Name: Camilla Gibb
Based In: Toronto
Education: Ph.D. in Social Anthropology from Oxford University.
Briefly: Four novels: Mouthing the Words; The Petty Details of So-and-so’s Life; Sweetness in the Belly; The Beauty of Humanity Movement. City of Toronto Book Award; CBC Canadian Literary Award; Trillium Award (best book in Ontario); Giller Prize shortlist.
Favorite Read: Ever? Hmm. David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, most of Haruki Murakami’s novels.
Pet Peeves: In writing? Misunderstanding and avoidance of the semicolon. Use of a thesaurus.
If You Weren’t a Writer You’d Be…A landscape architect
Author Crush: David Mitchell.
Up Next: A memoir.
What classic novel have you come across that never ceases to amaze you no matter how much time has gone by since you’ve read it?
I find myself rereading classic children’s books now that I am a mother. We’re reading Alice in Wonderland, at the moment and I remember even as a child, knowing this was a grownup book and I was “getting it.”
What’s the writing community like in Canada?
That’s a big question. It’s relatively small and collegial. There remains a certain amount of cultural insecurity that tends to define true success as success beyond our borders. We are hugely proud when a Canadian writer does well on the world stage. We are currently basking in the reflected glory of Alice Munro’s Nobel Prize win, particularly because she sets her stories in humble ordinary Ontario towns.
What was like to have been a writer-in-residence at a major university?
It’s lovely for me, as someone who left academia, to come back to the university on my own terms. I get to share things I have not learned in any formal sense with students who are not necessarily studying creative writing or English. Fiction comes from the world, not from the classroom.
Your third novel Sweetness was called “grave” by The Miami Herald. The jury for the Giller prize that late awarded it its most prestigious award collectively called it deeply “affecting”. How can writers create settings and characters that so emotionally overwhelm readers?
You have to take the risk of dealing with feeling and human vulnerability openly and honestly. You have to be honest enough about your own experiences in order to be able empathize with the struggles of others.
And you’re a non-Islam person writing about Islam. Were you fearful at all at how the book would be received by those who had that background?
I was not fearful and I haven’t been given any reason to feel fearful. It was an informed book, written from a place of compassion and respect. If I hadn’t studied Arabic, read the Qur’an and lived in the Middle East, I couldn’t have written this book.
Do you think a book’s cover design is a big deal?
It’s rare that I’ll buy a book on the basis of its cover, where I will buy a bottle of wine based on a label. But overall quality – the paper stock, the typeface – those things can sell me.
What gave you the inspiration to write Mouthing Words?
Someone close to me was sexually abused but asked me to keep it a secret. I couldn’t bear the silence. Mouthing the Words was my compromise.
What was the editing and revising phase like for The Petty Details Things?
It was my second novel. Second novels are tough. If you write your first without any expectation, as I did, suddenly there is a level of self-consciousness with the writing of the second. And first novels, I have heard it said, often have a lifetime of gestation. They come out more fully formed as a consequence. There is a danger, if you have had any success with a first novel, that you will try to replicate something you have done perhaps better in the first. In some ways, the second novel is the one where you become a writer. It gets harder, not easier.
Would you say that that novel was one of the most tear-sucking writing experiences you’ve ever had?
They are all brutal in their own ways. I’m at work on a memoir right now, and I think this wins as most-painful-thus-far.
How can aspiring authors get better at writing?
Read and read and read.
Do you believe in outlines?
I don’t use them, but then I’m writing very character-based fiction, where the characters, as they evolve, dictate the plot, telling me where they need to go rather than me predeterming that for them. For something more plot-driven – mysteries, thrillers – I would think they are indispensible.
Is your bedroom your preferred writing space?
No, because the temptation to nap is just too seductive.
Can you imagine ever writing a book where the woman is not the protagonist?
I prefer writing male characters; for some reason I find myself with greater compassion for them. Two of the three main characters in my last novel, The Beauty of Humanity Movement, are men and most of my short stories have male protagonists.
What aspect of being an author gives you the most joy?
The surprise of where a character can take you.
What words of wisdom do you have to offer to writers who just can’t stop procrastinating?
Write your way through the block; get those muscles moving, even if it is utter crap you are putting down on the page.
Are there some things you wish you had known before you published your first book?
That there is only ever one first book. You will never again be so innocent. Try and enjoy that experience. Continue reading