Five Questions with… Lois Leveen

Lois Leveen, author of Juliet’s Nurse and an upcoming IFOA participant, answered our five questions!

Share this article via Twitter or Facebook for your chance to win two tickets to see Lois on October 26, as well as a copy of Juliet’s Nurse! Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: Your bio says that you “dwell in the spaces where literature and history meet.” What kind of historical research went into Juliet’s Nurse?

Lois Leveen: Lots! I read medieval cookbooks to plan meals, and medieval medical manuals to figure out how pregnancies, infertility and breastfeeding would be handled. I did research on the impact of the plague, to understand how it continued to affect Italian society even after the initial outbreak ended. I read about fashion, which was key in this period, not just in terms of what people wore, but because fabric and clothing served as a kind of exchange commodity, the way we might think of currency or precious metals you would pawn or trade. I read a lot about vendettas and violence, and about marriage contracts. But the book is set in the era before the printing press was invented, which means the written records are quite limited. So I found that visual art and material culture were also incredibly helpful. For example, if a woman was pregnant or had just given birth, one gift she might receive was a parto tray, on which special meals would be served to her. Those trays often had scenes painted on them, and those scenes would be of women, usually saints, who had just given birth. So you can look at a tray and see what that parto room would look like: where is the mother? where is the child? where is the wet-nurse? Even religious objects would be decorated in ways that would reveal what people wore and how they acted in particular situations. I traveled to Verona while I was working on the manuscript, and during my time there I took over 1,000 photographs just in one day. Understanding how a private house would be laid out, how frescoes would appear on the walls, what it would have felt like to move through a crowded medieval city—all of that relied on being there in person. But, of course, you have to be careful not to get so caught up in the research you forget about the story. The historical details work their way in, but ultimately the novel is about the characters and what happens to them.

© John Melville Bishop

© John Melville Bishop

IFOA: What made Juliet’s nurse an intriguing enough figure for you to build a story around?

Leveen: The idea for the novel came to me so immediately, it was stunning. I was actually struggling with another novel that just wasn’t coming together, and the title “Juliet’s Nurse” came into my head. I knew the nurse was a comic figure in the play, but the truth was I hadn’t read Romeo and Juliet since high school. So I pulled my copy off the bookshelf, and discovered how incredibly complex and compelling Shakespeare made her. In her first scene in the play, we hear this amazing backstory: she had a daughter who was born the same day as Juliet but died. What was it like to lose one child, and then immediately take comfort in caring for another in such a physically, as well as emotionally, intimate way? We also learn a bit about her husband, and how he interacted with Juliet. But what was he like? What was his relationship with Angelica, the nurse? Later in the play, Angelica describes Juliet’s cousin Tybalt as “the best friend I had,” which is odd because they’re not in a single scene together. So what was their friendship like? Even in the play, Angelica is an intensely emotional character, and I sensed that shifting the focus squarely onto her would tease out new aspects of this seemingly well-known story. And I’m very interested in what history I can learn as I work on my novels. Here was a way to think about women’s roles in late medieval and early Renaissance Italy, including women of very different class positions. So really, once the idea came to me, I couldn’t NOT write it.

IFOA: How much of Juliet’s Nurse was informed by cues from Romeo & Juliet? Was the play a rigid influence or a point of departure for you?

Leveen: I like to have some sort of boundaries to play against when I’m writing. So I tried to stay true to Romeo and Juliet as much as possible. But of course the play already exists, and my task was to create something new, which meant the play also always had to be a point of departure, even if I wanted to stay as true to it as possible.

One of the challenges of writing first-person fiction is that you can only convey what your narrator-protagonist sees, hears, knows or surmises. Which means I had to figure out what to do about things that happen in the play that Angelica doesn’t witness herself. How could those things be part of her story?

And there’s also the complicating factor that Shakespeare is pretty fast and loose with his history, so although the play is ostensibly set in Verona in the 14th century, some of what he writes is really more about England in his own era. For example, he has Tybalt, Mercutio and Romeo dueling with rapiers, which were common in Shakespeare’s day but didn’t actually exist in the period when the play was set. So I gave myself permission to get the Italian history right, even if it meant departing from the play.

Leveen, Juliet's NurseIFOA: Did you have any hesitations about writing a novel that takes one of the most famous plays of all time as its main intertext?

Leveen: Not when I started. I was so entranced with Angelica, I didn’t hesitate at all. But last April, after the novel was finished, I spoke at the Shakespeare 450 conference in Paris, probably the world’s largest gathering of Shakespeare scholars. I think participants were there from 80 different countries. And suddenly I realized the enormity of what I’d done. Shakespeare, the most famous playwright in English, and Romeo and Juliet, the most famous English-language drama. How could I have been so brazen? And yet, of course, there’s a huge literary tradition of reinterpreting Shakespeare (not to mention the stage tradition: pretty much any time you stage a Shakespeare play, you’re “interpreting” the text). Mostly I’m glad I didn’t think about it until the novel was done. Ignorance is the better part of bravery, I suppose.

IFOA: What is the best compliment a reader can give you about your work?

Leveen: I’m always so grateful to hear from readers who are moved by my work in any way. It feels like a true honor to be able to create something that can affect another person deeply. My first novel, The Secrets of Mary Bowser, is based on the true story of a former slave who became a spy for the Union during the American Civil War, and I heard from many readers for whom that tale of race and valor was personally inspirational. Is there a parallel for this novel? Perhaps. Only as I was finishing the first draft of Juliet’s Nurse did I really confront the fact that it is, in part, a book not only about surviving loss but specifically about losing a child to suicide. Well, of course, that is what Shakespeare gives us, but thinking about how the rates of teen suicide are rising in our own era, I felt like what I was writing about this period in the past needed to resonate with what is happening today. So I would say now that the most profound thing I can hope to hear from readers is about that. Maybe some of what Angelica goes through in trying to understand Juliet’s choice can spark conversations about how we can keep real people we love feeling secure enough to make different choices. It might be a lot to expect from a novel, but I’m hopeful.

Lois Leveen  is a novelist, poet, educator and historian. She presents Juliet’s Nurse alongside other authors on October 26.

Five Questions with… Alison Pick

Alison Pick, author of Between Gods and an upcoming IFOA participant, answered our five questions!

Share this article via Twitter or Facebook for your chance to win two tickets to see Alison on October 26! Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: Tell us a bit about your memoir, Between Gods.

© Emma Lee Photography

© Emma Lee Photography

Alison Pick: For some reason I find it difficult to summarize, so here’s this from the Toronto Star: “When Toronto poet and novelist Alison Pick was a teenager, she discovered that her paternal grandparents, who escaped Czechoslovakia just before the Second World War, were Jewish. In her early 30s, Pick—engaged to be married but struggling with a crippling depression—began an exploration of roots that eventually led to a decision to reclaim her identity as a Jew. Pick’s story of real life—the undeniable fates of the dead, and the hard-won hope of the living—illuminates her powerful new memoir, Between Gods.”

IFOA: Did you have any reservations about publishing personal or intimate material?

Pick: Yes. The act of writing a memoir was not as different from the act of writing a novel as I’d thought, but the audience issues that accompany each are hugely different. I’m nervous but hopeful. I’ll keep you posted!

Pick, Between GodsIFOA: Do you have a form or genre (poetry, prose, non-fiction) that you most enjoy writing?

Pick: I’m a writer who adores the act of writing (no writer’s block here, although of course I have other challenges). The genres are different, but the beginning stages of each—the generative stages—are equally satisfying.

IFOA: What was your favourite piece of writing you read in the past year?

Pick: “The Israel Taboo,” an article by Joseph Rosen that ran in The Walrus, was smart and succinct and helped me understand my own complex reaction to what has been happening in the Middle East. And in terms of a book, it would have to be Cartwheel by Jennifer DuBois.

IFOA: Which author are you most excited to see at this year’s Festival?

Pick: Do I have to choose one? There are so many great writers I’m dying to see. Joseph Kertes, for example. And Shelly Oria (who I’m so excited to be presenting with). But if I REALLY have to choose just one I’d say Marilynne Robinson.

Alison Pick, an author and poet, will take part in the Koffler panel, which explores the navigation of multiple cultures and faiths. She’ll her moving and unforgettable memoir, Between Gods, which explores family secrets and the rediscovered past.

Five Questions with… Andrés Barba

Andrés Barba, author of Rain Over Madrid and an upcoming IFOA participant, answered our five questions!

Share this article via Twitter or Facebook for your chance to win two tickets to see Andrés on October 26, as well as a copy of Rain Over Madrid! Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: Why did you decide to structure Rain over Madrid as four novellas with different characters and settings?

Andrés Barba: They all are integrated in the bigger setting of Madrid. Actually, I don’t feel them to be that different from each other. In the beginning, my idea was to reproduce something similar to Joyce’s “Dubliners.” That is, to make a portrait of a city through the portrait of neighborhoods.Barba, Andrés

IFOA: Was there a particular book or author that made you want to be a writer?

Barba: Not really. It was more the sum of many, the feeling that it was almost the only thing I could do with my life in order to reach some kind of happiness.

IFOA: Do you have any rituals associated with your writing?

Barba: I kill a lamb everyday, with my own hands.

IFOA: This is your first book to be translated into English. Who are some other Spanish authors you would like to see translated so that they could be read by a wider audience?

Barba: There are really a lot. It’s kind of difficult as a literary author in Spain to get published in English, and there are a lot of great authors in Spain translated into 20 languages, but barely in English. Álvaro Pombo, Rafel Chirbes, Belén Gopegui, Luis Landero, just to name only a few of them who are over 50.

Barba, Rain Over MadridIFOA: You’ve published books in a variety of genres (literary fiction, non-fiction, children’s literature). Do you prefer one over the other, and if so, why?

Barba: It depends on my particular situation. Now, for instance, I’ve just finished my first book of poems. One of the best things about literature is that you can keep exploring different territories, always be learning. The day I become a “professional” writer with a formula is the day I’ll stop writing, and start doing my real vocation: lion tamer.

 

 

 

Andrés Barba is a novelist, essayist, translator, scriptwriter and photographer. He is the author of a total of 12 books of literary fiction, non-fiction, photography, arts and children’s literature. See Andrés on October 26 as he reads with other international authors.

 

Five Questions with… Yan Li

Yan Li, author of Lily in the Snow and an upcoming IFOA participant, answered our five questions!

Share this article via Twitter or Facebook for your chance to win two tickets to see Yan on October 26, as well as a copy of Lily in the Snow! Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: As a bilingual writer, how do you decide which language you will initially publish a novel in?

Yan Li: I had never thought about writing a novel until I came to Canada. As the first graduate student from China ever admitted by the History Department at the University of Windsor in 1987, I received a lot of attention since many people were curious about China. A year later, I decided to write a book in English that would give a truthful reflection of life in China in the 20th century from an insider’s point of view. My first novel was an unexpected success and totally changed my life in Canada. A few years later, when I noticed increasing numbers of Chinese immigrants coming into Canada and that people back home were interested in knowing their life in a new country, I decided to write a novel in Chinese for readers in China. Married to the West Wind became my first novel written in Chinese.

© Xu Chunying

© Xu Chunying

IFOA: What are some benefits/difficulties of translating your own work?

Li: I very much enjoy the process of translating my own works from English into Chinese, or vice versa. I can see the differences in expressions and choices of words, and tailor materials accordingly, based on my understanding of both cultures, to approach readability, efficiency and aesthetic results, valued in different languages. I don’t feel it is a good idea to translate literature word for word and line for line. The best can be produced through a rewrite. However, not many people are willing to have their original work rewritten by someone else. I am lucky to have the ability to handle both languages in my creative writing. So far, I have not experienced any difficulties.

IFOA: Do you write for audiences of a certain age or culture?

Li: I never pay attention to generational gaps, since I don’t write for money but for faith. I believe that good literary works will last in history, whether they are bestsellers or not. The purpose of my writing is simple. The world around us is imperfect but our writing, ideally, may change it for the better. Human natures and values are the same, but different languages and cultures separate and isolate them. I hope I can use my pen to help erase prejudices and misunderstandings.

Li, Lily in the SnowIFOA: What role do literature, writing and journalism play in Lily in the Snow?

Li: My academic training comes from three fields: language and literature, journalism and history. I tend to mix up those influences in my creative writing. When I wrote my first English novel, Daughters of the Red Land, my style was very much limited by my training in journalism and history and it was difficult to allow my mind to flow freely outside the boundary of truth and facts, which are crucial for news writing. God knows if that actually helped the novel to be successful because it was so true to human nature and the real world. When I wrote Lily in the Snow, I had gradually become used to a more creative style since I had published some novels in Chinese by that time. Although Lily in the Snow is more fictionalized, it is a product obviously influenced by my academic training, with many stories based on truth and facts. I think I have developed a writing style, in English or Chinese, that portrays fictional characters very closely to real life. I believe it is a pity for the writer if her characters and stories sound fake and unreal.

IFOA: What have you read in the past six months that you really loved?

Li: For the past 20 years, most English novels I have read are those that have a connection to China or the Chinese. I very much enjoy reading Chinese language books reflecting life in today’s China. Some works by short story writers like Liu Qingbang and Wang Xiangfu are very well written and impressive, showing the Chinese society estranged from what I used to know.

Yan Li is the director of the Confucius Institute at the University of Waterloo and the coordinator of the Chinese language programme at Renison University College. She presents her latest novel, Lily in the Snow, which provides a unique perspective on the universal tale of intergenerational conflict, and explores the Chinese immigrant experience in Canada with humour and insight. Catch her at China@IFOA on October 26.

Five Questions with… Gary Geddes

Gary Geddes, author of What Does a House Want? and an upcoming IFOA participant, answered our five questions!

Share this article via Twitter or Facebook for your chance to win two tickets to see Gary on October 26, as well as a copy of What Does a House Want?, his latest collection of poetry! Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: Can you describe your poetic process for our readers?

Gary Geddes: I like Karl Shapiro’s notion that poetry is not just a way of saying things, but a way of seeing things, because it reminds me that there’s a poet in all of us, a part that looks for what is deep and essential in daily experience. I use my skill with words to connect with those who share this gift of poetic insight. I keep my antennae tuned to what is happening around me at the local, national and international level, events that touch me emotionally, morally and politically. Some of these signals refuse to go away, so I try to find a way to give them imaginative shape. That’s when the real challenge begins, the struggle to transform feelings into words, and when knowledge of craft becomes so useful. Language is a transforming medium, like passing white light through a prism; the end-product is always different from what you expect and intend.

IFOA: You’re currently on a cross-country book tour with your wife, the author Ann Eriksson. How do you influence each other as writers?

© Ann Eriksson

© Ann Eriksson

Geddes: Ann takes the writing of novels seriously, which means that we both know what it’s like to be caught up in the excitement and challenge of a new work-in-progress and how much time is required to produce something worthwhile and lasting. When you respect your partner’s commitment, the sharing of cooking, shopping, house cleaning, et cetera becomes part of the package. So, too, does providing or receiving unexpectedly a cup of tea on the writing table, delivered with a silent smile and, if you’re lucky, a kiss. Ann and I read each other’s work and hope to be able to offer constructive criticism along with moral support, given in small doses during long walks, warm-ups for tai chi in the morning or while kayaking for the mail in the afternoon. As a biologist, Ann is informed and alert to what is happening with the environment and very pro-active, two influences I welcome.

IFOA: Are there particular poets whose writing you are influenced by, or whom you see yourself writing in the same literary tradition as?

Geddes: Early in my career, I was given the opportunity to edit two major poetry anthologies for Oxford University Press. This required shifting into high gear and not only reading the entire works of about two hundred poets, but also selecting a few of their best poems and trying to articulate why they were so good. Many of my favourite poets can be found in the various editions of 20th-Century Poets and Poetics and 15 Canadian Poets.

Teaching was another plus for me as a poet because it forced me to be reading, analyzing and commenting on what I read. Of course, there were specific poets along the way whose work had a more than minor impact on me: Auden, Neruda, Elizabeth Bishop, Edgar Lee Masters, Michael Ondaatje, Pat Lowther, Bronwen Wallace, to name only a few. I love the long poem and poetic narrative and find I’m drawn most often to larger canvases, book-length poems and sequences where anything can happen and where both story and song contend for my attention. I’m a sponge, soaking up as much information about craft as I can from a host of poets. And there’s always more to be learned.

Geddes, What Does a House WantIFOA: What are you working on now?

Geddes: I’m working on a non-fiction book about the links between Canada’s notorious residential schools and segregated Indian hospitals, where forced sterilizations took place, along with gratuitous drug and surgical experiments and electric shock treatment designed to destroy the short-term memory of sexual abuse. This involves reading a lot and interviewing elders across the country, who are graciously sharing their stories with me. I’m also working on a new poetry manuscript that, so far, includes a narrative-poem-in-progress and a couple of poem-sequences, one about my mother, Irene Turner, who died of cancer when she was only 35, and another called “On Being Dead in Venice,” which includes poems about Pound, Brodsky, Diaghilev and Stravinsky.

IFOA: Finish this sentence: It’s hard to believe, but….

Geddes: It’s hard to believe, but writers seem willing to run off at the mouth at the slightest opportunity. Poets are the worst. A cynic once observed that the rewards for poetry are so few, poets will kill for them. I have my doubts about that. They’re more likely to give you an earful, hopefully words so subtly arranged and evocative that they nest in the ear and make their way into the bone marrow. As Robert Hass reminds us, “Because rhythm has access to the unconscious, because it can hypnotize us, enter our bodies and make us move, it is a power. And power is political.”

Gary Geddes has written and edited more than 40 books of poetry, fiction, non-fiction, drama and criticism. Geddes will read from his latest poetry collection, What Does a House Want?, a polished and cinematographic take on numerous ideas from Israeli-Palestinian violence to the reputation of Ezra Pound.

 

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