Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Lucky Seven Interview, with Eric Siblin

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Eric Siblin

Eric Siblin's The Cello Suites was a bestseller upon publication, popping up on prize lists left, right and centre (including the Weston Prize for Nonfiction, the Governor General's Literary Award and the BC National Award for Canadian Nonfiction).

So music-loving readers will rejoice to hear that he's back this spring with another music-themed offering, Studio Grace: The Making of a Record (House of Anansi). Studio Grace takes a more personal approach, charting the realisation of a long-held dream of Eric's: the recording of an original album.

From the nitty gritty of songwriting to the evolution of sound recording, following Eric's journey with the titular album (which was released in March) is fascinating. Covering multiple aspects of the production experience, including studios both tiny and huge, laptop production, and YouTube and iTunes distribution, Eric guides readers through stories that both serve as useful guides for the musically inclined and moving tales for those who are happy in the audience.

Today we're speaking with Eric as part of our Lucky Seven series, 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.

Eric tells us about how his musical journey began at thirteen, how different types of studios cater to different musical aesthetics and his next (non-musical) project.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book.

Eric Siblin:

I’ve been writing songs since I bought my first electric guitar at the age of thirteen. My first composition was called “Cloudburst”. The song titles have not improved much over the decades. But I like to think the songs have gotten better. A few years ago, I wanted to record an album for the first time. That’s how the book began. It actually started off as a piece of fiction in which the main character was obsessed with composing songs. But as the real-life process began and I started recording the music in a small basement studio, a non-fiction story seemed to be taking shape that was worth writing about.

OB:

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?

ES:

The question that was always in the back of my head was: are my songs any good? How can I make them sound as good as possible? That was more of a musical question then a literary one, but it powered much of what I wrote.

OB:

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?

ES:

The project took about a year and a half from start to finish. It moved from a couch and guitar to a basement studio with friends to a big, legendary Montreal studio called hotel2tango involving some fine session musicians. One tune was recorded by a friend solely on a laptop with his gifted teenage daughter singing. The different studios — which reflect various technological and aesthetic approaches to recording music — came together in a way I hadn’t foreseen. And stuff happened on the journey that I could not have predicted, whether it was a record-breaking snowstorm, a copyright spat, or a major record label courting a singer on the project.

OB:

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

ES:

I have no special dietary requirements for writing. I’m flexible when it comes to space. And I tend to move about and write in various places. Rituals I leave to goaltenders in the playoffs. Pen and paper, however, are mighty necessary for me, especially for jotting down notes while researching a non-fiction story. And the iPhone has proved more and more indispensable for impromptu interviews, note-taking, and first-person voice memos. It’s also a godsend for capturing songs as they’re being written.

OB:

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?

ES:

I try to look at what I’m working on from a different angle. Read the thing on a different device. Or try a different time of day; if I’ve been writing in the early mornings I might give it a whirl late at night. Another strategy is to let the fields lie fallow for a while, then pick the work up again. When all else fails, a literate friend can be prevailed upon to look at something I’m struggling with.

OB:

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

ES:

I think a great book fuses stellar writing with compelling content. The form itself is imbued with its subject matter. A book like Utz, by Bruce Chatwin, focuses on a character — a porcelain collector in Cold War Czechoslovakia — who is elegant, erudite, old-fashioned, and whimsical. The writing follows suit. The characters in A Grand Complication by Allen Kurzweil are eccentric, humorous, and scholarly — ditto the writing.

OB:

What are you working on now?

ES:

I’m working on a book that is not about music. I began this book before Studio Grace and I’ve put more time into it. It has to do with ancient philosophy and history. I knew very little about antiquity when I started researching the book so it’s been refreshingly enlightening. I remain a history student at heart.


Eric Siblin is the bestselling author of The Cello Suites, which won the QWF Mavis Gallant Nonfiction Prize and the McAuslan First Book Award, and was a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award, the Writers’ Trust Nonfiction Prize, and the BC National Award for Canadian Nonfiction. So far, the work has been published in thirteen territories and in nine languages. He lives in Montreal, Quebec.


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