The Roads Taken: place, plot and process

By Brianna Goldberg

“I just started writing and writing until I had a 300 page blob,” said Andri Snær Magnason of his award-winning novel, LoveStar, “and then I started un-writing.” And it was this process of un-writing, revealing how authors discovered the narrative paths their stories have followed and all the many ones abandoned along the way, that was the focus of Saturday evening’s round table discussion, The Roads Taken.

Steven W. Beattie, Emma Donoghue, Andri Snær Magnason, Alix Ohlin and Cordelia Strube at IFOA 2012 © readings.org

At the table was a varied bunch: Emma Donoghue, Irish-Canadian author of award-winning novels including Room and the new historical short fiction collection, Astray; Alix Ohlin, author of the Giller-nominated novel Inside, about a Montreal therapist and a man who attempts to hang himself, and a recent short story collection, Signs and Wonders; Magnason, the Icelandic renaissance man who has directed documentaries as well as written fiction (such as the above-mentioned LoveStar), non-fiction, plays, best-selling collections of poetry (yes, you read that correctly—best-selling poetry) and children’s books such as The Story of the Blue Planet; and Cordelia Strube, award-winning playwright and author of eight novels, including her latest, Milosz, about a friendship between a man and a young autistic boy.

With a group as diverse as the one gathered, and a topic as wide as the process of writing, demands on the moderator are great if the audience is to fully understand and engage in the conversation. Thankfully, Steven W. Beattie, writer, critic and reviews editor for Quill & Quire magazine, was at the helm, steering the conversation with confidence as well as a deep knowledge of each of the authors’ works.

Much of the evening’s talk emerged from the dichotomy of intuition versus structure at the beginning of a project. While Ohlin said she arrives at the realization of her stories “spastically, through intuition,” Donoghue admitted that if she followed her intuition alone she would be able to write no more than a one-page story. Strube described her desire to fully disappear into the world of the novel she creates, befriending the characters and totally living in their world for years at a time, and that this desire structures her whole approach to writing a story. Ohlin and Donoghue, though, said they enjoy the freedom of the short story format to take risks such as experimenting with new genres or bizarre constructs.

Ohlin also recounted advice she once received from an agent, suggesting she remove Canadian references that might make her work more difficult to market in the USA. She said that the stories this approach resulted in felt, to her, shallow and generic, and that she now prefers to feature details like the word “depanneur” in her work, as it is the challenge of using such culturally specific terms in an accessible and meaningful way that makes a story compelling.

Cordelia Strube added that she feels a responsibility to reflect such specific cultural details, believing it is the job of a writer to “document our time.” Donoghue, meanwhile, admitted that in writing she desires “the freedom to travel” to different eras and different geographies, which certainly opens access to a whole new set of roads to take.

Find out more about Goldberg on her website, or follow her on Twitter @b_goldberg.
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