In this version of twenty questions, I send a list of questions to a willing
victim author and they choose their own interview by choosing which questions, and how many questions, they want to answer! Ania Szado’s new novel, Studio Saint-Ex tells the story of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry writing The Little Prince while getting all mixed up with his mistress Mignonne, and her fashion career. You guys, I love stories about writers and their lives while writing the books they became famous for. On the even more plus side, the writing in this one is really strong and smart. Here is what Ania had to say about reading, writing, and being “shamefully distractable”.
Would you give us a bit of introduction and let my readers know who you are, how you got started writing, and what kind of books you like to write?
I’m Ania Szado, the author of two novels. My newest, Studio Saint-Ex, became a national bestseller in Canada on its April 2013 release and is out from Knopf USA as of June 2013. It’s historical fiction about Antoine de Saint-Exupéry writing The Little Prince in 1940s New York while his lover Mignonne, an aspiring fashion designer at the very start of American haute couture, entangles his art and ambitions within her own career. My first novel, Beginning of Was, was published by Penguin Canada and regionally shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. I started writing after I finished college. Despite four years of drawing and painting, I found that my secret dream of being a writer didn’t go away. It was secret because it seemed unattainable, and I didn’t want to admit to anyone that I harbored it. After college, though, my brother died suddenly, and somehow that helped me ratchet up the courage to start pursuing my dream. I get the most satisfaction from writing literary fiction that’s anchored in history, and that opens my mind to things I never knew, or to truths that I didn’t realize I knew.
I am often struck by the different ways writers respond to the process of writing a book. Linus’s Blanket refers to my use of reading and other activities as a means of escape and comfort, can you share with us any routines, food or recipes, or favorite books or rituals that help you thorough the writing process?
Coffee, absolutely! Black coffee or espresso. And solitude, or the illusion of it. Even at my desk at the writers’ center I work at, in a room in which silence is sacrosanct but people are coming and going, I listen to white noise through headphones to tune out my surroundings. (It’s actually “brown noise,” which I find more soothing than white.) There’s no eating in the Quiet Room, but when I work at home I often go through a big bowl of unbuttered popcorn, and for evening work, a glass or two of white wine. I tend to stick to simple foods when in intense writing mode—nothing that merits a recipe. Say, chickpeas with chopped seasoned tomatoes. I balance the physical inertia of writing with occasional canoeing, running, indoor climbing, and most recently—as part of a motley crew of scribes called the Write Fielders—softball. The name on the back of my team shirt is Steinbeck. (Someone cleverer than me got Homer.)
Are you able to read when you’re writing and if so what books inspire you when you’re working on your own book(s)?
I do read some fiction when I’m writing, but not as much as I’d like to. I tend to stick to reading or rereading reference sources. Sometimes I do crossword puzzles instead—hard ones that I can’t possibly solve. I end up staring at the squares but thinking of my writing. My old crossword books are littered with notes I’ve jotted about how to fix this or that problem in my manuscript.
What was the most interesting thing that you found out while researching this book that you ultimately decided not to include?
It had to do with the discovery of Saint-Exupéry’s fate and whereabouts. In 1944, he vanished while flying a reconnaisance mission. All sorts of theories and legends sprung up—including that he had gone to join The Little Prince on his tiny planet, the astroid B-612. The mystery lasted decades, until 1998, when a fisherman on the Mediterranean Sea snagged a bracelet in his nets. It was Saint-Exupéry’s identity bracelet, bearing his name and his wife’s, and the name and address of his American publishers. The wreck of his plane was then found in those waters. The bracelet makes appearances in Studio Saint-Ex—at one point Saint-Exupéry tries to give it to Mignonne, his young mistress, and she refuses it, saying she won’t allow him to be anonymous in the sky. But its discovery came well after the timeframe of the book—which is told from the vantage point of 1967—so the poignancy of those scenes is apparent only to readers who know what happened in 1998.
In the past I have visited a blog called Daily Routines and it’s all about the schedules of writers and creative people. What does a typical day look like for you and how do you manage a busy schedule?
I’m shamefully distractable in the period before I become deeply involved in a project, but once I’ve gotten to that point, I try to set out early for my desk at a downtown writers’ centre most days and make progress on my manuscript before tackling other demands, if necessary. The most important part of my routine, though, is escaping into writing retreats on a regular basis. I go off alone for a few days to a month at a stretch, and focus on nothing except the writing. I get up at 7am and drink coffee while reading the previous evening’s work. Then I jump right in to fix problems, and I let that lead me into writing new material and pouring over my research sources to find what I need. I don’t really take breaks, other than staring out a window while more coffee brews; I don’t turn on a radio or TV or read anything besides research material. I go out only when necessary—to buy supplies or walk the dog if she’s with me. To cut down on non-writing decisions, I eat the same thing every day, with as few ingredients as possible. I’ll work for at least 15 hours a day on retreat; my record is 22. Strangely, it doesn’t tire me out—it gives me comfort, balance and energy.
Did you know what you wanted the title of the book to be? How involved were in choosing the name of the book?
I looked at all sorts of variations that referenced fashion, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, or his writing, but everything felt too long, misleading, or wishy-washy. Saint-Ex’s full name was too much; references to a prince or a rose (from The Little Prince) seemed to promise something fairytale-like, and most fashion terms didn’t say enough. “Studio,” though, was appropriate for all sorts of artistic pursuits and is a nod to the importance of creative spaces in my novel. And “Saint-Ex” was one of Saint-Exupéry’s nicknames. Fortunately, everyone was on board with calling it Studio Saint-Ex!
What were your experiences with reading when you were growing up? Was there a pivotal moment in discovering literature when you knew that you wanted to be a writer?
In the early years of my childhood, my language at home was Polish, while school and friendships were all in English. I remember one day, when I was still too young for chapter books, carrying a children’s book to my mom to ask for help with a word—and realizing that I could read English better than she could at that time. It was a revelation. Suddenly reading felt hugely empowering and magical, and I went at it voraciously. I think my early appetite for literature laid the groundwork for my sensitivity to the craft of writing but also made me feel that the bar was so high that I couldn’t dare imagine I might become a writer myself. I wanted it my whole life, but pushed away the desire until I couldn’t do so any longer.
As a published author, what’s been the biggest surprise about life after the publication of your first book?
People are so easy to talk to! I love meeting readers, booksellers, librarians, and other writers. Before I had a book, I think I carried around some pretty weighty hopes that made it a bit harder to be lighthearted in those interactions.
Who was your favorite character to write, and why did you have an affinity for that character in particular?
The “Saint-Ex” of the title is Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the renowned French aviator and author of such acclaimed books as Wind, Sand and Stars; Night Flight; and of course The Little Prince. Writing him was terribly intimidating at first, and it took me a long time and several false starts—not to mention a ton of research—before I could really get inside him. It was tough not only because he is revered, but also because he was very complex and contradictory. As a friend and as a romantic partner, he was charismatic but infuriating. As a pilot, he was a genius in dangerous situations but a menace when he was bored—he’d write and draw while flying, forget to put on his oxygen mask, play tricks on his navigator. He was an accomplished mathematician, an inventor with several patents, a man torn between duty and love. He loved to play—and his childlike games were sometimes scientific experiments in disguise. To top it off, he was an astounding magician. The more I researched, the more I fell for him, and the more urgently I wanted to bring him back to life, if only for the span of my novel. Writing him was tough, but ultimately it was very satisfying. It let me be close to him for a while.
Did you have to do much research when working on your books, and do you tend to write first or research first?
I didn’t know I was doing research when I read a biography of Saint-Exupéry and learned that he wrote The Little Prince entirely in New York, but as soon as I came across that, I knew I wanted to write about it somehow. That’s usually how it goes for me: I’ll read or hear something that grabs me, and I’ll feel driven to make something of it. I often start by writing on the fly, knowing that the facts and details will need correcting, just to establish for myself that there’s some energy to the chosen situation or character. And then the research itself guides and further inspires me as I work to figure out what the story should be and which details will serve it best. But I don’t draw a hard line between writing and research; I go back and forth fluidly throughout the entire process.
Where do you most love to write? Are there places where it comes to you easier than others?
A few years ago, I bought a small house in a city 40 miles from where I live. I rent it out on and off, but I keep it available for stretches of time so I can go there to write. It’s nothing fancy, but it’s in my hometown, and I feel very grounded there. It’s quiet. The house faces a park. At the far side of the park, a freight train rumbles by gently at 6am, and behind the house the sun lights up the escarpment and the cars angling their way along, early risers heading to work… and I feel so at peace when I wake up there and turn on the laptop and the coffeemaker and settle in to spend another day writing. I furnish only the tiniest room. I hunker down in this little space to sleep and to write—and when I walk through the rest of the house it’s just empty, room after room, and it feels so liberating. No clutter, no distractions, just possibilities.