“A writer, in some ways, lives and dies with the characters”: An Interview with Madeleine Thien

Says Madeleine Thien, author of the award-winning novel, Do No Say We Have Nothing.

I often judge a book by its cover. But when it came to Scotiabank Giller Prize winner Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing (the book also received the Governor General’s Literary Award and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize), history was not bound to repeat itself. I met Thien during a session organized by Pivot Reading Series late November. As I mustered up the courage to speak to the author, I was soon pleasantly surprised by her honesty and genuine interest. When asked how the people closest to her shaped her into the writer she is now, Thien replied, “Our lives shape the art that we make, and we also try to move, via the imagination, away from our lives. It’s a tangled and messy and beautiful occupation.”

Why am I rambling about the 42-year-old author, and not the award-winning book? Because the author is an integral part of this heartbreaking piece that mirrors her personality. Frail yet strong, beautiful yet determined, a tale that might leave you sobbing through the night, but will still force you to see the beauty in the brokenness. Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a title that could sell very well in the self-help section, and perhaps that’s what it does as you sift through the pages.

Through Mao’s Cultural Revolution and the horrific Tiananmen Square protests, one dives into a story that talks about history, music, family, and heartbreak. It is peppered with beautiful words that you would want to scribble across the edge of the pages so you could remember them for the rest of your life, like za ji, the things that don’t fit. Or the beautiful proposal that you might be tempted to use as your wedding vow: “Miss Swirl, I promise you that for all our life together, I will seek worlds that we might never have encountered in our singularity and our solitude. I will shelter our family. I will share your tears. I will bind my happiness to yours.”

In a candid interview, Thien talks about the book that has captured hearts across borders with its heartbreakingly beautiful narrative.

You were nominated for the Giller Prize for the first time this year and went on to win it, how exciting and humbling was the entire experience?

Exciting and humbling are the right words–it was both of those things, to a degree that I’d never really experienced before with my work. To be honest, it hasn’t settled in yet, and sometimes I forget that the book won the Giller and the Governor General’s Award. Maybe that’s reassuring, as I think fundamentally, my relationship to writing has not changed. Most of all, I am overjoyed for the book—which feels somewhat separate from me.

Have you read any of the books that were nominated for the Giller Prize?

I read many of the books, and loved them for very different reasons. Mona’s book is so moving and smart and funny, and Gary’s book is daring and wondrous, and Catherine’s book is poetic and profound. I was also reading a number of books on the Booker shortlist and the Governor General’s shortlist as well, in addition to my usual stack. I had some time in trains and planes and hotels to immerse in books.

How did the idea for Do Not Say We Have Nothing came along?

So many multiple ways, from watching the 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations on television, to thinking about the nature of books, originality, copying, culture, and language, and the devotional, and sometimes difficult, love between parents and children.

How long did it take you to wrap up the book?

From inception to finished book, it’s probably twenty-seven years. But in terms of actual writing time, I think it’s about five years.

Was it emotionally draining to write on such a dark theme?

Sometimes it was harder than other times, especially in the middle of the book and close to the end. I think a writer, in some ways, lives and dies with the characters; they change the writer forever—the way she or he experiences the world, the questions that the novel asks. I feel as if I’ve been given another 80 years to live, through existing through the characters in this particular book.

Your first book, Simple Recipes, was first released in 2001. As an author, how challenging has your journey been so far?

I’m always thinking or absorbing things, so ideas seem to come all the time. I feel lucky to be able to write and live as I do. They are all the good people you meet along the way, who make it possible for you to see and experience the world in more complex ways. My first editor, Ellen Seligman, was incredibly kind to me, as is my current editor, Lynn Henry.

What advice would you like to give budding authors?

Be courageous and focus on the work and your relationship with language itself, what it says and doesn’t say, what it’s capable of showing.

(Author Photo Credit: Rawi Hage)

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