photos: Lee Henderson, author of The Road Narrows As You Go (September 2014), his third book. Photo: Mia Cunningham.

Inside the idea machine: local writers share their inspiration

Ideas can come to us in many different shapes or forms—a conversation between two strangers, a known taste or smell, a place reminiscent of a dream.

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Sometimes we will have dozens of ideas in a day. Most will come and go without leaving a lasting impression. But once in a while an idea will take root and drive us into a journey of transformation and growth.

On October 25, the Vancouver Writers Fest will host a discussion panel to explore the unpredictable— but often rewarding—experiences borne out of following germs of ideas.

Together local authors Nancy Lee, a Vancouver-based writer who recently released her first novel The Age, and Lee Henderson, a Saskatoon-born novelist whose latest work explores the life of an aspiring graphic novelist living in Victoria, will talk about the ways in which an idea can both transform and be transformed.

Megaphone spoke with the novelists and asked about their creative journey, from the moment an idea is germinated until it has come to fruition.

Megaphone: How does inspiration come to you?

Nancy Lee: Usually for me the inspiration comes from a question— something that I am curious about, something I want to investigate or unpack. In writing [my latest] novel, I was thinking about my own time as an adolescent, how I felt about the world when I was in 8th grade, when I didn’t think the world would survive my adulthood. That’s where the idea came from.

Lee Henderson: I am obsessed with a lot of things and they inform my ideas, but when I’m about to start a long project I always think that it should come from some place deep in me. I look for childhood interests, obsessions, fears and memories. I try to look back at things that I cared about then and still do now.

MP: What is your creative process like? Do you have any rituals or habits when you work?

NL: Starting is the hardest part. In the beginning there is an artificial, almost mechanical, feel to it. Once I get into a routine the story starts to take over and I feel like I can’t wait to get to my desk. By the end I am living 95 per cent in the imaginary world and struggling to get by in the real world.

LH: I’m not really productive during the day, creatively. But around 10 o’clock at night, things start to happen. It’s when my brain wakes up to the world of imagination. It’s a half-dream state when the editor in me doesn't tell me “Don’t do that, that’s really stupid.”

MP: How do you deal with the unexpected experiences that come out of following the germ of an idea?

NL: At the halfway point [of writing this book], at about six years, I was in my writing group and a person in the group said, “You know, whenever you read your book I feel that, for some reason, your protagonist should be a girl”—at the time, my protagonist was a boy. It was somebody else who planted that germ of an idea, but without it I don’t think the book would have ever made it to where it is now.

LH: This [latest] book took six years to write. Even though I had a vision in my head, what I was writing didn’t match that at all. I threw away draft after draft after draft. They were different attempts at reaching the first idea I envisioned. It’s a weird creative bump when your own output doesn’t match your vision. I had to be really patient with myself.

MP: How do you cultivate ideas that are still not ready to come to fruition?

NL: Ideas will come up in my mind every now and then—whole scenes or moments of dialogue. I keep a file of them, all sorts of things that I can imagine at the beginning, the middle or the end but that aren’t a fully formed idea yet. I wave through dozens of ideas before I find one that I can sustain.

LH: They do into little files that have very little in them—a sentence in a document, notes on my phone, titles on a legal paper, doodles. But I think it’s important to finish a project before jumping to new ideas. Otherwise you’ll never finish anything.

MP: How does the place you live influence your work?

NL: Well, living in Vancouver, I have lots of ideas that involve rain—lots of cloudy, stormy days as a setting. Sometimes it will be a fragment of a conversation or people I see doing things, all of the sudden that can open a whole imaginative work and spark a story or a scene.

LH: I moved to Vancouver in ’94 because I thought this was the place where I could be creative, so I’d say I’m quite inspired by my location. I’m definitely informed by Victoria, its people and places.

The authors are hopeful the panel will help the audience realize the creative power of an idea. “Ideas aren’t brilliant when we first have them, but it’s in exploring the ideas that you find what’s interesting,” said Nancy. “It’s not necessarily how this idea will change the world but about engaging in act of self-expression.”

‘The Germ of an Idea’ panel discussion will take place on Saturday, October 25, at 10:30 a.m. at the Improv Centre on Vancouver’s Granville Island (1502 Duranleau St.). Also participating in the event is British novelist Tom Rachman. For tickets and information,

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