Author spotlight: Shashi Bhat

Between now and our awards ceremony on September 20th, we will be featuring the shortlisted authors for the 2014 East Coast Literary Awards.

This week, we feature Shashi Bhat, author of The Family Took Shape. Her novel is shortlisted for the Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award

Shashi Bhat’s short fiction has been published in several journals, including Threepenny Review, Arcadia, and Event Magazine; her story “Indian Cooking” was a finalist for the 2010 RBC Bronwen Wallace Writers Trust Award. She received her MFA in fiction, was born in Richmond Hill, Ontario, and resides in Halifax. She is currently an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Dalhousie University. The Family Took Shape is her first novel.

Describe your ideal writing space.
An airplane, because there is no internet, and I am confined to my seat. And sometimes they give you pretzels. I wish Air Canada would introduce a writing residency program, similar to the Amtrak residency in the US but without the sneaky copyright issues.

Tell us a bit about your process.  Do you work in snippets or do you have a full draft? Are you a planner or do you feel your way through? Pencil, pen, typewriter, computer?
I am an obsessive planner, and use colour-coded, numbered lists for my outlines. There’s quite a bit of percolation time before I start composing a story, during which I keep notes on scrap paper. I also google everything. I use google for research and use google images to inspire descriptive passages. I google words to look at their connotations and I google my phrases to see how original they are. I tend to revise as I go, rewriting a paragraph or sentence several times before I move on to the next one.

Give us the ‘elevator pitch’ of your book.
The Family Took Shape is about a girl in a South Indian single parent family, growing up outside Toronto with her autistic brother. Whether she knows it or not, nearly every action she takes in her life is somehow influenced by the experience of growing up with him. It’s a kind of coming-of-age story. Both children are under the care of their mother; their father dies when they are very young.  It’s called The Family Took Shape because I wanted the novel to follow the growth of the family, and the way the members of the family shape each other.

What was the biggest difference between your first draft and last?
My first draft was told from multiple perspectives, whereas the final version is a close third of just one character. It was a time-consuming rewrite, but I think it made the story more cohesive.

Do you feel public readings help writers develop their craft? Or are readings simply part of the business of being a writer?
Public readings definitely helped me. I did my first ones at a reading series we put on in grad school, at this weird bar with beds in it, called The Den. The people in attendance were our undergraduate students, mostly science majors, who were forced to attend. In fear of their potential disinterest, I thought much more about timing and rhythm, and about being compelling for an audience. It made me less self-indulgent (as a writer, at least).

Many writers have other roles, such as instructors, mentors, editors, cultural workers, publishers. What other roles, if any, keep you busy and do you view them as supportive of your work as a writer?
I teach creative writing – for the past four years at Dalhousie and starting this fall at Douglas College in BC. I’ll also be taking on the editor position at EVENT Magazine. While teaching can be all-consuming, I find reading and discussing raw work interesting and inspiring. It’s refreshing to be around writing students, who are often earnest and excited to be there. 

Your thoughts on Twitter (in 140 characters or less.)
I think it’s pretty nifty but I don’t use it much.

What are you currently working on?
I’m writing a collection of short stories, experimenting with dark humour and magic realism. Several of them concern ways of dealing with illness.

What book out there do you wish you had written?
Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. It combines two of my favourite genres – dystopia and coming-of-age. It’s quietly devastating. 

Who is your biggest cheerleader?
My dad. He’s a civil engineer, and I think the last book he read was probably about fixing nuclear reactors. But he is the most fiercely supportive father I can imagine. If I made a shirt with my book cover on it, he would wear it.  

The winner of the Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award will be announced in Halifax on September 20, 2014. 
Shashi Bhat’s novel, The Family Took Shape can be purchased from your local independent bookseller. 

Author spotlight: Ami McKay

Ami McKay, WFNS member and author of The Birth House, has again received the Booksellers’ Choice Award for her second novel, The Virgin Cure.  Ami was first presented with the award in 2007, and received her second Booksellers’ Choice Award at this month’s Atlantic Summer Book Fair on Prince Edward Island.  Presented annually by the Atlantic Independent Booksellers’ Association, past recipients of the award include Donna Morrissey, Alistair MacLeod, and Michael Crummey.  The Virgin Cure is published by Alfred A. Knopf Canada and is a CBA Libris Award Book of the Year Nominee, and was named a “Books of Summer” pick in the July 2012 issue of O Magazine

We chatted briefly with Ami following her win about our region’s independant bookstores and booksellers:

Why do independent bookstores matter?

Because thought, imagination, conversation and community matters. These are the graces bookstores bring to our lives.

What is your relationship, as both a reader and a writer, with independent bookstores & booksellers?

As a writer, I’ve had the great privilege of visiting many independent bookstores for readings and signings. I’ve been well cared for and inspired at every event, on every occasion, without exception. 

Countless times as a reader, the right book came into my life at the right time because a thoughtful bookseller took the time to place it in my hands. The Stone DiariesFall on Your Knees, and Execution    Poems by George Elliot Clarke are but a few books that come to mind. There was something electric in the words of each of these authors, sparks of truth and beauty that challenged me as a person and pushed me forward as a writer.

Do you have any favorite or notable experiences with an indie store or bookseller?

Here’s one of many…

As the mother of two sons, I owe a great deal of thanks to Mitzi DeWolfe and the entire staff at Box of Delights Books in Wolfville, NS, for always taking the time to talk about books and life with my boys.My eldest son, Ian, has just finished his second year at NSCAD, and from his first Harry Potter novel to his collection of paint spattered art books, Mitzi’s store has played an important role in fostering his creative life. He’s currently spending a month in Paris, cat and flat sitting for one of Mitzi’s former employees. He first met her when he was searching for a book to help him learn to speak Russian. He was twelve.

Here is what Michael Hamm, AIBA member and manager of Bookmark Halifax, had to say upon presenting the Association’s award:

“Ami McKay is truly an author of rare talents. It was proven with her first novel, The Birth House, a Canadian and international bestseller. With the publication of her second, Ami has again managed to create a world of historical specificity, so rich and textured in its detail. In The Virgin Cure, we walk through the streets and tenements of Lower Manhattan in the 1870’s, breathing its air of soot and squalor. It can be no other place and time. It is the through the creation of Moth, a girl not yet a teenager who is forced to acquire the skills and wile of an adult in order to survive, that the author reveals her magic once again. Moth is a creature of another century yet she is so immediate that she could be our daughter, sister or beloved of today. The Virgin Cure is a polished gem and with it, this author has secured a place in the hearts and minds of Atlantic Canadian readers and booksellers. For the second time in her short career, Ami McKay has been chosen as the Atlantic Canadian Booksellers’ Choice Award Winner of 2012.”

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