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Talking about a tenderhearted tale

Zoe Whittall interviews author Farzana Doctor about her latest novel, Six Metres of Pavement.

Farzana Doctor is a Toronto-based novelist, a psychotherapist and the co-curator of the Brockton Writers Series. Her first novel, Stealing Nasreen, found a loyal audience in 2007, and her most recent book, Six Metres of Pavement, is already doing the same. Six Metres of Pavement is both devastating and tenderhearted; it had me up late, fighting my tired eyes because I had to keep reading to find out what happens.

The book is about a man named Ismail whose daughter dies after he accidentally leaves her in a car on a hot day. It is also about a love story between Ismail and his widowed neighbour (Celia), 20 years after the accident. There is so much more to it, but I will just leave it there and hope you all pick it up.

I interviewed Farzana right before she heard the news about winning this year’s Dayne Ogilvie Grant from the Writers’ Trust of Canada, a prize I was on the jury for.

Zoe Whittall: What inspired the story for Six Metres of Pavement? Have you ever met someone who left their child in a car? Did you interview anyone in particular about that experience?

Farzana Doctor: I haven’t met anyone who has had this experience. Years ago, I heard about a “hot car death” and it stuck in my head. I felt horrified for the child, but what lingered on was the question of how the parent who made such a mistake could survive it.

That question became an obsession, and I set out to try to answer it through Ismail’s character. Over the years I read many other media stories but was nervous to reach out to interview a parent. I never imagined anyone would want to talk to me about their experience, but I might have been wrong about that.

Whittall: I loved the character of Fatima and her interaction with Ismail in the creative writing class. What was it like trying to see the young, Toronto queer through the eyes of an older heterosexual guy? For me, as a queer reader, scenes like the one where he is confused by the No One Is Illegal T-shirt were really funny. How did you decide to write those scenes, and were they a struggle, or did they come easily?

Doctor: I felt that Ismail needed relationships that would shake him from his stuckness, and I knew that Fatima — someone young, politicized, assertive, yet needy — would be a good fit. It wasn’t difficult to write from a middle-aged South Asian, het male perspective. Perhaps it’s because, like a lot of queer folks, I am quite bi-cultural when it comes to the straight and queer worlds; I’m fluent in both “cultures.”

That being said, I sometimes feel like a curious and confused anthropologist when in hardcore heteronormative spaces. I tried to give Ismail this lens when travelling through Fatima’s sex-positive and gender-fluid world. He’s a good guy who thinks he’s more open-minded than he really is.

Whittall: Celia’s journey toward independence is a really great part of the book. I felt like both she and Ismail could have had novels of their own, and each would have been compelling. Did both characters come to you at the same time, their stories entangled from the get-go, or did one character appear first in your imagination?

Doctor: Ismail definitely came first, but Celia arrived very early in the process. Their grief processes parallel one another’s, but Celia’s more ordinary mourning allowed me to enter more deeply into Ismail’s loss, which was harder for me to imagine. At some point it was clear that I wanted a love story to happen, and I wanted this romance to be slightly complicated. Celia, the Portuguese widow who lives six metres away, was both an accessible yet unlikely crush for Ismail.

Whittall: You change publishers for this novel. What was it like to work with Dundurn, and what was the editorial process like this time?

Doctor: I’ve really enjoyed working with Dundurn. They are professional, supportive and organized. Shannon Whibbs was a wonderful editor, expertly fixing my grammatical errors while walking the delicate line between improving the prose and respecting my voice.

Whittall: Are you working on another novel?

Doctor: Yes, I’m busy on novel number three, which is nameless at the moment. It’s a tale inspired by my love-hate relationship with all-inclusive resorts and monogamy.

The book trailer for Six Metres of Pavement:

If you’d like, you can buy Six Metres of Pavement directly from Dundurn.

You can find Farzana’s official site here and her blog here.

To keep up with all the great things Zoe is up to, check out her blog.

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  1. [...] Zoe Whittall interviewed Farzana about Six Metres a while back for Queeiesmag, if you haven’t read that interview yet, check it out here. [...]