Category: Writing

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I’m thrilled to finally be able to share the news that I have another book in the works. My new contract with HarperCollins Canada arrived, fully executed, in the mail today. :)

I’m not writing a novel this time. This book will be creative non-fiction. (“A true story, well told” is the best definition I’ve read to describe creative non-fiction.) The working title is The Red, Forgiving Earth, and it will chronicle one year I spent living in Tanzania with my family.

Back in April I published a short memoir in Chatelaine about the experience of throwing over our lives and moving to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. My agent called a few days after the piece appeared and asked me if I thought there was book potential in this story. After a fair bit of thought, a few conversations with Craig, and a number of back and forth drafts with my agent, I had a polished proposal. HarperCollins bought the book, based on the proposal — which is generally how it’s done with non-fiction — and so here I am.

I have a deadline of June 1, 2016, to complete a draft. Because I had to produce a detailed proposal I have an excellent outline of the book and I’m in good shape to move forward with it. The publication date has not been confirmed.

But I’ll be buried in the manuscript for the next five months, so apologies in advance for not being social. 😉

xo

The following essay was published in Chatelaine’s April 2015 issue.

tasneen-jamal-tanzania

A number of years ago I came to believe — I suspect after a period of binge-reading self-help books — that if you follow your heart, you cannot go wrong. That if you pursue your true passion, unseen, benevolent forces will propel you toward your goal, all the while holding you up on impossibly solid, puffy clouds.

So, in early 2009, my husband, Craig, and I gave up secure and well-paying jobs as Globe and Mail editors, sold our Hamilton, Ont., house (which we had spent three years and a lot of money renovating), stored its contents and moved to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. We intended to honour our respective pent-up passions:  his to work as a full-time pilot, mine to write a long-planned novel.

This was not a carefully considered, calculated risk — it was the kind of risk that takes your breath away. We had no jobs waiting for us, no medical insurance, no relatives who would meet us at the airport and nowhere to live. Holding our daughters, Mia, 3, and Lily, 9 months, in our arms, we closed our eyes and leapt.

Almost immediately we were in free fall.

In late 2008, a few months before we set off on this journey, the global economy took a nosedive. The Tanzania-based safari outfits where my husband planned to work were hit hard, and he had little prospect of finding a job with them. But I had already taken a buyout package from the Globe and Mail; Craig had spent more than a year upgrading his pilot’s licence; our house was on the market. We felt powerless to stop the momentum.

Upon arrival we found an affordable hotel (which, in less charitable moods, I refer to as a dive) in a broken-down suburb of Dar es Salaam called Kariako. Mia, homesick and bored, graced us with three temper tantrums a day, and Lily woke four times a night, every night. My husband and I were exhausted and constantly snapping at each other. And we were hemorrhaging money.

Three weeks later, just as we were contemplating heading home, Craig found a job co-piloting a plane for a group of executives based in Dar es Salaam. It paid very, very little, but we were prepared to live on our savings so that Craig could accumulate hours as a pilot.

Within a few days we moved into a furnished two-bedroom apartment in Masaki, a suburb popular among expats. We rented a car and bought a desk and a crib from a roadside carpenter. The railing on one side of the crib folded down so that you could reach in to lift out the baby easily. A small latch held the railing in place. To my untrained eyes, the crib was well built, if not exactly CSA-approved.

A week later, Craig flew his bosses to Zambia. For the first time since moving to Africa, I was alone with the girls. As it does every evening in Dar es Salaam, the sun set shortly after 6 p.m. Lily was in the crib, standing against the railing. Mia asked to join her. I lifted her in and went to use the bathroom. I could see the girls through the open door. I turned my back to wash my hands. They were out of my sight for 15 seconds.

I heard a smack and emerged from the bathroom to see Lily lying face down on the concrete floor, screaming. I picked her up, frantically searching her face for signs of injury. The moment I noticed her forehead beginning to swell, she threw up.

“What happened?” I demanded, noticing for the first time that the crib railing was folded down.

“I opened it,” Mia said, pointing to the latch.

“Why?” I screamed. Lily’s forehead and right eyelid were rapidly changing colour. “Why would you do that?”

I didn’t know if there was a 911 service. I was not yet comfortable driving on the left side of the road and had never driven at night.

“Why?” I shouted again and again. I didn’t stop, even as Lily, wailing, threw up a second time, covering both of us in vomit, and Mia picked up her beloved stuffed monkey from the floor. “What were you thinking? How could you?”

I paused to catch my breath.

“I wanted to get Monkey,” Mia said softly, clutching him against her chest. A reasonable response, as though it were something I deserved. As though I weren’t insane.

I apologized to Mia. I explained I was frightened, that Lily’s fall wasn’t her fault. But I will never be able to take back my initial rage. And I’ll always wonder which version of her mother she believed.

The blame was not directed at her, anyway. It was, as blame tends to be in these instances, intended for me.

What have I done? What was I thinking?

I watched as Lily became listless and her eye swelled shut. I packed the girls into their car seats and drove into the night in search of a hospital I was vaguely certain I’d seen in the daytime. I knew, from earlier research, that the hospitals in Dar es Salaam had no facilities to handle neurosurgery. If Lily had a brain injury, we would have to medevac her out of the country, to Nairobi or Johannesburg. Both destinations were perilously far. This, too, I knew.

In Canada, I lived minutes from world-class hospitals.

What have I done? What was I thinking?

Africa is important to me. Like my father before me, I was born in a small town in southwestern Uganda. I took my first steps on its red earth and spoke my first words in its languages. In 1972, when I was three, dictator Idi Amin conducted an ethnic cleansing. South Asians, many of us from families that had lived there for generations, were given 90 days to leave Uganda. We had our homes confiscated, our bank accounts frozen.

I grew up, a seemingly ordinary child in southern Ontario, with a sense not merely that something had been lost but that something had been stolen from me. Unlike my parents and older relatives, I didn’t even have memories to cherish. I ached, for things tangible and intangible.

A writer by calling, I decided I would connect to a purloined past by writing a novel about it. I would create my own memories. I would write my own history.

So, in my 30s, and after many false starts, I organized my life to support my writing. I lived in a compact apartment in downtown Toronto, armed with a master’s degree in English literature, a writing nook and an evening job as a copy editor to pay the bills. But everything I produced in that writing nook rang false. It was as though I were an extraterrestrial trying to guess what humans felt. I dumped hundreds of thousands of words into my computer’s trash and began to taste a bitterness that poisoned more and more of my life. I needed to write this novel and I had no idea how to do it.

The births of my first and then my second child did nothing to temper the bitterness. Instead, my precious daughters introduced fear and desperation into my work. I could feel myself consumed by their constant needs. East Africa came to represent the missing piece of my life.

For Craig, East Africa afforded the opportunity to build flying hours with safari companies, all of whom use small planes. Uganda wasn’t an option because it has relatively few large safari outfits. But Tanzania, and the vast Serengeti Plain, offered many.

I could work on my novel and find myself while Craig flew airplanes over the savannah. The life I pictured was beautiful and absurdly romanticized. It was somewhere between Out of Africa and The English Patient: literary, poignant and sort of sepia-toned.

The reality, I would quickly learn, was messy and terrifying and bruising.

I found a hospital the night Lily fell. It was clean but looked more like a low-end office building than a medical facility. Nevertheless, after paying a fee of approximately $7, Lily and I were ushered in to see a doctor. He was young, African, his English impeccable. He explained that Lily appeared to have hit her forehead (fortunately, a well-protected part of her head) and that she likely vomited from the emotional distress. He told me to keep a lookout for signs of serious injury, but he strongly suspected she was all right.

She was. By the time Craig returned home five days later, Lily’s eye had opened again and the dark-purple skin had become pale yellow. The following week she showed no signs of having experienced any injury.

But I felt beaten up. Life wasn’t becoming easier. We had no friends or family for emotional support. Our bank account was emptying at an alarming rate. Everything — from buying groceries to fighting the overwhelming and chaotic traffic — was a challenge that left us physically and emotionally drained.

Despite the challenges, I forged a rhythm to the days. We enrolled Mia in a nursery school and hired a housekeeper to watch Lily. For four hours each morning in a roadside café, where I could plug in my laptop and drink spiced tea, I wrote.

Not long after Lily’s accident, Craig was riding his motorcycle home from the airplane hangar and was hit by a bus. He phoned to tell me about the accident and to assure me he was okay. A few hours later, I stood at the window and watched him negotiate the steps to our building, my chest heaving at the sight of his heavily bandaged foot, his crutches. It was a minor injury, but like Lily’s, it reminded me we didn’t have to be here. It didn’t have to be this hard.

One night, Craig and I had a terrible argument. I don’t know why I was directing my anger at him; he was doing the best he could. I walked out the door, down three flights of stairs and sat outside. I didn’t know what else to do. The night guard, standing at his post next to the gate, unabashedly watched me cry.

When I went back upstairs I offered my husband platitudes. I was so disgusted with myself that I could give him nothing more. I was now a lousy wife as well as a lousy mother.

The next day, though exhausted from the argument, I did what I did every morning: I wrote my novel. My life’s disorienting chaos had cracked something open inside me. Freed from a fear of failure because I had failed by every imaginable measure, I wrote with a power and authenticity I never had before. The story was flowing, the characters  as real to me as I was to myself.

That afternoon, Mia cheered as Lily took her first, unsteady steps on the red, forgiving earth.

After 10 months, our money was mostly gone. I had written the book I wanted to write. It was time to return home. Back in Canada, I sold my manuscript. Where the Air Is Sweet was published last summer. Craig has returned to journalism, while flying part-time. The girls are settled in school. I am at work on a second novel.

I gave up every safety net I had. I put my family in unnecessary danger. I placed my marriage in a crucible. Yet despite falling and failing, I didn’t crash. I didn’t break into pieces.

I learned in those 10 months that falling is okay. And that failing is merely a matter of opinion. I noticed that in the space between my Hollywood-movie fantasies and my terror of hitting the ground, I was living.

Craig flew us in his company’s plane from Dar es Salaam to Nairobi once. About halfway through the flight, my pilot husband looked back at me and pointed to the window. Directly outside was Mount Kilimanjaro. From my seat in the clouds, I could see its summit.

OI wrote the first words of Where the Air Is Sweet in June 2009 sitting at a newly constructed wooden desk in this apartment (see photo) in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. 

While I was working on the book I came across this quote from E.L. Doctorow that helped me through some difficult times in the following years:

“Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

Five years almost to the day I began this journey, I have arrived.

My book is released. To buy, click here. 

Cheers!

Mario Castro: John Steinbeck. Vintage Portrait Drawing

Mario Castro: John Steinbeck. Vintage Portrait Drawing

It is not so very hard to judge a story after it is written, but, after many years, to start a story still scares me to death. I will go so far as to say that the writer who is not scared is happily unaware of the remote and tantalizing majesty of the medium.

The above quote is from John Steinbeck. The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, Nobel laureate John Steinbeck.

Though Where the Air Is Sweet is about to be published (just saw the final cover art and copy today), I am working on another book. It is somewhat misleading to say “I’m working on it.” It is nebulous at this point. Still forming, gestating even. And I am terrified. Hence my latching onto the above quote and sharing it here.

I published a few Writer’s Tips blog posts awhile back. I hope to add to the list. I used to be very hungry for such tips when I was starting to write my first novel. And so I want to share what I have learned to help others.

But Steinbeck offers the tip of all tips. It is from an article called “Advice for Beginning Writers” written by Steinbeck in 1963. Though he is discussing writing short stories, I think it’s safe to apply the advice to novels or other genres. You can read the whole article here.

Here’s my favourite section:

If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader. If the writer has that urge, he may sometimes, but by no means always, find the way to do it. You must perceive the excellence that makes a good story good or the errors that makes a bad story. For a bad story is only an ineffective story.

In other words, if there is an impulse, honour it. And write. What you create might be good. But it might not.

That’s why it’s scary.

jobsheadThere is an excerpt of a Steve Jobs interview that has recently been making the rounds on Twitter. In it Jobs explains his frustration with the “disease” of thinking that 90% of success lies in “great ideas.”

The excerpt spoke to my experience in writing Where the Air Is Sweet. The germ of the book was a great idea: A real life story about ethnic cleansing that hadn’t been told countless times in books or movies or  magazine features.

And I’ve had aspiring writers to say to me on more than one occasion, “You’re so lucky you had a great story to tell. I wish I had that.” Apart from the ludicrous idea that having experienced displacement, trauma, poverty etc. etc. at a young age constitutes luck, this is patently ridiculous. There are lots of great stories out there. Shakespeare borrowed plots. They weren’t a big deal. His execution, on the other hand, was a very big deal. In other words, craftsmanship — art — demands  skill, effort and discipline.

I knew somewhere in my consciousness that I wanted to tell this story for about 20 years. I knew it had value and meaning for me, and I knew from the perspective of a reader of novels and as a journalist that it had story value. But it wasn’t until I began writing it, actually writing it, mapping it out, deciding what to include, how to express it, perspective and tense and themes, and engaging my brain and letting the story pull in the directions it wanted to pull that it became something. And this process of it “becoming something” — of creating — was magic. Characters went in directions I had not planned. Words flowed with a music I didn’t know I could express. Editors came into my life who helped shape a stronger book. I found energy and time to write when I had been convinced, 100% convinced, I  possessed very little of either.

In the words of Steve Jobs, the late master of ideas and their execution:

jobs

I have a memory seared in my mind.

I am five years old and swimming in the Apollo Hotel pool in Kampala. It is 1974. A quiet weekend outing is suddenly charged when a grinning Idi Amin Dada appears in his swim trunks. A little boy, no older than I, is standing in front of Amin, between him and me. The boy (one of Amin’s sons it is clear by the military fatigues he is wearing and his position next to Amin) is staring at me, though there must be many other people about. The boy’s anger is palpable and directed at me. I cannot imagine what I have done to inspire it. But I am afraid of him. I am not afraid of his father.

The context of this event was life in Kampala during Amin’s lunatic rule. Soldiers, usually drunk, were crawling on most streets, particularly the ones near our home (which was very close to a large barracks). Each night the city would erupt in gunfights that would continue long after I had fallen asleep.

AminKids

Idi Amin with two of his sons in Kampala in 1975.

In my early attempts at telling the story of Asians in Uganda at that time, I chose to put these scenes of my childhood at the centre of the narrative, to put myself at the centre of the narrative.

What I wrote was forced and stilted and embarrassingly self-indulgent.

Four years ago, I moved to Tanzania, leaving behind a well-paying job at The Globe and Mail and selling my house, having no plan whatsoever except to live in East Africa and write a novel (with two children under the age of three in tow, this was a reckless decision by any standard). In Dar es Salaam, my husband found a job piloting a small plane. We lived off savings and his meagre earnings as I wrote each day.

It was exhausting. The mosquitoes and heat were unbearable and my baby was waking multiple times in the night. But the words were flowing and in a voice that rang so authentically I knew the story I had been trying to tell for years was finally freed.

What opened the floodgates was a sensation of disorientation. I was lost in Dar. I found no peers, saw nothing familiar and ached for home. I began to think about why I moved, why anyone moves. When I asked these questions, my grandfather, as a young man and not as the old, tired dying man I remember, appeared in my mind.

With this young man standing in the pale dust of Malia, longing for a life beyond his imagination, Where the Air Is Sweet began.

The characters quickly came to life, often expressing thoughts I had no recollection of forming. I realized that what I needed to do for so many years was to get out of the way and the story could come.

About five months into full-time writing, I began to insert details, gleaned from my parents, from aunts and uncles and later from books and later still from newspaper archives. I travelled through Uganda to the places I was writing about. I touched the house my grandfather built, visited my grandmother’s grave, stood in front of the once feared Public Safety Unit.

This book is fiction. It is framed by historical events and my family’s experience. It is, at its simplest, a story of movement and longing.

BlogFlannery“I’m a full-time believer in writing habits…You may be able to do without them if you have genius but most of us only have talent and this is simply something that has to be assisted all the time by physical and mental habits or it dries up and blows away…Of course you have to make your habits in this conform to what you can do. I write only about two hours every day because that’s all the energy I have, but I don’t let anything interfere with those two hours, at the same time and the same place.”

Flannery O’Connor

Years ago I read this quote from Flannery O’Connor, the great American short story writer. She wrote each morning and then tended to the peacock farm she lived on with her mother. Every day, she sat down at her desk and gave over those hours to writing. Sometimes she wrote nothing of substance; sometimes she wrote nothing at all. But because her mind learned this time was always going to be dedicated to writing, it began to trust and to flow. Most days, she was productive.

There are practical reasons to write daily:

  • you don’t have to re-read sections of your manuscript, which takes up valuable time;
  • your family and friends begin to respect your writing time because you do;
  • as soon as you sit down you’ll be in the flow, no need to struggle to regain your mental writing space;
  • your subconscious starts to kick in and then magic happens in your writing (e.g. a character you created will say things you didn’t expect and will begin take on a life of its own).

But ultimately if you write regularly, you are making a sacred deal with that creative source within you to be open, to receive.

I finished my novel in one year by writing about three hours, maybe four, every morning while my daughter was in nursery school. If I needed a push here and there I took longer, after making arrangements with my husband. But the average was three hours daily. And I rarely wrote on weekends.

We’re not talking life-altering commitment here. No need to quit your day job.

Flannery O’Connor gave just two hours a day.

waxonwaxoff

Pat Morita’s Mr. Miyagi shows Ralph Macchio’s Daniel Larusso how to wax a car in the Karate Kid, 1984

Remember that scene in the Karate Kid (the original one) when Mr. Miyagi promises to give young Daniel karate lessons but ends up making him wax cars, in a very particular manner, until he is exhausted? (Click here to watch it.) What Daniel doesn’t know (until later) is that he is developing muscle memory and strength and actual skills for karate.

I wrote headlines for The Globe and Mail’s news section for about six years. I didn’t realize it at the time but the skills I was practising in writing headlines would, much like the young Karate Kid’s car-waxing lessons, serve me later when I wrote my novel. I’ll share them here because even if you never have occasion to write a headline in your life, they will help you write.

The thing about writing headlines for a daily newspaper is you have to do it, and fast. You can’t do your laundry first or make coffee or visit Twitter. Deadlines are firm and they keep coming.

This is how you write a good headline: Write down the first idea that comes to you. This is important: You must write it down. You must commit it to paper (or the screen). Just put it down, no matter how lame. And know this: that first idea will very likely be lame. This is important, too. The lameness will free you to create: You won’t be so in love with it that you will fail to see it’s flaws.

And then you fiddle and tweak, considering why this particular word is not quite right or that particular angle is off. And before you know it, you will have a good headline. It works. I promise. Not every headline created this way is brilliant. But every headline is workable.

It isn’t effective, at least it wasn’t effective for me, to play out this process in your head. You’d think it would be. Headlines are usually only about 5 to 8 words long. Why not just hold these words in your head? Because, as every non-enlightened human being knows, the mind cannot remain still. It keeps flitting and moving and floating and not settling on anything.

Imagine a potter trying to create something without first throwing down a slab of clay. Impossible, right? You need raw materials to create. For writers, the raw material are words.

When it comes to writing creatively, I follow this method. I did it with each line, each scene, each chapter of my novel until I finished it.

Do you want to write fiction but are having trouble getting going? Commit something to paper, a line or two or a page or two. Whatever is flowing. Examine why you think it’s bad. And then make it good.

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Book publishing is slow
I was lucky. The first agent I submitted to agreed to represent me. But I waited almost six months for a response. The book sold quickly, in an exclusive to HarperCollins Canada within a month of signing with the agent. But that deal was in March 2011. My launch date is early 2014.

Publishers are gamblers
Publishers cannot predict how a book will sell (Londonstani anyone?) They have to guess. Obviously it’s an educated guess, but it’s a guess. They have to make a call and be willing to swallow the losses if they are wrong. They make a decision how much to invest (advance, marketing etc.) based on what they think the book will earn in sales. The writer does not have to pay back the advance to the publisher (regardless of how the book fares) and the publisher won’t get back what they paid out in production costs, marketing costs, office overhead, billing expenses and distribution expense. Oh, and if a vendor (i.e. Indigo, Barnes & Noble) fails to sell any books, they can return them to the publisher.

Writers need agents
Apart from the fact that agents provide access to major publishing houses, match up writers and editors, negotiate the best deals and scour through those complex contracts, they generally love to talk and “network” and are not shy about telling people what they think is good about themselves. The latter personality traits are usually poorly developed or outright absent in fiction writers.

Advance is short for something
This: advance against future royalties. This means if you earn royalties that equal the advance your publisher agreed to pay, you have done what is called earning out your advance (a good thing) and not lost your publisher any money. If you earn royalties beyond that figure, you’ve made your publisher money (a very very good thing) and then you get paid royalties.

Writers are paid very very slowly
In my case, and this is the norm, I received one-third of the advance upon signing, one-third upon manuscript completion and one-third at publication. So, basically, I get paid over two to three years. Even with a really good advance, this is not something you can bank on to support a family. Royalties (see above) come even more slowly, if they come at all.

Editors are on your team
I have worked as a journalist. I know editors are vital. But I viewed them as overly critical, cruel, knife-wielding pedants (when I was the writer; when I was editing, I was just usually right. :)). An editor is a writer’s greatest gift. She wants to see your book succeed. Editors and writers are on the same team, and realizing this will make the editing process a pleasure and likely far more successful.

A well-written book does not mean it is a marketable book; just as badly written books often sell spectacularly well
The Da Vinci Code, Fifty Shades of Grey. Need I say more?

Big publishing houses do care about quality literature
There is a narrative out there that only indie or boutique publishing houses are interested in quality books and the big publishing houses are all about slapping books together and making deals with celebrities. Obviously, these are profit-driven machines and the bottom line is vital. And, yes, celebrities often get headline-grabbing deals. But in my experience, HarperCollins has invested a great deal of time and two excellent editors in my book, despite it being literary fiction and despite me being an unknown writer.

Those bestsellers I mocked above? They are a boon to the book industry
The profits from blockbusters allow publishers to take on books that don’t have the potential of selling very well but have the potential to enrich our culture.

Everyone working in book publishing loves books
This is a risky business. If you’re in it you love the craft.

I have finished.

I just sent the latest draft of my novel, Where the Air is Sweet, to my editor.

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve said “I’m finished” with respect to this book. Let’s see. Here’s a rundown of finishes of Where the Air is Sweet:

  • I finished the first rough draft in the spring of 2010.
  • I finished my first polished draft (which I could send to a prospective agent) a few months later in June 2010.
  • I made some changes at my agent’s behest, completing the draft in January 2011.
  • My first major structural edit was completed by August 2011.
  • In January 2012 I completed another draft that incorporated smaller fixes.
  • In January 2013 I finished the second structural edit.

Now, I had no fantasies that I wouldn’t work on the book after acquiring an agent and then a publisher. I knew that I had taken it as far as I could on my own but that it still had a ways to go before it was finished. I work as a newspaper editor in my other life and so I understand and have enormous respect for the editing process. That said, I don’t think I really understood the road I was embarking on when I decided I wanted to publish a novel.

I feel like a boxer who is being trained for years for a big fight. I feel that I keep getting better, the book does but I do too, more refined in my writing skills.

Anyways, I’m digressing from my theme of finishing. I think what I’m getting from this process is that we can get so caught up in finishing that we miss the experience. And if we aren’t present in the moment we cannot, at least I cannot, create.

Me, writing.

Me, writing. Pic surreptitiously snapped by my iPhone wielding 6-year-old.

When I embarked on writing my first novel I didn’t know if I would get anywhere, if I would even complete a novel, let alone publish one. I knew only that I wanted to write it, that I had reached a point at which if I didn’t write it, a kind of bitterness or frustration at all of my life would set in. And only when I accepted this fact — that the purpose of what I was doing was not a finished product but the honouring of an impulse, a desire — did I free myself to create.

And while I did complete a novel and sell it, I learned something that I believe was at least as, if not more, valuable: I love the act of writing a book, the process of creating it. I love writing.


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