Meeting the Minds – Talking with Esi Edugyan

Athabasca University’s new Writer in Residence, Esi Edugyan, has won a number of literary awards. Her literary expertise can be tapped into by Athabasca faculty and students alike during her 2015‐2016 residency.

Marie: Esi, you are a highly accomplished author. What books have you written and what are some of the most prestigious awards you have received for your publications?
Esi: I’ve written two novels. The Second Life of Samuel Tyne was a Knopf First Face of Fiction in 2004. Half-Blood Blues won the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Anisfield-Wolf Fiction Prize, the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, and the Ethel Wilson Prize for Fiction. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the Orange Prize, the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction, and the Rogers Writers Trust Fiction Prize.

Marie: How did you feel when your book Half‐Blood Blues received nominations from not one, but four award‐giving bodies?
Esi: I felt very fortunate, certainly. It was unexpected, as the novel had had such a difficult path to publication?its first publisher went bankrupt on the eve of publication, and the subsequent manuscript was rejected by many publishers before finally finding a home with the editor Patrick Crean, then at Thomas Allen Publishers. For it to be recognized then was a strange and wonderful feeling.

Marie: How did you approach writing your highly acclaimed books?
Esi: I start every book with the idea of a character in a situation of conflict. I then see what develops out of it. The story itself is a thing that grows organically. Sometimes this takes patience.

Marie: How do you motivate yourself to write on a regular basis?
Esi: I keep banker’s hours?very steady hours?whether I feel like writing or not. What happens, strangely enough, is that writer’s block disappears, the pressure to write disappears; writing simply becomes what you do during your day. If it doesn’t go well one day, it’s likely to improve the next. And so on.

Marie: What is your writing environment like? Do you have a special place to write or use special software or tools?
Esi: I have my own office. A space of one’s own is crucial. I write longhand and on a laptop, depending on the day. But then sometimes I’ll write in cafes, too. I’ve learned to trust anything that works, and not to push a single place or method.

Marie: How do you approach making your characters come alive?
Esi: I don’t know. I think you just write and rewrite and rewrite until something right and true happens with them. It can take a long time, and a lot of work. I’m pleased that you find them “alive”!

Marie: Do you outline or how do you approach structuring a book of such magnitude and success?
Esi: Everything in a novel grows out of itself. Outlines, structure, these are elements that emerge in the writing and that I continually return to over the years it takes to write a novel. At a certain point the shape of a story makes itself known to the writer.

Marie: Do you like to implement metaphor or what is your approach to style in writing?
Esi: The subject matter dictates the style I write in. My second novel, for instance, was written in a particular voice; the writing is very different from my first novel.

Marie: You are the Writer in Residence at Athabasca University. What does your role involve?
Esi: I offer critical feedback to students, faculty, and members of the general public on any works of creative writing submitted. I’ll give two lectures throughout the year on elements of style and craft.

Marie: I understand that students and faculty can access your services. Do they need to have a fiction work in progress, or do you tackle all kinds of writing genres?
Esi: All kinds. Please see above.

Marie: If a student or faculty wants to learn from you, how can they approach you and what kind of time involvement do you have available to offer each person?
Esi: I can be reached via email: Pieces up to 3500 words can be submitted. I’ll read the piece several times, and then offer written critical feedback. If a writer has a specific concern, I tailor my approach to address this.

Marie: When does your term as a Writer in Residence conclude?
Esi: September 30, 2016.

Marie: What writing projects have you been working on in your residency?
Esi: I’m at work on a new novel.

Marie: Do you work from home or remotely or somewhere on the limited Athabasca campus?
Esi: I work from my home in Victoria, British Columbia.

Marie: What authors serve as role models for you? Do you ever try to fashion your writing on that of any other literary giants?
Esi: I don’t consciously fashion my work after other writers. Some of my favourite writers are James Salter, Cormac McCarthy, Tolstoy, Toni Morrison, Alice Munro, Mordecai Richler, Roberto Bolano.

Marie: If a student wants help with an essay assignment, how would you approach this request?
Esi: My role is not to assist students with academic papers, but rather with creative work.

Marie: What is your long‐term goal or quest with your writing?
Esi: To try and make each new book better than the last.

Marie: What types of themes run central to your writing projects?
Esi: I’m not sure I’m the one to answer this. Authors don’t write with themes in mind, simply interests that they want to explore. Often they themselves don’t understand what their concerns are ? they are only out to tell a certain story. Emergent themes are more often clear to readers than to writers, I think.

Marie: Where do you find inspiration for your stories?
Esi: Everywhere. In life, in books, in snatches of dialogue.

Marie: If you could give any piece of advice to a budding writing, what would it be?
Esi: Keep regular hours. Don’t despair. Remember that it’s a kind of play, no matter how hard it can be.

Marie: What are some of your favorite hobbies and past‐times when you aren’t writing?
Esi: I have two young children and love their company above all else.

Marie: What kind of books do you like to read for fun?
Esi: I like to read everything, and I only read for fun. Novels, short fiction, history, biography, poetry.

Marie: What are some of your most enjoyable experiences as a Writer in Residence?
Esi: The pleasure of discovering a moment in a story when the entire piece clicks and comes to life.

Marie: Do you feel like you have realized your deepest purpose in life?
Esi: I love what I do. Yes.