& occasionally about other things, too...

Monday, October 15, 2018

For me, writing a novel is a holistic endeavour: Ian Thomas Shaw

Ian Thomas Snaw
Ian Thomas Shaw’s second novel Quill of the Dove will be launched in April 2019. It is a blend of literary fiction and a political thriller. Framed by contemporary events in the Middle East, the novel covers two distinct time periods: 2007 mainly in Europe, the Palestinian Territories and Israel and Lebanon from 1975 to 1982.

French journalist Marc Taragon has spent the last thirty years attempting to bring to readers the truth about the wars and political intrigue in the Middle East.

Unsparing in his criticism of extremists in the region, he has earned many enemies. Taragon agrees to be interviewed by a young Canadian journalist, Marie Boivin, not knowing that Marie has a hidden agenda: to discover through Taragon the truth about her childhood.

Before Marie finds the answers she seeks, she is enmeshed in Taragon's plan to broker a private peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. In the isolated Greek village of Arkassa on the island of Karpathos, Taragon succeeds in persuading a dissident Palestinian leader and a left-wing Israeli politician to negotiate a far-reaching agreement that challenges hard-liners on both sides. 

The action moves quickly through Europe and the Middle East as Taragon, Marie and their associates try to stay one step ahead of deadly opponents of their initiative.

Ian was born in Vancouver, British Columbia. For the last 33 years, he has worked as a diplomat and as an international development worker, living in Africa, the Middle East and Europe. He currently lives in Aylmer, Quebec.

In an interview, Ian says, “In writing Quill of the Dove, I wanted to provide a perspective where individuals, not governments, armies, militias or political movements, were at the centre.”

You have worked as a development aid activist and a diplomat in the Middle East. Your latest novel Quill of the Dove is set in the Middle East. It attempts a personal narrative, a path to self-discovery, and a recapitulation of the region’s tortured history.

Why did you choose such a challenging subject?

I have always felt a great affinity for the peoples of the Middle East, whether they be Arabs, Jews, Druze or Kurds and have been dismayed at how the political leaders of the region have put their egos ahead of the welfare of the common people, often egged on by foreign backers. Unfortunately, many novels on the Middle East fall into the trap of catering to one side or the other of these conflicts, which are nurtured by the narcissism of the region’s leaders and serve the strategic interests of bigger countries.  In writing Quill of the Dove, I wanted to provide a perspective where individuals, not governments, armies, militias or political movements, were at the centre.

Are you satisfied with the results?

As a writer, I am, but I will leave it to the readers to decide whether the novel rises to their expectations.

What does the title of the novel mean?

The central character of Quill of the Dove is a journalist who deeply believes in pacifism. The quill is both the quill as an instrument for writing and as the feather of the dove, a symbol for peace. The novel is a eulogy to the courageous work of those journalists who denounce atrocities committed against civilians.

Your debut novel Soldier, Lily, Peace and Pearls was set in South East Asia. The second novel is set in the Middle East. Both have a Canadian connection. Why do you choose foreign locales as settings of your novels?

I belong to that generation of Canadians who in their youth saw the world as their oyster. Our economy was strong. Unionized summer jobs paid well, and after high school and during university, I, and many of my classmates, travelled the world. We didn't stay in fancy hotels or take trains or airplanes to hop around the countries we travelled in.

Instead, we put out our thumbs to hitch rides, slept in cheap youth hostels or sometimes by the side of the road, and mustered our language skills to connect with the people we met along the way. I look around today and don't see many young Canadians able to travel as freely as we did. So, in part, my novels are a way to harvest my own experiences and those of others to share with young Canadians and bridge the divide between them and the incredible world beyond Canada's borders.

You are active in the literary circles in Ottawa, you recently emceed a literary event, you founded the Ottawa Review of Books, you have organised a literary festival Prose in the Park for a few years. What motivates you to get so deeply involved with literary activities?

By nature, I am a strong organizer with a bias for action. After publishing my first novel, I started going to literary events in Ottawa, only to find that attendance was often dismal. I remember attending a reading in a bookstore with three outstanding Ottawa writers a few years back; I was one of three people in the audience. 

Two months later, the bookstore went out of business and these writers haven't experienced any real success in their writing despite their skills. At another event organized by the local literary festival, twenty people sat in the audience for a Governor-General winner.

There were many other examples that convinced me that I could draw on my organizational skills to make a contribution to the literary community in Ottawa and elsewhere. I strongly believe that for literature to prevail against video games and reality TV in Canada, a strong community of writers needs to be built, and I am very motivated to do my part in building that community.

You have done two novels in a decade. How would you describe your writing process?

I love to talk about my plots with people, especially with people who know something about the politics and societies of the regions that I write about. It is surprising how often others who are not writers can offer ideas to build fascinating stories. For example, my first novel drew on a number of anecdotes that a Vietnamese-Canadian friend told me about her “boat-child” experience leaving Vietnam and her integration into Canadian society when she arrived in this country.

As I questioned her about her experiences, I soon realized that through fiction, I could lend a voice to her and many others who had similar experiences. At that time, no Vietnamese-Canadian was writing in English although Kim Thuy was making her debut writing in French so I wrote Soldier, Lily, Peace and Pearls. I am proud to say that through my writing collective, Deux Voiliers Publishing, two Vietnamese-Canadian writers were later able to join the community of Canadian writers with some exciting novels.

I am also a structured writer who first prepares an outline of entire novels with each chapter containing a one-paragraph synopsis. For Quill of the Dove, I sought the views of 25 beta readers on one or more of the three drafts. Every beta reader was able to offer some good insights into what was working and what was not. Of course, you have to have the skin of a rhinoceros to take the collective criticism that comes from so many early readers. Finally, I also write keeping in mind the final product, i.e. the number of pages, number of chapters, dimensions of the novel and imagery that can be used for the cover design. For me, writing a novel is a holistic endeavour.

Are you working on anything right now?

Yes, I am in the process of formulating a novel about the Shining Path guerrilla movement in Peru. I have never been to Peru but my late brother spent fourteen years there and spoke often of his experiences there. I speak Spanish and am familiar with the politics of Latin America. To develop this novel, I plan to travel to Peru relatively soon. The plot I have in mind will centre around a teenage girl with a younger brother. Her parents are teachers in a small town in an area of Peru where the Shining Path guerrillas are receiving support from the local population. I hope to explore how innocent people were caught in the dirty war between the Peruvian government and the revolutionaries.

Title: Quill of the Dove
Trade Paperback
6"x9" 304 pages
Other Formats: E-Book
ISBN 978-1-771833783
Guernica Editions (MiroLand)
Price: $24.95
Publication Date: April 1, 2019

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