Monday, March 23, 2015

An Interview with Novelist Nicole Idar, Winner of a DCCAH Artist Fellowship Grant

The Artist Fellowship Grant is a terrific opportunity from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities for D.C.-based writers who've been resident in the District for at least two years. The Writer’s Center’s 2012 Undiscovered Voices Scholarship recipient Nicole Idar was recently awarded $9,000 by DCCAH. We asked her about that and much more.

Tell me more about the grant.

The grant offers up to $10,000 and the benefits aren't just financial—there's a feeling of community from being part of a cohort of D.C.-based artists working in other fields, like visual arts and performing arts. The DCCAH offers career development opportunities specifically for grantees—one was a communications and marketing workshop led by Massey Media, a D.C.-based public relations company. I'm grateful to the DCCAH and the judging panel for this opportunity to be a D.C. Artist Fellow.

Tell me about your work.

I've just completed my first novel, a historical fantasy. I was born and raised in Malaysia, and in my fiction I find that I often draw inspiration from Asian history. The fantasy part—I grew up reading authors like Madeleine L'Engle and Ursula K. Le Guin and C.S. Lewis, and I think the fantastical elements in their works were what first drew me to their books. I also loved Enid Blyton growing up, and some my favorite Enid Blyton books were fantastical tales, like the Faraway Tree series; one of the best things about the Faraway Tree as I recall was that once you climbed to the top you didn't have to climb down again--there was this slippery slide inside the trunk, and you could ride on a little cushion all the way to the ground. I loved that idea and I still do. Fantasy appeals so strongly to the human imagination; I sometimes find that I remember the fantasy novels I read as a kid better than the realist novels I've read as an adult.

Right now, I'm working on a collection of short stories and some essays. I love translating Malaysian literature as well; I've been working on a couple of translations of works by some of my favorite contemporary Malaysian writers like Sufian Abas, for Asymptotea journal of world literature in translation. I find that translations sharpen my instincts as a writer—I'm forced to notice how each word is used when I'm reading in a different language, and I find that afterwards I experiment more with syntax and word choice and style . . . it's as if reading or hearing a different language opens up new ways of expressing myself.

What are you reading right now?

OK, I am so excited to be reading this book: I got my hands on an advance copy of an epic fantasy, the first in a series, called The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu, a brilliant writer whose work has been recognized by all three major speculative fiction awards, the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy. The Grace of Kings is about two rebels who become friends and then find themselves on opposite sides as leaders of rival factions in the battle for control of a fantastical world inspired by Chinese legends and history. I'm loving it. The book will be available April 7 for anyone who wants to check it out!

What are you watching right now?

Season 6 of The Vampire Diaries—I am obsessed with that show—and The Good Wife. I'm really worried about what I'm going to watch when those two shows wrap up. And I'm waiting for Game of Thrones to start up. I also loved an ABC sitcom that lasted for about 6 episodes or something; it was called Selfie and John Cho was in it. I really wish that show had kept going!

What is your advice to other writers?

I don't know if I'm qualified to offer any advice. I can offer an observation. When I was writing my novel, I felt like it was taking forever . . . I had these characters in my head and I'd write all these scenes without any clear sense of an overall plot, which can be a pretty messy way to write a book. Then I realized that these scenes I was writing was kind of like field research. I was observing my characters interacting the way a zoologist might observe a herd of elephants. I was quietly taking notes. Eventually, I found a structure and a shape for my novel, but for me at least, I found that I had to go through a period of quiet observation, getting to know these characters, before I could write the novel. Nothing I wrote in that period was wasted. It all ended up somewhere. So I guess if anyone out there ever feels discouraged while working on a novel, maybe say to yourself, "Hey, I'm doing field research!" I wish I'd thought of that back then!

Nicole Idar teaches writing at George Washington University and is editor-at-large (Malaysia) at Asymptote, a journal of world literature in translation. Her work has been published in World Literature TodayRattapallax, and The New Ohio Review. In 2014 she was awarded fellowships from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities and the Library of Congress. She holds an M.F.A. from George Mason University and a bachelor’s degree in English from Harvard University, and she is the first Malaysian writer to be selected to attend the Clarion West Writers Workshop.
If you’d like to learn more about Idar’s work, visit her blog
Author photo by Tyrone Turner.

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