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Interview with author Farzana Doctor: Recap and highlights from the Babble Book Club

Farzana Doctor stopped by babble to join the Babble Book Club in discussing her novel Six Metres of Pavement. Her novel is so nuanced with themes of grief, sexuality, redemption and survival that again our conversation went by in the blink of an eye, leaving us wanting more!

For those who haven't read Six Metres of Pavement, grab your copy and start reading now, or be prepared to grab one directly after you read the conversation. Farzana's ability to layer stories, characters and emotions over the familiar Toronto neighbourhood of Little Portugal left all of us in awe of her talent.

A big thanks to Farzana Doctor for taking the time to join us and answer the many questions that came her way; another big thanks to all those who participated asking questions and leaving comments and finally thanks to those who checked in on the conversation. Please view the original babble thread for a glimpse into the chaos and any extra tidbits.

We recently read a novel where the protagonist was also coaxed into the idea of "writing as therapy" and the idea of story-telling to heal and understand life events. How is the act of writing therapeutic for Ismail (and Fatima and yourself)?

I used the writing class as a kind of literary device to bring together two characters who might not otherwise have easily met. Having a character journal or write in a story is an easy way to show a reader their internal thoughts. For me (and maybe everyone?) writing is really therapeutic, allowing for self-reflection and understanding. Those scenes (the writing classes) were inspired by a class I took at the University of Toronto a dozen years ago, shortly after a terrible break-up! I wrote the first draft of the first chapter of my first novel in that class.

Writing fits into the idea of self-awareness/self-help. Ismail seems to be more responsive to self-discovery and evaluation through reading and writing than therapy -- why did you paint him in this light? Is it a reflection of your own processes?

I'm not sure why I painted Ismail as someone not receptive to therapy, it just seemed to fit. He is mostly stagnant for 20 years and so it made sense to me that his employer-mandated therapy shouldn't work for him at all. I also think that I relied on my knowledge of South Asian communities and their relationship to therapy. I grew up in a home where the concept of therapy is very alien. That said, I am a psychotherapist in private practice, and I like to write about therapy in my writing (and especially like to poke fun at therapists in my writing!).

In addition to the act of writing, Ismail also reaches out and connects with various communities within the novel. This also seemed like an act of therapy. How did you go choosing and about researching these communities/neighbourhoods?

I live in Brockton Village, one of Toronto's Little Portugals (there are three, I think). My neighbourhood inspired the novel's primary setting and my neighbours, most of whom are Portuguese Canadians, inspired the decision to have Ismail connect with Celia. My neighbourhood has changed a little over time, but when I first moved in, it was dubbed, "Widow Row." I wondered about the lives of the widows, and this wondering seeped into the book. The research involved speaking with "cultural insiders" (Portuguese friends and friends-of-friends) and reading as much as I could about the community.

While reading, I could so clearly picture the neighbourhoods that I lived in when in Toronto. It felt like home, which allowed me, while reading, to simply immerse myself in the story of these two individuals, their struggles and their coming together. As a student, however, I rarely got to interact with my neighbours, many of whom were immigrants. Was it difficult to fictionalize interactions that were so close in proximity? Is that why you chose an older, male protagonist?

I didn't feel it was difficult to write these characters, they didn't feel so close to me, in terms of age or experience. I had more trouble with my first novel's protagonist who is a South Asian lesbian psychologist!

Is this where the idea of agonias stems from?

The agonias comes from the work of Dr. Susan James, a psychologist who writes about Azorean immigrants. Her work was really helpful for drawing Celia.

Agonias is a really interesting phenomenon and a neat conceit in the book. I was wondering if agonias, and the other mental afflictions in the book (Ismail is in, as you put it, "stasis" for 20 years), had any relation in your mind with the novel's first pages and the idea of motion and movement. I wonder if you, as a psychotherapist, were connecting moving minds with moving people at all.

I was thinking a lot about mind and body connections during this book. The inspiration for the first page actually came from my sister, who is an RMT and Feldenfreis practitioner. She's often spoken to me about how not moving the body can have an impact on our emotions. As a writer, it's important to "show vs. tell", and the body's motion (or lack of motion) is a lovely literary device!

You take the readers through a cathartic experience right alongside the characters. It is incredibly moving, the way these three characters find each other, and heal. The characters are so rich, and the detail of the communities so thorough: as someone who loves Toronto and the many characters that make the city, I found that I could not put the book down. But I'm curious to know how you came to write -- and research -- the story of someone who lost a child in this way. Wouldn't some say that as a writer, this is almost a taboo subject -- exploring the character of someone who has experience such a tragedy? By taboo I mean isn't this the kind of subject matter that publishers would say "won't sell books": it is such a painful subject, and painful exploration.

I first heard about a story like Ismail's in the media many years ago. While I was disturbed by the death of the child, I was most obsessed by the question of how someone manages to go on living after making the biggest/worst mistake of this life. My research involved reading more of these media stories and imagining redemption. I didn't want to speak to a parent in this situation because it is such a painful topic. I did worry a lot about the "sellability" of a book with such a serious/difficult premise. I still do. My biggest allies are booksellers and readers who let people know that this is really a book about redemption, creating family, as well as a love story. But, yes, it can be a hard sell. Many parents have told me that they hesitated (at first) to pick up the book.

Thank you for being so candid about the research process. I found myself -- still find myself -- thinking about Ismail, and that process of going on with life after that one pivotal moment of distraction. The parts of the book that were the most difficult for me to read where those moments where he remembers his daughter; and those when he re-lives that day in his memory. Is there a psychological connection between the idea of agonias and the physicality of the memories that Ismail experiences? But as you say, the pain you experience through empathy with the characters is absolutely worth it as also a story of healing, redemption and the most unusual love story (a story of many loves/kinds of love).

Agonias is a term specific to Dr. James' work with Azorean immigrants, but it seems very related to experiences of depression and anxiety, both of which have somatic (body) manifestations, like Ismail's sweating. This is a longer story than I can type here -- but after writing the book, I learned from my father that he'd left me in a car when I was an infant, and I went into some physical distress (I recovered, needless to say). No one told me this story until the book was published. I wonder if my body remembered, and if this was what made the story so compelling to me.

Like an unconscious desire to heal as well?

I think so. It's really difficult to know for sure -- it involves the unconscious mind. But I do believe that most of us operate on so many levels and that our bodies can remember things that our minds cannot.

Your personal connection to this story is rather incredible. But I also believe that the memory of the body can work that way.

Yes! I haven't shared this personal story much -- it still gives me shivers.

Not a question of economy, but I'm curious. As a writer, how do you intellectually balance between getting the story out, with whatever truths you might be revealing, and knowing that there is a market that much be, to some extent, catered to in order to get the story read by as many people as possible. You seem to balance this quite well, but it can't be easy.

I think for me the story has to come first. A novel takes a long time to write, so the premise had better be something that holds my attention for a few years! Issues regarding the market (which are really important) come later, in the revisions/editing process. I look for ways to make the story more palatable, interesting, accessible, etc. At that stage. One thing I try to do at readings is to share both serious and funny scenes, as a way to communicate to the audience that this book isn't going to be a huge downer!

On the issue of connecting with your readership, have you heard from any South Asian/Portuguese immigrant communities about your book and feedback on any of the issues it touches upon? I'm wondering if you have had success doing outreach within your neighbourhood on the book connecting with potentially new audiences?

My acquisitions editor at Dundurn also lives in the same neighbourhood, as we've spread the word amongst neighbours. Many have told me they've read the book and enjoyed the setting. I've head from widows, two of whom are Portuguese widows, that they experienced some mirroring of their lives through the book. Finally, I've heard from young, queer, South Asians, that they appreciated "seeing themselves" in the book.

Your creation of visibility for queer women of colour in the literary landscape is something that is not often (rarely) represented. The conversations felt real and vivid and are so important to expose. Do you think Fatima represented Zubi to Ismail, and this is potentially how he would react to her in this situation or are there differences between Ismail pre- and post-death?

I did want to create a character (Fatima) who would get under Ismail's skin and propel him forward. I very consciously chose to write her about the same age as Zubi would have been is she's lived. I also wanted to find a way to mirror his marginality with hers.

Has the "God loves Pavement" tour provided another voice and outlet for queer women of colour to garner exposure and "see themselves"?

I think so! For those who don't know about this tour, check out out blog!I just got home last night from a nine day tour with Vivek Shraya, author of God Loves Hair (we mashed our two titles together for the tour title). He's also a queer South Asian writer. We toured through the North East U.S. and met lots of queer South Asians along the way!

You set up these absolutes of the notion of "good" and "bad": "good girls", "bad people", "good choices", "bad influences". I find this rhetoric damaging and dangerous, and very easy for people to use to dismiss others and their values; however, it rounded the story. Did you find it difficult, yet necessary to incorporate these notions?

I think that is it necessary, especially in dialogue, to write this kind of rhetoric (especially if it fits with a character's way of speaking). Hopefully, by naming some of these notions, the reader is able to question them.

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