Author spotlight: Shandi Mitchell

“Someone once said, ‘You’re a cinematic writer and a literary filmmaker.’ … For me, the two mediums are completely different languages.”

Shandi Mitchell is both an acclaimed novelist and filmmaker. Her second novel, The Waiting Hours (Penguin Random House), immerses the reader in the lives of three first responders: a trauma nurse, a police officer, and a 911 dispatcher.  Her first novel, Under This Unbroken Sky, was released in 2010 to great acclaim. It won the Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award, the John and Margaret Savage First Book Award, the Regional Commonwealth Fiction Prize, the KOBZAR Literary Prize, and was longlisted for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. 

Her films include The Disappeared, Tell Me, and Baba’s House.

Born in New Brunswick, raised in Alberta, Shandi presently lives on Nova Scotia’s south shore.

First of all, tell me about The Waiting Hours. What was the inspiration for it? Why did you decide to immerse yourself in this world?

Inspiration is difficult for me to pinpoint. It starts as a vague internal questioning. Something I’m sensing in the world, something gnawing inside me, or a chance encounter that bumps me into a character which begins the exploration of what I can’t yet articulate.

Before this novel began, I was sensing a mounting global anxiety and absorbing the collective grief, tension, and uncertainty of the world post-Boston Marathon bombing and pre-Trump. I borrowed a car that had a police scanner and as I was driving through the city on a perfect sunny day, I heard a constant chatter of invisible emergencies all around me. I wondered about what is seen and isn’t seen. At the same time, I was also feeling like a first responder for my family dealing with mounting medical emergencies.

I wondered about the accumulation of loss and trauma and the personal cost of running into crisis.  I have loved ones with mental illness and I think I was also trying to find a way to hold those difficult, conflicted feelings on the page. I wondered what it might be like to be a full-time responder, the pressures on and off the job. How they cope. How they’re affected by their work. How they step back into the ordinary world.  I wanted to know how they (we) keep their (our) hearts open. I started to dream 911 calls, and I was on the receiving end. That’s when Tamara arrived. I began to follow her and she led me to the others.

The book starts with a line from Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing – “Fear has a smell as does love.” How does that line relate to your novel, and perhaps to today’s situation during the worldwide COVID-19 crisis?

One of the primary characters is a search and rescue dog, Zeus. His job is to find those who are lost. Scent is his narrative. He can ‘read’ us emotionally, as well as physically. Like Zeus, I was searching for how we find our way back to “alive”.  How we break through the uncertainty and fear of waiting for the storms of life to arrive or pass or end. Waiting for something to change, something to happen. But in the waiting, there is also the possibility to act. To choose finding the small graces, courage, beauty, and light of the everyday. To choose love over fear. 

How did you come to know so much about the jobs and lives of the three first responders? What kind of research did you do?

I talked to responders. I read first person accounts. I did ride-alongs and sit-ins. I listened and watched.  I was incredibly lucky to be invited into communities willing to share their stories and show me their worlds.  At later stages in the writing, I asked professionals to assess the work’s authenticity. Did it feel true for my characters? I’ve always admired the skill, pride, high-pressure calm, humour, and compassion that I found in these fields. I once considered a medical profession, but I don’t think I could have found the balance to not absorb all the stories of the lives I encountered. I wouldn’t have been able to keep myself safe.

There’s a gap of almost 10 years between your first and second novels. Why is that? Given the overwhelming positive critical response to your first novel, was there a lot of pressure on you to pick up the pen again?

Yes, I think my publisher would have liked me to keep writing! But I had a feature film, The Disappeared that was gearing up immediately after my first book was released. Like writing a novel, the film process is long and all-consuming. From inception to writing to pitching and funding and rewriting and casting and directing and editing and distribution. Five years is not an uncommon time frame. And then I started, The Waiting Hours. A different process but equally consuming: conceiving, researching, writing draft after draft, securing a publisher, copy editing, proofing, covers, author materials, release and festivals… Long form projects are a marathon. They take years. And through it all, there is life and the constant chase for money and side jobs to allow the time to create. Every artist knows the hardship, dedication, courage, and obsession that it takes to complete something. The pressure comes from within. The need to do it despite the odds of it being seen or read. To do it because it’s the only way you know how to speak.

What impact did participating in the Alistair MacLeod Mentorship Program have in your writing of Under This Unbroken Sky?

The mentorship program gave me encouragement, courage, and the conviction to keep going. It was a safe place to step into the unknown, knowing that my mentor was up ahead holding up a light, coaxing me onwards. It’s such a vulnerable time to share early or first attempts, so to have someone cheering you on and a program like this saying ‘we see something here’ is a powerful infusion of confidence. Having also been a mentor for this program, the goal is not necessarily to achieve a finished work, but to strengthen the voice, hold the fragile bloom of possibilities, and share some of what you’ve learned along the way. It’s about keeping the focus on the page. One step, one step, one step…until you reach the end. Then go back to the beginning and start again.

I note that your mentor for the program was Sue Goyette, a poet. This strikes me because so many passages of The Waiting Hours are pure poetry. Do you write poetry too?

I was so fortunate to have Sue, one of our treasured writers, as my mentor. She is poetry for me. Not only her work, but her engagement with community and her deep observation of our relationships with ourselves, each other, and our fragile, confounding, heartbreaking, astounding world. I’m fascinated by poets and how they see and taste metaphor. I love the musicality of language and the tonalities that can be imbued in structure and word choice. I’ve written a few poems, but they sit in my boneyard file. I think of them more as portraits. I don’t see universes in them. I do consciously try to use the language of poetry in my writing if it reflects a character’s internal being, or if I want to pull beyond the limits of fiction to allow the metaphor to reverberate. In The Waiting Hours I was playing with music for Tamara’s character and a poet’s heart for Hassan. I love the challenge, limitation, and impossibility of creating a sense of another art form with words. 

How does being a filmmaker influence your writing? And vice versa, how does being a writer influence your filmmaking?

Someone once said, “You’re a cinematic writer and a literary filmmaker”. I’m not sure that’s a good thing!  Filmmaking has taught me to see. I bring film techniques to fiction writing such as constructing scene arcs and strong transitions. I’m conscious of tension and subtext.  I want the reader to vividly enter the story. When I read, I want to feel something. I ‘see’ my scenes or chapters, then try to create a language to allow the reader to see it, too. In fiction, I evoke an emotional tone. In film, I create a visual palette to affect the tone. I approach both forms through character, but in film I’m looking for visual ways to reveal a character’s internal state, whereas in fiction I’m inside my characters. For me, the two mediums are completely different languages.

As a writer, how are you uniquely suited to coping with the Stay Home edict? Do you have any tips to help people get through this period?

As a writer, my world is often solitary. The aloneness doesn’t unsettle me as much. But since my creative work is to observe, question and hold the pulse of life, I’m finding at times it’s a difficult balance not to absorb all the heightened emotions and worries of this time. I don’t have tips. I’m sure I’m doing what we all are trying to do—managing our best. Giving ourselves permission to feel; soothing with movies, music, food, and books; allowing laugher within the grief; holding close those we love, reaching out to friends and family…hello, hello, hello. Being grateful for small things. Trying to take good care of one’s self and those around us. Trying not to “smell” only the fear.

What makes you laugh?

Someone else laughing. Children discovering anew. Me discovering anew.

My dog’s unbounding joy for a walk, for food, for play, for waking up, for a poop…. the gratitude of every moment of her day.

Being awed by great art, food, films, books…Work that makes me marvel at the capacity of human creation.

Encountering the wild in an unexpected moment.

Silly games. Goofy jokes. Great meals. Orange super moon’s rising over the ocean.

Where’s your happy place?

As above. By the sea. By the sky. In fields. Sun warm gardens. Finding a feather. Cake for breakfast. Finishing a project. 

What are you working on right now?

There’s a work I started and left last year, told from the POV of a whale, with the constraint of one page per chapter. I was curious if it could accumulate and arc like a work of fiction and if I could be free enough to write underwater. Maybe I’ll pick it up again.

I have another long piece that I hope to write. I’m 70 pages in and will have to wait and see if it’s large enough for a novel. I don’t talk about this type of work until I have a first draft. I don’t want to scare it away.

I have a film I’d like to make. But in these times, that project may be delayed for years. Lately, I find myself thinking about smaller projects. Maybe I’ll turn to small films that require just me and a camera. 

But mostly, I’d like to rest now and give myself permission to do nothing. Plant some seeds, paint a door, fill a bird feeder… Normally, after completing a novel and depleting myself creatively, I yearn to gorge on life and reconnect with the real world. But with the world closed down, I seem to be listening for what story is calling next and wondering how this time is changing us, and me.  

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