MG Vassanji . To a packed room he read the title story from his book of short stories called WHEN SHE WAS QUEEN. I listened attentively as a writer and here are some of the things I learned.
1. Open a novel or memoir with a family mystery and the questions surrounding it; this can lead into your back story. In the story Vassanji read, the role of ‘gambling’ is revealed in the opening line; then the story unravels into back story, characters and plot.
2. The importance of linkages: “I recall a man….” leads to description of his father; “how trivial events can change your life” leads to another story. Then from India, he switches into the present: “as I walk with my mother along Don Mills Road” and talks about his mother who, in turn, reveals more bits about his father.
3. A particular setting e.g. The Rose Hotel in India offers a great opportunity to describe all the interesting characters who were regulars there.
4. Advice to writers: start with a little piece of your story: a character, a setting, whatever you have and write. Then, revise, revise, revise!
5. His first novel was based on memories; in THE BOOK OF SECRETS he used a diary as a device to tell the story. Each of his books is different, non-fiction harder than fiction. It’s hard for the author to remember how he wrote them; he just moves on to his next project. As an established and two time Giller winning author, even Vassanji worries about losing his gift for writing.