Claire Holden Rothman Discusses Translation, Terrorism, and How Characters Are Born.

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Interview by Alison Petrovich

Can you pinpoint the moment when your novel, My October, began not in writing, but as an idea?

I have been thinking about the events of the autumn of 1970 for quite a few years now. And I have been fascinated by the way what we now call the “October Crisis” is talked about and not talked about here in Quebec. To this day, a lot of unease arises when the kidnappings of British diplomat James Cross and Quebec Minister of Labour Pierre Laporte are mentioned. For good reason. Cross was held at gunpoint in an apartment in Montreal’s north end for almost two months. Laporte was killed by strangulation after a week of captivity. The violence of these acts, and the violence with which Ottawa and the Quebec government responded to them, shocked Quebecers to the core.
Forty-five years have passed since those events took place. Much has changed in Quebec and outside of it. Terrorism is now a word we hear almost daily on the news. But we had a brush with our own home-grown political terrorism all those years ago. And it marked and shaped us.
This book was sparked in October of 2001, about a month after Al Qaeda bombed the twin towers in New York City and every network in North America was bombarding us with US President George W. Bush’s “War on Terror.” I was listening to the nightly news on Radio Canada, and a journalist read aloud an excerpt from a letter Jacques Lanctôt had written to the Montreal papers. “Au nom de toutes les victimes innocentes, je crie vengeance,” Lanctôt wrote. I was cooking supper when this came over the airwaves. I stopped stirring the pot.
Jacques Lanctôt, for those who don’t recognize the name, is the man who kidnapped James Cross in 1970.
Wow. What a strange thing to say.
It got me thinking. Three years later, I watched, by chance, a wonderful documentary film by Carl Leblanc called L’Hôtage, containing interviews with both James Cross and Jacques Lanctôt. These two men were not young anymore. They spoke of the events of October 1970 with the hindsight of over three decades. The documentary was poignant and fascinating on more levels than I can list here. And I realized I wanted to open up this subject in fiction, to examine it, air it out. There were so many stories in there that needed to be told, and in Quebec, I felt, we were now capable as a society of talking about them. To live happily and well together, people do not have to agree on things, especially things like politics, which tend to cut close to the bone. But they do have to talk. Talking and exchanging are a must. And fortunately, Quebec has a long, proud tradition of discourse.
So these were two of the moments which sparked the novel, My October, into being—a sentence heard by chance on the radio, and words heard in a cinema. Words can have an influence.
Who gets to tell the story of a person, a family, a nation? Who decides what is true, what is false? Who is the arbiter, in the end, of this thing that we call history? These were some of the questions I set out to answer.

As a novelist, do you believe art serves a moral purpose or is it solely entertainment?

I don’t believe that the purpose of literature is to convey a simple moral message. I do, however, believe that novels have an ethical component. Literature is about human beings and how they act and react under pressure. When life turns difficult, we reveal what we’re made of. Sometimes we show compassion; other times all we can manage is to shrink back and think of ourselves. Our reactions are often complex and contradictory – generosity and self-interest and resentment and even self-hatred can mingle and mix in a single gesture. Literature is not about right or wrong in the conventional sense, but about human thought and speech and actions playing out in particular instances. In this sense it is ethical. It’s also highly entertaining.

When you create a character, such as Hannah, Luc, or Hugo from My October, is there a starting point or first trait that you build from?

Characters are often composites of people I have met. I might take some aspect of someone’s personality that intrigues me and match that with the body of another person I know. Usually the starting point for a character I create exists in the world, in “real life” — which is really life seen through my eyes and therefore an imaginative construction, at best. But there is this grounding in so-called reality. Once born, the character takes on a life of his or her own and reveals who he or she is to me. Often the revelations take me by surprise.
Luc, for instance, is based on a real-life person whom I met only a few times. I do not know him well, but he intrigued me. He is a successful working artist, which I wanted for that character. And he has a physique that is impressive, which also inspired me for Luc Lévesque. Is Luc this real-life man? Not at all. I barely know the guy. But certain details of this individual’s looks and dress and speech patterns and mannerisms opened up possibilities for me that allowed the birth of a fictional being.

When translating, do you ever get stuck on an idea, moment, or phrase that does not seem translatable? If so, how do you overcome these challenges?

The job of translating is different from writing fiction. In translation there is always a text in front of the translator, already written by someone else. To me, translation is more like doing puzzles than creating something. If I am stumped by a French phrase I go first to dictionaries, of which there are many. If it’s a Québécois text, and the problem is a Québécois idiom that I don’t recognize, there are dictionaries that specialize in this. So I look things up. If that doesn’t do the trick, I consult with people. Phone up friends who might know. And I mull things over, trying out the best way to express things. Sometimes it’s hard straddling two languages. If I have been reading nothing but French for a while, the syntax of that language begins to creep into my English, or even French expressions begin to infiltrate, and momentarily I lose access to my own English idiom! It’s like seeing the world through different glasses. I have to pause and remember to pick up my English glasses again. Eventually the most appropriate English words come into focus and settle into the right order on the page.

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