Gail Scott may just be the coolest person I’ve ever met. A major figure of the Canadian literary avant-garde, the Montreal writer’s work deals with one important issue after another—gender and feminism, Montreal’s multi-linguality, queer identity, conceptions of urban space—all the while challenging the formal boundaries of prose writing. In advance of the launch of her much-anticipated new novel, The Obituary, Scott spoke with Maisonneuve about Mile End life, the issues facing indigenous Canadians, and why sentences are really, really interesting.
Amelia Schonbek: I’d like to begin by asking you how you describe your own work. People use a lot of different terms to talk about your writing—experimental, avant-garde, prose-poetry—and I’d like to know which you prefer?
Gail Scott: I sometimes say I’m an experimental prose writer, as opposed to a fiction writer or a novelist, because I think my work kind of operates between several genres, both prose and poetry, and also essay. There’s also a lot of translation that goes on in my work, from French especially, but other contexts as well. So it’s pretty well—at least to my way of thinking—impossible to write a classic novel when all that stuff’s going on.
But sometimes I kind of balk a little bit at the word “experimental,” which always seems to imply that [a work] is difficult or not readable. And I actually think that that kind of work is readable, but that readers have very little access and training in reading work that isn’t the kind that gets onto the top ten lists in the media, or whatever.
AS: Last year at the launch of Prismatic Publics [an anthology of innovative Canadian women’s poetry], I remember you saying that you always feel more at home with poets than with prose writers. Why is that?
GS: Well, a lot of reasons. It’s really interesting to me that with poetry, you can put so much together from so many different fields, or so many different contexts, in the space of a page, say. And somehow people—good readers—are not uncomfortable with reading between the lines. That’s my dream, actually, for prose. That people learn how to read prose with interest to what’s between sentences… in other words, that they participate. It seems to me that poetry, in terms of its relationship to the reader at least, has the possibility for being extremely democratic, because it invites reader participation all the time. So that’s one reason.
I like that many poets are just determined to do whatever they think is right, knowing full well what their royalty checks are… I remember I had a friend when I was working at Spirale who showed up to one of our meetings, one of my Francophone friends, who showed up with a [royalty] cheque for thirty-four cents. [Laughs.] He said that he was going to frame it and put it on his wall.
AS: A record of some kind?
GS: I’m not so sure in the poetry world!
GS: Yes, I’m willing to give a lot of credit to poetry, unless poets are around arguing that poetry is, like, the best. And then I have to argue with them about the possibilities of good prose.
AS: But in light of your feelings about poetry, why have you continued to write prose? What is it about the form that interests you?
GS: It’s about the sentence, I think. The sentence, to me, is a place where you’re constantly trying to work something out. I mean, at the same time as I like work where you have to work yourself into the spaces of reading, still I like the sentence’s attempt to sort of move somewhere.
And I think also because I’m a very political creature, fundamentally, I like the possibilities prose offers to work things out. Poets argue that it’s not only prose—and I think it’s true with poetry as well. But there’s a directness and a talky-ness to prose that really interests me. Also you can, especially living in a city like Montreal where the language is so wonderful and textured, you can play so much with the spoken word in the context of a work of prose. I think it’s a little harder to do that with the restrictions of poetry.
AS: You mentioned the sentence, and one of the things that I find really interesting about your work is the way that you experiment structurally with sentences and phrases, so I’m wondering if we could talk about the sentence as a structural entity, and what your purpose is in pushing its boundaries?
GS: It’s such a vast subject, the sentence. Well, I don’t know if you saw my last novel, My Paris, where the whole thing was written in present participles, and for me that was an exercise in breaking down the writing subject to its smallest component, so that a person could be a traveller and yet be in pieces herself, instead of being the 19th century travel writer, which is the way we still do travel writing—we’re always casting opinions on another place.
In [The Obituary] I think I used the sentence more as a kind of site, almost, of oration. There are voices coming in all the time. The sentences—well, first of all I think they’re very musical. I’m not sure how other people read it, but to my ear they’re very musical, and I spent years trying to make the sentences sound as much like Montreal sounds to me as I could. Not a lot of Anglophone writers actually do that in prose, partly because I don’t think there’s a big experimental prose milieu currently in Montreal. But there are a lot of precedents and of course Cohen—great musician as well—had that kind of ear, and used it in Beautiful Losers, anyway, and certainly in his poetry. And in some ways I think Klein did as well. So those two writers have been, for me, the Montreal writers who spurred me on about writing for the city…. So the sound is one thing that’s extremely important in this. And as I said, trying to gather in the kind of spoken word of the street and of all kinds of people who live here. So that’s another function of the sentence for me here.
But I was also interested in this novel in bringing in, because it’s a family novel, in a way—it’s partly about my mother’s family—so I was trying also to invoke the sounds of ghosts from the past, who kind of ventriloquize their way into the novel. So in a way, the sentences are kind of—what’s a good word?—ventriloqual projections of sound and story that sort of tumble over each other in many different ways.
AS: So a few minutes ago you mentioned Montreal, and I want to talk about that a bit because you set this novel in Mile End, and the neighbourhood has also figured in some of your work in the past. What is it about this part of the city that interests you?
GS: Well I’ve lived here for twenty-five years, so, that’s part of it. It’s a really interesting place to be a writer in, because, I mean, when I first moved to Mile End it was basically an immigrant neighbourhood—Greek and then Portuguese, but also sort of arty people were starting to move in. Since then, different waves of people have come through, and it’s interesting to see how it changes and also how different kinds of people from different backgrounds relate to each other in this context, which isn’t always that easy to live in, because you’re very close to your neighbours. You know, it’s just very complex, and then not only is there the proximity of everybody around our charming little courtyards, but also the fact that almost everybody—thinking of my own courtyard—comes from a different ethnic and class background, so you’ve got that going on too. And you’ve got all these people trying to live together in a community, and of course sometimes it’s hard, but hard is also interesting to me, so that’s one of the reasons.
AS: One of the things I really identify with Mile End is the triplex, and it’s also something that often appears in your work, including The Obituary. What is it about triplexes? There’s something nicely layered about them, isn’t there?
GS: Definitely the layers. I mean, again, just the proximity of neighbours means that you hear all these voices all the time. There are lots of other things too. First of all, I really believe that the kind of material context of a life—of an everyday life—shapes the life, shapes the way you are. It affects how you think after a while, it shapes, in some way—I’m not saying it’s totally determining or anything like that… I say somewhere in this novel something about that the triplex is the story in a way, and so the fact that there are outside stairs where people gather, then inside stairs. The fact that one of the really special things about triplexes in Montreal is that it’s apartment dwelling in a way, but they offer a private entrance to each person, so you’ve got this idea that your door—the door to your house—is in the middle of the façade. And I love that idea because it makes it a very dream-like space. I also like that they’re kind of long and narrow, so you’ve got this bright light at each end and you’ve got this dim place in the middle, which is a place that opens for secrets and mystery, and I actually use that a lot in this novel, the contrast between the two.
AS: Although the novel is set in Montreal, you say that it’s also about the history of assimilation in the West, which I’m assuming is a reference to indigenous Canadians. Could you talk a bit about that element of the book?
GS: One of the things that strikes me about public discourse is that, well first of all, I think the question of indigenous life in Canada is constantly underplayed in the media. I also don’t think that, generally speaking, most people in Canada really understand the damage of the residential school system, and the degree of traumatisation, coupled with the absolute refusal to settle the land claims and it makes it very difficult for indigenous people to build their communities as thriving places. But just if you take the residential school situation, I mean, anybody who has kids in this country should be able to understand that if a stranger knocks on your door, speaks a different language, says “I’m taking your kids,” and there’s nothing you can do about it, and you don’t know whether you’re going to see them again, and some of them you don’t see again…It just shocks me.
So I decided to profit from the fact, if you like, that my mother’s family was indigenous to talk about this, and to talk also about what happens to people—and this isn’t limited to indigenous people by any means … but people whose cultures have been through tremendous trauma and who’ve chosen, therefore, to conceal who they are one way or the other, which was more or less the case with my mum’s family. And the kind of effect that has on generations afterwards. So, in a way it’s an indigenous issue, but it’s also something that happens to people of other origins, too. I mean our country would be so much richer if that kind of assimilation hadn’t been forced, if people could identify with whom they wanted to instead of being oppressed.
AS: You mentioned your mother, and I’m wondering what it was like to take your family as one starting point for a novel? Was it a challenge?
GS: As far as the family’s concerned, I used some family stories but otherwise I spun a tale, if you like. But the family’s hard. It’s very delicate and you don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings, especially in my family, which has this multiple racial background, it’s all the more complicated. That’s another advantage, though, of writing the kind of prose I write, where the story isn’t a declaration, where you play with language and you play with various aspects of the tale. And in this story, it’s never really clear… it’s an investigation of who speaks when we speak. So the doubt is always there, you know, about what the background is, who the people are. It just moves all over the place all the time.
Gail Scott launches The Obituary tonight (Thursday, October 28) at McGill University’s Thomson House (3650 McTavish, 1st floor) at 7 p.m.
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