A Writer’s Q&A

cropped-final-copyGiven to me by my publisher Crowsnest Books, this post is a sort of interview, to help me begin to actually talk about this new book of mine. What We See in the Smoke is coming May 2019!
Q. Have you always wanted to be a writer?
A: Actually, yes. My earliest attempts at writing predate my literacy – dictating my fictions to family and babysitters and any adult with a pencil who would do their best to transcribe while I would jump up and down with that stutter “and then, and then, and then” that 4 year old’s like to use. My parents might still have those stories somewhere. There was a brief interlude where I considered dual careers as an astronaut and archeologist. But everything always comes back to writing.
Q. What inspired you to begin writing your novel? Did you draw from personal experiences?
A: This was my 6th attempt at a book since I was a kid. I had experienced a lot of failure and self-doubt, and I think those feelings helped to fuel some of these stories. It’s hard to say precisely where this story was conceived. I think working on The Spectatorial – UofT’s speculative fiction journal, along with the creative workshop run by Robert McGill (Once We Had a Country), helped. There are bits of my experiences in here, but far more I made up. I love science fiction, and I like the act of telling stories. I don’t think all stories need to be true.

Q. Which aspects of the writing process present a challenge, and how do you overcome them?

A: Sometimes, I’d write myself into a corner in an early draft, and have to dig myself out. Sharon English (author of Zero Gravity) helped supervise a considerable chunk of this story, and often the problem was that what I’d written didn’t carry the meaning I wanted. In some places, she helped me rewrite and focus and tighten my characters and narratives, but in some areas, I’d throw the whole story out and start over. Chapter 2 of this story was originally titled Planet 57, but I rewrote it and changed it so much, it became my own inside joke to rename it Planet 58, letting the scrapped 57 become just another of the narrator’s imagined alternate realities.

Q. Do you have any quirky writing habits, such as a favourite snack or music playlist?

A: Oh man, there are so many. I like to create a playlist while outlining a story – often made up of rock or jazz – and I’d let it play while I was going about my day, on the bike, or running, or just walking around. Then when I’d actually start writing, I’d have to switch to movie soundtracks! If I write to music with lyrics, I end up just writing down the lyrics. I also find that I have to get up and walk around each time I finish writing a scene of a story, sometimes sitting down pretty far from where I’d started. I’d also doodle terrible artwork for the covers of each story while coming up with them. I still have some of those drawings somewhere.

Q. What have you learned through your writing?

A: I didn’t always know what I was trying to say in my writing, so I think I learn a lot about myself as I go. Sometimes I finish a story, and then read it over and go “oh, so that’s what I care about!” writing is a wonderful place to dump all your fears and hopes and anxieties and turn them into something beautiful.

On a more technical level: I realized that you should learn how to write dialogue by listening to real people. I’m half-deaf, so that’s tricky for me, but it’s true. If you try to learn to write dialogue by reading it in older books, you’ll just come out sounding like a worse version of those older writers.

Q: What is it about the short story format that you enjoy? Do you prefer writing short stories over long form?

A: Originally, I wasn’t interested in short works at all. But hanging around literary journals helped me to fall in love with them. In a short story, every word has to count, there can be no fluff. I love that. Speculative fiction was really birthed in short works in early 20th century magazines, and that’s a legacy I care about. Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles was a significant influence on me. I also care a lot about Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s works, and I often found that the best parts of his novels were when he was just throwing out short story pitches! But then again, my “short” stories can be very long, so maybe I like to hang out somewhere in the middle.

Q: Many of the stories in What We See in the Smoke revolve around the city of Toronto and it’s current (and future) inhabitants. What is it about Toronto that makes for a great setting for the book? A: I live here.
Toronto is a city that changes a lot – not always for the better. I think it can be a city that has trouble holding onto history sometimes, we tear too many things down. But, I think that if you set a story in a location that is real, it’s disingenuous to place it somewhere you don’t know. If I’d set What We See in the Smoke in Chicago or Paris or New York, it would have sucked. I don’t know those places well enough. I know Toronto. But the people in this story are like people anywhere. They are in my head.
Q: Of the stories in What We See in the Smoke, do you have any favourites? Why? 

A: My favourite story is the one I haven’t written yet. Once a writer’s favourite story is behind them, the show might as well be over. That being said, different chapters in this book serve different purposes, and I love them for various reasons. A Carnival World has one of my favourite character scenes between a parent and child, and The War with Space is maybe my favourite speculative concept in the book. But really I love them all, and I don’t think I could choose just one without adding endless stipulations.

Published by Ben Berman Ghan

Hi! My name is Ben Berman Ghan. I’m Jewish Settler, writer, editor, and academic based in Tkaronto/Toronto, site of Treaty 13 and Williams Treaty territory, currently working on my MA at Ryerson University's Literatures of Modernity program. I am the author of many short stories, a few essays, and the fix-up novel What We See in the Smoke (Crowsnest Books 2019)

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