Books·In Conversation

Why Canada Reads author Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette is drawn to books about survival and the human spirit

The author of Suzanne discusses her life as a reader and shares some of the books that have inspired her throughout her life.
Suzanne by Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette, translated by Rhonda Mullins, will be defended by actor Yanic Truesdale on Canada Reads 2019. (CBC)

Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette is a Montreal-based novelist, screenwriter and director. Throughout her career, she has directed several award winning documentary features. 

Barbeau-Lavalette's novel, Suzannewas defended by actor Yanic Truesdale on Canada Reads 2019. Suzanne was translated by Rhonda MullinsBy Chance Alone by Max Eisen won Canada Reads 2019, defended by Ziya Tong.

Barbeau-Lavalette spoke with CBC Books about being a writer and a reader.

 Do you recall the first book you loved reading? 

"I do and it's a bit of a cliché! It's The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. In a way, reading that book and learning from it saved my life. I don't know why, but I have always been attracted to certain 'rough' locations in the world. When I was a young woman, I traveled to and lived war zones, slums and favelas. I work in cinema and was filming in these locations.

"I didn't know exactly what I wanted to do in my life. I stopped school for a while and traveled South America to work in the slums with kids living in the streets. I wanted to adapt that experience for theatre. One year we worked on an theatrical adaptation of The Little Prince with the children. We adapted certain parts; the prince wasn't blonde and he was barefoot. It was a really important time in my life. I decided that literature and cinema can have an impact on the world and on people. I think if I wasn't writing or filming I might have been a social worker.

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry... in a way, reading that book and learning from it saved my life. 

"But I saw people dying and some real injustices in my travels. I was a witness of some incredibly hard things for a young person to process. I needed to write to get things out. If I didn't have the instinct to write about my feelings, I might have gone crazy. I don't think what I was writing was good at the time, but it was necessary for me. My first connection with words was writing about survival — and now I understand why I needed to write so much." 

 What types of books did you read when you were younger?

"I think my mother was a bit worried about me when younger because, while I always loved reading, I was reading a lot of books by Stephen King! I was about 12 years old. I would eat his stories up. But she said as long as I was reading, it was okay.

"And now I'm doing the same with my kids. They don't always read intelligent stuff but so long as they are reading, it's good. I want words to become their friend. I don't want them to be afraid of words. I want literature to be something that they live with." 

What are some of your favourite books at the moment?

"I recently finished Drawdown by Paul Hawken. The book's subtitle is The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming. This book is an 'emergency' book. I've raised red flags around climate change for a few years now but there is such a sense of urgency today. This book has concrete solutions everyone can take to try and do their part. It can be tiring to keep hearing about climate change issues without hearing about solutions.

"Another book that I loved reading —  and I'm sad that I discovered it so late in my life —  was Une chambre à soi or A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf. It was written in 1929 and I wish I read it when I was 16. It's a book every teenage girl has to read. It's the story of how a woman gained her place in the world of literature. It was a real battle then and still is today. It's a really intelligent work but also has a lot of humour. Woolf is very funny, which I didn't know about her at first.

My first connection with words was writing about survival — and now I understand why I needed to write so much.

"The book I love and read about a hundred times is White Dog by Romain Gary. It's based on the real-life story of the author when he was living in the United States as a diplomat with his wife. It's a clear-eyed and in-depth look at racial issues. This book is clever and complex. Sadly it's so contemporary and relevant today. I'm actually working on the film adaptation at the moment!"

Any favourite writers?

"There are some inspiring women writers from Quebec. One is Natasha Kanapé Fontaine, who is an Innu poet and actress. And she is a new voice and has a new way to speak about femininity and territory. She's refreshing in today's literary landscape. Another is Catherine Dorion, a poet with an impressive career path. She's now doing politics in Quebec. She wrote a fantastic essay about how desire and politics come together and she makes clever connections." 

Where do you get your books?

"Librairie Raffin in Montreal is my favorite bookstore because of the people working there. They are almost part of my family — they know what my kids and I like to read. They always recommend me books to read and ones that might be a good book for me to adapt to film!" 

Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette's comments have been edited and condensed.

The CBC Books Why I Write series features authors speaking on what literature means to them. You can see all the episodes here.