Claire Holden Rothman, an upcoming IFOA participant, answered our five questions! She is the author of My October, which was recently announced as a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction.
IFOA: My October deals with Quebec history, referencing in its title the October Crisis and the FLQ. How do your characters confront history in My October?
Claire Holden Rothman: I believe the past—or more particularly, our stories about it—has enormous influence over our present-day lives, though we’re mostly unaware of it. The process holds true on the personal level as well as on the broader social or political one. In Quebec, we’ve created a variety of stories about events in our history. The October Crisis of 1970 stands out. It’s one of the few instances in which discourse was discarded in favour of physical violence. In My October, Luc Lévesque wants to avoid confronting darker aspects of the past. His wife Hannah feels such guilt about events that occurred decades and even generations ago that her vision of her own culture and language is skewed. Fourteen-year-old Hugo, meanwhile, struggles to get past the constricting stories by which his parents live and to create a new narrative grounded in the here-and-now.
IFOA: Was it difficult to write in three unique voices?
Rothman: For me, voices are what fiction is all about. I am obviously not a 14-year-old boy or a French-speaking male Québécois writer. I have met such people. I have watched them and tried to imagine what it must be like to live in their skins. One of the great pleasures of writing fiction is imagining other people as fully as I can. A while ago there was this great debate in Canadian literary circles about appropriation of voice. Does a white male writer have the right to write from the perspective of a Native American woman? This sort of thing. I never understood the controversy. The whole point of fiction is trying to imagine what others are seeing, hearing and thinking. It’s not appropriation of voice; it’s empathy.
IFOA: What are the roles of writing and translating in your novel?
Rothman: One of the central ideas in this novel is story-telling, so it’s fitting, I think, that Luc Lévesque is a professional writer of stories. His wife Hannah is his English translator. She has won prizes for her work just like Luc has for his novels, but this does not alter the fact that in some real way, she is effaced. The words she transmits to the world are not her own. Translation may be an art (as anyone who has experienced the joy of reading good literary translation can attest), but it’s a derivative one.
IFOA: You work as a translator, like your character Hannah Lévesque. Do you have anything else in common with Hannah or the other characters in this novel?
Rothman: It is true that like Hannah I work as a translator. I’m also married to a highly verbal, gifted half-French writer (of plays). I’ve lived all my life in Montreal, where issues of language, history and identity are constantly being analyzed and talked about. And here’s a confession. I’ve carried a painful, lifelong sense of personal responsibility, as Hannah does in the novel, for cultural wounds inflicted generations ago in a Quebec that no longer exists.
I am also a novelist like Luc Lévesque. I am not famous, but, like him, I spend hours at my desk, digging for nuggets of human truth. I’m also a bit of a Luddite. I wear fingerless red gloves, as Luc does, to keep my hands from chafing while I type.
IFOA: You translated the first Canadian novel, L’influence d’un livre. What was that experience like?
Rothman: Fascinating and daunting. The novel was published in 1837, during the Patriotes’ rebellion. The French in which it’s written is a bit archaic. I had to experiment to make my English sound old, but not so dusty that it alienated contemporary readers. L’influence is a weird little book. It’s a first (and only) novel by a spirited young man—he once planted a stink bomb in the legislative assembly in Quebec City during an altercation with a politician from Yamaska—whose tastes ran to the macabre and the supernatural. The novel is full of stories: real-life newspaper reports of murder and betrayal in what was then Lower Canada, as well as tall tales and local folklore. I loved all of these stories, although I sometimes questioned Philippe-Aubert de Gaspé’s ability to fit them into a coherent whole. The book feels post-modern in its fragmentation.
Claire Holden Rothman is the author of two story collections and the bestselling novel The Heart Specialist, longlisted for the 2009 Scotiabank Giller Prize. She will discuss, along with other Canadian writers, the October Crisis and the effects of the FLQ on November 1.