Writer’s Block: James Chaarani

In his new novel Between the Head and the Hands (ECW Press), James Chaarani depicts both joyful and challenging coming-of-age story, where protagonist Michael reconciles his religion with his sexuality. Today, James answers our Proust questionnaire on his zeal and advice for writing, as well as what book he returns to again and again.

The cover of Between the Head and the Hands by James Chaarani.


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Writer's Block

All Lit Up: Is there one stand-out moment or experience you had that helped you realize you wanted to become a writer?

James Chaarani: I’ve been writing as long as I can remember and the process has always fulfilled me on a level that is indescribable. There was no specific moment or experience that made me realize this but I became more conscious of it the older I got. I suppose that when I decided to absolutely devastate my Lebanese parents and tell them that I wasn’t going to study to be a doctor or lawyer like they wanted, but instead study English literature, it made me take this stuff a lot more seriously. It wasn’t just a hobby anymore so that was a significant moment.

ALU: Which writers have influenced you or had the most impact on your own writing?

JC: Like a lot of young writers, I went through a Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg phase, but I grew out of that. Henry Miller had a huge influence on my writing in my late twenties and early thirties. I haven’t revisited him since then, but his stuff resonated with me on a deep level. I had an obsession with Alice Munro, too and still really appreciate her work—she made me appreciate the short story and realize its legitimacy.

These days I can only read minimalist writers like Ernest Hemingway, Sally Rooney, and Raymond Carver (who is my absolute favourite at the moment). I feel that Munro can be quite minimalist at times too.

ALU: What do you enjoy reading?

JC: Like I mentioned, I mainly enjoy minimalist fiction these days, whether they’re short stories or longer pieces. This taste is very limiting as a reader, though, since there aren’t many of these types of writers or books. I often re-read things I’ve read and know I like. I do turn to nonfiction at times since the most creative nonfiction is minimalist since that’s more of the modern journalistic style with longform pieces.

ALU: Do you have a book that you’ve gone back and read several times?

JC: Library of America’s Raymond Carver: Collected Stories. It’s over 1,000 pages so it’s easy to get lost in.

ALU: Do you have any rituals that you abide by when you’re writing?

JC: “Ritual” might be a strong word, but I go to bed at 8pm or 9pm on weekdays, and wake up by 3am or 4am in order to write for a few hours every morning before work (I work as a journalist). I’ve been waking up this early for years.

I also do a lot of writing on the Google Docs app on my phone. I get some of my best writing done when I’m not at home, and out somewhere. This is probably more of a formed habit than a ritual, but worth mentioning.

A screenshot of an open Word document that reads: "Writing groups help to find motivation to write on a regular basis, but trust yourself and not the opinion of people you've never met or who may not have literary experience or have appreciation for the sort of writing that you do..."
James’s writing advice.

ALU: What’s the most surprising thing about being a writer?

JC: I was surprised how long of a process it is to truly write the way you speak or think. My personal opinion is that this is key to being a writer — the only thing you can bring to your writing is your voice. The stories you tell are important too, but how you tell them, and the voice you tell them in might be more important.

Also, I think it’s surprising how self doubt is so much a part of being a writer — at least for me.

ALU: What was your most rewarding moment as a writer?

JC: When you’re writing a novel, especially when you’re early in your career (but even if you’re not), I don’t think you ever really know whether it’ll ever see the light of day and you’ll find a publisher. For me, I write anyway because it’s the only thing that makes sense—it’s something I have to do and of course, I hope I find a publisher who is right for me and I hope there’s an audience who cares. But regardless of whether it’s going to be published or not, finishing writing the first draft of a novel no matter how good or bad it is, is the most rewarding moment for me.

ALU: Where do you find inspiration for your characters?

JC: My characters are a collage of the different sides of myself, and the interesting people I’ve met. I’ve traveled a lot and lived abroad so I’ve had the opportunity to meet some pretty inspiring people.

ALU: What are you working on now?

JC: I recently finished a new novel, which I’m revising, and I’m working on a proposal for a nonfiction book too.

ALU: Why do you write?

JC: When you really take a step back from life and look at what we do day to day, it doesn’t make much sense. We wake up, eat, go to work, eat, come home, eat, and maybe go to the gym. We try to love, we argue with people, we laugh, some of us attempt to have families, but we don’t know why we do any of this. Life is weird no matter how you cut it. To me, writing is a reflection of the lives we live and by writing, I’m attempting to understand it in all of its ridiculousness. It really is the only thing that makes sense amid all this madness.

ALU: Describe your perfect writing day.

JC: I have a cabin in the woods in northern Ontario, which I’m in love with. I joke that after my partner, it’s my soulmate, but my ideal writing day is to be there, waking up early, writing for a few hours, going for a couple of hikes, taking a nap, then coming back to writing in the late afternoon. I don’t often get days like this because of work and life, but when I do, I think they’re pretty special and I get a lot done.

An open laptop sits next to a mug and notepad, in front of a window with a large tree outside. The walls in the room are wooden, like in a cabin.
A photo of James’s workspace in his cabin.

ALU: Have you experienced writer’s block? What did you do about it?

JC: I’ve never experienced writer’s block where I can’t write at all (knock on wood). Sometimes I know that something I’m writing isn’t working or doesn’t feel right, in which case I may do character sketches, plot outlines, journaling, etc. to get myself back on track and it always works. You have to have a general idea of where you’re going to get there or to even start a journey that may take you somewhere else. I also accept that not everything I write is going to be used (or is even good), but I don’t let that stop me.

ALU: What question do you wish someone would ask you about your book?

JC: “Why did you write this book?” could be a question. The answer: this is about the queer experience and we need more of these stories told not only for queer people to see themselves represented but for non-queer people and allies to understand what other people experience.

ALU: What’s the toughest part about being a writer?

JC: I struggle with a lot of self doubt as a writer—that’s always been the toughest part for me, but I’m learning that if I think something that I’ve written is good and I’m happy with it, then that should be enough. I’m still working on that.

ALU: If you had to describe your writing style in just a few words, what would they be?

JC: I’m a minimalist. I prefer simple yet precise prose, uncomplicated by needless poetics.

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James Chaarani’s work has appeared in Condé Nast’s Them, The Advocate, Slate, and Vice. The Toronto, Ontario resident was selected for Lambda Literary’s Writers Retreat for Emerging LGBTQ Voices in Los Angeles.

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