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Heroine: An interview with Gail Scott

I met writer, journalist, translator, and teacher Gail Scott at S.W. Welch bookstore in Montreal, the summer after I’d completed my BA in creative writing at Concordia University. I was shopping for a graduation gift for myself—a second-hand Oxford English dictionary—when I heard her speaking to the bookseller. I was enrolled in a writing class with Scott that fall at the Université de Montréal but I’d never met her before. I just had a feeling it was her. So I introduced myself, and it was.

In Scott’s creative writing class, I learned a few things. The first was that I’m allowed to write in both French and English—within the same text—if I want to. This was monumental. While I am both Francophone and Anglophone, I’d basically passed as an Anglo and erased most of my Francophone life in my writing prior studying with her. Gail also encouraged us to listen to the noises and conversation fragments that surround us and to use them in our work. She told us to put as much about our lives into our writing as we wanted: emails, revelations, reinventions, conversations. She had us read surprising texts, experimental novels and prose poetry. She forced us to rethink our writing on a sentence level.

These motifs, this inclusive cityscape musicality, this attention to the senses are all central to Scott’s own oeuvre, including her cult novel, Heroine

Heroine, set in Montreal in October of 1980, is a novel about far-left Québécois politics, art, relationships, the body, writing and language. If you haven’t read it yet, think Dionne Brand, Chris Kraus, Maggie Nelson, Eileen Myles, Kate Zambreno, Nelly Arcan. But consider that Heroine was published in 1987, before many of these writers were. 

Scott’s linguistic and political perspective in this novel is particularly unique and valuable in the context of English-language writing in North America, which may have very little awareness of Quebec’s French-language culture.When it is referenced, for example in the novels of Hugh MacLennan or Mordecai Richler, English-language authors may depict the Québécois as second-class foils. But Scott’s narrator in Heroine, who is primarily Anglophone but who lives within the Francophone community, reports back from a world of progressive ideologies and sophisticated art-making. While there has been a building interest for Québécois literature of late, Scott’s insights into Quebec culture were not only new at the time, they remain pivotal today. 

Heroine is a daring, sensual, important book. It’s wild, sometimes raw, sexual, solitary. A literary gem. A feminist classic. Gail and I reconnected to discuss her novel, which is being reissued by Coach House in October. Our conversation, which took place over email, is below.

MELISSA BULL: Heroine was first published by Coach House in 1987. The book is set in October 1980, ten years after the October Crisis, and right around the time of Quebec’s first referendum. It’s about far-left politics, open relationships, independence of self, of state. It’s about the people who move your heroine, the people she is close to, and also about the regulars at the bagel shop, the strangers she strolls past regularly, who together make up the landscape of her Montreal. I’m not sure that I’ve read such an English-language insider’s view into Quebec politics in a novel. 

Your heroine, G.S., while considered an Anglo by her French-language peers, is deeply ingrained into Québécois culture. She sides with the intelligentsia, the militants, the sovereignists, and she has a solid grasp of what’s at stake at that period in Québécois culture. And yet her dual citizenship means that she is both drawn to this world, living among it and also reporting back to her readers as an outsider. I imagine that many of the conversations that occur in this book have been translated for our benefit, that they are occurring in French. I find this insider-outsider perspective into French-language politics and culture exciting (no doubt in part because it mirrors my own experience and identity). Why does your character lean into Québécois culture and politics the way she does? 

GAIL SCOTT: As my basically Anglo heroine puts it: Haïe par l’histoire, mais aimée par quelques amies. As a child I moved a lot, so felt outside of regular kid groups. But at the age of eight I moved to a half-French village southeast of Ottawa where my best friend and first crush was a Francophone woman. My early left politics, coupled with what Franco Ontarians were going through to maintain their culture—meant that in the Quebec context, I did my best to live in French as much as possible. Still, I was an Anglo journalist at the Gazette during the October Crisis, and was sometimes asked by unilingual reporters to help out with interviews, such as a phone call to Pauline Julien’s kids while their mother was in prison. It horrified me during The War Measures’ Act that walking on the mountain, one encountered soldiers crouching behind trees, guns cocked. My views hardened in the opposite direction of most of my Anglo colleagues—against the Act. 

As far as writing, your comment that I was both in that world and reporting back to readers as an outsider is right on. It would have been possible from my positioning to totally exoticize the Francophone scene for sale to the English-speaking continent. When I started writing Heroine, I made a conscious choice to not write anything that would cause me to feel a sham vis-à-vis either the Francophone nor Anglo communities, inside or outside of Québec. This meant being clear re: d’où j’écrivais, socially, politically—and psychologically.

MB: You have been a founding editor of such publications as Spirale, The Last Post, Des luttes et des rires de femmes, and Tessera. You’ve taught journalism and creative writing both at Concordia and at the Université de Montréal. How did you come to be as involved as you have been in both French and English culture in Quebec? When did you arrive in Montréal? What drew you here? What was your relationship to French and to Quebec before you arrived? Why is this home?

GS: I arrived in Montréal to work as a journalist, but my lust for this city started on school trips; my town was only 90 miles from Montréal. I loved the style, the colour, the animation here and I promised my pubescent self that when I grew up, I would live in Montréal. My aim was to be a writer of fiction, but my modest background meant that I needed a job. Journalism, by the way, taught me a lot about writing. Covering the early Independence movement added to my sense that the Québécois had every reason to be pissed off; the radicalism of the era thrilled me. 

In my off-hours I sought out literary events. I remember going to a poetry reading at Concordia and finding the Anglo writers I ran into rather conventional artistically. That sent me scurrying towards the French literary scene. I knew it was fabulous, even if I also knew my best writing would be in my mother tongue. As a journalist I’d interviewed Hubert Aquin and covered les Nuits de la poésie, all-night poetry readings to celebrate the French language—and covertly, in resistance to the War Measures’ Act. One thing leads to another, especially when you’re young. My left sympathies led me to know feminists who felt that if language was a political issue for Francophones, it was also an issue for women writers whose take on life and cultural institutions had been for so long oppressed. One of the women invited me to cofound, with a group of modernist Francophone writers the cultural journal Spirale. Later, my desire to discuss matters of art and writing with women across Canada led me to participate in the co-founding of the bilingual journal Tessera.

MB: While considered an important genre in French-language literature, autofiction is something relatively new in English, and it was especially so in 1987. Would it be fair to characterize this novel as autofiction? What drew you to this form?

GS: I don’t like the word “autofiction,” for it can imply a quite singular “me-me” approach to writing. The Gail in Heroine is a construction, seen from constantly changing angles. There is a wry acknowledgement that she, a jealous lover, is failing to live up to the demands of non-monogamy—which is the baseline in her head for the relation between the personal and political. The melodrama of her besotted person is constantly confronted with the socio-political demands of the moment, the plot twirling round and round like the beautiful stoned young woman in one of the bars she frequents. I saw Heroine as what we called un récit; the affect is framed by the struggle to form new social relationships as women and between women. If there are a lot of attempts at theorizing everyday life, her constant and often humorous self-critical take on her own melodrama avoids totalizing postures or preaching.

MB: You describe in this novel the negotiation of what it is to be a woman who wants to write, a woman in relationships—romantic or otherwise—with men, whose work and ideals often take the fore. You describe your character’s desire to nurture but also her need to feel equal to her peers and her wish to follow her own mind, her own ideas, as well. I can’t help but see how this desire to be an actualized person who writes (and not simply a partner’s cheerleader) as being closely related to the project of autofiction. And that putting oneself on the page, particularly for a woman, is a radical act. I think it is the case for your character, G.S. What do you think? 

GS: Yes, putting oneself on the page can be a radically integral act—or it can descend into conventional individualism. A current example of the former is the gorgeous writing we see coming from First Nations communities. It interests me that people in marginalized and/or situations of struggle know spontaneously to put their stories down as part of a collective, know to treat language as interactive, as shared in the making, know they are fighting against the violent obstruction of their historical memory. To some extent this was and remains true as well for women in relation to all manner of expression. To write G.S. as I saw her, a woman on the line between interior/exterior—devices were required. The novel strangely mirrors work of queer New Narrative writers that I would come upon a little later. And who parade their figures as camp, performing in language lifted from everywhere, popular culture, fashion, porn, theory, etc.  all the while more or less spilling their guts on the page. My heroine is performing G.S., every phrase being, hopefully, full of the moment she lives in. Using my own name for the narrator forced me to—as we used to say then—say it like it is.

MB: In an interview published on Lemon Hound, you said: “I like to think of each sentence—as much as possible—as a performative unit. A call.” I very much feel this in the language of Heroine. There is an attention to sound, movement, smells, exchanges. Time lapses, spreads, returns. I remember taking a writing workshop with you at the Université de Montréal where you would dispatch us out to write exactly, word for word, the actual things we heard, including conversation fragments, music, and ambient noises. What interests you here? Is it the idea of pushing past clichés? Creating a sense of presence, of nowness? Of newness?

GS: I’m not ultra-interested in forging a story where one event leads to another. I’m not interested in normal dialogue either as a means to advance a tale. My intent involves bringing the depths of language up to the surface as they are experienced in everyday life and directing it all like a conductor. It is about reconnoitring tones and shades lost or risking being lost. For me putting together a work of fiction is about texture as much as it is about event. I thought Renee Gladman’s The Event Factory was a perfect title for a novel, inasmuch as it implies the work is put together from all the elements available.

MB: There is an image of a classic clawfoot bathtub on both the 1987 cover and the 2019 cover. Your heroine enjoys a soak. Bathtub as womb, bathtub as source, bathtub as erotic? Narcissus, reflection, creation? There’s power in that tub. Did you pick the pictures on the covers? If so, why was this the motif you wanted to showcase?

GS: Well, she’s masturbating; she hopes that will help her plumb—pun intended—the creative depths in a non-restrictive way. I think she knows she is bordering on cliché in her notion of writing. I wanted to keep the bathtub. I’ve been so blessed in my covers; the first, by the artist Cheryl Sourkes had a similar tub and a kind of punk ambience that I loved. This one by Zab, the cover designer, has many subtexts, the suggestive pink, the fancy baroque plumbing fixtures and the lettering, which conjures for me blinking signs over east-end bars.

MB: What does it mean to have this book reissued?

GS: I’m thrilled; it couldn’t come out at a better moment. So many of the issues are back again albeit of course articulated quite differently, be it social mores, the environment. And more forcefully, race. But white privilege is still pretty dumb and that’s a job we’re not attending to, notably as concerns, in Canada, our genocidal practices on First Nations. We can’t say it’s fixed when we’re stealing children, land and resources. That’s missing for me; that and the issue of class.

MB: How do you think your heroine would experience Montreal these days?

GS: Gentrified? Less misery for large chunks of the population. Also, less free-wheeling. We still put a premium on pleasure, however.

Gail Scott is an experimental novelist. The Obituary (New York, Nightboat, 2012; Coach House, 2010), a ghost story set in a Montréal triplex, was a 2011 finalist for Le Grand Prix du Livre de la Ville de Montréal. Other novels include My Paris (Dalkey Archive), about a sad diarist in conversation with Gertrude Stein and Walter Benjamin in late 20th century Paris, Main Brides and HeroineSpare Parts Plus 2 is a collection of stories and manifestoes. Essays are collected in Spaces Like Stairs and la théorie, un dimanche (translated as Sunday Theory from Belladonna, NY, 2013). Scott's translation of Michael Delisle's Le désarroi du matelot was shortlisted for the Governor General's award in 2001. Scott co-founded the critical French-language journal Spirale (Montréal) and is co-editor of the New Narrative anthology: Biting the Error: Writers Explore Narrative (Toronto: Coach House, 2004). She is currently completing a memoir based in Lower Manhattan during the early Obama years.

Melissa Bull is a writer and editor, as well as a French-to-English translator of fiction, essays, and plays. Melissa is the editor of Maisonneuve's "Writing from Quebec" column. Her fiction, nonfiction, interviews, translations, and poetry have also appeared in such projects as Event, Nouveau Projet, Joyland, NewPoetry, SubTerrain, Lemon HoundUrbaniaThe Puritan, and Prism International. She is the author of a collection of poetry, Rue (2015), and a collection of fiction, The Knockoff Eclipse (2018). She is the translator of Pascale Rafie’s play, The Baklawa Recipe (2018), Nelly Arcan's collection Burqa of Skin (2014), and her translation of Marie-Sissi Labrèche's novel, Borderline, is forthcoming (2019). Melissa lives in Montreal.