A few days after I sent out my interview questions to Anne Michaels, I realized that The Campus interviewed her not that long ago. I was so worried that she would feel bombarded, and I was stressing out… and then she just sent me the loveliest email apologizing for not having sent back her answers sooner. I just started reading Fugitive Pieces not too long ago, and fell in love with this woman. She writes the most beautiful phrases, and sometimes I just read them over a couple of times to let them sink in. Now I love her even more. Here’s our interview folks! As promised.
When I first started doing research for the series, one thing that I kept coming up was that you try to keep the public from knowing too much about your personal life. And so firstly, I just want to reiterate that if there are any questions I ask that you do not want to answer, please feel free to leave them. I don’t want this interview to feel like a drill or interrogation. That said, I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about your decision and why it is that you take this approach.
I think this perception of me must have started with a single journalist who asked me a question that was truly intrusive, or perhaps I answered in a way that did not satisfy his curiosity; nevertheless the perception seems to have followed me ever since. I do know that when FUGITIVE PIECES was published I felt it was unseemly to have the attention drawn to me, rather than the subject matter of the book. It was a question of integrity, a moraI question. I can’t imagine anyone who has spent years trying to come to some kind of perception of those events would feel differently. The questions raised by those events are so harrowing, of such depth and consequence that I really could not understand why a journalist would want to “waste” a conversation on the relatively insignificant details of my life. Why waste a chance to talk about what’s really important? At the time, I found this astonishing. Also, of course, biography obviously influences how we read. There is a purity in not necessarily knowing too much about an author when we first encounter their work. The biographical interest comes later and I am almost always glad not to know too many details about a writer before that first encounter. In terms of the media, I’m afraid it must be said that there is still a deplorable double standard: if a male writer declines to discuss his personal life he is depicted as “modest”, “dignified” or “respectful; when a woman writer does the same, she is depicted as “evasive”, “secretive”, or “ashamed”. It is incredible that this attitude persists.
Your first novel, Fugitive Pieces, was such an incredible success. It was on Canada’s bestseller list for more than three years, it’s won so many prizes, it’s been translated into over 30 languages. I found a quote somewhere that Fugitive Pieces “attracted more international praise than any first novel by a serious writer in Canadian history.” and so even though I’m a bit late in saying this, first of all, congratulations. Secondly, how did it feel to get such a wave of praise? Did it take you by surprise? Do you feel that things (such as your life and career) have drastically changed as a result?
I was, and I am inexpressibly moved by the response of readers. It was a significant moment for me to realize that perhaps I no longer had to “carry” the events of the book and this story in quite the same way; as I’ve said elsewhere, in a sense, the young boy Jakob is not truly pulled out of the mud by Athos (the character who rescues him in the book) nor by the writer, but by the reader. And I have to say again, that the subject matter of that book does not allow for anything but humility and a sense of failure; those events will always elude language. The response of readers was an absolute surprise and I am immensely grateful that readers not only came to this book with openness, but also had the kindness to write to me.
After the success of your first novel, was it difficult or intimidating when your second novel, The Winter Vault, was released?
Each book brings with it its own task. When THE WINTER VAULT was published, I hoped that readers would trust me and enter the territory of that book. I read and I write in order to hold another human being close. One does one’s utmost to do justice to the subject matter and the experience of the characters; this is the responsibility anyone must feel when dealing with historical events.
I’ve heard that people have celebrated your prose for its poetic quality. Do you feel that being a poet influences the way you approached writing your novels?
Yes; I believe that there should not be a wasted word, whether in a poem or in a novel; whether you are writing a single line or hundreds of pages. This is out of respect for the subject matter, the characters and the reader.
Fugitive Pieces was adapted into a major motion picture back in 2007. Can you tell us a bit about what that process was like? Is it strange seeing your film on the screen?
It was an extraordinary moment when I first saw Rade Sherbedgia (who played Athos) and Robbie Kay (who played the young Jakob) walking together down the studio hallway. There was a physicality between them – Rade throwing the boy over his shoulder, the way the boy momentarily leaned in towards him – that was deeply right; it was a kind of intelligence they shared, the right sort of intimacy – an intimacy that one sensed would never be taken for granted. It was a powerful and strange sensation, as they walked toward me, as if I had conjured them from my imagination. I also felt this when I first saw Rade with Stephen Dillane (who played the older Jakob). The composer Nykos Kypourgos also was someone who seemed to know just what was needed; I knew he understood what the score could be when he said he wanted the main theme to say everything with as few notes as possible.
That being said, the film is definitely its own animal. As it must be. As any adaptation is, whether it adheres closely to the book in detail or spirit, or whether it is very loosely translated.
I know it’s been a bit since your last novel was published. Could you tell us if you have any new poetry collections or novels coming out (if you’re at liberty to say)?
Last year I published a book in the UK with John Berger, called RAILTRACKS. It is the text of a theatre piece we collaborated on. We performed it with the theatre company Complicite in London a few years ago. I believe a North American edition will be out soon.