Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Lucky Seven Interview, with Nazneen Sheikh

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Nazneen Sheikh

Nazneen Sheikh is the author of The Place of Shining Light (House of Anansi Press), the story of three men racing to find a sacred 5,000-year-old Buddhist sculpture. Each man has his own motivations, and when one attempts to steal the relic for himself, it becomes a question of how far each one will go to see the sculpture end up where he thinks it ought to be. The Place of Shining Light is a contemplation on beauty, ownership, spirituality and the passion these concepts inspire.

We're pleased to speak to Nazneen today about her new book as part of our Lucky Seven series. She tells us about the destructive act that first piqued the idea for this book, the importance of a good steam as part of the writing process and her favourite Canadian writers.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book, The Place of Shining Light.

Nazneen Sheikh:

My new book, The Place of Shining Light, originally sprang as a response to the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan. When I embarked on a trip to research the subject I was exposed to people and events which made me realize that I would be writing a novel.

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?

NS:

I have always been obsessed by transformative experiences. Perhaps at an unconscious level I was confident that it would emerge in the writing. I love art and in particular am passionate about Antiquities. The contemplation of beauty is a forgotten exercise in the world we have created. This is the ultimate consolation in life. I wanted to show how people would kill and die to achieve it. However the writing process, despite book outlines is redolent with mystery. Chapters have a way of surprising you.

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?

NS:

No, I am quite sure footed in defining the narrative. I see the book as a canvas which will use specific colours. I hope this makes sense? It took me a year to write the book.

OB:

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

NS:

I write best at my desk in my study area in my home. My working out five days a week at my health club is tied into my writing ritual. I work out first as I use the steam room at the end of working out as my chapter planner. It is as though the steam not only opens the pores in my body but all those story making recesses in the brain. In terms of food what I have learned is that one cannot go out for lunch and have wine and then go back home to write. You can easily kill the writing day like that. I often use some instrumental music to write to. It helps in creating that white space so words can emerge. My writing instrument is my almighty laptop which has travelled to many countries.

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?

NS:

On the contrary I am so energized and enthusiastic about the writing process. I am almost impatient to see whether I can achieve what I have set out to do. I compete with myself and no one else. However, once I finish the book I am consumed by fear. Will my agent, and others get the book. Will they truly understand what I have done? When a publishing contract arrives I am always a little stunned at first and then a sense of humility kicks in. That can be a cultural response where I was educated and indoctrinated to worship the great literary giants. Ego was effectively banished!

OB:

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

NS:

This is a tough question as I have always been a voracious reader. Right at this moment I think of Kirekegards Either Or or Thomas Manns The Magic Mountain I recall both books left me in a daze for days. However the works of two Canadian authors, Findley and Atwood, are up there as well.

OB:

What are you working on now?

NS:

I am working on what I call my great American novel. The story was set in my mind a few years ago and I thought perhaps it was a possibility. Yet the haunting started earlier this year and I have begun work on it as it is unique but thoroughly American. In my more cocky and ill disciplined moments I say I am going to give the great American writer Jonathan Franzen a run for his money! Finally, I have been corrupted as a display of ego is shown in this comment. My departed parents would be most displeased about this.


Nazneen Sheikh has written several works of fiction and non-fiction for adult and young adult audiences, including Moon Over Marrakech: A Memoir of Loving Too Deeply in a Foreign Land, Chopin People and Ice Bangles. Her culinary memoir, Tea and Pomegranates: A Memoir of Food, Family and Kashmir was a critically acclaimed success. Nazneen was born in Kashmir and went to school in Pakistan and Texas. She lives in Toronto.

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