Books·Magic 8 Q&A

Claire Holden Rothman on the inadequacy of the word 'writer'

The Governor General's Literary Award finalist answers eight questions submitted by eight other authors.
Claire Holden Rothman is the author of the novel My October. (Barbara Moser)

Montreal author Claire Holden Rothman's latest book is My October, a story about a bi-cultural Quebec family with a complicated past living in the present-day shadow of the 1970 October Crisis. The book was a finalist for the 2014 Governor General's Literary Award for fiction and was longlisted for the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize.

Below, Claire Holden Rothman answers eight questions submitted by eight of her fellow writers in the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A. 

1. Helen Humphreys asks, "If you weren't a writer, what would you be, and why?"

This has been one of the happy problems in my life. Many things fire my passions. I have worked as a lawyer (briefly), a college and university teacher, an arts journalist and a translator. These activities have paid the bills and also shown me that I like communicating in one form or another. My uncle, screenwriter and TV producer Bernard Rothman, says a writer is someone who writes. Which means I am a writer only for a small part of each day. What am I the rest of the time? Who am I? The word "writer" seems inadequate.

For years I've fantasized about being a singer-songwriter, à la Joni Mitchell or Leonard Cohen. The collaborative aspect of a musician's life attracts me, as does the mix of poetry and music — which goes straight to the heart. Another fantasy is being a mail carrier — a job William Faulkner did once: badly. Now postal carriers are going extinct. 

2. Lynn Coady asks, "Why do you write fiction? That is, why is it your chosen genre? What is it about the genre that you think makes it distinctive and/or important, vital?"

It's storytelling. I love narrative. I love hearing and reading the stories that people make of their lives. This fabrication is a fascinating, mysterious process. We recount something that happened, and all of a sudden it ceases to be an arbitrary sequence of events. Meaning is born. And this meaning can be shared.

Fiction is not life, of course. More like life distilled. Life filtered through the consciousness of someone who, if she is doing her job right, reveals truths most of us are too distracted to notice. Writing fiction is a process of stilling the mind, of listening closely. It is the best way I know to learn about life.

3. Vincent Lam asks, "What is your favourite editorial stage, and your favourite type of editorial conversation?"

I am relieved when a novel reaches the stage of readiness at which I can show it to an agent or editor. Of course, I'm horribly nervous when I push the send button. I feel doubly relieved when (if) the agent or editor tells me, "Yes. It's okay. Needs work, but it holds together." From that point on, I know my work will no longer be solitary. There will be eyes other than my own seeing what is on the page.

My favourite editorial conversation is a process of question and response. I love it when an editor asks about structure or character, and I realize there is a hole in the book that I haven't even seen! When done right, editing is an act of great generosity.

4. Todd Babiak asks, "Do you write sex scenes? Why or why not?"

I do. Their main purpose — indeed, the purpose of any scene — is to reveal character. We make love as we are, profoundly. The character of Duncan in Atwood's The Edible Woman makes love with incredible sensitivity, as if ironing out the wrinkles in his lover's skin. (In the novel, he has a habit of ironing shirts to calm his sensitive nerves). In The Heart Specialist, Jakob Hertzlich makes love with his eyes wide open and doesn't dim the lights, which makes sense given his scientific nature. Agnes White masturbates alone and doesn't discover the joys of sex with a man until middle age because of the social strictures of the era in which she lives. In My October, Luc Levesque is preoccupied with sex. The bedroom scenes take place off stage. I write instead about his languorous, sensual memories of these encounters, which I hope reveal his fears and yearnings.

I tend to write about sex in minimal detail, trusting readers to fill in the blanks. Sexual pleasure is fuelled by imagination as much as by touch.

5. Kim Thuy asks, "If you had to choose, would you prefer one extremely successful book or many much smaller successes?"

One book. A great novel takes a lot of living and many years of work to write.

6. Rudy Wiebe asks, "What do you understand by the word "spirituality"? Would you agree that spirituality seems to be of little importance in contemporary fiction? Why do you think that is so?"

For me, spirituality has to do with celebrating life. I do not agree that contemporary fiction ignores the spiritual side of things. This has always been fiction's chief concern. It continues to be in the best books written today. 

7. Lorna Crozier asks, "How did growing up with (or without) siblings affect your writing or your desire to be a writer?"

My older sister wrote astonishing, passionate poems when she was ten and eleven, and into her teens. She also wrote plays of biting social commentary when she was young, recruiting me to play bit parts in performances we put on for our parents and grandparents during our summers on Georgian Bay. She figured out how to write ballads and sonnets before she hit high school. She is 20 months older than I am, so we spent our childhoods playing together. In her late teens she gave up writing to study medicine, but her influence on me was profound. She showed me what was possible.

8. J.B. MacKinnon asks, "You can write your next book at a desk with a view of the sea, of a busy European plaza, or of a blank wall right in front of your desk. Which do you choose, and why?"

Wherever. It's all good. As long as I have access to a table and some peace.