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Authors share the writing habits that got them on the Giller short list

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TORONTO — Some authors get to work right after their morning coffee; others write late at night by the glow of their smartphones. Some struggle to stave off distractions; others embrace them as part of the creative process.

The Canadian Press asked the finalists for the Scotiabank Giller Prize to share the habits that help them put words on the page. Their emailed responses have been edited and condensed for clarity.

The $100,000 honour will be awarded at a Toronto gala Monday.


Omar El Akkad, nominated for his novel "What Strange Paradise" 

CP: What does your writing routine look like? 

El Akkad: We have two young children at home, and very sporadic daycare, so any semblance of a writing routine has gone out the window. But ideally, I like to write in the late morning into late afternoon, and do my editing late at night.

CP: Have your writing habits changed during the COVID-19 crisis?

El Akkad: I found it incredibly difficult to write or even read fiction during the pandemic, in part because my general anxiety began to interfere with my imaginative faculties, the very necessary ability to leave the world behind for a while.… It's only recently that I've started feeling like I can get back into a novel-length project.

CP: How do you avoid distraction?

El Akkad: I don't. I’m endlessly distracted. It has taken me two hours and counting to answer this questionnaire.


Angélique Lalonde, nominated for her story collection "Glorious Frazzled Beings"

CP: What does your writing routine look like? 

Lalonde: My writing routine is based around the responsibilities I have to tending life — my young children (now three and six), my part-time day job at a small non-profit, and our domestic sustenance-based activities — the garden, the chickens, and the seasonal flourishing of medicines in the forest around us.… Although my time is regimented, I also write when inspiration strikes. Pausing for ideas between other things if needed. If it's my scheduled writing time and the inspiration isn’t there, then I work on other tasks like editing, or turn to writing-related practices like reading, walking, or drawing.

CP: Have your writing habits changed during the COVID-19 crisis?

Lalonde: Only insofar as childcare has been unpredictable and my partner did not have work for a number of months in the fall and winter of last year, which meant I had to work more outside of the home, and had less time to write.

CP: What would you consider to be a productive writing session?

Lalonde: I don't really think of my writing in terms of productivity.… It's more a question of feeling my way through the writing. Has it moved me from where I was to somewhere else? Did something surprise me? Did I learn something about my characters I didn't know before? Did words do something on the page that delighted me?


Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia, nominated for her novel "The Son of the House"

CP: What does your writing routine look like?

Onyemelukwe-Onuobia: I often work in the mornings, early before anyone wakes up. That is the optimal time. But I try not to restrict myself to any routines because I have a busy life doing other work, and other commitments. So sometimes I write in the unlikeliest places and the strangest times. So I have been known to send texts and emails of thoughts, ideas and full paragraphs to myself.

CP: When did you know you were "done" writing your book?

Onyemelukwe-Onuobia: I had a long time between rejections to be thoroughly convinced that I was done with my book. It was gut instinct and a sense of satisfaction.


Jordan Tannahill, nominated for his novel "The Listeners" 

CP: What does your writing routine look like?

Tannahill: I would love to say that I'm a writer who gets up at the same time every morning, sits down at my desk, and writes 10 pages before lunch, but if I'm honest, I just try to write whenever and wherever I can — on trains, between breaks in rehearsal, late at night after coming home from a party, or sometimes into my phone while my partner is trying to sleep. 

CP: Have your writing habits changed during the COVID-19 crisis?

Tannahill: COVID has helped me let go of a pernicious late capitalist drive which cast reading as unproductive leisure time, as opposed to an integral part of the writing process. If I decide to sit for an afternoon and read a few dozen pages of (French novelist Émile) Zola, my work, and my spirit, are so much the better for it.

 CP: Do you let others read your rough drafts?

Tannahill: I only let lovers read incomplete manuscripts. Everyone else has to wait.


Miriam Toews, nominated for her novel "Fight Night"

CP: What does your writing routine look like?

Toews: I write in the morning. I read the newspaper, do the sudoku, drink a lot of very strong coffee, and then get to work. I work at my dining room table. I try to write on a schedule, but it doesn't always work out. 

CP: What would you consider to be a productive writing session?

Toews: Having written a solid five hundred words, words that I feel I might keep.

CP: What do you do if you get writer's block?

Toews: Well, I suffer, like everybody else. It's awful. You just have to get through it, move through it. Remind yourself it'll pass, probably. Hopefully.


This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 5, 2021.

Adina Bresge, The Canadian Press