Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Introducing a New Series: The Lucky Seven Interview, with Nadia Bozak!

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Nadia Bozak

Nadia Bozak doesn't shy away from a challenge. After the success of her debut, Orphan Love, she's returned with El Niño (House of Anansi), a new novel inspired by no less than Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace. Orphan Love and El Niño constitute the first and second books in Nadia's Border Trilogy.

El Niño rises to the occasion, and has been called "a stunning tale of precarious spaces and living ghosts". The story finds Honey searching for her mother, Marianne, in a border region of the Oro desert, where Honey connects with Chávez, a conflicted young human trafficker. Chávez, Honey and Marianne's coyote/dog mix named Baez, each serve as narrator in turn.

We are thrilled to speak with Nadia today to launch our newest interview series, The Lucky Seven, a seven-question Q&A that gives readers a chance to hear about the writing processes of talented Canadian authors and gives authors a space to speak in depth about the thematic concerns of their newest books.

Today Nadia speaks to us about the questions El Niño asks, how movie theatres and Toni Morrison can be coping mechanisms and how the Beastie Boys and the Wu Tang Clan hover in the background of El Niño.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book.

Nadia Bozak:

El Niño It is the second in a trilogy of novels, The Border Trilogy, which explores undocumented border crossings as well as themes of inter-cultural encounters and environmental decay.

El Niño tells the story of Honey, a university professor, who naively ventures into a desert which spans a disputed political border, in search of her missing mother, Marianne. She gets lost and injured and is rescued by a young undocumented migrant, Chávez, who agrees to help — but at a price. The novel is told from these points of view, as well as from the point of view of Baez, Marianne’s coyote-Shepherd mix, who intersects with all the book’s characters in distinct and surprising ways.

It is a novel about survival and redemption, economic and political disparity, and the challenges of negotiating differences between cultures, languages, races, and species. It is also a story about love: between children and parents, between women and dogs, and between kids as they, however awkwardly, grow into themselves as sexual beings.


Is there a question that is central to your book, thematically? And if so, did you know the question when you started writing or did it emerge from the writing process?


This book takes up several questions which relate in some way to my first novel, Orphan Love, as both are part of a novel trilogy (The Border Trilogy). The three books are connected by theme and geography rather than character (well, there is some character overlap but not until the third book, english.motion which I am writing now).

The questions are: undocumented border crossing, inter-cultural, inter-linguistic, inter-racial, inter-species encounters, and environmental decay. The questions were in my mind when I started writing, but in vague, inarticulate form. Over the course of these two books the themes and questions crystallized and took the narratives in directions I never would have anticipated.

For me, I “write to think” rather than “think to write”; that is, I write in order to produce the story itself. I find it limiting to proceed from a thought-out, preconceived blue print. You just never know what the writing process can evoke until you dive in and explore without the constraint of pre-planning. Of course, this means you have to do a lot of revising afterwards as the structure can suffer from my rather undisciplined exploratory model. But the characters and setting prosper.


Did the book change significantly from when you first starting working on it to the final version? How long did the project take from start to finish?


The book began with the vague notion of writing about a woman who is crossing a desert (somewhere on the North American continent) in order to reach a body of water that keeps receding, continually evading her reach. I would not have imagined that, five years later, I would have written El Niño.

When I began, I was looking at the desert as a geographical zone, one weighed down with metaphoric value (Biblical, literary, etc); but through my research I encountered so many stories — even if just tangential ones — about dangerous, imperiling migration routes across the deserts that span the US-Mexico border. People from Mexico, Central and South America risk all in order to earn a basic, livable wage laboring at manual jobs that US and Canadian citizens will not do. I quickly realized the desert is thus a political space, a social space. I could not write a desert story without grappling with this element.

I did not start out to write an “issue” book and I think that the end result of El Niño is more complicated than this single “issue”. But, indeed, as I wrote, the politics of migration took over and became the focal point of the narrative itself.


What do you need in order to write — in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?


Writing is my life’s joy and it is also my job. I am the luckiest person in the world to write stories and peruse ideas that fascinate me. As such, I honour writing as a form of labour and approach it with a great sense of discipline.

I start early. I listen to music, usually jazz piano — anything by Bill Evans is perfect. Also, importantly, I listen to the music my characters would like. This music is like the soundtrack, setting a certain mood, and even bringing a certain diction, vocabulary, and rock-and-roll rhythm that underlies all my work. The reader might not hear Public Enemy, Beastie Boys or Wu Tang Clan in El Niño, but, man, they are really there.

I chew gum, which is horrible and toxic, but better than smoking a pack-a-day, which I used to do. I drink gallons of tea. I use standing desk, which solved my headache problems, and must perform some kind of vigorous physical activity after a bout of writing so as to work through my thoughts. I have the most amazing ideas and solve so many problems when running.


What do you do if you're feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?


Go to a movie. Go for a run. I saw Under the Skin this weekend, which is terrific. I did not go with any expectations but left the theatre having solved a narrative problem I was having. Or I talk to certain friends who read/watch movies a lot. This is really productive if I am having problems with a holey plot — I will outline the plot and the friend will ask me a series of questions exposing the hole and often finding a solution.

If the discouragement is internal, in me rather than in the work at hand, I will think of Toni Morrison. She is one of my role models. She published her first book (The Bluest Eye which is a knock-out) when she was a thirty-nine-year-old single mother of two and a university instructor. And here she is a woman in her eighties still publishing great books. Her life and works gives me the courage to be patient and keep on going.


What defines a great book, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great books.


I love the short story collections What we Talk about when we Talk About Love by Raymond Carver and Birds of America by Lorrie Moore. I read these over and over. Carver is so spare. This book, and Gordon Lish’s editing of it, continue to teach me about how “more is less” can open up such vistas and depth. I grew up with Lorrie Moore’s stories — and continue to grow with them. Her voice soothes my brain. Her word-play, humour, and unsentimental insights into the lives of white, middleclass contemporary North American women continue to inspire my writing and help me see my life and relationships in an objective, therapeutic manner.

2666 by Robert Bolaño. While Moore/ Carver are “perfect,” this book is maddening and brilliant in its imperfection. 2666 is vast, sprawling, and I love its play with the mystery and detective genres as a way to engage 20th century world history, contemporary “border” issues (much is set along the US-Mexico border), and does a superb job characterizing intellectuals/academics. Those points merely scratch the surface. (Sorry, I know that is three!).


What are you working on now?


I am working on part three of The Border Trilogy, tentatively called english.motion . This book is a loose retelling of Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness. I won’t say too much about it except that it takes up the “underbelly” of ESL teaching and the borders it engages are truly global. I am having a blast writing it.

Nadia Bozak is the author of Orphan Love and El Niño, the first two novels in her Border Trilogy. She is currently working on the third novel in the trilogy, english.motion, which is a timely retelling of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

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