Ontario Author Profile: James Maskalyk

NOW Digital Residency: Ontario's Best Books

As part of this month’s Ontario’s Best Books Digital Residency, we’re profiling some of this province’s prominent authors. See all of the profiles here.

What’s Life on the Ground Floor about?

What matters most in love and death, as seen from the emergency room in downtown Toronto and downtown Addis Ababa.

Do you have anything specific you do for your writing process?

When I am in a writing phase, I read poetry, so I can get the sounds of words right. I want to create a lullaby in the reader’s mind, a reverie, then stab them in the heart.

Describe one opportunity that improved your life as a writer.

I wrote Médicins San Frontières/Doctors Without Borders’ first official blog. At one time that it was receiving more traffic than the MSF homepage. I was in Sudan and had no internet, could only send pulses of data via satellite phone, so couldn’t see what was happening. It wasn’t until MSF started to share the comments, from Jamaica, from Philippines, that I knew how wide the audience was. So many people in the MSF-Canada office fought for that space for me, to tell the story, and it was only when I returned did I learn how much, and what it meant. In the end, a book. Now two.

What’s one thing Ontario creative industries could do to be more inclusive of authors from indigenous and diverse communities.

Abandon noblesse oblige and affirmative actions in favour of deep curiosity about the stories that remain untold because of systemic hierarchy and oppression. Divesting decision-making authority to communities traditionally excluded will only expand what is typically considered, and ensure what is supported is relevant to the broadest possible audience. It is a win-win scenario, which is the only kind that will ever do.

What’s one piece of advice you wish someone had shared with you when you were first starting out as a writer?

Ass-to-chair is the only rule that matters. Everything else is a ruse.

Do you have any favourite Ontario authors or books?

Too many. Anne-Marie Macdonald, Joseph Boyden, Tanya Talaga, Andre Alexis, Naomi Klein, Jeff Warren. Dozens.

Name a person in your field who you think deserves more attention.

My field? Medicine? Raghu Venugopal. He is an emergency doctor both too busy and too humble to write, yet through his work with MSF, he has helped thousands of people he’ll never even meet and has inspired hundreds more. He is truly selfless in a way that is incredibly rare.

In my field of writing, well, the book I think everyone should read, though it has a lot of attention, is Huston Smith’s A History of the World’s Religions, because we continue to fight over our different stories, but at their centre, they are about the same thing: closing the distance between what we perceive ourselves to be and what makes us.

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