Books·How I Wrote It

Why Will Aitken wrote a book about Anne Carson's adaptation of Antigone

The Montreal author discusses his unconventional memoir, which is on the shortlist for the Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction.
Will Aitken is the Montreal-based author of Antigone Undone (Gerald L'Ecuyer/University of Regina Press)

In 2015, American-Canadian novelist, journalist and film critic Will Aitken journeyed to Luxembourg to observe the rehearsals and premiere of Anne Carson's translation of Sophocles​' tragedy Antigone. The production starred French actress Juliette Binoche and was directed by Belgium's Ivo van Hove.

The Montreal-based author's nonfiction work, Antigone Undone, is based on those travels. The book is nominated for the $60,000 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction.

Aitken spoke with CBC Books about how he wrote Antigone Undone.

Out of depression

"This all started when my friend Anne Carson and her husband invited me to Luxembourg for the premiere of her new translation of Antigone. I travelled there and watched the play five times in three days. I came out of it so enormously depressed. I couldn't quite believe it. Once I got over my depression, I thought I should write about what happened because I still didn't quite understand it. It become my quest.

"I also wanted to explore the idea of Antigone, who was one of the original 'rebellious woman' — one of the first women to say no to power. It's almost scary how universal she is. There are groups now all over the world who have identified their cause with her. "

The universality of Antigone

"It still feels so incredibly contemporary, this play that was written back in 441 BC. Anne's translation is so colloquial, the director does it in modern dress and it just felt like it was dealing with issues of our time. From things like the #MeToo movement to looking at the way people who have no power get crushed by power.

"The more I wrote the more I realized how little I know about ancient Greece, about the classics, about tragedy. I started researching all that information. There's so much written about Antigone, second only to Oedipus. I narrowed it down to great minds such as Virginia Woolf, Judith Butler, Kierkegaard and Hegel who all said interesting and contrary things about her."

Building the framework

"The structure of the book had a lot to do with how I researched the book. The first third of the book is very personal so I didn't have to research that because I lived it, being in Luxembourg and witnessing the rehearsals and what went into staging the production. Then I did Skype interviews with Juliette, Ivo and Anne in separate cities. I realized I couldn't have verbatim transcriptions of these conversations. That would have been boring.

"I finally figured out I had to create a sense that the three of them are in the same room talking to each other. They were incredibly forthcoming. Juliette, even on Skype, gives an amazing performance. I have 90 minutes of a conversation with her where she explains the play for me — and how I completely misinterpreted it. And she was totally right! Talking to everyone about the production was fascinating."

A mood for writing

"I have a huge anxiety about writing. This has been going on for well over 50 years. So if I sit down, that's a good thing. I guess it's because of my journalism training but if I sit down, I can do at least two hours of work. I don't go by word count or a page or anything like that. I just go by when it when it feels like I've written myself out.

"Writing is my life. As much I'm anxious about doing it, I get a feeling from writing that I don't get from anything else. When it's going well, it's really the most exciting thing."

Will Aitken's comments have been edited for length and clarity.


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