somewhere else for fifteen minutes
An Interview with Madeleine Thien
Interviewed by Mandy Grathwohl
Madeleine Thien is an award-winning Canadian author. Her most recent novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, won the Governor General's Award for English-language fiction, the 2016 Scotiabank Giller Prize, and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. She is also the author of Dogs at the Perimeter, Certainty, and the short story collection Simple Recipes. You can find her on Twitter at @madeleinethien, and visit her website at madeleinethien.com.
TMR: You're currently on tour for your book Do Not Say We Have Nothing. Are you able to work while you're on tour, or do you set writing aside while you're there?
MT: I've been on the road almost continuously since September, with some time off over the holidays, and this will last until December of this year. So I'm trying to teach myself to write on the road. I've said yes to a number of small things, freelance work and essays and stories and things like that, so that's mostly what I'm trying to keep on top of.
TMR: Do you find that you're not yourself when you're not writing for a while?
MT: Yes. For me, writing is my way of thinking. If I'm not consistently writing, I'm not processing everything that's coming at me. Even though it's transmuted into fiction, it's still my way of piecing together what's happening now, around me, so I think that's why when I'm not writing, there's a level of anxiety and bewilderment that builds up in my thinking process.
TMR: There was an interview you did with the Banff Centre where you discuss how your past two books have taken you 5 years to write. In regards to what's going on in the world right now--the rise of these very far-right people, with Brexit, with Donald Trump--how are you processing that through writing?
MT: I've been writing small pieces. A couple essays that are quite directly looking at what's happening now, and some fictional pieces that I can feel are getting refracted through what's happening now, even if it's much more indirect.
Because I've spent ten years looking at totalitarian regimes and resistance movements that then solidified into dictatorships, what's happening around us is not that unfamiliar.
Because I've spent ten years looking at totalitarian regimes and resistance movements that then solidified into dictatorships, what's happening around us is not that unfamiliar. What's not unfamiliar is the way we really have to keep struggling with what kind of just society we want to make, what are the means that we choose to create those just societies, what means are possible, and what means actually become unjust in the unfolding of events. Everything is an ongoing movement, where what is just never really stays just. Everything is always mutating as it moves through power and powerlessness.
TMR: Why has this become something that you've involved yourself with so much, spending ten years learning about totalitarian regimes and writing about them?
MT: I felt that we were living very much in the aftermath of these events, without necessarily being attentive to them. We were living in a tide of history while we were existing in a contemporary society that was very much focused on a narrow sliver of the present. For me, trying to figure out how I want to live in this world, is very much about thinking about the kind of world that has been created around me and the conditions in which I'm living.
There's something in the psyche of people that never really changes. There's something in the cycle of politics that is recurring, so you've almost got this sense that a writer might have predicted the future, but in fact they may have simply been paying attention to the past.
TMR: Do you think art has a role to play, in terms of helping people to change that? Specifically literature?
MT: I very much think so, especially in the ways in which art takes us away from ourselves and the particular ways of looking at the world that we may take for granted.
It's a hard question, it's almost the biggest question of all. I tend to turn it around by thinking about the ways, rather than as someone who makes art but as someone who experiences it. Someone who has read for a very long time, or who loves visual art and so on, I know that they constantly startle me into another perspective, which pushes me to the borders of things. It's a way of making yourself smaller, but also radically shifting perspective.
TMR: There's a quote from an interview with The Guardian where you said that you "would walk to and from school in quite rough neighborhoods, clutching these magical things, books, that made an imaginative space other people could inhabit." What books shaped you into the writer that you are, when you were younger?
MT: I read pretty much whatever was at hand. I'm sure I made my way through the entire elementary school library. I remember, when I was very young, what just happened to be there was a copy of Dumbo. Later on, I remember loving a children's writer named Madeleine L'Engle, and I read all of her books.
I read everything that was on the shelves. Harriet the Spy. John Irving. At my school we had to read fifteen minutes a day after lunch. There was a quiet reading time, and everyone would sit at their desks and read. If you didn't have a book, you would get detention. I remember a day that I had forgotten a book, so I just got whatever was on the rack at the grocery store nearby, and it happened to be John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany.
It was great to be in your own imaginative space for those fifteen or twenty minutes.
TMR: What could you say made you want to be a writer?
MT: I think it was the library more than anything else. It was so magical to me. I was quite a lonely child, and my parents were working a lot, my siblings were older, and books were my companions. For me it was the most phenomenal thing, even more than a magician; the idea that you could create something out of what seemed to be nothing and have this portal that a reader could just walk right into, and exist in this imaginary world. It was more magical than an airplane, or a television, or anything.
For me it was the most phenomenal thing, even more than a magician; the idea that you could create something out of what seemed to be nothing and have this portal that a reader could just walk right into, and exist in this imaginary world. It was more magical than an airplane, or a television, or anything.
Reading teaches you very early on interesting things about intimacy and empathy, and this idea that between two strangers' minds there can be so much in common -- it feels like they're speaking directly to you. Depending on how a child grows up or what kind of household it is, what kind of family, there could be a lot of things that go unspoken, or that they feel that can’t be talked about inside the family.
Books were a way for me to access conversations that I wasn't able to have in my life, and sometimes subject matter that felt taboo or forbidden or maybe a little frightening.
TMR: Do you think about that when you're writing?
MT: Not so directly. I don't think about the reader as much as I think about the characters, how I feel about that relationship, about the channeling, the conversation that's happening. I feel like it's with the characters. All that imaginative effort is in trying to imagine them as fully as possible.
There's a beautiful phrase that I often use when I'm teaching. It's from a Russian literary theorist, Mikhail Bakhtin, and he calls it the surplus of humanness. And that's what I'm trying to tap into when I'm writing, that surplus of humanness. Because if the character is fully human and alive, there's no way we can capture all of them.
TMR: Why do you think people have responded so well to Do Not Say We Have Nothing? You were nominated for the Man Booker award and you won several awards for the novel. What do you think it was about the book that reached people?
MT: It might sound strange, but in some ways it's also a mystery to me. I put similar amounts of care and devotion into the earlier books, but this one has had a very different life than those. I do know that while writing this book, something changed in the process, and these characters are much more -- alive is the word I was going to say, but it's even something more than that. It's just so rambunctious. They're ever-present for me, even now.
I feel that I've been extremely lucky. I think that the Man Booker nomination formally put it on people's radars and people were willing to take a chance, and maybe lend themselves to this book, give themselves over to its world, and there was an openness created towards it. But I don't know. I'm probably the worst person to answer that question, in some ways. It's mysterious to me.
I remember, early on I showed it to my agent, and it was so different from earlier books in some way. I didn't know if what I was creating was just a crazy mess, or if I had my hands on something. I said to him: “Is this book more commercial than what I've been doing before?” And he just started laughing and said, “Uh, no.” I didn't really have a read on it, to be honest. I was so immersed in it that I couldn't see what I was making.
TMR: How do you know when a book is complete? When are you satisfied enough with it to say that it's finished?
MT: For me, it's never quite done until it goes off to the printer, and even then, I tend to make small changes with each printing. In this case, it was rewritten so many times that I felt I'd come to the end, multiple times, without being finished. So I think at the very end, because I'm such a tinkerer, it's almost impossible to give me anything where I won't just start trying to change things almost automatically.
I was five years into the process when I let it go, and at that last stage, it was finally coming to the point where it was very concrete and there was very little left for me to pull apart. It's a very hands-on kind of thing, but to answer your question in a different way: the first time I came to the end of the book and knew the ending, that's a feeling that's very difficult to describe. It's a feeling of such relief, and some of astonishment. It's almost like the end snuck up on me, and I thought I would still be writing for weeks, if not days, but at a certain point I knew that that was the end, and all the work now was circling inside it rather than continuing it.
Whenever I get to that point, I usually know because I'm in a flood of tears. It's a really astonishing moment, and it doesn't happen often. It really only happens once each book, the first time you get to the end. You know you're not letting it go quite yet, but you know that your path with the characters has come to an end, and you'll now, from this point on, be moving in slightly different directions.
Whenever I get to that point, I usually know because I'm in a flood of tears. It's a really astonishing moment, and it doesn't happen often. It really only happens once each book, the first time you get to the end.
Performance artist Marina Abramović had this installation with her former partner, the artist that she worked with, where they walked from opposite ends of the Great Wall of China. Initially when they planned the project, the ending would be when they met, wherever they happened to meet on the Great Wall, but prior to this they had come to the understanding that their relationship was coming to an end. So what they ended up doing was where they met, they embraced each other, and then they both continued on and walked to the opposite side -- they kept walking to the other end of the Great Wall. And I think that is very much like writing a novel. The ending is almost in the middle and you just have to keep going, and the book goes wherever it goes.
TMR: Following the completion of your books, how long does it take for you to heal yourself in order to find more characters and another story, in order to get to work on that?
MT: What's interesting about the process of moving from one book to the next is that it's often the unresolved questions of the previous book that propel you into the next one. That was definitely the case between Dogs at the Perimeter and Do Not Say We Have Nothing. There were a lot of unresolved questions that I had that became the grift for Do Not Say We Have Nothing, and that is also the case with the next one, even though the next one will not be as overtly connected as the last two were. I feel that there are questions that I never quite was able to lift to the surface in Do Not Say We Have Nothing, or that came to the fore as I was writing. These are the ones that are troubling me now, that will be the ones that become the next book.
TMR: The Guardian article mentioned earlier states that you were a dancer, but you lost your scholarship after you became “distracted by words.” So you took these philosophy classes -- did the ideas you learned in these classes inspire you to not dance anymore?
MT: It was much more mundane than that. I don't know quite what happened in my high school education, but there was a whole spectrum of ideas and philosophers and ways of thinking that I'd never encountered before. So it was literally when I walked into that fourth year philosophy class that I really shouldn't have been taking -- it was an overview course -- and I didn't have any of the background knowledge. It was like doing an in-depth course on the human anatomy and never having encountered a human before. Everything was new and with the rate of memorization and learning and concepts that I was seeing for the first time, it was extraordinary, but it was my first indication of how far behind I was to the rest of the people around me in the university classroom.
I just hadn't been exposed. I was surrounded by people whose parents seemed to be professors or educators, people who had seen so many films, who had so much knowledge across the board that I'd never been exposed to. It was a shock to my system.
TMR: How did losing that scholarship, what you wanted to do, make you feel?
MT: Weirdly, because it had never been easy along the way, it didn't feel like a huge setback. It just made me realize that I needed to find another way. And because most of the people in my high school hadn't gone on to university, and most people were already working full-time jobs or even had children already, it wasn't such a big leap for me that I would have to stop school for a few years and take a full-time job and earn money to go back to school. That seemed fairly normal in the circumstances I had grown up with. But I was very lucky. I only ended up taking a semester off, and I got a partial scholarship at another university. I got a job right away at the university pub, I was waitressing, and it all worked out in its way.
TMR: Was going to school always something you wanted to do? Would you have given up, had things not worked the way that they did?
MT: I don't think so. I was such a bookish person, I'm pretty sure I would have found a way, one way or another. It seemed unquestionable, that if I wanted to have freedom in choices in my life, I would need a university education.
I would suspect that it tends to be in first-generation immigrant families that there's no question about education. It is the one guarantee, that you must have this education; it's the only way up. In a funny way, it's the only way to repay your parents for the sacrifices they may have made, in leaving countries or doing work that didn't really suit them, or working three jobs, that kind of thing. It's almost unquestioned, that if you can do it, you have to try to push open that door.
I'm not sure if it's just that first generation, and if that changes once there's more stability in the country. Because my parents were the generation that immigrated, it was very clear to me that this was going to be my path, especially because I had always done well in school, even in the difficult times. I went through a period of years; there was so much trouble, so many things in the neighborhood and the family that I often didn't go to school. But I still managed to scrape my way through. I had an affinity for it.
Those years when I was very young and spent so much time at the library can't be underestimated because they showed me what was there and what was possible.
Those years when I was very young and spent so much time at the library can't be underestimated because they showed me what was there and what was possible.
If the family unit is tight, you grow up a member of that family, and it has its own restrictions and its own freedoms, but the reading shows you that you're part of this society. And then you learn what that could mean.
TMR: What would you say was the hardest part of your life? Did art play a role in helping you overcome that?
MT: The hardest parts of my life were early adolescence and my teenage years. There was a lot of trauma there, and a lot of violence, and a lot of difficult things. When you're young, in some ways you don't question that because that's what you know, and that simply is the world. As you get older, it can either continue to shape you, or you have to find some way to put it aside, even if you're never going to let it go.
In a way, writing was a really liberating artform for that. It takes you imaginatively to another space, but you're always drawing on the kind of world that you are troubled by, or that you are in friction with, or that you're trying to understand. And also, it shows you certain things about love and how complicated people are, and it lets you put those contradictions side by side on paper, so that you can let go of the ways they might twist you up inside.
TMR: When would you say you started writing?
MT: Early teenage years. Mostly at that point I was writing poetry. I had no idea how one would go about writing a story or a novel. I wouldn't even know how you would start. But poetry felt closer to the kind of journal writing I was doing on and off, and it was very personal; it wasn't meant for anyone but myself, and I think that was good.
Even now, my relationship with poetry is only meant for myself. The poetry that I write isn't really an art form, because it's so personal. It's a bit like sweeping the floor. It's so scattered around, you just need to put it all in one place and let it go. I'm not a poet, as an artist.
For a lot of prose writers, the admiration for poetry is so deep. It is a very different art form than creating a novel or a story. There is a transcendental quality to it; there's something about it that taps into something so profound. It's not a surprise that it's one of the oldest human art forms, and surely the art form that will always persist. The form of the novel is relatively young in comparison, and it may give way to another narrative form, but poetry has a longevity that is unquestioned. That's why I knew quite early on that as much as I admired it, I didn't have that capacity.
TMR: How did you get into writing prose?
MT: I had written stories when I was a child. I was quite free back then, and I didn't seem to question what I was doing. The first story -- it's such a banal answer, in the sense that, after I lost my scholarship, I knew that what I wanted to do was write. I thought that maybe I could get into an undergraduate creative writing program, and also study literature. So that's what I did.
I applied for a literature program, and then I also applied to the creative writing program. They needed a portfolio, and I hadn't written anything. So I just sat down and tried to write a story and I sent it in. I got rejected, which makes perfect sense. But I did get in as an English literature major, and one of the creative writing professors who had read the portfolio contacted me and said he thought that there was promise, and wondered if I might want to register in his third or fourth year nonfiction workshop. I said yes. That was how I slowly got the confidence to write more.
So many things are luck and fortune, and you do need someone at the right time who has faith in you.
I'm still in very close contact with this professor, and I'm so grateful to him. There's a part of you that thinks, “No matter what, I would have found a way to write.” But you really don't know. So many things are luck and fortune, and you do need someone at the right time who has faith in you. That can't be underestimated at all, and that's what I was given at that very crucial moment.
TMR: What kind of advice might you have for people of color, and/or children of immigrants, who want to get involved in the arts?
MT: It's a very hard question. There are so many different kinds of challenges. What I would have loved hearing about when I was younger is the kind of freedom that one can find in the art. That kind of freedom is extraordinarily precious. It means that you can be attentive to any part of this experience or this world.
What I think is important is that a writer of color is not the representative, spokesperson, or emblem of something. They are an original thought that is making art. To feel free, you have to embrace that. And that is political, as well. I know sometimes we feel a responsibility to be representatives or to say something in a particular way, or not to let people down -- I know I've really struggled with all those things -- but I more and more feel that the best way not to let people down is to feel that I'm free. This may clash with many things in your life, and that's very difficult, but an artist has to think. Sometimes that can be frightening, because that puts you at odds with the world. But that is why we turn to art. We need it to say the things that over time become unsayable. And those are different things at different times.
It's the freedom to know that you yourself are changeable, that you really have to listen to the world as much as yourself. It's a process, it's ongoing, it's unresolvable.