Books·How I Wrote It

How Catherine Leroux ripped fiction from the headlines in The Party Wall

The Scotiabank Giller Prize finalist opens up about writing her powerful novel-in-stories.
Catherine Leroux was a finalist for the 2016 Scotiabank Giller Prize. (Julie Artacho/Biblioasis)

Quebec author Catherine Leroux's first work in translation, The Party Wall, has made the 2016 Scotiabank Giller Prize shortlist and the book's translator, Lazer Lederhendler, won the 2016 Governor General's Literary Award for translation.

The novel-in-stories follows four pairs of characters who are both linked and divided in varied - and often shocking - ways. In her own words, Leroux reflects on writing her daring third book.

Based on a true story

"The Party Wall has its own logic and its own internal structure and systems: four stories that become intertwined as the book progresses. Three of those came about from extraordinary news stories I had come across. The story of the husband and wife, Ariel and Marie, came first, in 2005. It's based on an actual news story of a British couple whose marriage was dissolved for the same reason that Ariel and Marie split up. I was so moved by this story, because it sounded like a Greek tragedy. I remember exactly when the idea of writing about them, and how to do it, came to me. It was a wet night and I was walking in Montreal. But I put it in my pocket and sat on it for years. 

"Then in 2010 I learned about the woman who would go on to inspire my character Madeleine. I was listening to a podcast that told the woman's story and I thought, this is fascinating. I kept it in my head. Then a little later, I heard about the two sisters who became Monette and Angie. 

"In thinking about these three stories, I found the common point between all of these characters and how they could work together in a novel. Some of the connections between them are very thin and barely noticeable if you're not looking for them. But they're all there. Every story is connected to the others in some way. Every pair is connected to every pair." 

Stranger than fiction

"The only pair of characters who are wholly imagined are Carmen and Simon. With them, I wanted to have a brother and sister who think they're very close and end up realizing they're not, and they have to go around a kind of mountain to find each other again. They also have the story that's the most banal. That's something that I thought about a lot as I wrote the book — the stories I took from the news, I took because no writer would dare to invent something so far-fetched, so incredible. With Carmen and Simon, their plot is not as unbelievable as the others. This was interesting to me because we always operate on the idea that fiction is where the fireworks happen But really, real life is where the fireworks happen."

Found in translation

"Working with Lazer Lederhendler on the translation was great. He was so generous. He got in touch immediately when he learned he would be translating it and we agreed I would be involved a little bit. After about 60 pages I wrote him notes, and we met. I'm so grateful for that because I'm also a translator. I know that even if writers want to be involved, translators can sometimes be kind of standoffish about it because it creates a lot of work for them. 

"Reading my work translated was a very strange feeling. It feels like it's your work but not your work at the same time. You feel like you just walked into your house but all the furniture has been moved and some of the walls were painted different colours. It's still yours, but there's something different about it. It's a process to learn that this book is not the same as the book you originally wrote. Lazer did a tremendous job. He's a good reader, and I think that's the first quality a good translator has to have. He's a sensitive reader. You have to be very sensitive to what you're translating, and I think he is." 

Catherine Leroux's comments have been edited and condensed.