I met Frances when she was touring for her first book for Grove/Atlantic, Deafening, in 2003. She was attending the SIBA (Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance) convention on Jekyll Island, located just off the coast of south Georgia.
She was traveling with her husband Ted and we all went out for delightful dinner in the warm, late summer air. I remember both of them being in love with the look and feel of the island; being Canadians, Spanish Moss is undoubtedly a rarity.
I had recently finished reading her book and wanted to shower her with praise, for it was so beautifully written and unforgettable. Deafening is one of those books that took me to a place and time I never would have normally thought about and it captivated me right from the start. It went on to win many awards and was shortlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Award, and eventually won the Commonwealth Writers Prize. It has since been published in 16 countries.
We have kept in touch over the years, with Christmas cards and congratulatory notes on occasion. From time to time I hear stories about Ted, and all the far off lands he travels to as part of his good work with the Red Cross.
"Here be dragons. There are the stories we tell our friends, the versions we tell our partners and, most important, the stories we tell ourselves in order to keep on living." This is how
Tell is told with Frances's signature power and grace, it is both a deeply moving story about the burdens of the past and a beautifully rendered reminder of how the secrets we bury to protect ourselves can also be the cause of our undoing. This is a stunning achievement from one of our finest writers.*
Frances was finalist for the prestigious 2014 Giller prize for Tell. The literary award, given to the best Canadian fiction book of the year, is now worth $100,000 to the winner, making it Canada's most lucrative literary prize. Here she is talking about her book.
A sample of Francis Itani's other titles include:
* Grove/Atlantic review
Tell me about where you live and why you love it so much.
I live in Ottawa Ontario, Canada’s capital, a great city. My condo looks over a slow bend in the Rideau River. I’ve always been attracted by moving water: I was born beside the Moira River and lived next to the Ottawa River during most of my childhood. As an adult I’ve lived close to the St. Lawrence, the Rhine, the Neckar, the Arve, the Oromocto, the St. John, the Thames and others. As you can see, rivers matter. From my window I also see the Gatineau Hills of Quebec in the distance. I can be outside the city and in the country to cross-country ski in ten minutes. I can be hiking in the woods within twenty. I might add that as I write this on a January morning in 2015, I am looking out at ice and snow in minus 39 degree C weather – I’m happy to be indoors (understatement).
Where were you living when you were 7 years old? Fond memories?
I lived directly beside the Deschenes Rapids on a fluvial lake in the Ottawa River. Dangerous, roaring rapids. Dangerous but beautiful river, almost 2 miles wide where our small bungalow had been built just back from the riverbank. Our family lived on the Quebec side; we stared across swift current at Ontario. There was one other house on our dirt road. I always thought of this as a wild space at the end of a village where most people spoke French. English children were bused out to rural one-room schools – I attended three of those. Somehow, even as a young child, I instinctively knew I was in a place that allowed freedom of the imagination. I spent time alone, loved to do so, always have, always will.
Did you have a favorite teacher and are you still in touch with him or her?
My teachers (all of my early schooling was in rural Quebec) were a motley and assorted group, especially given the one-room school situation and then, later, a new post-war school in the country and even later, high school in Hull, Quebec. Older women with long tartan skirts and white nylon blouses with layers of slips and straps beneath, stalking rows of desks with yardstick in hand, shrieking at the slightest provocation; a young, soft-spoken woman of Chinese origin, a refugee to Canada – I loved her, probably because she didn’t shout; a male teacher in his 20s who cried when I was penalized for talking during lunch (his problems were scary; I was only 10 years old: ‘Oh, Frances, why did it have to be you!’); a French teacher who feigned a limp and swung a leg up to kick the blackboard every day (but I truly learned the language from him); a principal who dyed her hair blue (that was in the 50s, and was perhaps unintended). You get the picture! Put all of these together and I could write about teachers the rest of my life.
Is there a book that changed the way you look at life?
I’ve always loved To the Lighthouse. It might not have changed the way I look at life, but it changed the way I consider literature, voice, the rhythm and breath and detail of storytelling. I reread the novel every few years, and sometimes listen to it on CD (with actor Juliet Stevenson reading). I clear my space, I enter a mood, I stay for the duration.
Do you have a favorite children’s book?
I read every book I could put my hands on as a child (books were scarce), and I do remember liking The Secret Garden, among others. I also read comics, the Classics that cost 15 cents instead of a dime. My older brother and I pooled our money every week after Sunday School in Hull, and bought one Classic between us. Unfortunately, when I was 21 and working in London, England, my stored children’s books burned in an attic fire of my parents’ Quebec home. I could never remember what went up in flames. With my own children, I turned to the Babar stories (the early ones, by Jean de Brunhoff) because I’m attracted to the ‘dignity’ of the telling. Lowly Worm in the Richard Scarry books is also a favourite character. I still read children’s books, and I write them, too: my latest is a picture book: Best Friend Trouble.
What are the funniest or most embarrassing stories your family tells about you?
That’s not so easy to answer. I suppose I’ve pushed away the embarrassments of growing up. Because I was part of a large family (7 at home in Quebec), hundreds in the wings of Eastern Ontario (large Irish, English, Loyalist family), humiliation seemed to be the way people dealt with one another. I hated the teasing, the ridicule that went with survival, with being part of a large family. The behaviour was entrenched, long before I was on the scene. Maybe that’s why I became a ‘loner.’ I couldn’t get away from that aspect of family quickly enough. To counter, however, there was laughter. There were voices of many aunts and uncles. In particular, the voices of my mother and my aunts are still in my head. A certain way of telling story. A particular kind of language.
Is there any message you want to give to or anything you want to say to your great-great-great grandchildren when they read this?
I want to say: education matters. I want to say: act from information, never from ignorance. I want to say that Requiem is one of the novels I’m most proud of. In that novel I addressed -- through fiction – real injustice, real racism, real history, the reasons equality matter, the reasons we fight for freedom, the reasons we believe in democracy and its ideals. I did this by telling my story from the point of view of an artist. Painting and music matter in the world of Requiem. Art matters. (Art saves me, under the best and worst of circumstances.) I want to say: if you’d like to gain perspective while trying to understand the absurdities of life, watch a performance of the late Pina Bausch’s Wuppertal dance company. Or see Wim Wenders’ film Pina.
How did you meet Ted? How did your first date go?
Ted and I met at the apartment of my (now late) older sister in a small town in Ontario. She was a school teacher and she and Ted were friends. I was a student nurse from Montreal, visiting while escaping the city to study for RN exams. After that, Ted and I stayed in touch for 3 or 4 years. We were traveling and working in different parts of the world and on different continents, but we occasionally sent postcards back & forth. We teamed up again (seriously, this time) on Canadian prairie in 1966 when we were both back in Canada. We eloped in Montreal in 1967 (our country’s hundredth birthday). I was teaching at a Montreal hospital; Ted was a young officer posted in Winnipeg. Our first date? A group affair at an Officers’ Mess, but I remember.
Will your legions of fans get to read another book from you any time soon?
I’m right back to work. You bet I am. I have ideas for 3 different novels that I want to explore. I’m already scribbling notes to myself.
And finally, the Time Travel question:
IF YOU COULD GO BACK IN TIME
to any period from before recorded history to yesterday,
be safe from harm, be rich, poor or in-between, if appropriate to your choice,
actually experience what it was like to live in that time, anywhere at all,
meet anyone, if you desire, speak with them, listen to them, be with them.
When would you go?
Where would you go?
Who would you want to meet?
And most importantly, why do you think you chose this time?
Well, I’d be traveling to England, around the time of the end of the Great War. I’d start out on a large ship – still not completely converted from its war duty – and I’d sail from the east coast across the Atlantic.
It will be early December 1918, a few weeks after the end of the war but before the Paris Peace Conference, which is being planned for the following year. This is an “in-between” time for the world. Weighty decisions have already been made. Back-room trade-offs, penalties and bargains are in the offing. Greed and power will be difficult to conceal.
Who can possibly know that the next war is only two decades in the future?
But all of that is ahead.On this trip, I want to be warm on the North Atlantic. I want a woolen coat and a thick scarf and blankets and good weather – as storm-free as early December will allow. I want no renegade submarine, in one last act of cruelty, trying to sink the ship in the way the Lusitania went down near the coast of Ireland in 1915, almost ten months after the war began. I’ll be traveling with a steamer trunk, the kind that’s covered with banners and stickers. When stood on end, it will open, wafting of cedar, and then open again into tall compartments so that some items of clothing can be folded into drawers and the rest hung from hangers within. In the bottom drawer of my trunk I will store my hot water bottle. I’ll take plenty of clothes because I’ll want to stay in London for a year. This, to me, is one of the most interesting periods in modern history. Despite the times, I will refuse to wear a hat. So be it.
When I arrive in England, I’ll take a train and head for the capital. The trains will be filled with high-spirited and grieving soldiers who are anxious to get home. They are known as “the boys,” and those who have survived are in the process of being demobilized. Tens of thousands will be returning home and others will be passing through this country. Many are headed in the direction of Wales and Liverpool. The ones who live on my side of the Atlantic still have to be transported home, and this won’t be easy. There are only so many ships. And then there’s the flu pandemic. Of which we shall all have to be careful. It’s a time to be vigilant, to be protective of one’s health.
Because this is a period I write about, I’ll want to see detail. So many developments are recent, new to individuals and families – radios, telephones, automobiles. Does every home have electric light? Will an occasional aeroplane be seen in the sky? I know that there will be horses in the streets. But what is underfoot? What is on the foot? I want to know if women are tripping over their long skirts. How they hold up their stockings. What men and women wear on their heads. Hairstyles. Jewellery. What it was like to live during the long, historic reign of Queen Victoria. And what the roads and parks are like. The kinds of trees. The birds that hide in the trees. The clouds above. The feel of the sun when it breaks through. The air of the city. The fuel used in the homes. And who is working in the streets? What shortages exist due to the unbelievably long and stagnant war? And how will men and women in uniform – with wounds both visible and invisible – be received as they make their way home?
When I get to London, I’ll check into my hotel. Soon after that, I’ll proceed to Richmond and make my way to Hogarth House, the home of Virginia Woolf. I’ll knock on the door and say,“Please, Virginia, show me your world. Help me to understand what has been going on during the past four years.” I’ll assume that Virginia will want to see me, because this, after all, is part of the fantasy. And, of course, I’ll answer any questions she will have about my continent, a place she has never been.
Virginia will have finished her novel Night and Day only a few weeks before I arrive. I’ll be mindful of this, because the time of finishing a novel is a delicate one. It may be cause for tentative celebration, this is true, but it’s also a time of uneasiness and doubt. And given Virginia’s recent illness, and the fact that our countries have been at war – albeit on the same side – I have the feeling that all questions I pose will circle back to the present, to the immediate, to the inescapable truth that a war, which has for all time affected civilization, has just come to a close.
Even so, my curiosity as a writer of fiction will have me starting out by asking about the novel. I’ll say: “I want to know, Virginia. Is it the same for you when you finish? Do you feel like running away and hiding after you set down the last page for the final, final time? We don’t often get the chance to experience the finishing of a book. Most days and weeks and months, we’re doing our work, the writing of it. And then there’s the period that follows. A different kind of “in-between.” The crevasse we fall into before we are capable of starting afresh. The brief period when we don’t know what to do with ourselves, when we seem to drift both forward and back at the same time. Do you sometimes feel like lying on the floor and wailing? Please tell me what it’s like for you.”
Perhaps I’ll ask her to take me for a taxi ride through London. Point out the landmarks. I know I’m going to feel at home in the city, because I’ve made up my mind to do so. I’ll ask her to take me to her favourite parks, walk me through the pathways. Show me the places where she spent her childhood, the tea-rooms she likes to slip into by herself, the places she buys her stationery. When we’re seated and comfortable, I’ll say: “When you were a child, how did you perceive your father?” Because this is something I’d like to hear. I’ll ask if we might go to the country together, if I might meet Vanessa, see her art. “I had a sister, too,” I’ll say. We’ll compare notes, her family and mine. Maybe we’ll laugh about the ins and outs of family. Maybe we’ll become hysterical.
But what I really want to know about is the war. What people in London were doing in 1914 when fighting first broke out on the continent. Did this come as a surprise or as inevitability? And how involved were the writers of the country? Who spoke out – for or against?
I’ll want to know about Rupert Brooke before the war, about Wilfred Owen, whose poetry I now read, a century later. Were their deaths as much a tragedy then as they are, even now?
And could anyone have foreseen the slaughter that was to come? That’s what I’ll want to know. Could anyone have realized that nine and a half million people in uniform would die – and, shockingly, almost as many civilians. If no one knew this at the beginning of the war, how is the fact of it understood at war’s end? Are the losses so colossal that they’re impossible to comprehend?
Perhaps I can ask to be introduced to some of the other artists of the time, people whose works will be read and studied a century later. People like T. S. Eliot, Katharine Mansfield, Lytton Strachey, Leonard Woolf, Roger Fry. Maybe we could have a dinner party, meet in someone’s shadowy drawing room, speak about the war, speak about books and art. I know, too, that Karen Blixen, known to her friends as Tania, will be coming to England in 1919. Let’s arrange to meet her, I’ll say. Let’s find out what’s been going on in Africa, her adopted continent, throughout the years of the war. And as she’s a philosophical sort of storyteller, let’s see if she’ll discuss writing with us.
What I won’t be able to say, as I wouldn’t be believed anyway, is that losses greater than all of the recent war dead, civilian and military put together, are about to occur around the world between 1918 and 1920 as a result of the Influenza pandemic. More than double the number of known deaths of the war will occur. My own grandmother, a profoundly deaf woman living in a small Ontario town, will suffer terribly from this worldwide flu, but she will recover and survive.
As it is a time of death around the globe, realized or unrealized, I’ll especially want to know how people make choices and carry on with their lives at such a time in history. Perhaps there is awareness, perhaps there is a pushing away of awareness.
Whatever it is that I detect in behaviour around me, I’ll be careful how I pose my questions. Because I know that people do have to carry on. Look for a spot of hope. And I’ll be especially mindful when I have these discussions with Virginia. Because I know that flitting images are already at work. That there are waves tossing in her mind; that a small boat is approaching a lighthouse.
Thank you Frances, what a wonderful answer to my question, you are truly amazing.