“You don’t know where the line is but you know when you’ve crossed it.”
A quote from a conversation I had recently with writer Wayne Grady. Wayne was in the Waterloo Region for three days to celebrate his first book of fiction, Emancipation Day. This book had been selected by the local One Book, One Community committee for everyone in the region to read and discuss.
In preparation for our conversation I researched Wayne’s bibliography, and I quickly learned that Wayne’s past books were Québecois to English translations as well as nonfiction with a focus on writing about the natural world. But well into adulthood he discovered a startling piece of his personal history: he had black family heritage. This detail had been kept from him throughout his life and he now had much to think about in terms of what this meant.
Wayne started to approach this subject through the channel he knew best, nonfiction. He researched, thought and wrote—and he wrote and he wrote. He was creating a massive tome but at one point in the process he realized he had crossed some invisible line in his writing. He was no longer writing nonfiction; his writing had morphed into fiction and the start of a novel. Being new to the fiction world he sought advice. One of the first pieces of advice was to keep his first novel “contained.” He needed to trim down his ideas of following a family over many, many years and generations and zero in on a shorter time period. He sought more feedback from trusted sources and was told his drafts were not yet a novel.
He then shared the advice that set him on the path to his end product: a) make the key relationship between father and son, not husband and wife; b) forgive the father and make him more likeable; c) develop the story of the father. This advice was specific and clear and gave Wayne the structure he needed to successfully complete his first novel. The clarity of what he had to do came rushing out and he wrote his final draft in about a month and a half. Total project time, eighteen years.
I asked Wayne if we could delve deeper into his extensive writing experiences so they could be shared with our TNQ community of readers and writers. He was generous in his responses.
When Wayne was editor of Harrowsmith he said he wanted “to bring readers into his experience” by asking “why to”, not “how to.” His ambition was to make our planet a better place by promoting care for our environment through his nature writing. He thought that by helping his readers better understand the natural world, they would naturally care more. This was his subtle form of activism as an artist and extended into his later nonfiction books covering a wide variety of topics such as the Great Lakes, vultures, and coyotes.
Regarding his work as a translator, Wayne told me he lived in Québec and learned Québecois on the street. This prepared him well to translate works by Québec writers into English since he needed to convey ideas and meanings, not merely one-to-one words. He had a similar goal in his translation work as for his nonfiction work: to bring readers into an experience, this time Québec culture and ideas. Wayne has been very successful in achieving this goal and won the Governor General’s Award for Translation in 1989.
We had one other area of conversation that reflected on a reading Wayne gave in Waterloo Region a few years ago. Wayne was sent a piece of music by the conductor of the K-W Symphony, Edwin Outwater. He was asked to write a short piece that was inspired by this music. (I couldn’t help but think later that writing in response to any piece of music would be a great way to practice your writing chops or, perhaps, break through a writer’s block.) He told me that this is what it must feel like to write poetry, although he confided that he’s not a poet. His imagination presented a woman alone in a dark house circa 1940’s and a mood of fear. He then fleshed out his imagination to share with the audience as the symphony played the music behind him.
Wayne had once again taken his readers into his experience and we were all the better for the sharing.