I just did one with her current class about my latest novel, Safe as Houses, which prompted me to look up this old one about an earlier book. Natalee teaches Canlit at Brock University and is a huge booster of contemporary work, getting her class to read and review stuff that has come out that year! I assume that the student who asked these thoughtful questions won’t mind my sharing our correspondence with the world.
- What intrigued you about Esther Brandeau when you first encountered her story? How did that impression lead you to write her story?
Well, having grown up in the 50s when gender roles were quite strict, I have always loved stories about girls who disguised themselves in order to do things forbidden to them. In addition, I used to be an English professor specializing in Renaissance drama, and one of my favourite plays to teach was Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, which subscribes to that tradition. SO when I discovered an incident like that in Canadian history I was delighted! I read about it many years before I felt brave enough to write about it.
- How did growing up in Montreal influence your novel? Did learning the history of Ester’s experience in Quebec affect your opinion your home province positively or negatively, why?
Growing up an anglophone Jew in Montreal definitely contributed to my fascination with Esther Brandeau. Her visit – and my conviction, after researching the events around it, that hidden Jews were already living here – vindicated my sense of being entitled to claim equal rights as a Quebecer as against the rhetoric of separatists who saw everyone but French Catholics as outsiders.
What I learned about my home province that affected my opinion positively was how much better life in La Nouvelle France was for poor folks than life back in Europe. To my surprise, this was also a revelation for a lot of my francophone readers after the book was translated. They were used to reading books about the terrible hardships faced by habitants, so were very pleased to discover that things here were, for the most part, an improvement over what they’d left behind!
- My favourite paragraph that outlines Esther’s story, as well as highlights societal critics is, “But life was unfair; if Esther knew anything, she knew that. One of her earliest revelations had been the profound injustice of society, blaming or rewarding people for things over which they had absolutely no control or for which they could take no credit. In her own head she had continually asked questions she could not speak aloud, such as why men were considered superior to women. Now she found herself wondering why the Marquis de La Boische was held to be better than others because of his title” (122). Do you make these social and political critiques based on your own beliefs, or are they solely based on the times Esther lived in?
I’ve always felt that way. I think that most children do, but they get trained by society to accept the injustices they perceive around them as just the way things have to be. I conceived of Esther as someone who retained that childish purity of outlook because she was an outsider.
- Esther is seen as a powerful figure in the novel. People look at Esther in wonder for her fascinating stories, which gives her power even though at times she feels powerless. Was this your intent for Esther’s stories, or what enticed you to write Esther as such a fascinating character with a vivid imagination?
I couldn’t imagine another reason they would have kept her there for a year. She had to have SOME kind of hold over people, and that was the only one that made sense. As I wrote in my “afterword”, I didn’t believe the story she told about having travelled in disguise as a boy for five years, but I admired it as a wonderful piece of storytelling, so the impetus came from her actual words.
- You mention in the Acknowledgements that Lasry and McKay also wrote novels about Esther (211). What intrigued you to revolve Esther’s character around telling mythical stories versus Lasry’s and McKay’s renditions of life in the 18th century? Do you see any ties between the three novels of Esther?
I didn’t read their books until I’d finished mine; in fact, I started mine long before I even knew about theirs! Then I was afraid to read them. But when I finally did, I was relieved to find how little, in fact, we had in common. For example, both of the other writers believed Esther’s story about having travelled as a boy for five years prior to arriving in Quebec and spent a long time narrating those adventures. In addition, both made her a very beautiful girl, with lovers and admirers, to heighten the romance. I wasn’t interested in writing that kind of tale. (Lasry also made her religious, which was inconsistent with running away dressed as a boy.)
- How has your past experiences growing up in Montreal, your year in Athens, your post-secondary education beginning at Tufts University, Oxford University, and your doctorial dissertation at Toronto University influence your writing? Are there any specific experiences you’ve had that influenced your writing specifically in The Tale-Teller?
I basically ran away from home under the guise of getting an education, and spent many years trying to find my way into alien cultures as a young woman who wasn’t taken very seriously, who was seen as “exotic” and an outsider. Also, I experienced quite a bit of anti-Semitism in Europe – actually, I experienced some even at the University of Toronto as a doctoral student and later, as a professor in the Catholic setting of St Michael’s College. We are all influenced by everything in our lives; these experiences doubtless contributed to my book.
- In a CBC interview, you said you have “written on a variety of surfaces” and that you were currently writing on a white door (CBC, 2012). Your statement, “like the door I write on, my window leads nowhere but into my imagination, awes me. So I have a row of totems across the window ledge to inspire me” (CBC, 2012). This inspires me because the objects that surround you while writing symbolically allow you to open your mind and imagine. Do you currently write at this same haven, and is there anything about your writing spaces that helps inspire you to write? Does writing in different spaces have an effect on your writing?
I was trying to be clever for the interview but honestly, where I write doesn’t have a huge influence on what I write, except if I am looking around me for useful images and descriptions! I can write anywhere: on a napkin at McDonald’s, on a laptop on the train, on inside cover of someone else’s novel at a museum.
- As a winner of the Martin and Beatrice Prize in Fiction of the Canadian Jewish Book Awards, the Raymond Klibansky Prize and the Gabrielle Roy Prize, how have all of your accomplishments effected your life as a writer?
I wish I could say they’ve made me rich and famous but alas, no. Writing is just as hard as it ever was, and pays just as badly. Every time I write a new book I feel like I’m starting from scratch, trying to find a publisher who likes the weird things I write. I haven’t been lucky in having a mentor or even an agent on my side helping me with the business side of stuff, at which I, frankly, suck.
- You mention in various interviews that you do not get stuck when writing because you move onto another writing project. Is it difficult to shift between various works, or be fully invested in a work if you have many others also underway?
Not for me. I like having more than one project on the go so that I can follow the creative energy in the most efficient direction. But I’ve always been like that – I never could decide, when I was younger, between dance and drama, or painting and drawing.
- Your description in The Tale-Teller uses beautiful, lyrical language. How do you go about writing such detailed scenes and stories without it seeming artificial or forced?
The legacy of having been a dancer: I rewrite everything 5,000,000 times until it gives the illusion of being effortless.
- When you write, do you plan ahead or write freely to find structure? Has your writing process changed throughout your experience? Do your writing strategies differ between works?
Each book requires a different strategy. My first novel had an excruciatingly detailed outline that I worked on for months and months – it was in sonata form. Because I was terrified of writing a novel and needed the security of a rigid armature before starting. The Tale-Teller’s outline was a series of incidents, eventually matched to a series of stories, which is also the way The Discovery of Flight – a YA novel still looking for a publisher – was written. The novel that is coming out this spring, Safe as Houses, had a chronology and series of character sketches, but even though it was a mystery, I didn’t know very much about it until I was more than halfway through. So I guess I’m loosening up as I go on. But maybe the next thing I write will be completely different. Who knows.
- How do you manage voice in your works? Do you have any practices you do to ‘get to know’ your characters in order to create voice?
I used to be an actor and have worked a lot in theatre (my doctorate was on Shakespeare’s dramaturgy) so I “hear” dialogue very clearly. Voice is also really important for poetry, which I’ve written my whole life, and always edit out loud.
Also I’m a huge eavesdropper and lover of accents and idioms.
- Your website biography mentions you love for semi-colons, is there a specific reason for this?
I see poetry as a score for solo voice, and punctuation as musical notation. The line-break is a sixteenth-note rest; the comma an eighth-note rest; the semi-colon a quarter-note rest; the period a half-note rest; the stanza break a whole note rest. I will never give up a single punctuation mark; we need more, not fewer!
- Why did you decide to include quotes in French and English at the beginning of each chapter? Does it allow the reader to draw a deeper connection to Esther and her life?
That is not French; it is Ladino, a mixture of Spanish and Hebrew spoken by Sephardic Jews. The quotations are from the traditional proverbs of Esther’s people, and relate to the events of the chapter; their presence is also a clue to her hidden identity.
- What is it about writing that entices you to write such detailed, intricate stories? Do you prefer to write fiction or non-fiction?
I don’t really write non-fiction anymore, not since I stopped being an English professor. So I guess that answers your second question! As for your first, I am just really really curious and love learning things, so I do a lot of research in order to make the worlds I create feel real.