Books·How I Wrote It

Emma Hooper reimagines the stories of Roman Empire-era female saints in We Should Not Be Afraid of the Sky

The Canadian-born, U.K. based author of such beloved novels as Etta and Otto and Russell and James is back with a new historical novel inspired by the virgin martyr and saint Quiteria.

'I wanted to investigate these stories from the point of view of a slightly more grounded reality'

Emma Hooper is a Canadian novelist based in the U.K. (Penguin Random House Canada)

Emma Hooper knows a thing or two about how to tell an epic tale. Her breakthrough debut novel, Etta and Otto and Russell and James, was a love story spanning 50 years, three lives, two continents and an ocean; her second book, the 2018 Giller Prize-longlisted Our Homesick Songs, was a lyrical family saga drawing on old stories, folk songs and seaside myths.

Now the Alberta-born, U.K.-based author is back with another ambitious narrative — this time set in the golden age of the Roman Empire. We Should Not Be Afraid of the Sky was inspired by the hagiography of 2nd-century Christian saint Quiteria, said to be one of nine sisters born to a mother who ordered them all to be drowned.

In the novel, Quiteria and her four surviving sisters are raised by different families but maintain their connection as they grow up — until they are abducted by soldiers from their small Portuguese village and brought to the commander, who turns out to be someone from their past.

Born and raised in Alberta, Hooper — also an academic and a musician who performs solo as Waitress for the Bees and with the string quartet Red Carousel — now lives in southwest England, but says she "comes home [to Canada] as often as possible, and we talk about maybe one day moving closer to the rest of the family."

Hooper spoke to CBC Books during a recent trip to Italy, where she was doing research for some upcoming writing spurred on in part by her deep dive into stories about saints. With church bells pealing in the background, she discussed why she wanted to reimagine such historical legends in We Should Not Be Afraid of the Sky.

Delving into the past

"[This book] was a more research-heavy endeavour. I hadn't really done much historic writing before, so it was really fun to dig into — to read loads and go to lots of cool sites and just learn so much. But it definitely took longer to work on than my previous books. I was planning to get it finished before my second son was born — and he's four now. [laughs]

"It was really the character who led me to this. Quiteria was a very minor saint — even growing up Catholic, you may not even know her. I was always fascinated by the magic realism, and so I always had at the back of my mind that I loved these saints. And then I read about her somewhere and ended up digging into this particular Roman era.

Since we don't know that much about that time and the people in that time, I thought I'd have fun exploring that era in my own way.

"Research-wise, it was not a very structured approach, but I went to the parts of Portugal and Spain that I wanted to cover. Of course, it was so long ago — the 2nd century — so there's a lot that you can only speculate or read about, and there is a lot that's been speculated about the lives of working-class women back then, but we have very little in terms of records.

"So I did the best I could, but it was also exciting — since we don't know that much about that time and the people in that time, I thought I'd have fun exploring that era in my own way."

Saintly stories

"As a kid growing up, I just loved that the saints were these magical people. But as little Catholic kids, we're taught that they're real people — so magic is real. And I think that probably had a big influence on my writing career even before this book, that sort of idea of this slightly permeable barrier between the magical and the real.

I think that probably had a big influence on my writing career —​​​​​​ that sort of idea of this slightly permeable barrier between the magical and the real.

"And then as an adult, I've been drawn to the saints because their presence is still sort of there in our Western society, or especially European-based Western culture. These are our folk icons — not our only ones, but they are a big part of what kind of makes up our story.

"And so I wanted to investigate that as real people, they had flesh and blood and actual motivations, and look at what the miracles actually had been — what they felt like and whether they were actual miracles — from the point of view of a slightly more grounded reality."

Listen | Emma Hooper on The Next Chapter

Multiple perspectives

"One of the great things about Quiteria is that there are different versions of her story depending on where you go. The Portuguese telling of her story is that she was one of nine babies born at once, and the mother was in shock about having these babies and sent them away. So the opening scene of the book is a kind of a retelling of the actual hagiography.

"There was a lot of leeway there with this story — if anything, there was more space for me, because we know very little about the way life would have been for the people back then. So it was actually quite easy, and fun, to have these few little miracles and things I knew she had in her hagiography that I wanted to fit in. But then there was a lot more for me to fill in when it came to trying to tell her story.

I wanted to explore the idea of a story from multiple points of view — the same stories, but how they come across when they come from different people.

"I wanted to explore the idea of a story from multiple points of view — the same stories, but how they come across when they come from different people. When it comes to folk stories, we have a version of them, but that version is very crafted by who had been telling them, and there's obviously going to be lots of different ways of interpreting it.

"And so I decided to explore that idea between the sisters. I remember hearing about one of the Disney cartoonists who was working on Frozen, where they were wondering how they could possibly draw the two sisters in a distinct way. That's a challenge that I wanted to have — not only are these characters all females and the same age, they're actually literally identical, except for one who has scarring. And yet I wanted to make them distinct as much as I could — I thought that would be interesting."

Pushing against the system

"The ideas of early Christianity were really interesting for a few philosophical reasons — there is the idea that working-class women could potentially have a bit more power and agency as saints. Suddenly, they're powerful — they're elevated above other people, even men.

There is the idea that working-class women could potentially have a bit more power as saints. Suddenly, they're powerful — they're elevated above other people, even men.

'And that was one of the draws at the time, that slaves and working-class people could be like gods because they had an afterlife. It was an opening for people to see mobility, even if not until after death.

"I think the sisters were lucky in a way by their non-traditional upbringing. At the time, the patriarchal family unit was everything — but they're outside that system.

"What they have is each other, and that's their most important bond. And I think that's something that makes them move outside of the traditional systems of submission and be able to have the strength and motivation to rebel."

Borrowing from music

Photo of author Emma Hooper playing the violin.
In addition to being an acclaimed author, Emma Hooper is also well-known as a solo musician and collaborator, and says music often influences her writing. (emmahooper.ca)

"[The structure of the ending of the book] is maybe borrowing from my musical career, where that's meant to be a bit of a pacing thing — where, as the paragraphs get smaller and smaller, you're pushed forward faster and faster and a little bit out of your reading comfort zone. It's a sort of uptick in the tempo as you push right up to the edge of the cliff, almost literally — and at the same time, it's also a sort of blurring of who's speaking or whose perspective it is.

As the paragraphs at the end get smaller and smaller, you're pushed forward faster and faster — it's a sort of uptick in the tempo as you push right up to the edge of the cliff.

"There's definite crossover in things like tempo and pacing, but also in the actual process itself. I was really intent on not having the characters blur into each other any more than I wanted them to, and one of the ways I tried to get them to think for themselves was having a playlist. When I was writing, say, Marina, I'd listen to my Marina playlist to get in that head space."

Emma Hooper's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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