How a surrealist painter helped Heidi Sopinka understand aging women

Her debut novel, The Dictionary of Animal Languages, features an artist in her 90s who is illustrating a glossary of animal sounds.
The Dictionary of Animal Languages is Heidi Sopinka's debut novel. (Arden Wray/Penguin Random House Canada)
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Heidi Sopinka has been a bush cook in the Yukon, a travel writer in southeast Asia, a helicopter pilot and these days she works as a journalist and a designer. Her debut novel, The Dictionary of Animal Languages, features an artist in her 90s who is illustrating a glossary of animal sounds.

Discovering other passions

"The Dictionary of Animal Languages is about Ivory Frame, who is 92 and focused on completing her life's work. She's never had a family or children. Out of the blue, she receives a letter telling her she has a grandchild and it throws her entire life into question. It forces her to confront her past, which she has kept silent about until now. She previously was an artist and switched from art to science to become an acoustic biologist. The better part her life was spent recording animal sounds, which she is compiling into a dictionary of animal languages. In our culture, women are so often validated through relationships — we're so rarely shown a woman at work. The impetus for the novel came from the desire to explore my fascinations with someone's utter dedication toward something."

A non-linear life

"I hunted down all works that women in their 90s had done and came upon Leonora Carrington, a British surrealist. A big portion of her writings, her paintings and incredible life story informed mine on a lot of levels. One of which was this notion of looping time. Over two afternoons interviewing her, I realized time is not a straight line — especially when someone has a grand perspective at 92, there are so many fragments that come pouring in. To arrange time sequentially takes away their power because we don't experience memory that way. That really did inform the writing of The Dictionary of Animal Languages."  

Heidi Sopinka's comments have been edited and condensed.