Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

At the Desk: Janie Chang

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Janie Chang's desk

Three Souls (HarperCollins Canada) is Janie Chang's debut novel. A young woman's ghost watches her own funeral as the story opens, puzzled as to why she's been denied entry to the afterlife. In order to move on, the woman must remember her life, and make amends for the acts that have tethered her to earth. Part family drama, part fascinating historical fiction (set in 1920s China), Three Souls has cast Janie as a writer to watch.

Today Janie joins us as part of Open Book's At The Desk series, in which writers speak about their creative processes and the workspaces that inspire them, telling the stories behind the books that sits on our shelves and in our hands.

Today she speaks with Open Book about shifting from high tech to creative writing, class struggles with cats and the eternal importance of Post-it notes.

A Shared Workspace

Here is what covers my home office walls: a watercolour of autumn fruit; a framed square of green and gold handmade paper; a watercolour of alpine meadows; my favourite photo of China, a canal boat beneath an arched stone bridge; a limited edition print of an Italian fishing village; a poster of Margaret Atwood’s book cover for Bluebeard’s Egg.

More recent additions: a map of 1935 Shanghai; a sheet of paper taped to the wall above my monitor: Until we know what a character wants, we don’t know what the story is about. Until we know what the stakes are, we don’t care.

My office has helped me earn a living in high tech for more than ten years, so creative writing is a relative newcomer to this room. It means I’ve struggled to share a workspace, in this room and in my brain, between billable hours and the time needed to scribble away in my novel’s domain. In a perfect world, I would have a writing studio dedicated to literary inspiration and the creative process. A room devoid of reminders of the day job, without technology magazines, project schedules or filing cabinets. A room large enough to house several IKEA bookcases. A room where the cat doesn’t pull an Occupy Chair protest movement every day.

Well. You work with what you got.

When I was writing Three Souls, the bi-fold closet doors were covered with bits of plot written on large Post-it notes. Colour-coded by timeline, no less. It would be a while before I figured out that process and productivity are not the same thing. I would move those Post-its around, hoping a different order of events would unfold the tale in a more compelling way. Every few months I would kill trees, printing off the entire manuscript and spreading its pages across my desk, an L-shaped table top that runs the entire (short) length of two sides of the room.

A writing space is defined by more than physical boundaries. You also need uninterruptible space. My husband has learned to respect my writing hours as much as my billable hours. The rule goes like this: when the office door is shut, the writer does not need updates on the hockey game. The cat and I settled our differences too: she gets two-thirds of the chair while I perch on the edge and type away from a position that guarantees lower-back problems in ten years’ time.

I wish that changing from left brain to right brain were as easy as pulling a switch. In this imperfect writing space, I’ve tried many tactics to facilitate that switchover to the creative process, from scented candles to rain sounds from a white noise CD. I’ve come to the belated conclusion that writing owes as much to discipline as inspiration. The act of creating can be overwhelming. There are so many directions, so many possibilities; inspiration can stop you cold as often as it sets your keyboard clicking.

When I get stuck, it’s useful to think of words as merely data. If you want to analyze a situation properly, you need enough data. For a novel, without enough words, how can you assess whether or not that brilliant insight into your main character actually works? Whether that subplot adds or detracts from the theme? Does the entire story sound plausible at all? There are assessments you can’t make until you have an entire story, plot elements you don’t realize need changing until you’ve developed them further.

The only solution, then, is to push through that mental detent, stop worrying about quality, and get words onto the page.

Even if the words aren’t very good, they bring me closer to understanding what I’m trying to say. The act of writing, no matter how forced, fools my right brain into thinking it’s doing something worthwhile and eventually it takes an interest in what’s going on. It usually comes awake with a “WTF? That’s no good. Move over.”

I may spend the rest of my life daydreaming about the perfect writing studio, but I also suspect that the lack of one has forced me to learn, reluctantly and laboriously, how to pull that switch and get on with the creative process.

— Janie Chang

Born in Taiwan, Janie Chang spent parts of her childhood in the Philippines, Iran and Thailand before ultimately settling in Canada. She has a degree in computer science from Simon Fraser University. Recently, she attended The Writer’s Studio at SFU. Three Souls is her first novel.

For more information about Three Souls please visit the HarperCollins Canada website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

Check out all the At the Desk interviews in our archives.

1 comment

Thanks for sharing! It's so interesting to find out about the difference processes used by authors to get their work done. Is there room in your office for another chair? If suppose it wouldn't matter your lovely kitty would probably still demand to sit with you. I like your line about process and productivity not being the same thing.

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