"I tend to write from my heart - put passion before reason - and it is only during the revision process that I let the logical side of my nature sculpt the words."
About Sonia Saikaley- writer
Sonia Saikaleywas born and raised in Ottawa, Canada. Her first book, The Lebanese Dishwasher, co-won the 2012 Ken Klonsky Novella Contest. Her first collection of poetry, Turkish Delight, Montreal Winter, was published in 2012 and a second collection, A Samurai’s Pink House, is forthcoming. She is currently working on a novel called Jasmine Season on Hamra Street. A graduate of the Humber School for Writers, she lives in her hometown of Ottawa. In the past, she worked as an English teacher in Japan.
1. What is the force that drives you forward? What fuels your ambition?
Writing is a curious calling and what drives me towards this ‘calling’ is my desire to understand what makes someone do what he or she does, why certain people fall and rise again and why others give up. I am intrigued by human behaviour and this is partially because of my psychology degree.
At one point in my life, I thought about becoming a psychologist, but then writing captured my attention. I love writing and creating characters and helping them find meaning in their lives. My characters often struggle with difficult life-altering challenges. Yet they always carry on and, more importantly, they always possess hope.
I have a tremendous amount of hope.
This optimism pushes me forward and gives me the ability to keep going with my writing even during the toughest times of my life.
When I receive a kind note from a reader, this is a precious gift and this also fuels my ambition.
It’s truly amazing when a reader connects with and feels something from your words. I think we all have this desire to engage with others and this is one of the reasons I write. I want people to feel something, to perhaps examine their own lives through the lives of my characters. We all go through joy, heartache, pain and loss. But how do we overcome? What forces us to keep going? How do you find happiness again? I address these questions in my writing.
2. Can you talk about your greatest “failure”? (something that led to your most significant shift in consciousness, and made you who you are today).
I don’t see things in terms of failures and successes. I see things as trying, and sometimes it works out and other times it doesn’t. And that’s okay.
We learn from giving things a shot.
However, something that changed me was my greatest sadness: the death of my father. I took care of my ailing father in the last year of his life. I watched him struggle with his illness and when he passed away, my spirit cracked. Grief changes you. Sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse.
My father’s death reminded me that life is short. I made a conscious decision to not let grief destroy me. It was unbearable at times, but I took this sorrow and turned to my writing. I became more disciplined as a writer. I started waking up at four or four-thirty in the morning and wrote every day for a few hours before my day job. I found solace in those early morning hours of creating.
Then a while later, I took a big leap and left my secure job to teach English in Japan.
Losing my father gave me sadness, but it also gave me courage. Courage to live without bitterness or regret. It was scary, but packing up my life and heading to Japan was one of the most memorable moments in my life and my experience there made me a stronger person and a better writer.
The Japanese have this fascinating term ‘ganbatte’ that translates into ‘try your best’ or ‘persevere’.
This is instilled in students at a very young age and when my students said it to me, I couldn’t help but smile and I kept going, kept trying my best despite the language and cultural barriers.
That’s what I do with my writing – I try my best and if it works out, great. If not, it’s okay to start all over.
3. Are you happy? What does happiness mean to you?
Yes, for the most part.
Of course, there are some low moments in my life but then I remind myself how lucky I am. I come from a close-knit, big Lebanese family and we sometimes drive each other crazy but we also bring such joy to each other. My family get-togethers are loud with everyone talking and laughing all at once. And heated arguments about current events and so on. And fabulous food! Bring on the hummus, taboulleh and garlic!
Seriously, happiness to me means having these family gatherings and getting together with close friends. My close relationships are everything to me.
This is one of the reasons I write early in the morning. It allows me to still focus on my relationships. Positive, healthy relationships can bring you so much joy.
4. What do you think is your greatest strength? On the reverse, can you identify a personal challenge (something you currently struggle with)?
I am a hard worker and my resilience is probably my greatest strength. Rejections used to bother me but now I’m learning to let them go and keep focusing on the work at hand. Writing is very subjective and not everyone is going to like your work.
Sylvia Plath wrote: “I love my rejection slips. They show me I try.”
And she was right – they do show us that we try.
One personal challenge is to not be so tough on myself. I work hard and I work fast. Sometimes I forget to slow down and give myself a break, but then my body tells me to take a much-needed rest and I listen to it.
5. When did you first realize that you wanted to be an artist? Can you talk about that moment or time in your life?
When I was younger, I used to draw and paint and I loved expressing myself that way, but then I began writing poems and short stories and found that form of creative expression so fulfilling.
I first realized I was an artist when I sat in my high school guidance counsellor’s office discussing my future career choices. He was a kind man who had a calm, peaceful presence. While we chatted, he glanced at my hands and commented that I had long fingers.“You have the hands of an artist,” he went on.
Some twenty or so years later, his words still resonate with me. It was during that moment that I knew I wanted to be an artist, but I didn’t accept being an artist right away. I chose the safe route of university. Got a degree. Got a job while all along writing and submitting poems and stories to various magazines and getting rejected over and over until acceptance letters arrived and I was so grateful for those opportunities. I always knew I’d get a book published and when it happened, I was thrilled. It took me a long time to call myself a writer, though, but now I say it without any hesitation.
6. Habits, routine, morning rituals — What are the positive things you do daily that have had the most significant impact on your life and work?
I wake up really early.
I like writing before dawn. There’s just something so peaceful about writing in the early morning hours. I need utter silence when I work so I’m not the type of writer who works well in coffee shops. I get easily distracted – I love people watching and love chatting with others!
As a writer though, I need that solitude and I find it in the early morning hours of my day.
I also wake up every morning with a sense of gratitude. There are so many possibilities to encounter in a new day. So many opportunities that are waiting out there. So many people you can meet. So many stories that can come to you just by being present in this crazy and beautiful world. I enjoy long walks. On these walks, I re-think certain scenes I have created during my morning writing sessions and I re-write them in my mind then come back to them the next morning with a fresh perspective.
7. How do you deal with doubt? Where do you go for support?
Every now and then self-doubt enters my mind and I sometimes let it get me down but then I remember I’m getting the work done and that’s what is important. It’s happening. I also keep a journal where I jot down some positive thoughts and every morning I repeat those encouraging words to myself.
I am also fortunate to have some good writing colleagues who understand the challenges and joys of the writing life and they provide much support to me. My family and friends are always there for me too.
8. What, in your opinion, are the qualities of someone who is a “great” artist (in whatever discipline)?
Discipline. Perseverance. Empathy. I think a great artist is someone who can empathize and translate that empathy into something beautiful and moving; whether in a poem, story, painting, sculpture or whatever medium he or she may work in. As well, a great artist is someone who realizes that art is as much about creating as it is about giving. Like what you are doing, Christine, with The Creative Life Blog – you’re giving back.
9. Any advice for artists on a similar path? (Perhaps advice you wish you’d been given when you were first starting out).
If you know and feel you are meant to be a writer, trust yourself and do it, make it happen.
Don’t just talk about writing, but actually perform the act of writing on a consistent basis.
Writing takes practice like anything else. Also, it’s nice when others recognize your talents but you must recognize your gifts first before anyone else. It’s not going to be easy, especially in the beginning, but never give up. Eventually everything will fall into place if you are determined.
Don’t set a timeline either. It took me a while to get a book published (my first book was published when I was forty). Enjoy the journey. In the end, this is what matters.
10. Could you talk a little bit about your relationship to money? Has your relationship to money changed over the years?
I balance my writing life with a day job to support myself financially and I sometimes have full-time writing stints. Mostly though, I work around a full-time job and family.
I live a simple life. Always have since I was a child. Money is needed to live, but I don’t let it control or consume my thoughts.
My father owned a small grocery store and my mother was a homemaker. We didn’t have a lot of money but my parents gave my sisters and me the best life they could. I didn’t grow up with popular clothing brands or toys, but I was happy.
We didn’t take big vacations. Instead, my father took us on long drives in the countryside and we took in the beautiful surroundings while music blared from the radio and the wind blew on our faces. I loved those drives and they felt like exciting mini-trips to me. My parents instilled the importance of family in us and, as a result, my sisters and I have a close bond and this bond is far more valuable than anything monetary.
11. Ever experience flow/being in the zone? What does it feel like for you, and can you tell us about a time when you experienced it?
When I’m writing, I feel so at peace. I can’t explain it. It’s just so wonderful to be crafting, creating.
I wrote the first draft of my novella The Lebanese Dishwasher in three hurried weeks to meet a contest deadline and, as I worked on that book, I was in the midst of that creative zone. It was surreal! I never knew where an idea would take me or what characters would appear to me. I just went with that extraordinary flow, let things happen naturally and when it all came together, it was simply amazing.
Being alone with my thoughts, alone with my characters, and watching them develop from scene-to-scene is absolutely delightful. Of course, when I’m working on tough, horrific scenes, it can be draining, but I keep pushing myself forward. Sometimes I have to feel uncomfortable in order to feel the real pain of my imagined characters. I tend to write from my heart – put passion before reason – and it is only during the revision process that I let the logical side of my nature sculpt the words.
It is at this point that I allow myself to think about the reader. I never think about the reader during the initial draft of a project. Just write from my heart and listen to its beats as it draws me closer and closer to my characters and the storyline.
12. What is your favourite book? It could be about your craft, or maybe just an excellent story. If that is too difficult to answer, who are your favourite authors?
I admire the works of Hanan al-Shaykh, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Julia Alvarez, Paulo Coelho, Haruki Murakami and Carol Shields. Their books are inspiring in their own ways. Always a message of hope in the face of adversity.
Loved this interview? Check out Sonia’s books on Amazon by clicking here
About The Creative Life Interview Series
“Theatre is a safe place to do the unsafe things that need to be done” said John Patrick Shanley. Likewise, Creative Life is a safe place to share ‘unsafe’ things that need to be said.
The stories and interviews from this site share the personal experiences of courage, fear, vulnerability, flow, creativity, and happiness from the perspective of the artist.
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