Monday September 21, 2015

Elizabeth Hay on His Whole Life

'His Whole Life' centers on the relationship between a mother and son, set during the mid-1990s as Quebec is poised to leave Canada.

'His Whole Life' centers on the relationship between a mother and son, set during the mid-1990s as Quebec is poised to leave Canada.

Listen 17:36

One day, many years ago, Elizabeth Hay's then 10-year-old son turned to her and asked, "What's the worst thing you've ever done?"

When asked that question today, Hay wittily replies, "There are too many things to choose from."

But the question stuck with Hay and is the inspiration of her new novel, His Whole LifeThe book centres on the relationship between a mother, Nan and her son, Jim. The Next Chapter host Shelagh Rogers interviewed Hay about the book at the Writers at Woody Point festival in Newfoundland.

ON MOTHERS AND SONS, AND THE QUESTION THAT INSPIRED HER BOOK

"I think I'd been a bit dissatisfied with some mothers and sons I'd read about in books. Then there was this question that was still on my mind from many years ago when my son was about 10-years-old. We were driving from Boston in fact, back to Ottawa...and he asked, out of the blue, 'What's the worst thing you've ever done?' I turned around and looked at him in the backseat of the car. I saw him in that moment as a character in his own life and I saw myself as a character in his life, a fairly unsatisfactory mother."

ON TRUE V. ROTE FORGIVENESS

"Forgiveness is a mystery me. There's a moment, there's a scene where [Nan] feels her identity shift. This happens after many things that I'm not going to tell you about. But it's as if her identity melts somehow and then reassembles in a different way. I think that happens if you actually do manage to forgive, not just as a matter of course, but actually feel the flow of forgiveness in your being then changes your identity...Forgiveness is complicated. You have to think it through."

ON WHY THE NOVEL IS SET DURING THE QUEBEC REFERENDUM

"Because it was such a dramatic moment in Canadian history. In my lifetime, this whole issue of Quebec independence has been huge and it's produced these incredible political figures - Trudeau, Levecque - who are giant personalities and have played out on a very big screen to my fascination. The stakes were never higher in Canada than in the 1995 referendum. When I moved to Ottawa, which was in 1992, you're right on the border there between Ontario and Quebec. And it is like a marriage. The bed is shared. There is no sex. The couple does not touch. And it is bizarre."

Elizabeth Hay's comments have been edited and condensed.

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