How did you become a writer? I took my first creative writing class in art college, but it wasn't until a few years later that I put aside painting and drawing in favor of writing. I think that my brother's sudden death, when we were in our 20s, jolted me into pursuing my lifelong dream. When I began to work at it, I found that I was more willing to take risks as a writer than as a visual artist; the results felt truer to myself and my vision—or my voice. I started out writing flash fiction. Then the stories grew longer and longer, until I found myself with a novel in progress.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.). My visual art background definitely influences my writing; I think it helps me see things more sensitively than I would if I hadn't devoted years to looking closely at subjects and making art. Other than that, my influences are always changing. Studying under Nino Ricci, Anne Michaels and Catherine Bush strengthened my commitment and helped me hone my writing process. Books like Gunter Grass's Dog Years and Annie Proulx's Accordion Crimes made me think about the pervasive pull of structure—I'm very intrigued by repetition in stories. I find that I gain some insight into craft from most novels I read, though with the best ones, it can be difficult to separate sheer awe from actual lessons to be learned. East of Eden is a favorite, so I devoured Steinbeck's Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters. Reading about other writers' experiences and struggles helps me persevere.
When and where do you write? I have several regular writing spots. At home, I often write in bed. Much of my daytime writing happens at the Toronto Writers' Centre, where I have a desk. It's a membership-based facility with a large silent room for writing and a separate lounge where great discussions take place. I also do regular immersive writing retreats, lasting a week to a month, at a small house I own outside of Toronto, or at my cottage. When I'm on retreat, I work on average about 17 hours daily; I think of nothing else and do nothing else—except drink coffee, water, and wine, and eat the same simple things every day.
What are you working on now? I'm researching an artist as a possible subject for a historical novel. But I've been on tour for Studio Saint-Ex, so the writing is getting short shrift these days.
Have you ever suffered from writer's block? I have. At one point, I decided I had to give up writing, figuring that it would be less painful to call it quits than to try to write, to need to write, but to not write. I was wrong, of course. I've since found two ways to break a block. One is to take regular writing retreats, and—this is critical—to begin each retreat exactly as you wish to continue. The door should hardly be shut before you've got your computer on or notebook open and you start spitting out words. As for figuring out what those words should be, and the related blockages that come on a smaller scale, I believe the trick there is to dig deeper into one's characters. Get to know them deeply, as though they are full human beings, not just figures to carry forward a plot.
What's your advice to new writers? Of course you should read widely. And of course you have to write—a lot. Write through and past the awkward stages in which your words clunk and your characters embarrass you. Write past any fleeting illusions that you might be a minor genius (ha!). Write into the muck of not knowing what you're doing, and write out the other side. Now and then, step back from your story and consciously identify the not-quite-resolved things that have been gnawing at you. Pick up your notebook. Write down questions and ramble on in the answers, exploring all the possibilities until something strikes you as so right that it propels you back to work on the story. Ask anything and everything. Why do I want character A to have this profession; what opportunities and challenges would this present? Why is character B such a wimp; do I need her to be stronger or is her mild manner serving a purpose? How can I get C and D together in a way that feels right and natural? Hurry back to the story as soon as something you've noted in your Q and A makes you eager to get going again. This is a good way to achieve breakthroughs that might take forever to reach if you were simply writing forward in the story. Injecting some objectivity by stepping away from the manuscript, now and then, can help keep alive the flow of immersive, intuitive writing that is so satisfying and occasionally magical.
Bio: Ania Szado is the author of Studio Saint-Ex, a historical novel about Antoine de Saint-Exupéry writing The Little Prince in WWII Manhattan, and the ambitions and passions of two creative women who love him. She lives in Canada, where Studio Saint-Ex debuted as a national bestseller. It has sold to five countries to date.