Carol Shaben

1. How did you conceive your first book?

I like to say that my first book, Into the Abyss, chose me. It was inspired by a plane crash my father survived. I couldn’t get the story out of my head: how four men from wildly different backgrounds survived a tragedy and forged unlikely friendships as a result. I began thinking about what can happen when the dividing lines of power, privilege, and religion are erased. That larger idea of how we as individuals might transcend the boundaries, society lays down for us, captivated me. I wanted to know the why and how, and this desire to understand pursued me for many years until I finally decided to quit my day job and write the book.

2. What does it mean/suggest for you to think about your writing as a craft that you can grow as a writer? How do you do that?

Like many writers, I had other careers before I settled into writing. All felt limited; I was bored after a few years. With writing, I feel as if the learning horizon is boundless, defined only by limits I impose on myself.  I consider myself a student of craft. Always. When I read the work of writers I admire, I read as much for craft as for pleasure. If a passage makes me cry, I ask myself: How did the author do that? I analyze scene and structure and sentences. I am also a craft book junkie. I have a massive stack of books on craft and I study them, flag sections that expand my understanding, and revisit them often.

3. In pushing your work beyond your first title, what were you most conscious of? What were/are you trying to achieve?

My first book was a national bestseller and garnered a lot of attention. I’m not sure that was a good thing for a writer starting out. In pushing my work beyond my first title I felt conscious of coming up with something that would live up to or surpass that initial success. Also, I was looking for another great narrative story. That’s not my approach now. Today it’s most important that the work speaks to me as a writer. That it engages my curiosity and passion. It’s also more important to me that the writing is as good as it can possibly be and if that means a book takes five times as long to write, so be it.

4. What memorable or formative experience around learning to write springs to mind?

My most formidable writing experience occurred while writing my first book. I’d agreed to deliver Random House a draft within a year. I dove in, writing fiendishly for five months before slamming into a wall. I had no idea how I was going to advance the narrative. Though time was precious, I stopped writing, got off my screen, and spent a month thinking. I figured out what motivated my characters and was at stake for them, what scenes were essential to move the action forward and why, and what the arc of the narrative was. In other words, I learned that taking time to map out your book at the beginning can save you a boatload of heartache.

5. How do other people contribute to your writing practice?

I am fortunate to have writers in my sphere who are talented, supportive, and generous. I’ve been a member of a writing collective, “The Lying Bastards” for almost two decades. We set goals, hold one another accountable, and read each other’s work in progress. We also frequently discuss craft challenges, which has proven inordinately helpful in moving my practice forward.  More recently I’ve joined a group of women writers—poets, novelists, essayists, CNF writers—who have helped me nurture a tender new work, encouraging me to trust my voice and instincts in exploring more personal terrain.

6. How is your writing practice informed by a sense of writing to or for others? Do you have an audience in mind when you write?

This may sound bigheaded, but when I write, I’m often writing for myself. Others advise to write with your ideal reader in mind, but I’ve found that if I write toward my own curiosity—toward what excites and engages me—chances are my fascination will resonate with readers. Of course you need also to pay attention to the rhythm of your voice, the lyricism of language, and to form. And if you must write for an audience, I like Annie Dillard’s advice to write for one “consisting solely of terminal patients.”  She asks: “What would you begin writing if you knew you would die soon? What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?”

7. Have you ever collaborated on a writing project with another writer? Or maybe you’ve collaborated with an artist/dancer/musician/actor? Can you share your experience?

I collaborated on a book called The Marriott Cell with Egyptian-Canadian journalist, Mohamed Fahmy. He’d been incarcerated in a notorious Cairo prison for more than 400 days simply for doing his job as a journalist. A big part of my role was to get inside his experience of what it was like to live in that damp, windowless, cockroach-infested cell. It was an extraordinary lesson in how to write scenes full of sensory description. I was constantly asking him: What did you see? What did you smell? What did you hear? What did you feel? Before we started collaborating we also created a chapter outline and wrote a chapter together to ensure our visions and styles were aligned.

8. What emotions do you associate with writing? Or, differently put, how does writing impact your emotional state?

The busier the world gets and the more fragmented my attention, the more sacred and precious writing becomes. Recently, I’ve come to see it as a meditation on life, my lived experience, my passions, fears, hopes for our planet. Writing grounds me and gives me a sense of purpose and worthiness like nothing else in the world. Recently I joked to the writers in the Banff Literary Journalism program that there are only two activities in my life where time stops. I don’t get hungry or restless, and hours can pass, the sun can arc across the sky without me caring. One is putting my hands in the earth and tending to a garden. The other is writing.

9. What is new in the world that you need to capture in your writing?

I’m consumed by the state of society and the planet. In terms of the former, issues of systemic racism, the legacy of our colonial settler history, wealth inequality, and post-Capitalist society have me thinking deeply about writing work that can upend acceptance of the status quo or at least cause readers to think more critically about our humanity (so perhaps I do write to an ideal reader after all ;). In terms of the latter, the climate emergency and resulting wave of existential malaise, especially among younger generations, is a subject I am writing toward at the moment. In particular, I’m exploring how we can find and nurture hope in these difficult times.

CAROL SHABEN is an award-winning author and journalist. Her first book, Into the Abyss, was a national bestseller and national nonfiction award winner, and her most recent book, The Marriott Cell, ­co-written with journalist Mohamed Fahmy, was long listed for the 2018 RBC Taylor Prize and named one of The Globe & Mail’s 100 Best Books of the Year. She is the recipient of two National Magazine Awards including a Gold Medal for Investigative Journalism. Carol teaches creative/literary nonfiction at UBC’s Schools of Creative Writing and Journalism, and is a Faculty Editor for the Banff Centre’s Literary Journalism Program.

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