Why Claire Cameron couldn't break up with her latest novel
Claire Cameron's latest novel, The Last Neanderthal, is an examination of what it means to be female and human. It takes the reader on a journey through the stories of both a Neanderthal named Girl and a pregnant modern-day archaeologist named Rosamund Gale. The Last Neanderthal is a finalist for the $50,000 Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize.
Below, Claire Cameron answers eight questions submitted by eight of her fellow writers in the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A.
1. Drew Hayden Taylor asks, "If you were to have a dinner party, which two characters, from everything you've created, would you like to have sit at your dining room table and chat with?"
I would invite Frank from my first novel, The Line Painter. He paints the lines on the highway, is often grumpy and tries his best to make up for his checkered past. I would sit him down with Stick, the chubby three-year-old little brother in The Bear. Stick grunts more than he talks and he will undoubtedly throw food in Frank's hair. I want to watch what Frank will do when this happens. Will he be forgiving about it, yell or get up and huff out of the room?
2. Heather O'Neill asks, "What's the strangest thing you've done while researching a book?"
I shut my friend's two kids in a Coleman cooler. My second novel, The Bear, has a scene near the beginning where a cooler protects two kids from a bear. Though the motivations of the bear are later revealed, my editor wondered whether this was plausible. I decided to put it to the test. I found a cooler that was similar on eBay. But by the time it arrived at my house, my kids were older than the kids in my novel. So I had to ask a friend if I could borrow her five-year-old daughter and two-year-old son. "Hi, can I stuff your kids in my cooler?"
3. Rachel Cusk asks, "How would you describe your literary style?"
My style is always in service of my characters, rather than my voice as a writer. When I start a new novel, I spend a lot of time writing aimlessly in order to develop a style that expresses the mindset of the characters. For my latest novel, this took several frustrating drafts. I started from scratch many times. It was only when I went back to page one the fifth time around that I finally got the right rhythm and structure at the sentence level.
4. Vincent Lam asks, "At some point in the writing of a book, have you ever had a real low point? What did you hold on to to get out of that place?"
I broke up with my most recent novel, The Last Neanderthal, about five times. It was the first novel I wrote from research and there were many moments when I felt it was beyond my reach. I would quit and immediately feel better knowing that it was a good decision for both my sanity and health. But each time I would somehow find myself back behind the computer screen writing about Neanderthals again. It was more like an "I can't quit you" situation-compulsion, rather than a conscious decision, that kept me coming back.
5. Jalal Barzanji asks, "How did you feel when you finished your most recent book?"
After I finishing going through the copyeditor's notes for The Last Neanderthal, I was so happy and wanted to celebrate with a nice dinner. My son looked at me wearily and said, "Haven't you already finished that book five times?" It was true. By that point, we had celebrated finishing the draft that went to my literary agent, the draft that sold to my publisher, the draft going to my editor, the second draft that went to my editor again and the final draft being accepted by my editor. I felt elated, worried, scared and satisfied each time, but I'm still not sure when I actually finished.
6. Lawrence Hill asks, "What was the first job you ever had, and what kind of good material did it give you?"
I tree planted in northern Ontario. That meant spending 11-hour days alone in the bush, wallowing through deforested lands that were full of mud and bugs. It was mind-numbing work. I needed to pay just enough attention to be careful about what I was doing, but there was still enough leftover brainpower to register that I was miserable. Still, something in me flourished. Out of it came an awareness that I love to spend long days alone. And when I do, my mind wanders to incredible places. I came out of the bush wanting to tell stories, though it took years to figure out how.
7. Eden Robinson asks, "What was the most unexpected inspiration you've ever had?"
The delivery of my second son was difficult. The umbilical cord was wrapped twice around his neck and he was big. Each time I pushed, he was slowly being strangled. When the doctor told me this, I had a moment where I realized that he or I might die. It wasn't scary, necessarily: more like I knew it was a sensible conclusion given our situation. I could also feel how many women had given birth before me and that, because we are a species with a narrow pelvis and large brain, each birth is difficult in its own way. Despite our modern advances and lower death rates, some things about birth remain as raw and primal as they were thousands of years before I delivered my son. We are both fine, but it was sufficiently traumatic to provide inspiration for years.
8. Katherine Govier asks, "Would you continue to write if your audience disappeared?"
Yes. Though I would miss touring and meeting people who love books, my writing is motivated by an internal drive. When I am really lost in the work, my mind is focused only on the characters and their world. I lose any awareness of my life or a reaction outside of the story. That is the most incredible feeling and I will always be chasing it.