Cordelia Strube on telling difficult stories and taking chances with her writing

Cordelia Strube talks about the inspiration behind her latest novel.
Cordelia Strube's latest novel gives a voice to the sibling of a developmentally disabled child.

The novelist and playwright Cordelia Strube has survived the ups and downs of the publishing world and the writerly life. She writes about the messiness of families and relationships, creating funny, dark stories that explore situations that most of us don't want to think about, let alone face. Strube's 10th novel, On the Shores of Darkness, There Is Light, deals with a family whose youngest child has a chronic, life-threatening illness. It's a heavy topic, but true to the title, the story is not as bleak as it may sound.

Cordelia Strube joined Shelagh Rogers in Toronto to talk about how the book came to be. This interview originally aired on April 25, 2016.


I'm a people watcher, and I was hanging around at a cafe and I saw this mother with a boy, probably six or seven years old, and the boy had a very large head. Large enough that people were staring at him, and the mother, and I was just completely awed by their grace and their ability to ignore all of the staring. And I thought, what could it possibly be like to try to protect a child in this way? 

There are a lot of things that can cause a child's head to be enlarged, but what interested me about hydrocephalus was that it is chronic and potentially fatal. I could have written about something like a malignant brain tumour, which would kill the child, but hydrocephalus people live with it, and it does get better in some cases. With a novel you're always thinking about what's driving it, and one of the things that's driving it in this case is wondering whether this kid is going to make it.


What fascinates me about children is their ability to adapt. Both my protagonists, this boy Irwin and his older sister Harriet, are very resourceful, very strong in their own very different ways. As I was reading about the topic, I found that all of what I was reading was focused on the sick kid, and I wondered, what about the other kid? What is the effect of this on a protagonist? So Harriet produces amazing art that nobody recognizes because they all see it as highly dysfunctional and strange.


I really believe that fiction is there to shake us up. I need to be shaken by a book, taken inside it. I want to cry, I want to laugh. I write about these really tough issues, and if I can't make my audience laugh, I'm doomed. I had some concerns [about taking a chance with her narrative], but I knew I had to do it. I never think, "Oh, am I going to upset the reader?" Because I want to be upset! To me, a novel is a big deal because it pulls you inside a world, and it has to hold you there. A lot of big stuff happens to us in life, and it knocks us down at first, but the beautiful thing about human beings is that we do stand up again.

Cordelia Strube's comments have been edited and condensed.

Correction: In an earlier version of this interview, a guest mistakenly referred to The Diary of Anne Frank as a work of fiction. The Diary of Anne Frank is nonfiction.