Emma Richler: ‘I never begin a book without a fierce compulsion’

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(Marzena Pogorzaly)

Emma Richler is the author of Sister Crazy, a short-story collection published in 2001, and the 2005 novel Feed My Dear Dogs. Her latest novel, Be My Wolff, was published by Knopf Canada last month. She spent many years in Canada, but currently lives in London, where she was born.

Why did you write your new book?

Why? Why? Is this an existential question? Why write a book at all one might ask? And suddenly I envision generations and generations of authors leaping up in their graves, lurching forward at the waist, eyes wide! Why? Fey as it might sound, I think that the choosing of one story over another is a decision that is largely out of the writer’s hands. It is true of me, at any rate. Why this story, why at this time in my life, where do the characters come from, these themes and obsessions? I am hard put to answer such questions, and they do not truly concern me. All I can swear to is that I never begin a book without a fierce compulsion. I have little doubt that the interests and obsessions lurk within from the earliest of days and at a certain point in my writing life. Quite simply emerge as voices and faces in times and places, they begin to interact, they find expression. Now I begin a book, this particular book. It’s not idle compulsion, no casual decision.

Whose sentences are your favourite?

I am no collector of authorial styles or prize sentences, but there are certainly memorable ones I can touch on, many of which are opening sentences of marvellous novels, sentences that cause one to sit up straight and become instantly receptive. It does not follow, necessarily, that the novels are eternal favourites, but they are certainly extraordinary and their openings are lessons in beauty and elegance, and precision. The openings of Melville’s Moby Dick, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Dickens’s David Copperfield, Austen’s Emma, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles, du Maurier’s Rebecca, Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow, Proust’s Du côté de chez Swann, Carson McCullers’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter – these are all grand invitations to unforgettable worlds.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

My singular mother is a brilliant reader and editor. My father knew it, I know it. I trust her implicitly. When I was on my way to university after years of French schooling, my father sent me away with a typed list of guidelines for the writing of school essays and of examinations. ‘If you think what you have written is good, you know it is time to revise,’ ‘I shall split my beer, but not my infinitives.’ I paraphrase, but that was the sort of thing. As an adult, while we were, all too briefly, writers together, he said little. ‘More, more!’ he urged me quietly. Write, he meant. And this is my mother’s refrain to me, spoken quietly, an urgent maxim, it appears to me, of simple beauty: ‘A writer writes,’ she tells me. I have always heard in these words a reminder to remain true to one’s vision at all times, to own one’s book, and to write, write, write. Writing breeds writing. My parents shared a vision, I believe, expressed differently, of the writer’s task.

Which historical period do you wish you’d lived through?

I find the late Regency – not the formal period ending in 1820, but those years that culminate in the coronation of Queen Victoria – a period of enduring fascination, but also one full of robustness of thinking, and full of passions and marvellous writing and art and engineering and epic, handsome design. This was a time, it seems to me, of incipient and flourishing change, a period on the cusp on monumental change and clamour, which was the Victorian era. Land enclosures altered like landscape forever, physically and spiritually. The Victorian years meant migration to cities, the rise of industry, and it brought all the marvels and perils associated with the grandiose colonial expansion. The Regency, therefore, has greater innocence and inferiority, a rare freedom of intellect, fewer inequalities of class and colour. It had these, certainly, but less withering, less brutal. The onset of speed, the broader possibilities of travel that came with the Victorian era, eroded interdependence and community in a number of ways. So for all its faults and brutalities, I see the Regency as a period of expansion of the mind and of certain clarities. It is reflected in the architecture of the age, peerless for proportion and grace.

What’s more important: the beginning of a book or the end?

Both are hard, both are exciting, larger than the writer. I do not consider one more important than the other. I do find that the end of a novel contains a germ and a hint of one’s next beginning, even if one only half knows it. So the end is a beginning, too. Every exit, an entrance.

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