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Interview with Canadian author, Madeleine Thien
By Laura Atkins*

What inspired you to become a writer? And were you always interested in writing specifically for children?

I can remember wanting to be a writer from a very young age, as early as six or seven years old. Books were a big part of my life - I read as often and as much as I could. What inspired me to be a writer, I think, was that I fell in love with what happens when we read. That feeling of inhabiting many worlds simultaneously, our own familiar one and the world of the story.

I always wanted to write for the age group that mirrored my own! When I was in elementary school, I wanted to write books for children. And in high school, I wanted to write for teenagers. Now, I think, I just want to write for whoever might be moved to pick up the book, and whoever might feel a connection to the story. And it's wonderful that my readers can span the ages of 3 to 80.

Your parents immigrated from Malaysia to Canada in the same year that you were born. Did their connection to this home country affect your growing up, and has it influenced your writing?

My parents, and the lives they've lived, have deeply influenced my writing. When I was younger, and when I started writing my first book, Simple Recipes, I was thinking a lot about my parents' lives, about the experience of immigration, about the deep bond that unites families, and that can also tear them apart. Of all the gifts that our parents give us, one of the most wonderful and mysterious is that they give us the example of their own lives. They show us how the past, present and future might unfold in a single life; how we are shaped by memory; how to live with the past and imagine the future.

You received an MFA in creative writing from the University of British Columbia. Can you name one of the most important things you learned there which has shaped your writing craft?

Of all the things I learned, I think the most important was that I learned to be an attentive and generous reader, trying to prick my ears to the sleight of hand and sheer magic that goes into making a story, or a novel, or an essay. I learned
to read with an open mind, with the desire to gather up everything the writer was laying down. Paul Auster once said that a book is "the only place in the world where two strangers can meet, on very intimate terms." Absolutely.

The Chinese Violin is a picture book about a girl and her father who immigrate to Canada from China, and how they adapt to this new country. This book originated as an animated movie. Can you tell me how this transition from film to book came about, and what the writing process was like?

The Chinese Violin was originally a National Film Board (Canada) animation, and the story and illustrations were made by Joe Chang, an artist and filmmaker who had immigrated from China to Canada. While he was working on the film, Joe approached a Vancouver publisher, Whitecap Books, to see if they would be interested in publishing a children's book edition of The Chinese Violin. And, not long after that, Whitecap Books telephoned me to ask if I would like to write the words for Joe's story.

When I wrote The Chinese Violin, I hadn't seen the film because it was still in production. And it was only after the children's book was published that I finally met Joe. So, in terms of the writing process, I was guided by Joe's beautiful illustrations, which hinted so powerfully at the great depth of love between Lin Lin and her father.

How did you connect to this particular story? Were there any aspects that particularly inspired or spoke to you?

Two aspects of the story immediately spoke to me. The first being the relationship between Lin Lin and her father. One feels that their common language is, in addition to words and music, a shared dream of what their future might be. They anchor one another. Partly, they wish to overcome their own struggles in order to contribute to the other's happiness.

The second aspect that I loved was Joe's illustrations of Vancouver, especially the coastline, what looks to me like Jericho Beach or Spanish Banks. This landscape is even more beautiful and playful in the film. There are scenes of Lin Lin encountering squirrels and birds, of being at home in this vibrant, wondrous landscape. And, of course, in the film, the music is enchanting.

Do you have any plans to write more children's books? If so, would it be another picture book or are you interested in other formats?

I would love to write more children's books. For the last two years, when I was living in Europe, I wrote weekly, illustrated letters to my nieces and my nephew. The letters recounted the adventures of a certain ballet-dancing chicken and his best friend, a shy, mathematically-inclined penguin. Bert, Pinot and friends are now somewhat legendary in our household. The chicken, at least, feels that he is clearly worthy of at least one book...

What is your writing practice like? Do you write daily, and do you have any particular rituals or patterns that you keep?

Since my first book (Simple Recipes) was published, I've been able to support myself as a writer. It's a true gift. For the last four years, I've been writing full-time, working on a novel that is due to be published next year.

Generally, I work full days, dividing the time between writing, reading and research. In the evenings, I tend to listen to the radio, or read for pleasure. For me, one of the most wonderful things about making my living as a writer is that I have the time to read widely. Science, philosophy, history, literature... I'm eternally grateful for public and university libraries.

Are there any other writers who inspire you? Any children's authors or children's books which you have found particularly affecting?

Some of the writers who inspire me are Alice Munro, Michael Ignatieff, Antonio Damasio and Cees Nooteboom. As a person, I've learned so much and been changed by Ian McEwan's Atonement, Ignatieff's The Warrior's Honour, Erna Paris' Long Shadows, and Francois Bizot's The Gate. I wonder what it is that draws me to these writers... they approach their subjects with so much intelligence, grace and integrity. I feel as if I emerge from their books richer and wiser for the experience.

When I was a child, I loved Katherine Paterson. As well, I still have vivid memories of Harriet the Spy hiding in the dumbwaiter. For years, I wanted to see a dumbwaiter, just as, for years, I wondered what it would be like to eat Turkish Delight. Last year, I read the Phillip Pullman trilogy, and loved every book. My own mother passed away almost three years ago, and for me, it was heartbreaking, yet deeply comforting, to read Pullman's description of Lyra freeing the souls of the dead from their limbo. When she leaves Pantalaimon on the shore... I don't think that I will ever forget that scene.

You mentioned that you have been living in the Netherlands for the last two years, and have only recently moved to Quebec City. Have you experienced culture shock coming back to Canada? Did living in the Netherlands have an influence on your writing?

It's been wonderful to return to Canada. Life in Quebec, though, is quite different from life in the rest of the country. The city is 98% francophone, and so one of my priorities has been to improve my French. I'm excited at the chance to read more Quebecois and French literature.

Our life in the Netherlands was very different. We lived in a village, no more than 2,000 people, in the north of the country. I used to run regularly, and my route took me past farmland, grazing cows, windmills, sheep. Because most people spoke Frisian and were not comfortable with English, our lives were relatively solitary. I don't think that I could ever settle there, but the experience certainly changed me. Much of the time I felt a sense of loneliness, of foreign-ness, but also wonder at modern European village life.

Are you working on a project now?

I've just about finished my novel, Certainty, which will be published next year. Aside from that, some essays, and research for the next novel.

If you weren't a writer, what would you be?

I'd love to work in radio, making documentaries. I would love to work for the BBC, or Radio Netherlands, or the CBC. Sometimes, writing fiction, I feel as if I'm not addressing the questions I feel need to be discussed now, political questions, issues of human rights, of war and global inequity. Like so many other people, I wonder how to make the world a better place. I think this desire was first awoken in me when I was a child, when I first read The Diary of Anne Frank, when I learned to imagine what it might be like in the soul of another person. I think that any profession I would choose now would be a result of worlds and possibilities that were opened up to me, through books, when I was a child.

*Laura Atkins is a PhD candidate at the University of Surrey Roehampton in London. She is a regular contributor to PaperTigers.

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interviee- Madeleine Thien

Madeleine Thien

By Madeleine Thien:

Simple Recipes (Little, Brown, 2002).
The Chinese Violin, illustrated by Joe Chang (Whitecap Books, 2001).

Simple Recipes was named a Kiriyama Prize Notable Book in 2001; won the Canadian Authors' Association Award for most promising Canadian writer under the age of 30, and its manuscript had previously won the Asian Canadian Writer's Workshop Award for Emerging Writers.

More on PaperTigers:

Read a review of
The Chinese Violin
from Resource Links.



Interested in fiction and nonfiction for grown-ups from the Pacific Rim and South Asia? Then take a look at the latest PaperTigers: Books+Water project, the online literary journal
WaterBridge Review.



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