Mo Srivastava is a geostatistician by trade, which means he travels the world applying statistics to the field of earth sciences – helping Florida’s state government count its alligator population, watching camel births in Mongolia. “It’s always really hard to count animals,” he tells me, “because they hide from you.” Srivastava is also the winner of the most recent CBC Canada Writes prize in creative nonfiction, for his piece The Gods of Scrabble. Part of the prize was a two-week writing residency in the Leighton Artists’ Colony. I met him in the Cardinal Studio just before Christmas.
Srivastava really started writing when he turned 50 and took a solo birthday canoe trip to reflect on the previous half-century, and realized he still wanted to write. The Canada Writes win was an added bonus, though he had originally planned to write about the death of his younger brother Paul. The day before entries were due, he’d composed only what he describes as a muddle of tortured words. So he switched gears and wrote about a memorable Scrabble game from his 20s. The submission felt rushed, but it taught him a valuable lesson about writing. “It’s useful to overcome that writing instinct that your work isn’t ready,” he says. “It’s probably better if it’s not your version of perfect because the reader interacts with the text and they generate their own set of thoughts and feelings.”
Srivastava brought an archive of ideas to Banff — a document titled Ten Writing Projects that soon grew to hold 13 ideas. The piece he worked most on during his Leighton residency is a fictional mystery. He hopes if it’s successful, he’ll be able to cross genres as a writer. “I’d be thought of as that person who isn’t just a writer of non-fiction short stories, but someone who’s just a good wordsmith, someone who can entertain in that artistic form,” he says.
I couldn’t resist asking Srivastava what makes a good Scrabble player — he says there are two kinds: people who get high point scores and people who are just fun to play with. His mother falls into the latter category. “She would invent words and dare us to challenge her,” he says, recalling the time she played “grish”. After debating with his sister whether one of them would challenge her and risk losing a turn, his mother quoted four lines she claimed were from Spenser, the last of which rhymed and ended on “grish”. “She was such a great wordsmith that she could pull that off,” Srivastava says. But he still challenged the word. “As soon as I went to the dictionary, Mum said, ‘Ah, it was worth a try!’”