News and Interviews

On Writing, with Nadia Bozak

Nadia Bozak's gorgeous collection of linked short stories, Thirteen Shells (House of Anansi), is drawing tons of praise, including comparisons to Alice Munro, for its deft rendering of a young girl coming of age. Set in a fictional Ontario town, Thirteen Shells follows the titular Shell, a compelling character we get to know from the age of five into her late teens. Raised by well-meaning left-wingers, Shell eventually rebels by embracing sugar, rock n' roll, and boys. As she weathers the tides of adolescence, Bozak's funny and poignant prose connects us with Shell's deeply relatable longings.

Today we welcome Nadia to the site to talk about Thirteen Shells. She tells us about the real life inspirations for Shell, how the linked story structure unexpectedly came about, and how parenthood has changed her writing process.

Open Book:

How did the character of Shell come to you? How would you describe her to someone?

Nadia Bozak:

Shell came together from many different sources: she is in part amalgam of my childhood friends and in part a composite of my older brother and me. But, aside from real-life influences, Shell is the result of wanting to write a character who could find her way in a Judy Blume novel. I was an avid Judy Blume reader when I was growing up. These stories about Shell very consciously tap into the voice of Judy Blume’s adolescent-girl characters.

How would describe I Shell? She is just like her name: she is introverted, cautious, at times fragile, yet with an abundance of life hiding inside.


What drew you to the time period of the stories? Were there any unique challenges or pleasures in setting these stories in the 70s and 80s?


Although many of the stories are inspired by childhood memories, Shell would be about five years older than I am, so I travelled further back into the 70s than I remembered. There were challenges with historical accuracy when it came to editing; these small details that kept coming up. For example, a reader of an “advanced reading copy” noticed that I referred to blue Smarties in a story she correctly deemed as having been set before blue Smarties were introduced to the market. Luckily, I was able to change this before the final printing. But this really made me paranoid something was slipping through. But researching all the pop-cultural details from these decades was certainly enjoyable. I especially loved watching 70s/80s TV commercials on YouTube: so close, yet so far away!


What appealed to you about the linked short story form vs. a novel, for the purposes of telling this particular story?


The stories began as stand-alone pieces. But as soon as I finished one, I just had to write another and another and soon I found that the character of Shell had more life to her than I imagined. The form and structure — a story for each year Shell spends in her childhood house — seemed a logical organizing principle. I liked thinking through the arc in each story and, simultaneously, the arc in the collection as a whole. I also liked exploring how time unfolds quite naturally here, such that it takes several stories for characters to reappear in Shell’s life. There is a slow build to these stories; as such, I could make this character change in almost imperceptible ways: like watching a flower bloom, or a baby develop.


The stories are set in a fictional Ontario town. What appealed to you about creating a fictional setting? Did you draw on real life inspiration?


Shell grows up in a small city called Somerset, which is based on my hometown, London, Ontario. I gravitate towards fictional settings because then I don’t feel the acute burden of achieving accuracy in my details — historical, geographic, cultural. This is not to say that I write fantasy, of course, but I do enjoy fabricating certain locales in my writing so that I can take liberties with how they are represented without the worry that it is inaccurate. All of my settings, fabricated or otherwise, are based on real places. I just prefer to reign over them as my own fictional universes. But then, on the other hand, I write a story about Toronto in Shells that is very accurately rendered.


Thirteen Shells is an extremely memorable coming-of-age story. Is the coming-of-age genre one you enjoy? Have there been novels or linked collections in this theme that you've loved as a reader?


House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros is a beloved book, and one that helped me see that linking the stories was the best route to pursue for this particular coming-of-age book. I am also a fan of Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women. Natasha and Other Stories by David Bezmogis is also a terrific example, and a book I would cite as an influence when Shell was in a very early stage. I do enjoy stories about children growing up — I can’t say why. Perhaps because it is such a basic, bare-bones genre, one that seeped into me after reading so much Judy Blume.


What will you be working on next?


I am working on the third book in a trilogy of novels about undocumented border crossings (called The Border Trilogy). The first two novels are Orphan Love and El Niño. The particular book is set on a privately owned Southern Gulf Island in British Columbia.

But as I just became a mother I am confronted by two challenges: one is a lack of writing time, and the other is that I want to write about motherhood more than border crossings. Since having a baby, my perspective on all things has utterly changed. I am looking forward to seeing how this manifests in the writing I do, both in terms of the form and the content.


Nadia Bozak is the critically acclaimed author of the novels El Niño and Orphan Love. She is also the author of The Cinematic Footprint: Lights, Cameras, Natural Resources, a work of film theory. She is Assistant Professor of English at Carlton University in Ottawa.