Writing a book isn’t easy. Many people say they’ll write one, but fewer actually do. To publish a book, writers must chip away at an idea in their mind, flesh it out on to the page, scrutinize it over and over, spend hours crumpling up paper balls and staring at a blinking cursor—and then write the first word.
UTM is home to hundreds of talented writers, many of whom are hoping to get published. One way the university recognizes and showcases these talented writers is through its Making a Book course. The course, led by Professor Guy Allen, Director of the Professional Writing and Communication (PWC) program, teaches students about publishing practices—the philosophical, aesthetic, and economic factors behind them—and all the hurdles students must face before they see their creations come to life.
The Medium recently spoke with two graduates of the Making a Book course, both of whom published their debut books in 2019. First, Sylvia Tomczak talks about her memoir, Honey and Truffles, and its inspirations. Then, Avleen Grewal discusses her book My Immigrant Family, and the importance of empathy in writing. Both books touch upon the people and experiences that have shaped each author’s life and narrative world.
The Medium: Thank you so much for meeting with me. Please tell me about Honey and Truffles.
Sylvia Tomczak: Honey & Truffles is a short story collection about my time living and eating abroad in Italy. Like a coming-of-age narrative, it’s about learning and growing, but with a foodie spin.
We all have a bit of a different story, but there are similarities in becoming an adult. We must conquer our fears, stay confident, and find our place in the world. These themes inspired my book.
TM: What motivated you to include a foodie spin in your narratives?
ST: I’ve always loved food, so I knew these stories would incorporate elements of food. For cooking, my “Nona” influenced me—spending time in the garden, crushing the tomatoes, and canning the sauce are all things that stuck with me. Coupled with these experiences, I took the Italian scenery and worked it into the narratives.
TM: How did the PWC program prepare you to write a book?
ST: The program itself is unique. It’s so personalized, and it instills many values in you, whether that’s empathy or attentiveness. In class, when we critique our pieces, we pin-point the things that work, may need work, and don’t work. The feedback process is really helpful. You learn how to write for a variety of audiences and how to engage with your intended audience.
TM: Professor Guy Allen teaches Making a Book. How did his guidance influence your authorial journey?
ST: Guy is so kind and inspiring. He’s personable and funny, makes things engaging, and is like a father figure. When I presented my first draft, I said, “I don’t know, I like writing, but I don’t know if it’s any good, it’s probably crappy,” and he said, “No, don’t even say that. What you have here is fantastic and here are some techniques that’ll help strengthen your work.” His reassurance was encouraging.
TM: So, you continued writing… what happened next?
ST: After the course, I said, “Oh my gosh, I wrote this book, what can I do with it? Can I network with Indigo and get it into bookstores? How can I get it somewhere? How can I diffuse it into the world?”
I got in touch with different subscription boxes and connected with Hygge, who sell seasonal boxes. The owner asked me to send her a copy of my book, and this past Fall, they featured it in their box with truffle salt and honey products. It fit together nicely!
TM: What guidance can you offer to aspiring authors?
ST: There’s always somebody who’ll want to read your work. So just keep writing. Write anything and everything. You may think, “Oh, this person writes so much better than I do,” but that’s not necessarily true. Everyone has their own unique writing style, one that specific readers will latch onto.
You should remember: you can always develop your writing. Put yourself out there, try new styles and techniques, and contact people in the industry you want to work in.
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TM: It’s great to see you. Tell me about My Immigrant Family?
Avleen Grewal: My Immigrant Family is a book about the struggles that immigrants face. I didn’t pick stories that were personal or unique to me. A lot of my friends and my parents’ friends are immigrants, so I spoke with them while writing my book. I can see these stories happening in their families, from the news, CRA scams, to finding a home, and finding a job. These are essential experiences, but as an immigrant, as my book explores, the stakes are high.
I wanted to share the weird things that happen to immigrants that no one really talks about. It’s about more than Justin Trudeau helping us get visas…
TM: What traits or behaviours did you want your characters to display?
AG: Empathy. In real life, everyone faces different problems, and I wanted to show the connection and the empathy that people have. We need to share stories full of empathy. They’re encouraging, especially during these [difficult] times.
TM: When you picture your audience, who are you writing for?
AG: I just imagine another “me” or the people who influenced me, like my grandma and grandpa. They were always so supportive because English wasn’t there first language, and English Literature wasn’t a career field anyone in my family was in. I’d think: “What would they say?” Or “how is my writing going to inspire and connect with them?”
TM: How did the instructors in PWC influence your writing?
AG: Professor Laurel Waterman always told me to “get to the point” and not chase around my story—to remove all the fluff and show the story for what it is. I love her. I’ve always been in awe of her writing and teaching.
Dr. Robert Price also helped me so much, even outside the classroom. I would email Robert for so many things such as, “Hey, I’m writing my graduate school applications, could you help me?” He would say, “Yeah, I have an hour after my classes if you want to chat?” It was such a supportive experience. At one point, I was trying to sound more academic and Robert told me, “Your words should not be the highlight of the story. Your ideas should be.” That always stuck with me. I had this epiphany: “I have good ideas. Why am I not showcasing them?”
My professors truly cared about my writing goals, and I don’t think they realize how much that meant to me.
TM: What advice do you have for other budding writers?
AG: Stay true to the story and don’t write just because it’s a popular topic or it’ll get monetized. Because you may wish to get rich and famous, but if you aren’t passionate about it, I don’t think you’ll be able to put in the effort needed to get there.
You need to remain hopeful for the future. Remember to stay strong because your writing will be important to future generations. It’ll show that we went through a lot of rough stuff, but it’s going to be alright.