s Case, for example, as the Bernardo trial was underway, throughout the summer of 1995, hoping, in part, to exhibit my shock and horror.
Or if the writing is urgent. It is important to write a eulogy in a timely fashion; that this kind of writing—writing that is compelled by grief and formality—be raw and cooked. But so much gets forgotten in haste—Frank met and barked at Rob Ford! He was the first living creature to walk under the Dufferin Overpass, scooping the mayor, cops, and horses! And much more—I recommend the vigilant editing of fast writing, so to speak.
One is otherwise best advised to put some distance between experience and writing: how else to compose best the true lies (I always think of that babe in The Crow drawling, “I like the pretty lies”) that constitute all creative non-fiction?
Brick: I was touched by your framing of “Francis Albert Crosbie 2000–2017” as a kind of substitute for a newspaper obituary. There is a public service that obituaries do: they memorialize the deceased and provide information about the funeral. I wonder if your piece is providing a service. Or, put frankly but perhaps a little differently, do you write as a way of processing—of understanding or healing?
Crosbie: Writing is not therapy, which is entirely extemporized and not self-motivated.
I can’t say if my piece provides a service to anyone but me, but I hope that anyone who has ever loved someone as much as I love Francis may feel empathy or a correlative emotion.
I healed in writing this only in that I was able to get some of Francis’s story—a picaresque one, loaded with joy and tragedies—out there after having been declined the opportunity to have it appear in a newspaper with the real obituaries.
Brick: You are a novelist as well as a poet. What draws you to work in one form versus the other? What are the benefits and limitations of each?
Crosbie: I very rarely write poetry anymore. My last book, however, had me returning to this form for the first time in almost ten years. It is a collection of linked poems that form a sustained narrative: I would never write a (single) poem for no reason. This is 2017’s The Corpses of the Future, an elegy for my father, who is very ill. Because of the terrible shock of his illness—which began with a fall and moved very quickly into emergency brain surgery that left him blind and in the throes of dementia—poetry, which fragments so well and which has an inner logic that is so suitable to articulating pain, was the best medium. Additionally, I view my father’s disease’s expression as a kind of poetry; that is, a symbolic language requiring different skills to negotiate.
I like writing fiction better because it is so roomy.
Poetry is limited by its practitioners. Whatever the dominant model is chokeholds everyone else.
Brick: Do you have a writing routine?
Crosbie: When I had two emergency back surgeries several years ago, I started writing in bed like a hippie. Then Francis became less and less mobile so there I remained: drawings of him snoozing/being adorable appear in the proofs of my last two books. As to the work, I write when I have something to say, or a project I am hot for, and in that case, I write constantly, researching as I go, dropping into K-holes, and feeling like I’m in love.
One of the things we love to read at Brick is a writer writing about writing. Fortunately, Brick’s contributors are not only wonderful talents, they are also kind enough to share their insights. In a series on the writing process, our editorial intern Chelsea Rozansky asked some of Brick’s writers about their craft. First, the ever-witty author of Bellevue Square, Michael Redhill, took the time to answer some questions over email.
Brick: The piece you wrote in Brick 100, “Enlightenment,” is very funny. I had a writing teacher this year tell me that most writers don’t do humour well. Is there a trick to it?
Michael Redhill: Well, I’ve never been afraid to be ridiculous, and I think that’s part of it. Deadpan stupidity is just about my favourite mode. Some of Steve Martin’s essays are the funniest things ever written, and they are seriously, committedly, stupid. And although I worry she’s been forgotten, Erma Bombeck was brilliant too. She said, “Humourists can never start to take themselves seriously. It’s literary suicide.”
Brick: I find that when I write a personal piece or memoir, I default to humour, but I write much more earnestly and sentimentally on other subjects. I think it’s because when I tell stories about myself, I find that the joke tends to be on me, but I’m sure there’s also a defence mechanism at work. In recent pieces for Brick, like “Enlightenment,”or “My Fame”from Brick 99, you cast yourself as a kind of clever fool. Why do you choose to write in the first person when you are doing humour?
Redhill: First person is almost always best in writing humour. Stephen Leacock wrote almost exclusively in first person, as does David Sedaris. I think the key is that first person draws you in close, where it’s even a little uncomfortable, and it tells you something really silly or dissonant, but it does so apparently not knowing it’s silly or dissonant. I also find that writing in third person makes things a bit arch.
Brick: Do you have a writing routine?
Redhill: Chaotic. But generally, I’ll try to write five hundred words a day, five days out of seven, and I can do that with two two-and-a-half-hour-long writing/rewriting/researching sessions. Many days I only get one session in. And I go silent for periods that can be up to a couple months in length. However, when I’m focussed I feel locked in and I get the writing done.
Brick: Has winning the Giller Prize for Bellevue Square changed your approach to writing? By that I mean, is it easier to write when you’re not broke?
Redhill: It is much easier to write when you are not broke. I’m busier now, and more productive, than I have been in years, and I like it. It means I might stay afloat. The Giller has changed the trajectory of my career, but it won’t change how I approach my work. I’ve had something like a working routine for a long time.
A Very Special Brick Panel at the Toronto Reference Library
As spring approaches, save the date for one final event to mark our Brick 100 celebrations. On Tuesday, May 8, award-winning writers Teju Cole, Madeleine Thien, and Dionne Brand will come together for a wide-ranging discussion of the value, tradition, and work of literature at the Bram and Bluma Appel Salon in the Toronto Reference Library. Hosted by Eleanor Wachtel, this free event is brought to you in partnership with the Appel Salon, with support from the Toronto Arts Council. Reserve your tickets on April 17.
If you haven’t had a chance to sit down with this one yet, stop everything. In this wide-ranging conversation about art, life, and politics, Ai Weiwei tells Eleanor Wachtel about his father’s imprisonment and his own, surviving in New York as a young artist, and listening to a woman in a refugee camp play the piano. “Art is what’s in our hearts for peace,” he says. This conversation is a must-read.
Brick’s editors are at it again. Our Summer 2018 issue is taking shape and will include new writing by Lynn Crosbie, Eduardo Halfon, Anosh Irani, and more. Here are some of the pieces you can look forward to:
Ed Pavlić on James Baldwin’s trips to the American South
poetry by Cyrus Console
a letter from Martha Gellhorn to Eleanor Roosevelt
and Myrna Kostash on Greek writer Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke
In Brick‘s current issue, Jan Zwicky describes the experience of meaning as “the experience of a gestalt—either a shift out of chaos or a shift from one coherent arrangement to another, the perception of their resonant relation.” For Zwicky, meaning involves the arresting of individual perceptions into a coherent whole, an attempt to quiet the chaos of a world mediated by the sometimes resonant, and sometimes dissonant, ecologies of nature, language, and technology.
Alongside Zwicky’s piece is an equally arresting image by Jonathan Luckhurst, an Edmonton-based artist whose conceptual photography and print work respond to such ecological relationships and our perceptions of them. He has received grants from the Canada Council for the Arts, the Alberta Foundation for the Arts, and the Edmonton Arts Council and was the only Canadian artist selected for the 2015 Vancouver Biennale International Residency Program.
Many of Luckhurst’s images—often untitled—incorporate analogue technologies, such as negative overlaying, photocopying, and light projection, to construct expressive biomorphic shapes that resemble and resist intelligible forms found in our natural and manufactured landscapes. This exchange between the familiar and the alien produces a sublimity that is achingly present, but also hard to locate. These images probe deeply into the dissonant exchange between landscapes, not in search of meaning per se, but seeking the gaps in seemingly coherent surfaces.
Looking for gifts for the literature lovers in your life? Partake of one of our holiday gift subscription deals (Canadian, U.S., or overseas) and send two years of Brick to friends and family looking for the kind of moving, hilarious, urgent writing they’ll find in our pages—for less!
Or why not get all of your holiday shopping done right here? We’ve got a hunch that more than one person on your list would love a subscription to Brick, and now’s your chance to spoil them all (while saving even more money): send two two-year gift subscriptions for just $66 in Canada or the U.S. or $86 overseas.
We’re keeping the spirit alive for as long as we can: holiday gift subscription deals expire on January 31, 2018.
“Do we need to muster the political will required to take the measures still available? Absolutely. But do we also need to consider how to encounter the reality of climate change, how to feel it, how to live with feeling it? I think we do, though it scares me,” Sue Sinclair writes in Brick 100 (launching Monday, December 4, at Toronto’s Super Wonder Gallery). Her essay is showcased at Lit Hub.
All of us at Brick have noticed a new urgency in the work we’ve published over the past year. Maybe you’ve noticed it too. It can certainly be found in Brick’s 100th issue. This urgency—encompassing grief for the environment, alarm over authoritarianism, and rage at ongoing injustice—has reasserted the purpose of Brick and reaffirmed the role writing and art can play: as Ai Weiwei puts it in his interview with Eleanor Wachtel in Brick 100, which you’ll get to read very soon, “Art is what is in our hearts for peace.” Our goal, with your support, is to continue providing you that art, the most eclectic of it, the most urgent of it.
There are many ways to support Brick, tailored to suit any lit-lover’s budget:
Donate $50 or more and have your name etched on our Brick Wall, which appears in every issue, as well as on Brick’s website. Impress your friends!
Become a cherished monthly sustainer. Donate any amount monthly and we’ll send you a free issue.
Donate minimum $101 and you’ll receive a copy of The New Brick Reader, our second anthology of the very best of Brick, published by House of Anansi Press. Contributors include Mavis Gallant, Dionne Brand, Helen Garner, Salman Rushdie, Michael Ondaatje, W. G. Sebald, and lots more.
Donate at least $250 and you’ll receive a book by one of Brick’s past or present editors (including Michael Redhill’s Giller-winning Bellevue Square and Linda Spalding’s new novel, A Reckoning).
Help us continue to foster the most urgent writing. As we tread into triple digits, I hope you’ll become, and I hope you’ll stay, part of our beloved group of donors and friends.
Our heartiest, most exuberant congratulations to former Brick editor and publisher and current humour columnist (and future on-call ocelot smuggler?) Michael Redhill. We’re bursting with joy at his Scotiabank Giller Prize win for his wild, funny, thrilling new novel, Bellevue Square! Don’t miss the first instalment of “Things I Know Nothing About” in Brick 100—out very, very soon.
And definitely don’t miss the man himself at our launch here in Toronto on Monday, December 4, at the Super Wonder Gallery from 7:30 until—well, until we’ve partied ourselves out!