I just finished Connie's newest novel, A Beauty (McClelland and Stewart, 2015). Full disclosure: I figured the Depression on the prairies wasn't going to be my thing (I've tried a lot of prairie novels, I swear, but I was born in BC, and it shows). But Connie manages to make the period shimmer and swerve all over the place in this story of attraction and loss. She's a slyly funny writer, gifted beyond merely beautiful turns of phrase. (I caught a little of that smartness in Toronto when our books came out this February.) I'm glad to know a fellow Dickens and Woolf fan, and to see their threads in her writing.
Connie has quite an authorial bio: she's the author of two short story collections, numerous plays for stage and radio, and the co-author of a feature film, Solitude. Her novel, Euphoria, won the 2009 Saskatchewan Book Award for Fiction and was short-listed for the High Plains Fiction Award and the Commonwealth Prize for Best Novel of Canada and the Caribbean. A former prose editor of grain magazine, Connie has also edited books of fiction and has taught many creative writing classes and mentored emerging writers.
1. Did you have any alternate titles for the book? What made you pick A BEAUTY? Did that come to you fully formed at the start, or later?
I find titles hard. I sent the novel out as Elena Huhtala, knowing it wouldn’t fly because no one would know how to pronounce the name. Ellen Seligman, my editor, suggested Elena H. We both liked it for its sense of mystery, but after several months I started feeling unhappy about the use of the intital. I thought up dozens of titles that didn’t work, and then suggested A Beauty. I like it for its old-fashioned ring; we don’t call a woman a beauty anymore, and for good reason, since it calls attention to her external qualities. There is also another kind of beauty in the lost lives and lost hopes in the novel. So the title seems to do what I want a title of mine to do — say something, but not too much.
2. How did you start this novel--an image, a word, a general idea?
This novel started with the image of a young woman opening a car door and stepping down to the road. I knew she was going to take off down that road on her own. I knew she was going to cause trouble, like most strangers who come to town. I didn’t know who she was except that she was lovely and sexy and exotic. And poor.
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?
I love Frank Kermode’s book, The Sense of An Ending. And I believe that fictions are for finding things out, as he says — but that doesn’t necessarily mean wrapping up the plot. In a book that raises questions about the influence of the past and the future on the present, I wanted to leave the characters at a point where the future was open to them. I hoped that by leaving the road open, I would let readers discover things that were important to them, ideas about the choices we make, how we live our lives, how we influence others.
The ending of this novel didn’t change much with rewriting. I experimented with some changes in the last chapter, but I rejected those and went back to the original, so the tenor of the ending and the events stayed pretty much the same. I worked mostly on the dialogue. What people say to each other at the end of a novel is crucial, and I wanted to handle it as delicately as possible.
4. Could you choose a symbol to represent this story? A shape, person, piece of music, anything you like?
If there were something, it would be open, calm, quiet. Maybe the smell of dust and weeds carried on a warm, barely perceptible breeze.
5. Did anything in the story grow out of autobiographical experience? Did writing it change your view of the past?
My grandfather deserted his large family in the middle of the Depression. He walked away and never returned. The story intrigued me when I was a girl, and the novel grew out of that. My feelings about that event didn’t change, but I did learn something by writing about the past, and especially through using two time frames, since the last third of the novel, set in the 60’s, becomes the characters’ present. I didn’t realize how much the passage of time is about loss, or how sad the loss can make you. That sounds self-evident when I think about it, but as I was writing, in the two times that were both long past to me, I was haunted by the fact that people have to die, that our futures are limited by that end, and that nothing we make lasts, there is no forever.
6. Your book shifts in voice and point of view, from third person to first and back. How did this come about?
The section Ruthie narrates was the first part I wrote. After I went back to write the start of Elena’s road trip, I tried — for a few minutes —to translate Ruthie’s part into third person. Didn’t work. Couldn’t work. Ruthie was irrepressible; she had to speak her mind. I rationalize this aesthetically because of the bond the two girls form. Elena changes Ruthie’s life, and in a more subconscious way, the reverse also happens.
7. A BEAUTY gets us inside quite a few characters in an almost Dickensian way. Do you think any classic novels influenced your work's structure or style?
I can’t draw the lines, but I’d be happy to believe I learned something from my two favourite dead authors, Dickens and Virginia Woolf. I love them both for the way they idiosyncratically portray their characters’ inner lives, and the way they rise above ordinary prose, and the way they tap into images as potent as the ones your remember from childhood.