The Next Chapter·Proust Questionnaire

Sharon Butala on her true idea of happiness

The author of Where I Live Now offers her idea of true happiness, her greatest achievement and her biggest regret.
In Where I Live Now, Sharon Butala shares her journey of moving to the city and leaving behind the rural home she had shared with her late husband. (Neil Speers/Simon & Schuster)

Sharon Butala's many books have charted the history of the West as well as her personal transformation from urban academic to rancher's wife. Most recently, she wrote about her return to the city after the death of her husband, navigating her new life as a widow in the memoir Where I Live Now: A Journey Through Love and Loss to Healing and Hope.

Below, Butala takes The Next Chapter's version of the Proust Questionnaire. This interview originally aired on Jan. 29, 2018.

Who is your favourite fictional character?

"Hands down that would be Frieda Haxby Palmer from the Witch of Exmoor by Margaret Drabble. She's an elderly woman and disregards the desires of her very proper children who want to keep her under their control. Instead, she lives her own scandalizing life despite them. The big thing I like about her is that she dies in a way she chooses, instead of safety, comfort and a socially acceptable death. I thought that was just fabulous."

If you could change something about yourself, what would it be?

"I wouldn't be such a coward. I wouldn't be fearful and I would be a lot less angry, but then maybe not. Maybe I would be angrier."

On what occasions do you lie?

"I used to lie for all the right reasons: not to get caught and because I didn't want anyone to know how awful I truly am. Though, now that I'm sort of grown up, I only lie so as not to hurt other people."

What is your greatest regret?

"I used to say that I have no regrets. Now I say that I regret absolutely everything. I guess one principal regret is that I did not have more children, I had only one. The other is that, although I struggled very hard to become bilingual — French and English — I never moved to a French-speaking community where I could consolidate what I knew. Most of all though, I regret that it took me so darn long to figure out who I was and what I wanted to do with myself."

What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?

"When I have wronged somebody and can't rectify it."

What is your principal defect?

"For long periods of time, I forget the things that matter. I only remember them with direct effort, when my life gets too awful."

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

"Perfect happiness would be writing the perfect sentence. Which is, of course, knowing the perfect thing and being able to say it in the simplest hard, small, perfect words of English."

What is your greatest fear?

"My worst fear would be to find out, for sure, that life on 'the other side' is less interesting and not nearly as much fun as this one that I'm in right now. Chiefly, that it isn't progress. Can you imagine stagnating in perfection? Error, is where all the richness lies."

Who are your heroes?

"Rachel Notley, Lady Gaga, Hillary Clinton, Rebecca Jameson and Emily Carr. I know I have some male heroes but I can't think who they are at the moment."

What is your greatest achievement?

"Practically, it's that I'm not currently starving in a garret or that I'm not going through a hideous divorce and I haven't recently killed anybody. But I suppose that it's how I've got past so many things that people younger than I am think are life itself, like love affairs and extreme travel, and of course achievement itself. Though, I'm probably lying about that last one."

Sharon Butala's comments have been edited and condensed.