Carol Shaben

Interviewed by Peter Takach


Photo credit: NT Photo

Carol Shaben is an award-winning nonfiction author and journalist. Her first book, Into the Abyss, is a national bestseller and was selected as a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Pick, a BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week, and an Book of the Month. Her most recent book, The Marriott Cell, co-written with award-winning Egyptian-Canadian journalist Mohamed Fahmy, was named one of the Globe & Mail’s 100 Best Books of 2016, and won the Ontario Historical Society Huguenot Award. Of Lebanese Muslim heritage, she is a former CBC writer/broadcaster, and at twenty-two worked as a journalist in Jerusalem.

I am a huge admirer of Carol’s work and was lucky to sit down and chat with her about how she finds and plots a story and the advice she has to offer up-and-coming writers. The interview has been edited for length.

Carol, what are you reading right now?

I’m reading Tanya Talaga’s Seven Fallen Feathers. And I’m also reading Tara Westover’s Educated.

Do you find that your reading seeps into what you are writing? Do you seek out books with an eye to study form or content?

I’m always reading for language. When I read and the language is so perfect and lyrical and elevated, that’s a high bar that inspires me. When I’m writing nonfiction, I tend to read for plot devices, character arcs, for how to make a real story as compelling as fiction can be. But I also want to be true to my own voice, so when I’m writing intensively, I try not to read work that is going to take me away from my own voice.

What books have you found the most helpful in improving your craft?

I’ve gotten a lot from screenwriting books, especially Robert McKee’s Story. When you are trying to animate nonfiction, craft is really important. McKee changed my game by getting me to think at a more conscious level about scene, and to cut any scene that does not “turn” or have a value shift for the character. That to me makes propulsive writing, really thinking about scenes and beats. Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat talks about what should happen at various points in the arc of a screenplay, and to me, having that global sense of story, of midline, of turning points, has been helpful in plotting an entire book.

So what does your drafting process look like?

When I’m writing a larger project or a work of nonfiction, I really work with structure. First, I develop an overall arc to get a sense of chapters. Within each chapter, I figure out what the scenes are and within each scene, what the value shift is. If a character is happy at the start of a scene, what shifts for them to keep the tension? Another thing I do in both fiction and nonfiction that sounds cliché is to figure out what my character wants. If the character wants something, they will do something. You have to have the motivational piece nailed down.

There are four storylines in Into the Abyss, and for each of those characters, I knew the conflict (man against nature, man against self), and what each character’s arc was. And also, right out of McKee, you need to identify the gap between where each character is and where they want to be. If you look at a character’s journey as a broken staircase, the interesting stuff in fiction and nonfiction happens where your character is standing on a stair just below a broken or missing section, and knows they want to be higher up, and how do you get them there? That gap is where risk and conflict lie, where the real creative and compelling work can happen. I map those staircases out for each character.

When you read Into the Abyss, you can see how carefully you’ve woven these threads into a gripping story, one of only a few books that have ever moved me to tears.

Well, as long as you’re not crying over the language! I felt like that was a good story well told, but I have regrets about the prose because I had just a year to deliver a manuscript. If I’d had more time, I would have elevated the language. To me, there are two elements to exciting and memorable writing: one is the execution of the form and structure, and the other is language. And that is the luxury of being able to polish and to redraft and in my mind, that’s the difference between me, who I consider to still be a novice and someone whose writing slays me. Time is a really important part of the equation, giving yourself time to really work the language.

I was going to ask how you know when a book is complete. So this was a case of external deadlines?

Yes. Deadlines drove the timelines for both books and both were intensive to write. For The Marriott Cell, we wrote it in ten months and I was working fourteen to sixteen-hour days. I really work well to deadlines, but I also think there’s a feeling when things are falling into place. After all the hellfire and the gnashing of teeth and pulling of hair, there’s kind of an organic place where you feel intuitively that things are working in the way that serves your story. If you can get to that point, you’re either plain lucky or you’ve done the work. I also think you can polish language forever, but there’s also a time to let a book go and just know you’ve done as well as you could in the time period.

Do you have any tips for a writer muddling through the middle of their project?

One thing that helped me to write both books was to get off my screen, and use another form, like large index cards. Once, when I was stuck and had written myself into a muddle, Nancy Lee, who’s in my writing collective, suggested I go out and buy myself the biggest bulletin board I could find and start putting scenes on that board and moving them around. Getting away from the limitations of a computer screen can be really creatively liberating, because you see different possibilities. Some people use Scrivener or whatever and can do it all on a screen, but I really like that bigger canvas.

It feels a bit more tactile to have those, like you’re actually making something.

Yes. And you can get those moments when you say, “I’ve cracked the nut!” You’re digging around on this hard shell of a story with no idea and all of a sudden it cracks open for you and something is revealed and how that process happens creatively, I have no clue.

You have a magic touch for finding and telling stories of, in your words, “overlooked or underrated individuals who, through their courage, heroism and conviction, deeply move and inspire us to be our best selves.” What is the importance of telling these stories?

We’re so into this mindset of our public personas, of how many followers we have, and I think we miss that there’s power and potential in people who seem powerless or who we dismiss because they don’t tick off the boxes that we define as making them successful or worthy. Those kinds of individuals can sometimes offer stories not only about human potential but about humility, about compassion, about ignoring the artificial barriers that race or politics or economics or social status create. I feel particularly strongly at this time of rising fascism that the key we all have is to look for those stories that make us see each other in a more humane and compassionate way.

Where do you find these stories?

Talking to people, reading. Just being open. I am currently researching a longform piece on a woman who’s working in the cacao industry lifting Central American farmers out of poverty. She’s from Texas and she’s changing the way the chocolate industry operates. I think the most interesting stories are those where you can find a person who can take you inside a world that you would never otherwise have access to. Those kinds of stories are exciting. I also think that if we pay attention to others and to our environment, as writers and as human beings, we all resonate at the same level. When there is a story, we instinctively know it. We understand what heroism or courage looks like.

The world can seem rather dark these days. How do you keep your positivity and mission in the face of what can feel like insurmountable adversaries?

I look for the people and stories that move me and I try to get out of my comfort zone. Last June, for example, I went to an event called The Shoe Project featuring refugee women who had fled war in their countries. Vancouver writer Caroline Adderson had helped them write their stories of fleeing and coming to Canada. I was so moved that I invited these women to dinner, because they inspired me. And so I had fifteen women from everywhere from Eritrea to Somalia to Mexico in my home, and we broke bread together.

I think being open and reaching out across a boundary or what feels like a barrier, these small acts of humanity, open up whole worlds. And when you take a moment to look at those worlds, to get to know a person who you think is “other,”, you’ll find inspiration in the human condition on an individual level. Sometimes when you watch the news and you think of things on a global level, it’s overwhelming. But a conversation with someone who has struggled or who is different, and seeking to understand, that feeds me and fills me up. It shows me my own privilege and reminds me of our human potential. And that’s worth writing about. Also, I try to limit my consumption of CNN.

We’ve spoken in the past about the differences between fiction and nonfiction. What is the most powerful thing for you about writing creative nonfiction?

I think it’s how flawed and perfect and inspiring and courageous and heroic and terrible we can all be. It’s this range of human action and emotion that’s fascinating to me. We can all choose to walk in the world in a different way. If I can write a story that causes a reader to pause and think differently about another person or their own actions, or how they live their lives, that would be the greatest reward of writing I could hope for.

What are you currently working on, if you don’t mind talking about it?

Various smaller projects. I was hollowed out after doing The Marriott Cell. It was really intense and hard work, and then I got blocked for quite awhile. The block came from feeling like I had to have the next big idea in hand, and that it had to be fully formed so that when it came out of my mouth, other people would say “Wow! That’s amazing!” I think that’s part of the reason why some authors don’t talk about their current projects.

If there’s one thing the last few months of mucking in my own writing has taught me, it’s that we can sometimes defeat ourselves by looking around and seeing how everyone else is doing and taking a count of publications. It can be very destructive for the creative muse. We need to find the joy that got us here, that made us take the leap into believing we could do this crazy thing. Right now, I feel fortunate and excited and happy, and I’m jotting down ideas all the time, whereas when I was pushing before, there was nothing. I’m full of a sense of possibility, which I think is as good as it gets when you’re in a creative realm.

So I’m writing poetry very badly, I’m working on a kid’s book, I’m jotting down ideas for short stories. I’m researching this long form piece on cacao—it’s got its hooks into me. I’m just trusting, and enjoying the privilege of this vocation we call writing. I’m letting myself enjoy it rather than thinking it has to be a certain way, and then something will happen, something exciting.

One final question. What is the best piece of advice, writing or otherwise, that anyone has ever given you?

A writer once told me four words key to writing: put ass in chair. It’s hard work, it’s discipline, it’s just doing it. It’s not magic. The magic comes from putting your ass in your chair everyday. The best thing writers can do for themselves is not let life take them away from that one shining priority. It should be the most important thing on your to do list for the day. Nothing has served me better than that advice.

Peter Takach is a writer and teacher whose works have surfaced in some of the nation’s finest magazines, literary festivals, and recycling bins. Banished from his hometown for crimes against humanities, he can be found at the University of British Columbia toiling away at MFA in Creative Writing or perched on driftwood staring out at great Neptune’s ocean.


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