Interview with Claire Holden Rothman
by Ian Thomas Shaw
The Ottawa Review of Books speaks to Montreal's Claire Holden Rothman, whose first novel, The Heart Specialist, was a longlisted nominee for the Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2009, and her second, My October, was a longlisted nominee for the same prize in 2014 and a shortlisted finalist for Governor General's Award. She won the John Glassco Translation Prize in 1994 for her translation of Phillipe-Ignace François Aubert de Gaspé's 1837 novel L'influence d'un livre. She lives in Montreal, Quebec with actor and writer Arthur Holden.
ORB: Claire, you have an unusual background--a lawyer who chose writing over a lucrative law practice, a life-long resident of Westmount and yet someone who is clearly in touch with both contemporary and historical Quebec society--perhaps even a quiet iconoclast? Tell us more about who you are and where you want to be as a writer.
CHR: I’m teaching a fiction workshop at Bishop's University this term, and one of my refrains is how full of contradictions we are. Consistent inconsistencies—this seems to be the human condition. So, yes, in response to your observation, I guess my life does have its share of contradictions. If you scratch the surface, though, it also makes sense. My dad was a Montreal lawyer, and after that, a well-known and well-loved judge. I followed him into a profession that made him happy. But I am not my father.
My dream was to write stories, and it took me a while to figure out how to support such a time-consuming, non-lucrative, crazy activity. While my kids were growing up, I taught college English. Now I support myself mainly as a commercial translator. These jobs bring in far less money than the law, but they allow me a more precious commodity time.
I still live in the same neighbourhood in which I was born, among people I’ve known all my life. The advantage of this is intimacy. The challenge is to keep the eyes open and to see through a lifetime’s accumulation of opinions and conceptions to what is really there in front of me. How to stay fresh and receptive in a place one knows well? This kind of openness is one of the things I look for in writing.
Recently, I was reading Orhan Pamulk’s beautiful memoir, Istanbul. He takes intimacy to the limit in his life, continuing to reside in the same building in which he was born. The city of Istanbul is profoundly familiar to him, and yet every line of his memoir about the place is fresh. Now, there is a man with his eyes open. This is the kind of story-telling to which I aspire.
ORB: You have now written two highly acclaimed novels, The Heart Specialist and My October. The themes and even the genres appear quite different. Does this reflect an evolution, perhaps experimentation, in your writing?
CHR: It reflects experimentation. The Heart Specialist was the story of one woman, written in first-person. For my second novel, I wanted voices—lots of them. My October is about telling stories, so in a way, it is all about voices. When I was writing it, I was reading several novels from the 1940s, among them, Gabriel Roy’s Bonheur d’occasion (The Tin Flute), first published in 1945. There seems to have been a trend for writers in this period to write in omniscient narration, flitting in and out of a whole host of characters, reading their minds as if the writer were God. There also seems to have been a trend, perhaps because the world was at war, to look beyond the personal to the political, to comment on society and what was happening in the larger world.
These novels really inspired me, especially Roy’s Bonheur. I filled My October with the politics of the city in which I have lived all my life. And I also filled it with voices. In first draft, it had an omniscient, 1940’s feel, but in the end, I couldn’t quite pull it off and had to limit the number of voices to three—Luc Lévesque, his wife Hannah, and their son Hugo—my principal characters.
One of the voices I was most reluctant to drop from early draft was that of Hannah`s father, a man afflicted with aphasia, who has lost the ability to speak. I really wanted to give that character a voice, but in the end, I had to abandon it. In her wonderful novel, The Inheritance of Loss (2006), Kiran Desai gives her tortured grandfather character a voice, even though he barely utters a word. One day, I would like to pull off something similar.
ORB: Our reviewer Timothy Niedermann touched on an interesting point in his review of My October last December. He wrote "Rothman is writing about people regaining their voices as individuals, voices that have been silenced by bitterness and resentment or mothered by denial." Was that your intention in writing My October? To empower the silenced?
CHR: Intention is, perhaps, too strong a word for it. Novels come from subterranean places. I am never too sure what a novel is about until the first draft is on the page.
In My October, wouldn’t say I was out to empower the silenced. What interests me is story, and the consequences of telling and not telling, or of distorting and perhaps partially telling something that has happened.
Story-telling is such a human activity and it has such power—on the teller and on the listener (or reader) alike. We all tell stories about events in our lives, shaping our experience to suit our needs. We omit things, change things, stress certain things while ignoring others, and all of a sudden meaning is born.
In My October, characters frequently tell stories about other characters. Luc tells stories about his father, which turn out to be false. Luc`s mother, Lyse, keeps silent about her dead husband, choosing not to tell certain stories to her children. Like Luc, Hannah has an old story about her father that is dreadfully over-simplified and that stands in the way of connection and intimacy. Members of the Libération cell of the FLQ who kidnap the diplomat James Cross have a reductive story about him as a symbol of British imperialism, when actually, he’s Irish, from a modest background. The stories we tell about ourselves and about others often blind us to what is actually there. This phenomenon is something I was exploring in My October.
ORB: Family appears to be a very important theme in your writing as is the domineering nature of men. However, you treat these themes with a great deal of sensitivity. How do you see the dynamics of men-women relationships in society and within the contemporary family?
CHR: In The Heart Specialist, Agnes White is in a unique situation. She wants to work in medicine, but in the first decades of the 20th century the field was barred to women. When she finally makes her way in after considerable struggle, she is alone in a world of men. So that novel necessarily examines male-female dynamics and relationships. If you read the book closely, you will see that Agnes’s closest friends and allies are men. Dugald Rivers, Samuel Clarke and Jakob Hertzlich are all men who stand by her and help her immeasurably. Her one other ally is a woman who breaks all of the stereotypes of women of the day (she works for a living, never marries, reads Latin and Greek, and may or may not be lesbian).
The Heart Specialist is an exploration of gender definitions, and the ways in which these definitions have stunted both women and men over the years. Men suffer just as much as women do trying to fit themselves into pre-established molds.
My October is a contemporary novel, so the gender stakes are different. But at the novel’s centre is a woman who shuts herself up and lets her husband's narrative dominate inside the family and out. I have seen this happen in real life. There is something in male-female dynamics that goes on, even to this day, even here in the West where women have won so many important rights.
Sexual politics are complicated and ingrained habits are often slow to change. It seems to me that women face different challenges from men in telling their stories. I read an article recently about a contemporary British classics scholar, Mary Beard, who gave a lecture at the British Museum entitled “Oh Do Shut Up Dear!” exploring the ways in which men have silenced women from antiquity through the ages. In the Odyssey, Telemachus banishes his mom to her weaving, telling her that “speech will be the business of men.” In Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Tereus rapes Philomela and cuts out her tongue so she won’t report the crime. More fascinating to me than men shutting up women is women shutting themselves up. Telling your own story demands courage. This is something my character Hannah discovers at the end of My October.
ORB: Your writing stands out among contemporary English writers in Quebec in that you have tackled the emotional scars of the 1970 October Crisis when most English Quebec writers would like to brush them aside. Have you been criticized by Quebec nationalists for My October? Have some English Quebec writers resented your "stirring things up"? What would you say to those who might claim that the French-Canadian characters in My October are stereotypes?
CHR: The reaction so far has been good, from French and English readers. Mostly, the novel has provoked story-telling, an outcome which delights me. All kinds of people old enough to have lived through October 1970 in Montreal (and in Ottawa) have approached me and recounted their own stories from that period. They tell me the novel stirred up memories.
So far, there has been no negative reaction. I really hope that characters like Luc and Serge Vien do not come across as stereotypes. Vien is my favourite character in the book. His presence was so strong, he practically took the novel over. I find him utterly human and hope readers find this too. It would pain me to think I had done any of the characters the disservice of making them paper-thin. I do not consider this a book with villains and heroes. The whole point of the exercise was to step out of blacks and whites and into the grey zone of human experience.
ORB: I understand that you are working on a new novel. Can you tell us a little about it?
CHR: It is even more contemporary than My October, set in Montreal and involves the theatre.
ORB: Claire, thank you for taking the time to speak to us at the Ottawa Review of Books. We look forward to reviewing your next novel, and hopefully many others after that.