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Words and Music: Pasha Malla and Shad, part two

Brad Frenette

Words and Music pairs up a Canadian novelist or poet with a Canadian songwriter for a conversation about the art and process of writing.

Here, Pasha Malla, a novelist from Toronto, trades emails with Juno-winning rapper Shad, who is based in Vancouver.

In the conclusion of their conversation, the two discuss influences, style and judging art.

Shad: When I listen to a song, I can usually pull it apart and understand generally what's happening in it. With rap music especially I can see how the lyrics were put together and what’s happening with the melody and the rhythm. I'd imagine it's the same for you with books. What are the things you notice when you're reading? I'm totally blind to the mechanics of it all. Is it hard for you to just enjoy a book and not analyze what’s going on?

Malla: This might be because I teach a couple short fiction classes, but I think my reading is much more attuned to the mechanics of stories than novels. With novels that stuff flits around in the back of my mind, but my inner critic is much more easily swept away. Though I never want to shut my critical capacities off completely, either; I'd just rather be engaging with what a writer is doing than how he or she is doing it. I also tend to prefer novels that don't just break rules but disregard convention and expectations altogether – books by people like Clarice Lispector, César Aira, Ken Sparling, etc. – which can be liberating as a reader.

Shad: I thought of some criteria for judging writing and the rapper that I think is the best at each. (Not necessarily my "best rapper" list, but focusing on the writing.) Pick a novelist for each category. And maybe tell me why or give an example from their writing?

Master craftsman: Eminem
Most poetic: Common
Most effortless: Andre 3000
Best descriptions: Nas
Master of turn of phrase: Jay-Z
Best at conveying emotion: Pac
Funniest: Kanye (on purpose and sometimes by accident)

Malla: Master craftsman: Don DeLillo
Most poetic: [I'm not really sure what this category means – "poetic" seems very broad – but I'll go with:] Joyce
Most effortless: Robert Walser
Best descriptions: Mavis Gallant [not a novelist, really, so a bit of a cheat]
Master of turn of phrase: Nabokov
Best at conveying emotion: Tolstoy
Funniest: Gilbert Sorrentino

Shad: What are your best and worst traits as a writer?

Malla: Best: I work relentlessly, almost pathologically; this can be good, and it can be bad. When something's not going well I walk around my apartment telling myself, out loud, "You worthless piece of shit. You're stupid. You're a fraud," etc. My girlfriend caught me doing this once and was, you know, worried. So obviously it's my worst trait, too. Yours?

Shad: Best trait as a writer: I've been told that my stuff is positive without being preachy, which I appreciate. Bad traits: I wish I had a stronger work ethic and that I was better at doing more emotionally potent stuff.
What’s a quality you admire most in a writer? What’s something stylistically that you can't stand?

Malla: Above everything, I admire (the illusion, obviously) of effortlessness. The best example I can think of is Robert Walser's sense of humour. He's so funny and subtle and sly. My jokes are always broad, sitcom-style; I wish I could pare it back and be cool. Something stylistic I can't stand: any writing that seems to have the sole purpose of coddling or comforting people.

Shad: For me it’s effortlessness, too. Guys like Jay-Z and Andre 3000 just make it look so easy sometimes with the flows and the absolutely perfect quotables. I also really admire how ambitious Kanye is creatively. I wish I had that kind of drive. One thing I hate is when rappers think they deserve to be rich and famous. And constantly rap about how they deserve to be rich and famous.

Malla: I was just going to tell you how rich and famous I expect to get publishing a weird novel with a smallish Canadian press – but you’ve made me feel self-conscious about that now, though let me know though if you’ve got a line on any Learjets. I just checked Craigslist and they’re clean out.

Shad: As long as you don’t only write about expecting to get rich and famous, it's fine. Also, rich people use Kijiji.