Toronto author Sonia Faruqi didn’t think she would be a writer (much less a fantasy writer) when she grew up. Ever since she was a small child, Faruqi explains, she has been two things: materialistic and analytical. She loved having and collecting trinkets, “possessed with the joy of possession.” And she’s organized to the core, with a passion for spreadsheets and detailed planning. This made her a perfect fit for Wall Street, which was where Faruqi worked after she graduated from Dartmouth College with a degree in economics, public policy, and government. To her credit, she loved working at Wall Street while she was there — the thrill of feeling important, wearing a suit and high heels every day, even the seventy-hour work weeks.
But the only aspect of this materialistic background I see reflected in Faruqi now is her fondness for Excel. “My entire book, [The Oyster Thief], was in Excel — all the research on seashells, the merpeople’s cultural aspects, the expressions that they use, the vocabulary, everything,” she confided to me sheepishly. But beyond her bookish exterior lies a steely backbone. Well-researched and well-travelled, Faruqi has much to say about the world we live in.
Over the course of our interview, Faruqi told me about the convoluted journey of writing her two published books. Both books, in opposition with her materialistic past, shine a light on issues of sustainability, exploitation, and the impact of human activities on the earth’s depleting natural resources.
Project Animal Farm recounts Faruqi’s accidental journey into the underbelly of the food industry and her subsequent investigation of its ethically questionable inner workings. Supported with research in the form of over 600 references, the book documents her travels to farms and food industry epicenters all over the world, exposing the hypocrisy and inethicality of the industry on a deeply engaging personal level.
The Oyster Thief, Faruqi’s debut novel, came out in October 2018 and follows the story of a mermaid named Coralline as she embarks on a quest to save her brother’s life. Coralline’s journey collides with that of a human man named Izar — the materialistic vice president of a corporation called Ocean Dominion — whose motives completely oppose her own values. The novel weaves themes of ocean conservation into its colourful underwater world, offering a stark reminder of how much the ocean’s ecosystems suffer from human activities.
The topics Faruqi writes about are heavy, and the research that went into both books has changed her on multiple levels. Before writing a book was even in the margins of her imagination, Faruqi had a vision of farming culture that resembled Little House on the Prairie more so than the bleak and highly industrialized factory farms she would wind up visiting. “I was a very different person before I started Project Animal Farm,” she confirmed. “I was sometimes cynical because of the things I saw: the treatment of the animals on factory farms, the false marketing that I was seeing so often (for instance, showing cows grazing on pasture when all the cows are trapped indoors, often in chains).
“But I also felt more motivated at the same time, because in my conversations with people, including factory farmers, I saw that they were quite unhappy with the way farming was. There’s something deeply unnatural about this kind of farming system, and the people doing it know that more than anyone else. So there was both cynicism and moments of hope and optimism.
“I think there are times in our lives when we see that we are playing a part in a problem, through the way we might be living or acting — often unknowingly and sometimes even knowingly. Even with my second book, The Oyster Thief, I’ve become more conscious about plastic and all the non-biodegradable, non-reusable things we use as a society, much of which ends up in the oceans. I find that each of my books opens my eyes in different ways. But both really highlighted for me how we treat the earth in a way where we’re thinking short term rather than long term.
“And so I think it’s important to do our best when we can — even though no one’s perfect and no one can be perfect — whether that means reducing meat consumption or using a reusable bag or coffee cup. Every single action does make a difference, and over the course of a lifetime, those actions really add up.”
Faruqi uses the process of writing a book to explore these social and environmental issues herself: “It’s a journey for me, from novice to…well, not expert, but at least knowledgeable. Thing is, I never know in advance [what I’m going to write about], and I think that’s the beauty of books. It’s a way to follow intellectual curiosity and see where it leads. I never know what I might be interested in a year later.
“[For example,] the idea for The Oyster Thief first came to me on January 1, 2015. It was freezing in Toronto. I craved a warm, beautiful underwater escape…so I just escaped in my mind. I opened up my laptop and started writing myself an underwater world. And, you know, two-thirds of our planet is water; parts of the ocean we know less well than we know the moon. That increased my curiosity about the ocean — I had to learn more. I did that through The Oyster Thief in that although it’s a novel, all the science is real — every seashell or seaweed mentioned, every kind of rock mentioned, is real and researched. The research actually helped to give the story more life, because there’s so much life in the ocean and on the planet as a whole that fact is often more interesting than fiction.
“I think showing people the majesty and beauty of the ocean is one part of getting more people interested in it. That’s a journey I find really fulfilling, because I learn so much over the course of each book I write, and it’s a joy and quite a pleasure to also be able to share that with people.”
The journey of writing The Oyster Thief wasn’t all just about pretty shells and rocks, though. “I spent about two thousand hours [on my first version of The Oyster Thief], and frankly, it was terrible,” Faruqi laughed. “But I threw it all out and started from scratch again. I just didn’t want to give up. I had a very loose story and poorly developed characters and a lack of research, all making it feel not real. I threw it out, and I started with the ‘hero’s journey’ idea, where a story’s hero leaves comfort to embark onto something unfamiliar, and is changed throughout that process.
“What I’ve found helpful in writing fiction is that anything can happen. So having concrete characters with concrete personalities and a vision really helped. I started first with Coralline, and then I realized that there’s a juxtaposition between the mermaid world and the human world. That’s represented through Izar, the other lead character. Then I had to find a way for their two journeys to intersect, although they start out leading very different lives as very different people. I made a very detailed plan — I spent three months planning the whole thing, scene by scene.
“I played to my own strengths in that way, because previously, trying to be a more creative free spirit and not planning anything…that’s not really who I am. What I am good at is, you know, really being organized, structuring things, researching, analyzing, and then synthesizing it all together.”
And for Faruqi, the hard work was all well worth the reward of getting her writing out into the world. “[Although] I’m interested in perhaps exploring economic and policy solutions to these issues, my first point of entry has been to really write them down. I find that books are a way to reach the heart and speak directly to the consumer. Because all of us are so busy in our daily lives and there’s so many factors at play that sometimes we forget the important things, like the long term future of the planet itself, in our day-to-day economic and financial issues.
“I find it most rewarding when I hear from readers. It’s funny, because before I used to write, I was still an avid reader — and I would never reach out to an author and tell them, ‘Hey, I loved your book!’” Faruqi chuckled. “But it makes me really happy when people do reach out to me and say, ‘Oh, your book changed my life and it made me think about things differently, and I loved it.’ Then I feel like there was this heart-to-heart connection. This person’s heart was touched in some way and they’re writing to tell me about it. So that’s quite meaningful and now that I know that, when I read books and I’m touched or informed or inspired by them, I do try to reach out to the author as well. It’s changed my understanding of the writer-reader relationship and bond.”
Sonia Faruqi is the author of The Oyster Thief and Project Animal Farm. She has written critically acclaimed fiction and nonfiction on topics of animals and the environment. She lives in Toronto with her husband and dog. She maintains a website at soniafaruqi.com and can be found on Instagram and Twitter at @Sonia_Faruqi.