Monday May 08, 2017

How Claire Cameron wrote a book set 40,000 years ago

Claire Cameron's new novel explores what it means to be human by looking back to Neanderthals.

Claire Cameron's new novel explores what it means to be human by looking back to Neanderthals. (David Kerr)

Listen 17:00

Claire Cameron's latest novel, The Last Neanderthal, is an examination of what it means to be female and human. It connects a Neanderthal named Girl who lived 40,000 years ago and a pregnant modern-day archaeologist named Rosamund Gale who finds Girl's remains. 

Seeing others, not just yourself

I think we, as a storytelling species, have a habit of treating groups of people as the "other." In both science and popular stories, we looked at [Neanderthals] as a way to define why we are special: why we're so intelligent or what makes us different from animals. When you're looking at another group to actually see yourself, I think you can fail to see what might be true about that other group.

The modern connection

I kept writing about Neanderthals and I thought, "Well, I'll just write a story set 40,000 years ago and that will be a lot more simple and straightforward. I can handle that." But the modern story kept coming in. I couldn't figure out why until I was giving birth to my second son. It was a difficult birth. I realized how many women before me had gone through the same thing and somehow, against what I felt like were all odds at the time, may have lived and their babies have lived. It felt like a connection to my past. That is one thing that hasn't changed very much in 40,000 years. If you're delivering a baby through a birth canal, there's only one way to do it. Our bodies really haven't changed that much. I found this channel back.

Waking up the senses

I used to be an Outward Bound instructor and I've done a lot of climbing and canoeing. I noticed that if I'm outside for a month, my senses really wake up. I live in Toronto. I spend a lot of my time in the city actually trying not to smell things. But when I'm outside I noticed that I have a tuned-in ability to smell a bear. I was sitting on a porch at a cottage in Georgian Bay and I smelled a bear before I saw it move or heard it. I exaggerate that in Girl, but it's that idea that if you're really tuned in and you live in the moment, you sense a lot more things.

Claire Cameron's comments have been edited and condensed.