On Writing, with Susan Glickman
Susan Glickman has had a very busy year. The spring saw Susan publish both a collection of poetry and a book for children, and this fall brought her most recent offering, The Tale Teller (Cormorant Books), an adult novel which tells the story of Esther Brandeau, a young Jewish woman who lived for years as a Christian boy.
Susan talks to Open Book today about balancing her busy literary life, Esther's ability to spin tales and some of her favourite recent reads.
Tell us about your book, The Tale-Teller.
It’s the story of one year in the life of an historical character, a Jewish girl named Esther Brandeau, who arrived in Quebec in 1738 disguised as a Christian boy. I was amazed by her chutzpah, but even more amazed that it took a direct order from the King to get the local authorities to send her back to France (Jews were only permitted to reside in the Bordeaux region, not in any of the colonies). I wanted to discover what kind of character would so enchant people that they would not wish to relinquish her.
Everything we know about Esther Brandeau comes from that year; her origins and subsequent life are a mystery. Moreover most of what we know comes from her interrogation the day she arrived: her testimony about five years of exploits travelling around France disguised as a boy. Three things struck me as peculiar about this testimony:
1) If she was unmasked as a girl the second she walked off the ship in Quebec, how had she successfully hidden her gender for five years?
2) Why did she immediately confess her identity as a Jew if she had succeeded in maintaining her cool all that time?
3) Also, the episodes she recounts add up to only three years at most, not five. Either she’s lying or she’s leaving stuff out.
My conception of Esther Brandeau as a master storyteller rather than a picaresque heroine derives from these observations.
Your character, Esther, had a Scheherazade quality, telling stories to protect herself. Were you thinking of One Thousand and One Nights at all while writing? What are your feelings about the power of storytelling?
I couldn’t help but be reminded of Scheherazade when I thought about Esther, and acknowledged that by having the intendant, Gilles Hocquart, give her a copy of One Thousand and One Nights at the end of the novel. But the importance of storytelling isn’t confined to fictional female prisoners; everyone lives by storytelling. All day long our inner voices narrate our doings, trying to convert chaos into meaningful action, attributing cause and effect to random events. Narrative is as powerful a drive as thirst.
That Esther as an illegitimate Jewish girl is trebly an outsider makes freedom of imagination crucial to her survival in a world where she has few other freedoms.
What drew you to this particular time period? And how did you find the research process as you built in the historical details?
The story drew me to the period, not the reverse, but since I’m from Montreal I loved learning more about the history of my province. I also got an opportunity to write with unabashed affection about the climate and geography I grew up with. But I always have to put myself on a diet when I’m writing historical fiction: I am permitted a few months in the library before starting a book to get the context right and may only return when I stumble over a topic requiring historical authenticity.
These topics are varied: some obvious (what kind of ships would you find in Quebec Harbour in 1738, how long did the transatlantic journey take and how much did the passage cost, what were shipboard conditions like?) and some surprising (what kinds of apples were grown both in the New and the Old France, how was chocolate prepared in those days, what aboriginal herbal remedies were adopted by European immigrants?).
My philosophy about research is that you have to get deeply into the writing to find out what your characters know and then try to catch up to them.
You have several books out this year, spanning different genres. How do you balance your writing life?
I can’t say that I “balance” it, either in theory or practice, because no single work-day resembles another. But I do like having more than one project on the go so that I can always get some writing done — however little — between paying gigs like editing, or teaching, or whatever.
Also, when I was younger I wrote poetry and fiction indiscriminately, just as I always liked both drawing and painting, both acting and dancing. While I was an English professor, academic writing satisfied my prose drive but now that I don’t write literary criticism anymore, I’ve switched back to fiction. I have to say it’s a lot more fun!
What are some books you've read recently that have really knocked your socks off?
I was totally blown away by David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas because it was such an act of bravado and yet technically adept, totally coherent and above all, beautifully written. Anyone who thinks the novel is dead should read it and repent.
I also enjoyed the lyricism of Jeanette Winterson’s Lighthousekeeping, the melancholy brio of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, the sustained wonder of Gil Adamson’s Outlander, and the historical richness of Joan Thomas’s Curiosity.
As you can tell from this little list of recent faves, I tend to prefer fiction that takes me on a journey to other places or other times, or both. I love travelling but since got stuck in Toronto with children and a house, books are my only ticket to other places!
What are you working on now?
I am working on a YA novel about the relationship between two sisters, one of whom has cerebral palsy. When I was in university I volunteered at a home for multiply handicapped children and there was a girl there who was completely frozen, unable to move or speak, with the most beautiful and intelligent eyes I’d ever seen. This story is inspired by her, and for her. I wish I could remember her name, because even though I met her long ago I’ve never stopped thinking about her.