I'm lucky enough to have persuaded the one and only Emma Hooper, author of Etta and Otto and Russell and James, to lend me her authorial brain to pick. I met Emma last month in Toronto. A Canadian writer and musician now teaching in the UK, she's smart, funny, and unfazed by running in strange cities. Her novel is gentle and rhythmic, but fearless in exposing its characters' innards. It's really a beauty.
Below are her answers to my Storybrain questions.
1. Did you have any alternate titles for your book? What made you pick Etta and Otto and Russell and James? Did that come to you fully formed at the start, or later?
Well, before it was anything, when it was just a scrap of notes, the word doc was called, “Grandpa bit”. Not as good as “Etta and Otto and Russell and James”… I usually save deciding on a name for after a whole first draft is done. Then I came up with a short list of options, including such things as, “Obstacles of Smaller Water” and “Their Something Like Silence” and “If a song is in tune, or if something is red or green”. Then I said them all out-loud a bunch of times and “Etta and Otto and Russell and James” had the best rhythm to it and looked great — all those double letters — so it won.
2. How did you start this book--an image, a word, a general idea?
About seven years ago I learned that my grandfather’s hair all went white when he went over to WWII. I found this so striking; it was such a strong image, that I wrote it down and saved it to be the starter, the seed of something. Eventually, a few years later, I found it again, at it was the start of this book...
3. How did you find the sense of an ending--did you know when to finish? Did the ending remain the same through different drafts?
In one respect, knowing what I was heading towards was easy with this project; I was walking with Etta, I just had to make it to the sea. But, in another, I still had to figure out what would happen once she got there! For me, writing a book is a long process of getting to know your characters better and better, and, in so doing, getting better and better at knowing what choices they’d make, what they’d do next, so, while I didn’t know what would happen to Etta and Otto when I started, or even half way through, once I got to the conclusion, to the water, they were real enough to me to direct their own endings.
4. Could you choose a symbol to represent your book? A shape, person, piece of music, anything you like?
This book is hot and dry, burnt orange and yellow, dust.
5. Did the book grow out of anything autobiographical? Did writing it change your view of the past?
Yep, like I mentioned in question (answer) 2., the book started with a real life fact about my grandfather, and the characters of Etta and Otto share further traits with my grandparents too. That same grandpa was from a Saskatchewan farm family of fifteen kids, like Otto, and, like Etta, my grandmother did teach in a one room prairie schoolhouse, and that is where they met.
But I suppose that’s more biographical than autobiographical… as for the latter, well, the character of Winnie, though not a huge part, is the one I identify with most… I think I probably snuck her in there to be me, a little bit…
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I'm the author of My Name is a Knife, All True Not a Lie In It, and The Old Familiar.