Welcome back to the Showcase, meeting artists and authors through relaxed Q&A with a bonus Quirky Question because that’s how we roll!
Today it’s a privilege to welcome acclaimed author Ian Thomas Shaw. Although we live across the country from each other, I had the pleasure of meeting Ian on a book signing tour, when he’d made his way to the Canadian west coast following the demand of his novel Quill of the Dove.
Hi Ian, thanks for being on the Showcase! Please introduce yourself with a bio:
I am a Canadian novelist, originally from Vancouver, but have lived in Quebec, Europe, Africa and the Middle East for the last forty years. My day job is as a foreign service officer for Canada’s foreign ministry, Global Affairs Canada, but the literary arts are my passion. I am the author of two novels, Soldier, Lily, Peace and Pearls, which deal with Vietnamese boat people and their new lives in Canada. My latest novel, Quill of the Dove, blends literary fiction with a political thriller and is set in the Middle East. A fundamentally pacifist novel, it is the antithesis of most political thrillers. Giving back to the literary community has always been one of my things. For three years, I organized the Prose in the Park Literary Festival in Ottawa and served as the President of the Ottawa Independent Writers, and for several years I have coordinated the Ottawa Review of Books and the Deux Voiliers writers/publishing collective. I also serve on the advisory board of Guernica Editions.
Q. (A distinguished CV.) What do you feel you’re best known for?
A. Writing literary fiction with contemporary political backdrops.
Q. And what would you say brought you here?
A. In my professional life as a diplomat, abroad and at headquarters, for years I have written classified political analyses for selected groups of foreign policy decision-makers. This has honed my research skills, my analytical skills and my understanding of human nature, skills also applicable to the fiction-writing. I was also known to have a belle plume (beautiful writing). About ten years ago, I had an assignment at headquarters managing corporate and internal communications. One of our main publications was a quarterly magazine called Our World. We had a fairly free mandate to write about things that would interest and motivate the employees of Global Affairs Canada, a readership of several thousand. At that point, the writing/editing bug bit me hard, and toward the end of the assignment, I began to outline my first novel.
Q. (A unique path to novel writing, and a good one.) Who’s been a mentor to you?
A. Unfortunately, I have never had a mentor. However, I lived in Germany for four years and studied German for many more and very early on I was introduced to the writing of Erich Maria Remarque, best known for his novel All Quiet on the Western Front. Remarque was a staunch opponent of Nazism and was forced to live in exile at the peak of his literary career. In Switzerland and later in America, he wrote several novels around the refugee experience and the horror that totalitarianism was inflicting on his native Germany. He was probably the dissident writer, the most hated by the Nazi regime, even to the point that the Nazis retaliated by arresting his sister and executing her in 1943. I have read most of his novels in German and some again in English. The novel that really inspired me was Remarque’s The Night in Lisbon (Die Nacht von Lissabon). While there are thematic and some stylistic influences of Remarque in my own writing, I have also tried to learn from the writing of two excellent Canadian novelists, Steven Galloway, the author of The Cellist of Sarajevo and Steven Heighton, Every Lost Country. Both set their novels in political settings in far-off locations and structure their plots around dilemmas testing their characters’ moral fabric, something I also try to do in my own writing.
Q. (Which you’ve done successfully.) Tell us please, what is your favourite: book, album, movie, and food dish?
A. My favourite novel is Dogs at the Perimeter by Madeleine Thien.
My favourite album is Harvest by Neil Young.
My favourite film? That is a tough one! I think that each day, my answer could be different, but today one film comes to mind, Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain with Audrey Tatou (in English Amélie). Somehow, watching this fantasy-comedy lived out in a Parisian café frequented by the luminaries of French cinema always erases whatever preoccupations I might have. Or maybe I am secretly in love with Audrey Tatou?
Food is the easy one: a lamb souvlaki pita sandwich served in Montreal’s Arachova Restaurant on Rue Saint-Viateur in Montreal. The rich yoghurt, onions and lamb wrapped in fresh pita superbly melt in my mouth, with each and every bite.
Q. (Well, I’m with you on lamb souvlaki and Audrey Tatou; not necessarily in that order!) What are you currently working on?
A. Recently, I have begun to co-translate two Canadian novels into German. These translations are fairly advanced now, and we are looking for German publishers for them. For some time, I have been contemplating the theme of my next novel. There are really three things that I want to accomplish in my fiction: 1) convey a meaningful social/political message; 2) enable the readers to learn something new from contemporary history; and 3) embark the readers on a journey of not just one character but a community of characters where a broad range of human emotions and behaviours can be explored. The novel’s message must be something that I passionately believe in, something experienced in my own life. The second goal requires deep research in a theme of contemporary history, something that I feel very at ease in doing. The last goal is the challenge of every fiction writer, i.e. creating a plot, characters, dialogue and prose that captivate the reader from the first page of the novel until the end.
Q. (Admirable undertakings.) And what’s your advice to others?
A. Write what you want to read, not what seems to be the flavour of the month. Don’t see yourself as a “writer” but rather as a “messenger.” A novel without a meaningful message is just entertainment; one that changes the way the readers see an issue, a part of the world and/or action-reaction by human beings is literature. That being said, be careful to avoid stereotyping in your writing and don’t let your novel become a political rant. If your message does not bring about a better understanding by the readers of complex issues, but rather just stirs the emotions of the readers to blindly take sides on social/political issues and the contradictions of human behaviour, you have probably failed, even if you sell a lot of books.
Q. (Well said.) And for our trade-mark Quirky Question. Make a choice: PB&J or PB&Honey?
A. PB&J, although I haven’t had a sandwich like that since I was ten years old. It does bring back fond memories though. 🙂
(Bill) I love it! Thanks so much, Ian, for a thought-provoking and engaging interview. Wishing you continued success with your writing, reviewing, translating and publishing.
And we’ll see you next time, here on the Showcase!
Bill Arnott is the bestselling author of the Gone Viking travel memoirs (Gone Viking: A Travel Saga, Gone Viking II: Beyond Boundaries, Gone Viking III: The Holy Grail) and A Season on Vancouver Island. He’s won numerous book awards and received a Fellowship at London’s Royal Geographical Society for his expeditions. When not trekking with a small pack and journal, Bill can be found on Canada’s west coast, where he lives near the sea on Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh land.