The Reading Lists interviews Shane Joseph

How do you describe your occupation?

I am a jack-of-all-trades, having had several occupations over  45 years of working life, sometimes several at one time. I am glad I did, for it has kept me gainfully employed right through, barring a six-week patch when I collected unemployment insurance as I had run out of options. My current occupation is a hybrid: travel agency owner, publisher, and writer; the first feeds my pocketbook, the second feeds my mission, and the last one feeds my soul.

Talk us through a typical day for you…

I don’t have a typical day for I split my days between my three current occupations. But I could be planning a group departure to Peru or Iceland, doing the soul-destroying but necessary work of accounting, editing a manuscript, reading submissions, writing a blog or book review, doing my five kilometre fast walk or working on my sixth unpublished novel (thankfully I have eight already published, so that gives me hope)

What are you reading at the moment and what made you want to read it?

I am reading Beethoven was one-sixteenth black and other stories by Nadine Gordimer. Gordimer is a superb short story writer and has an oblique style that you either get or don’t. I like to read writers who extend the form of the novel and the short story. Most experimental writers fail, but Gordimer seems to succeed more than she fails.

Can you remember the first book you read by yourself?

Somehow, the children’s version of The Song of Hiawatha by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow comes to me. Also Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. I’m not sure which was first – it was a long time ago.

Are you a page folder or a bookmarker?

A bookmarker. I dislike folding pages and disfiguring them. The page is sacred.

When did you fall in love with reading?

It must have been as my parents read to me when I was a child. Stories ignited my imagination. I was a single child until the age of 7, and when three siblings came along thereafter they always remained out of my league and too young for me. So I had to amuse myself with my own imagination. Books gave me fuel for my imagination and kept me in glorious company throughout those formative years.

Can you remember the first story you ever wrote?

I had many stops and starts, but the first story I wrote that went anywhere was “The Figurine” when I was 17. It got published in my school journal and was read over the air at the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (the national radio station). There was a touch of the macabre in it, and it made me realize that henceforth, all my stories and novels would have that edge in them. I like writing edgy stuff.

If you could gift yourself books at age 16 and age 25 – what would they be and why?

The complete works of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, the books of Leslie Charteris (The Saint), The James Bond collection by Ian Fleming, the complete works of Dennis Wheatley, The Collected Works of Edgar Wallace,  the “Catholic” novels of Graham Greene, and The Complete Short Stories of Somerset Maugham. Why? Because I read these books during that period of my life, borrowed from friends or libraries, or purchased in second-hand bookshops. But they came in dribs and drabs. I once won some prize money for academic achievement in school and splurged it on buying some new books of these authors, and wondered how much better it would have been if I could have had enough money to buy their entire collections in one go.

Can you talk us through your writing process, from the first spark of an idea, to having your first completed draft?

My first draft is writing myself into the story, getting to know my characters. I usually (but not always) have an idea of the beginning, middle and end of my novel before I start. The rest is exploration during that first draft. I find the most surprising twists and plot developments occur when I am physically writing, not when I am pacing about trying to figure out what the next move should be. I also write each chapter as a separate file, going back to expand or cut out as new ideas occur to me. It is only when I have no more to add or subtract that I collapse the individual files into a master document and start the integration process ( i.e. cutting out inconsistencies, repetition and detours that do not fit). Once the integration is complete, I have my first draft.

For someone starting out in your career, which three books would you make required reading and why?

1) The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway – for its simplicity and metaphor

2) The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck – for setting and character

3) Shakespeare’s Quote Book – for clichés to avoid in writing.

There are many more books that a beginning writer needs to read but you asked for only three.

If you could invite 5 authors (dead or alive) to a dinner party – who would they be and why?

Graham Greene, John Steinbeck, Angela Carter, Iris Murdoch and Mario Vargas Llosa. Given these folks are heavy thinkers, I wondered whether the party would be too dull and ponderous. But I decided not to invite Ernest Hemingway as he drank too much (my liquor bill!) and would want to start boxing mid-way through the party.

What was the last book you purchased, and why did you buy it?

Sabbath’s Theatre by Philip Roth. I am told it is even more sexually explicit than Portnoy’s Complaint, and I am trying to find out how far this author went in his writing without tripping off the censors even in our liberal western democracies.

What is your favourite thing about reading?

It engages the mind. It allows me to create the setting and imagine the characters according to my mental state and map. When I reread a book after a long time I notice how differently I recreate scenes and characters, a testament to my own development in between.

What’s the best book you’ve read in the last 6 months?

I Know This Much is True by Wally Lamb.

If you could insert yourself into any book, which would you pick and why?

I inserted a part of me into my autobiographical novel The Ulysses Man. It covered my youth in Sri Lanka and my rough start in Canada as an immigrant. After that traumatic and expurgatory experience, I swore never to insert myself in books. The writer stays outside as the observer; only the characters (who may inherit traits of the author) reside inside the book.

What two pieces of advice would you give a young aspiring writer?

Read extensively, learn the craft, practice for a few years (five or more is good)  before sending material out to be published, and make sure you have a thick skin and a malleable ego.

What is the book that you feel has had the single biggest impact on your life? What impact did it have?

The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene. It influenced my stance towards writing. I have written all my novels since with redemption in mind, and redemption from the point of view of the sinner, not the saved.

Are there any books you haven’t mentioned that you feel would make your reading list?

I am also a big fan of short stories, the form I started writing in and of which I have three collections published. In particular, I’d call out the short stories of Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Angela Carter, William Trevor, Joyce Carol Oates and Anton Chekov

Which book sat on your shelf are you most excited about reading next and why?

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. I’ve heard a lot about this book yet its size has daunted me. I’m told it’s Dickensian, and Dickens has always bothered me because he was paid by the instalment, a sort of Netflix of Victorian times.

Yet, today, writers are expected to give their work away for free in exchange for advertising, so writing the bare minimum with repeating words to enable Google search has become de rigueur. Therefore, it is all the more important that I tackle The Goldfinch, for I suspect it is written by an author who defied the modern stereotype and didn’t get paid by the instalment and yet won the Pulitzer Prize.

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