Monday, November 25, 2013

Q&A with author Nancy Richler

Nancy Richler, photo by Shelia Berlin
Nancy Richler is the author most recently of the novel The Imposter Bride, which was shortlisted for the 2012 Giller Prize and won the 2013 Canadian Jewish Book Award for Fiction, and also the novels Your Mouth Is Lovely and Throwaway Angels. She lives in Montreal.

Q: You’ve written that part of the premise for The Imposter Bride came from your own family history—your grandmother arrived in Montreal and was rejected by the man she expected to marry. How did you blend that with the book’s fictional elements?

A: Like any fiction, some is from my own life. My parents were not Holocaust survivors; my grandmother was rejected at the station. She came over around 1903. Both sides of my family were here already before the war. The rejection was part of what was in my mind.

Also, my mother, who was born in 1928, talked about going to the train station in Montreal after the war [to meet family members who had survived World War II], and the sense of the gap between them. What they had experienced was something she couldn’t comprehend. [In addition], there was a stigma attached to them. I was trying to capture a little of that gap my mother expressed, and how it played out in the community.

Also, a close friend had told me that her family name had been stolen from someone who had died in a DP camp who had passage to Canada. Since I’ve written the book, I’ve heard from people with the same experience. It’s still very hard to get into our two countries.

Q: The issue of names and identities plays a large role in the book. What do you think people’s names at birth mean to them?

A: I have such an obsession with names! It’s in my other book too. I have to discipline myself when I write.

It’s not just personal. We’re so aware of whose name we carry. With my friend, nobody had survived in that family, and the name was gone forever. Yet the other name with no living people was reborn.

In the book, that plays out with the question of what responsibility [Lily] has to that name she stole. A lot of her quest in the beginning is about that. She makes an effort to connect.

Q: What kind of research did you need to do to write the book?

A: With this book, I didn’t do any research. My other book was research, research, research.

I’m 56. For me, we didn’t start hearing about the Holocaust in my early childhood. My character is 10 years older. Everyone knew something horrible had happened, but we were getting our information from observing the adults around us.

Montreal had a very high proportion of Holocaust survivors. I went to school in a newer immigrant part of town, and many of my friends’ parents and my teachers were Holocaust survivors. They didn’t tell us direct things. I wanted to show it from Ruthie’s perspective.

I did some research about diamond cutting, and about borders and smuggling, but none of anything else in the book was researched.

Q: Why did you decide to tell the story from multiple perspectives, but only Ruthie’s sections are in first person?

A: This book was torture. I started it eight years before I finished. I couldn’t get inside Lily’s perspective. I was stuck for several years.

Then at one point, Ruthie’s voice came to me, and I decided I’d tell it from the perspective of the daughter; it was the only one I was qualified to write from.

It’s all from her perspective, so there are some huge gaps. People have asked, Why isn’t her father angrier? He didn’t show that to her. There are hints about what happened to Lily, but not the full story, because it’s written from the perspective of the daughter.

I didn’t feel I could personally take on the first-person voice [of Lily]; there was a gap of understanding [given her experiences].

Q: Have readers identified with one character in particular?

A: I’ve had extraordinarily amazing responses from the children of Holocaust survivors, strong positive responses. They identify very strongly with Ruthie.

I was in Winnipeg last week, and it was the first time I had a Holocaust survivor identify with Lily. A lot of people have been angry that Lily abandoned her daughter, there’s a strong visceral response. She [the Holocaust survivor] said she could really understand it. She couldn’t be fully present, and she could understand someone [doing what Lily did].

Generally, though, people have identified with Ruthie.

Q: So many novels focus on dysfunctional families. Your book certainly involves a difficult family situation, but also has a very close loving family at its heart. How do the two elements come together?

A: It was a very functional family. They all pulled together and raised [Ruthie].

That was the family that came to me. My own family was very functional. I saw a lot of loving families growing up. By and large, people are trying their best with their kid. I think sometimes writers feel there’s no story unless there is a problem.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on trying to start another novel. I put aside my time every morning, but instead I’m taking two-hour walks, checking my e-mail, and cleaning the house obsessively. I’m in an avoidance state.

This book came out two years ago, but in Canada it really gathered steam last year. I’ve been traveling with it; it’s evoked a strong response.

 --Interview with Deborah Kalb

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