Emma Hooper explores the unpredictable, unreliable nature of memory in her accomplished debut novel.
Etta is eighty-two and has never seen the ocean. So early one morning, she sets off on foot to do just that, a journey that will take her thousands of kilometres from her farm in Saskatchewan. She leaves behind husband, Otto, who burrows in, determined to wait for Etta’s return, and dear friend, Russell, who, furious at Otto, sets off after her.
As Etta walks, confusion sets in: She increasingly forgets not only who she is, but where she has come from. Her memories of her childhood, early days as a teacher and marriage are rapidly becoming mixed up with Otto’s own remembrances of his time as a soldier. But on Etta treks, intent on reaching her final destination.
Emma Hooper’s own childhood memories revolve around time spent visiting her grandparents in Saskatchewan. Her novel was inspired in part by them and time spent wandering through the vast open landscapes near their home — “Like walking, I would sort of set off each day and see where the story took me.”
Hooper makes her living as a musician. She teaches at the University of Bath and also performs in a quartet and solo. She talked to me about how music — such an integral part of her life — has shaped her writing, the importance of rhythm and space and those early influences of family and geography on her work. What comes across most from Hooper is a certain verve and swing, a sense of excitement and joy. About writing, music and life.
How did you start writing and why a novel now?
I’m lucky enough to come from a creative and encouraging household, where things like writing, making music, drawing, putting on weird little homespun operas, were fairly normal occurrences. My very first “published” piece was a short story called “Dancer the Littlest Reindeer” that I wrote when I was six that won a CBC story contest. I turned to novel writing (much, much later) because of the alluring potential of the form. It's so big, that you can do all sorts of things with form and structure and point of view that you'd struggle to fit into a shorter form. Like Etta’s, I suppose, it’s a long journey that you get to take the reader on, and, on a journey that long, anything can happen.
Your heroine is an 82-year old woman. What was the inspiration for the character of Etta and, in fact, the whole story?
The characters of Etta and Otto are both loosely based on my maternal grandparents. Like Etta and Otto, they lived in rural Saskatchewan, where my grandmother taught in a tiny school and my grandfather did come from a farm family of 15 kids. Of course, the majority of the book is pure fiction (for example the talking coyote), but the inspiration came this place I would visit so often while growing up, whose openness and vastness seemed impossibly magic and under-explored. As for the story, I’ve always loved walking and the idea of taking the longest, slowest way to get somewhere. I didn’t have much else but that, the vague idea of these characters and that Etta was going to walk to the ocean, when I sat down to write. Like walking, I would sort of set off each day and see where to story took me next.
Did you always plan to have a love triangle?
Not really. I always planned to have these characters, but a lot of their personalities grew up and out as I was writing them. So it was a very exciting moment for me, writing, when I discovered that Russell was in love with Etta. My brain went, Ah! Of course he is! Oh, poor Russell! This whole new path opened up for me to adventure down. Writing characters is kind of like spending time with good old friends in that way—you have a pretty good idea of what they're going to say and do, but sometimes they can still surprise you.
The characters’ difficult lives are bound up in the book’s themes of love, loss and longing, memories and dreams, aren’t they?
Yes, the trials in the characters’ lives are definitely all linked into the themes of longing and connection and love, but it should be noted, too, that there is a balance of joy and self-fulfillment for each character too, tying into these same themes. There is dancing and family and creating and, with all this, the idea, I suppose, that catharsis comes in many forms in their (and our?) lives, big things and small things, sad things and happy.
Etta is a very unreliable narrator.
She is and she isn’t. The things she is describing and experiencing are certainly not actually happening there and then; however, everything she experiences has happened somewhere, to someone, most often Otto, in his youth. Likewise, it is arguable whether or not James, or the fish skulls, are actually speaking, but she is actually hearing them. The push and pull of the real and potentially not-real, of her past and the present, is a key theme to the book, I think, tying in with the idea of the long loop of existence. Everything fits in somewhere, has its proper place some where in the long loop.
Do you worry it will be as difficult at times for the reader to discern what is real and what isn’t as it is for Etta?
I wouldn’t say I worry so much as I kind of hope, a little, that the reader gets a bit lost with Etta. It’s a delicate balance. I want them to get the sense of unsure footing that Etta’s experiencing, but at the same time not become so frustrated that they put down the book! Just as Etta needs enough confusion to spur her on in her journey as an act of self-assertion, but not so much that she loses herself completely and can’t go on.
Etta struggles to maintain a sense of who she is but she always knows where she’s going, doesn’t she?
She almost always does, yes. Her journey mirrors Otto’s, from decades before and, as such, she is able to keep on track even when she’s losing herself to his memories. This is also why she embarks on the journey in the first place; she needs to rewrite the journey, the memory, for herself. That said, she does almost lose her momentum and her self completely with Bryony, if not for James’s return to spur her forwards. In that way, James is something of an embodiment of Etta’s persistent, solid self.
Who was easiest to write and who was most difficult?
Each character helped me write the others, really. They were, for me, the reality of the old saying “a change is a good as a rest.” I love all my characters a lot, but, like with real people, you can get a bit stir-crazy if you spend all your time with the same one. It was great to be able to write Otto until I became fed up with him or bored or hit a wall, and then move on and write Etta for a while, then Russell, then back to Otto again. It kept me going!
How did the idea for the papier-mâché animals come about?
The answer to this is two-fold. First, this came from a desire to have Otto undertake a (metaphorical) journey at the same time as Etta was on hers. I wanted their traditional roles to swap, so that while Etta was out adventuring and travelling, Otto would stay home and be a creator, even maternal. This takes place both through his baking and the papier-mâché (and of course through Oats the Guinea pig, too). Second, in Grade 8, I made a life-sized papier-mâché dolphin for a science fair, normal on one side and with internal organs displayed on the other, and won the fair. So, I think there might have been a bit of positive reinforcement re: papier-mâché going on there. I still have my medallion somewhere.
Has music influenced your writing? Did you feel this novel formed a four-part harmony of sorts?
If this were a song or score, what would it be?
I happen to be putting together a playlist for the book for an American article right now. I’m finding it breaks down into four main sections: songs and tunes from the 1940s, with that sort of wartime feel to them (“Sing, Sing, Sing,” The Andrews Sisters, “I'll Be Seeing You”); country/Canadiana, with the feel of the the wide open prairie (“The Tennessee Waltz,” k.d. lang, “Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie”); the music I listened to on repeat while writing the book, which was mainly Owen Pallett’s “Heartland”; and, finally, the soundtrack of my own life at the time, that is, the music I was learning, performing and writing (amazing UK acts including Nuala Honan, Cajita, and Duotone, and, of course, my own project, Waitress for the Bees).
What are you working on now?
Writing-wise, I’m now knee-deep into a new book set on a tiny island off Newfoundland. I’m pretty in love with it. There are mermaids. Rest of life–wise, I’ve got an academic project on the go for my university work looking at gender roles in popular music, and I’m very, very close to releasing a new album with Waitress for the Bees. In fact, by the time this article runs, I bet it will be out — hurrah!
What are your favourite books/authors?
So many! I suppose a selective list would include Jonathan Safran Foer and Karen Russell as two contemporaries doing wonderful, whimsical stuff that I admire. An Italian author called Alessandro Baricco whose book Ocean Sea inspired me a great deal when I first read it about 15 years ago. It was the first book I’d come across where the prose was treated as carefully and sparely as poetry. I actually keep a copy of this book on my desk and dip in whenever I need to get a sense of tone and pace and space.
What was it like performing with Peter Gabriel?
Performing with Peter Gabriel at WOMAD was very, very fun and medium scary. I had this one note solo that I was terrified I’d mess up, there in front of 30,000 people, this one B-flat. So that was scary, but mostly just quite nice. Peter and his crew are from right around here, so I would ride my bike to rehearsals and we'd all have tea.
What’s been your oddest musical experience?
I played in a music video for a Toni Braxton-Il Divo collaboration once where we weren’t actually allowed to play. We had to mime, in slow motion, while walking across a freezing soccer stadium in horrible, precarious heels.