Books·How I Wrote It

André Narbonne's debut novel Lucien and Olivia takes a comedically blunt look at love in 1980s Halifax

The Canadian professor and author's comedic novel is on the 2022 Scotiabank Giller Prize longlist. The shortlist will be announced on Sept. 27, 2022.

Lucien and Olivia is longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize

Lucien & Olivia is a book by André Narbonne. (Black Moss Press)

André Narbonne is a Canadian professor and author. His short stories have won the Atlantic Writing Competition, the FreeFall Prose Contest and the David Adams Richards Prize. He teaches English and creative writing at the University of Windsor and is the fiction editor of the Windsor Review. Narbonne's poetry collection, You Were Here, was published in 2016. His short story collection, Twelve Miles to Midnight, was a 2017 finalist for the Danuta Gleed Literary Award. 

Lucien and Olivia, his debut novel, explores the often transactional nature of life and how humans interact with each other. In 1980s Halifax, a time before mobile devices and social media, a marine engineer working on a Canadian tanker and a university student working on her philosophy degree randomly connect and are both repulsed yet drawn to each other's differences. The couple try to navigate love and a healthy relationship — despite how much the odds are stacked up against them.

Lucien and Olivia is on the 2022 Scotiabank Giller Prize longlist. The shortlist will be announced on Sept. 27, 2022.

Narbonne spoke with CBC Books about Lucien and Olivia  and why making the transition from writing short stories to a novel was both challenging and rewarding.

Love and communication

"I think I've always been writing this story. I write a lot of short stories and this is my first novel that I've published but it's something that I've always been thinking about. I started sailing when I was 18 and I knew marine engineering. I wanted to write a love story about two people who didn't have the ability to communicate the way that we do now. 

"They don't have cell phones, or computers. So what I wanted was a story in which people had to imagine each other — and we would understand them and value them by the value that they put on other people. 

"So it's a love story set in an industrial world. It's something that I lived. But capturing the tone was the hardest thing for me. I spent five years writing this: I wrote a prologue, I wrote an epilogue, and then I started to fill it in. What was unusual was that I wasn't writing it in order, which is what I generally do. I knew the story, but I was writing in bits and pieces. What that told me was I didn't have the voice.

I wanted to write a love story about two people who didn't have the ability to communicate the way that we do now.  ​​​​

"I didn't get the voice until early in the first chapter: there's a part where a line handler is walking to the lock house. The narrator describes the building as having the 'architectural refinement of the Hells Angels clubhouse.'

"When I wrote that, I knew then I could write this story. Because then I had it — not only the tone but also the perspective."

Sight, sound, smell

"I made this world [of sailing and marine engineering] accessible by not explaining it, but by trying to immerse them in it: This is how it feels to be 20 feet below the water line. This is what it sounds like. 

"The Soo River Trader is one of the ships that shows up in the novel. It's actually quite important for the novel. I didn't sail on it, but my best friend from college did. I wrote to him and I asked about it and one of the questions I asked him was 'What did it smell like?'

"That was what I was trying to do — to put you right there."

Fearless imagination

"Coming from writing short stories, I had to learn to write a novel. I had to think it out. But I do think about strategy all the time when I'm reading a novel. I tend to be a fairly slow reader because I'm interested in how anything works. I'm self-taught with novels, but I think most people are. So it was a transition — the short story is really about its theme and the novel is about time. So I had to work that out. 

I feel as a writer, you have a contract with your audience because you're gonna hold them for several hours.

"I wanted Lucien to say this about Olivia: that 'her imagination isn't gutless.' There are a couple of other lines that absolutely had to be said for this book to work for me.

"Those are thematic things — but I also wanted to play with time. I feel as a writer, you have a contract with your audience because you're gonna hold them for several hours. And you can't pay back time — so it's got to have value."

Alienation and anxiety

"We live in a time of alienation and anxiety. What I want readers to take away is the sense that life has value — you create your own value.

"Here I go with a cliche, but the old Beatles song lyric is 'the love you take is equal to the love you make.' So you stretch that into different ideas, the idea that you actually make things of value around you, and that's kind of what the book is about.

What I want readers to take away is the sense that life has value — you create value.

"There is a passage in which Olivia describes what it's like to be in a coma: that one becomes calcified and takes a long time to work it out of your limbs. And she says that, in her opinion, people become spiritually calcified. They go into a sort of spiritual coma and then they have to work it out if they know to work it out. 

"The book kind of takes that on. The idea is 'just be aware.'"

André Narbonne's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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