Sarah Faber’s debut novel, All is Beauty Now (McClelland & Stewart, 2017), recently won the Margaret and John Savage First Book Award for Fiction at the 2018 Atlantic Book Awards. In the following post, she talks about the art of fiction, what she loves about living in her part of Nova Scotia (Cape Breton), and her strategies for combatting writer’s block.
How long have you been writing? What drew you to writing in general, and fiction in particular?
I’ve been writing for almost twenty years, but more seriously for the last ten years. I started writing because I felt compelled to. I’ve always had a ‘narrator’ in my head, a voice that arranges word into sentences, whether it want it there or not! Writing it all down was the only way to keep it from driving me mad, frankly. While I do love reading non-fiction as well as fiction, I write fiction because it feels freer—you’re not held to account in the same way as a non-fiction writer is. As Dumbledore says, just because something exists in your mind doesn’t mean it’s not real.
What do you think is changing in fiction these days?
Well, I do sometimes worry that mainstream fiction is becoming more narrow, and that the books that get a lot of attention tend to be more concerned with plot than form and language, whereas I think both bring their own pleasures. Of course there are many exceptions to that, many ‘successful’ books that are beautifully written, or that challenge certain conventions. And smaller, independent presses are so important for continuing to publish really interesting, formally innovative works.
What do you love about living in Nova Scotia?
Everything! (Except February, March and April.) I love living in the woods but also being minutes from the ocean and the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen. I love being removed from a lot of the anxiety and the sense of ‘hustle’ that, for me, often accompanied living in a big city. I love the sense of community, that people really do help one another and are generous with their time and knowledge. But I also love that I can be an introvert when I need to be. The sense of space, the variation in the landscape, the intense physical beauty of this place.
What’s the biggest misconception about being a writer?
That it’s romantic! It’s just so many hours alone, with your own thoughts, wracked by self-doubt, but also punctuated by moments of sheer exhilaration when you break though and get it ‘right’.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Wow—I have no secrets. Just keep writing. Try not to let the self-doubt win. Push past the voices—both internal and external—that tell you can’t. Try to find a few writers (or passionate readers) who you trust and show them your work and be open to feedback. But also know that you’ll never please everyone, nor should you try to. It’s a weird balancing act between learning to consider the reader without losing your particular voice or trying to shape yourself to someone else’s aesthetic. If you can, find a teacher or mentor or fellow writer who will listen to what you’re trying to achieve and help you realize that, rather than shape your writing to their particular tastes and preferences.
What’s great about writing in your part of Nova Scotia?
It’s extremely beautiful and quiet here in a way that distills something in me that is essential to the focus I need to write. I also feel like people around here are less concerned with wealth and status and so you don’t feel the pressure to ‘keep up’ or to prove anything. I don’t feel like I’m in competition with anyone, or with an idea of what it means to be successful.
What’s your guilty pleasure?
Vanity Fair. Martha Stewart’s Living Magazine. Watching Nikki Swift videos on Youtube (that’s a big one—I’ve never admitted that to anyone before!).
What do you do when you have writer’s block?
I read something I love, copy down a few of the most interesting words from a particular passage, then try to write something using all of those words. I often end up cutting many of the original words, but it’s a good exercise. Or, if I’m stuck for a particular scene, I’ll take a simple activity in a scene I love from a book (a character arranging flowers, people on horseback, a car crash) and put my characters in that scenario, then see what happens. Even if the activity itself doesn’t make sense for the characters I’m writing, something interesting might arise—a bit of dialogue, or they might then transition into doing something that does make sense for them.
What are you working on right now?
I’m not ready to say too much about it. But I’ll say that it’s set in the near future and has a detective element, but with a twist on the conventional detective genre. It’s not sci-fi, but is set in a somewhat altered world.
If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?
A gardener or horticultural therapist. I love gardening so much, and I think it can be so therapeutic. I’m also a pretty good editor!