January 22, 2014
The writing of Finishing the Road was initially done in spurts. I had the general idea for the novel a little over a decade ago. However, I didn’t actually begin to put thoughts down until a couple of years later. When I did begin to write the novel, progress was very slow. This was primarily due to the fact that I worked full-time and had little time to devote to the writing. I joined the Toronto Writers’ Centre (TWC) about four years ago in order to complete the book. By that time, I had managed to write about 100 manuscript pages, but there was still a lot to do. So, I went to the TWC almost every weekend (while still working full-time) for over a year. Being there was a great and beneficial experience, and it was good to be part of a community of writers. I had shown a couple of people some small excerpts of the novel before I learned of the Diaspora Dialogues’ mentorship program. A fellow mentee, Joyce Wayne, encouraged me to apply. I did and, to my surprise, was accepted into the program.
Title of work: Finishing the Road
Mentor: Shyam Selvadurai
Finishing the Road hasn’t changed that much since I first conceived the idea for the story. The main characters and their motivations did not really alter. From the outset, I knew where I wanted them to go, how they would develop and how their respective stories would end; it was just a matter of developing the narrative to carry them to those points.
The DD program was my first mentorship. I went into the mentorship thinking that I would have a six-month exclusive interaction with the mentor. The reality was that the mentor, Shyam Selvadurai, was assisting two other writers as well. As such, the three of us divided our time with Shyam over that period. Nevertheless, I felt I had a fruitful and constructive relationship with Shyam. He provided me with valuable feedback on my manuscript that, I feel, greatly improved the novel. I was grateful that an established writer took the time to read my work in depth and provide thoughtful comments regarding character development, language and conflict. He addressed the issues that I had felt could be improved.
The re-writing process was a worthy exercise and something that I expected to happen. I actually looked forward to it, as it allowed me to re-visit in depth what I had written and provide a fresh perspective on what I had drafted. I was happy that Shyam thought that my re-writes demonstrated an improvement over what had previously been written and that he was pleased with the results.
In terms of the schedule, I sent Shyam the section of the manuscript (mine exceeded the 85,000-word limit) that he would read and review. After a few weeks, he provided me with an editorial letter summarizing his thoughts as well as the manuscript with tracked changes. I reviewed everything and we had a Skype conversation (and exchanged some e-mails) to discuss further. From that, I was to submit to him up to 50 revised manuscript pages, which I did. In addition to that, I put into place in the balance of the manuscript other suggestions that he had made and which I thought were useful.
The post-mentorship meeting with Helen Walsh resulted in the two of us agreeing to have the revised manuscript sit for a few months before I returned to it for a final edit. So, come January 2014, I will read it through again. Following that, I will send it off to her, where DD will make plans to target publishers that may be interested in Finishing the Road.
For me—a first-time fiction writer who has never taken a creative writing class—the value of having a mentor who is an established writer cannot be over-stated. It’s invaluable to receive feedback from someone who has already successfully published and who can share his or her insights and wisdom on how to construct a literary work. I can’t think of anything better than having that one-on-one interaction in a creative mentorship context. If I were to offer any advice to future mentees, it would be to temper one’s expectations. One should not expect miracles, given the duration of the mentorship and the fact that mentors work with more than one writer at a time. Another thing to keep in mind is to be open to receiving constructive criticism. Don’t be surprised if something in your manuscript that you feel is very strong is thought by the mentor to be lacking. Personally, I relished this fresh perspective on my work.
The inspiration for Finishing the Road was the accumulation of memories of my time in Guatemala. Since 1992, I have been to the country on many occasions for travel, work and study, including a period of residency while working as a journalist and human rights worker. You could say that it became my second home. I met many people, experienced a lot and heard countless stories while in Guatemala. They centred on the Mayan people and the after-effects of the country’s brutal civil war. I also met a woman who became the inspiration for the character of Claire. I found her life story fascinating and her efforts to deal with it very moving.
When I returned to Canada in 2000 after spending two years living and working in Guatemala, I felt the overwhelming need to channel these memories and experiences. Because I don’t trust my ability to provide detailed and accurate accounts of what I have encountered in my life, a non-fiction book or memoir was out of the question. So, I decided to pursue the idea of a novel. Although Finishing the Road is a work of fiction, there are a few elements that are drawn from things that I experienced and people whom I met (such as the woman who inspired Claire).
The novel deals with themes of identity and family amid both internal and external conflict. I thought that using the backdrop of the civil war in Guatemala, whose duration and viciousness is not widely known, would help not only to advance the ideas that I wanted to explore but also to raise awareness of what Guatemalans—particularly the majority Mayan population—suffered and how they seek to overcome sometimes unspeakable trauma and horrors.
My favourite passage in the novel is from early on when I describe life in the jungle for the family of Mayan children Magdalena and Jacinto, and others from their community who fled an army assault on their village. I also like the scene mid-way through the novel between Claire and a Catholic priest whom she meets as part of her travels. I like the former because I think I managed to evoke the desperation, fear and resiliency of innocent people who lost almost everything in their lives and who must endure long periods of time in the hidden recesses of Guatemala. As for the latter scene, I enjoyed the dynamic between the two characters, the emotions that they convey to one another as well as the language that I used in constructing the dialogue. A challenge for me in writing the book came early on, in the prologue and first chapter. I had to balance present events with backstory on the main characters, and strive not to overload the reader with too much of the latter.
Because of my professional background in human rights and my personal commitment to human dignity and equality, this perspective did inform much of the novel, particularly those aspects dealing with the Mayan population and the civil war. My work as a journalist and human rights worker in Guatemala resulted in me gaining extensive insight into the country’s recent history, and this knowledge had an impact in those portions of the book where I depict the effects of state violence, life as an internal refugee, race and economic disparities.
Among other things, I suppose I wanted to explore in Finishing the Road how written words (of a stranger) can move people to action and to change attitudes. I was also interested in seeing how those very words can evoke an eruption of emotion within someone and perhaps, in the case of Marc, lead to feelings of, if not love, then of enchantment—in this case, to Claire, who travels to different parts of Guatemala writing evocative, contemplative reflections on the people and land.
I think that writing can not only introduce a reader to the life of a writer (or to the world of a writer’s creation) but also draw that reader into an intimate conversation that appears to be between just the two of them. Writing can create such astounding intimacy, especially when there is a connection between the two that is intangible, perhaps indescribable, but most certainly felt within the heart. For my novel, I hope that I managed to portray that bond between Marc and Claire successfully.
There are some writers whom I admire greatly and have thought about wanting to meet them somehow or, at least, to hear them read. Yet, I haven’t. I hesitate to do so—and this applies to other artists such as musicians—because I don’t want to spoil the wonderful exposure that I have had to their art if it turns out that they are, well, disappointing in person. I suppose that, in the end, I would rather preserve the mystery and let their creative output speak for them.
The main characters of Finishing the Road deal with absent or incomplete parental figures. I decided to explore that theme mainly because the character of Claire was, as mentioned, based on someone who did not know her father and felt less whole because of that. In addition, when I was creating the characters of Magdalena and Jacinto, I chose to make them orphans of the war, given that many Mayan children suffered such fates. From there, the theme of missing parents came to the fore and informed much of how the characters made decisions. Marc, of course, is also someone who struggles with this parental absence. So, the main protagonists share a similar outlook on life and have very similar questions about their place in the world. How to overcome loss? Where do they belong? Where does guidance come from? How do they grow as people when their parents are not there to mentor them? In their own way, they are wayward, rootless and drifting; and, as events progress in the novel, they strive to seek internal peace and a sense of completion and feeling grounded. Their narratives are separate, yet they each have a connection to one another, and the Guatemalan land on which they move provides the foundation so that they can propel themselves forward, secure in who they are.
My voice is probably contemplative, meditative even. It focuses on description and understanding. I am a thoughtful person by nature—and sometimes a day-dreamer—and I think that shows through in my writing. Initially, I was writing for me: I wanted to complete this literary project for myself. In fact, I had no illusions about it ever seeing the light of day; I would have been happy enough to say that I had completed this from start to finish. However, if there were a group of readers that I was addressing in writing this novel, it would be those who know little or nothing of Guatemala and its history, and who would be interested in knowing more. Also, I would think of my possible readers as fellow searchers willingly going on the journey that I created in the novel.
My dream job would be the same as Claire’s in the novel: to travel and write with all expenses covered. If I had to think about it, however, perhaps owning a dive shop in Southeast Asia or in the Caribbean would be ideal: great weather, living by the ocean and opportunities to swim and scuba dive whenever I wanted. Also, having a leisurely locale would be a terrific place to get more writing done.