Emily St John Mandel :: Last night in Montreal (VO)

Could you tell us about your childhood and about how you started writing novels ?
I grew up on the west coast of British Columbia, Canada. For the greater part of my childhood I lived on Denman Island, which is approximately the same size and shape as the island of Manhattan, but with a population of 1000. It’s between Vancouver Island and the mainland, and too small for most maps. I was homeschooled as a child, and one of the requirements of the curriculum my mother designed was that I had to write something every day, a poem or a short story, so writing has been a part of my life from a very early age. There was a point in my early twenties when I gradually began to take the writing more seriously, and then began to think of it as a potential career. I started writing Last Night in Montreal when I was living in Montreal at the age of 23, and finished it about three years later in New York.

How did you make your researches for Last night in Montreal ?
It was mostly a matter of internet research. My interest in dead and endangered languages was sparked by an article by the linguist Michael Krauss that appeared in a magazine about a decade ago. I spent a lot of time reading linguists’ blogs and forums online to learn more.

The way i see it, the three mais characters are Lilia, Michaela and Eli. Could you describe them for the people reading the interview who haven’t read the novel yet ?
Certainly. Lilia is a woman who travels compulsively. She was abducted as a child by her non-custodial parent; her father kept her moving constantly across the United States, always a few steps ahead of the law, and in adulthood, even with the threat of discovery long since passed, she finds it impossible to stop moving. She moves restlessly from city to city, working odd jobs and living in cheap apartment shares, unable to settle down. Michaela is the daughter of the private detective who is hired by Lilia’s mother and gradually becomes obsessed with the case. Eli is Lilia’s boyfriend in New York; when she leaves him, as she’s left everyone, he feels that the only honourable course of action is to follow her and make sure she’s okay.

The abduction of a child by one of their two parents is apparently a topic that really touched you , isn’t it ? One can feel it reading the novel.
I’ve always been interested in the idea of people doing questionable or even criminal things for what they perceive to be honourable reasons. The abduction of a child is a terrible act, but it was interesting to imagine a character who might do such a thing out of love.

You show us a very dark aspect of Montreal. Tell us about  your vision of the town.
I’ve received a certain amount of criticism for my depiction of Montreal in this book (mostly, rather predictably, from francophone Montrealers), but the truth is that the city in this book is the city I experienced. I embellished nothing.  If anything, the city in the book is a gentler city than the one I encountered when I moved there in my early twenties. I was naive, and thought I was moving to a bilingual city where I’d be able to get by speaking English. When I arrived, I had never studied French in my life and had heard it spoken in passing only a few times. French is of course one of the two official languages of Canada, but I was raised four thousand kilometres west of Quebec, in a part of the country where very few French people live.

I don’t wish to generalize about the francophones whom I met in Montreal; I met some truly wonderful people. But the anti-English hostility was deeply unsettling, and I decided after a few months that I could never be happy there and began making plans to leave. So my initial experience of Montreal was quite dark, but I’ve visited a few times over the past several years and have found it to be a very pleasant place to visit. The writer Edmund Wison once wrote that no two readers ever read the same book. I think it can be interesting to apply this idea to the geography of experience: I think that no two people ever live in the same city. The city in Last Night in Montreal is the city that I lived in. If I’d spoken French, it would have been a different place.

You mention laws forbidding to speak English in the shops of Montreal, could you tell us more about these laws ?
They are laws that specifically restrict the use of English in business and in education. At the time I lived there it was illegal for English to appear first on a sign, for example; if English appeared on a sign at all, it had to appear after the French, and in smaller letters. Businesses of a certain size had to conduct their affairs in French. If a customer felt that a business was insufficiently French (if a salesgirl in a shop greeted them with a hello instead of a bonjour, for instance, or if a restaurant menu was in English), they could phone in a complaint to a toll-free number, and investigators could be dispatched to examine the situation. Businesses could be fined and even lose their business licenses.

I understand why the laws exist. I know that at the time the laws were enacted the francophones of Quebec felt that their language and culture were threatened, and with just cause: they had only to look south to the American state of Louisiana, where French has faded out in a sea of English. I would suggest, however, that the language laws have come at a cost. The laws amount to state-sanctioned xenophobia, and moreover, they alienate Quebec anglophones who might otherwise adopt the French language: there is no greater disincentive to embracing a different language and culture than being forced to do so by an intolerant regime.

Do you have an anecdote about Last night in Montreal ?
Much of the first draft was written in the middle of the night in the Cafe Depot on St. Lawrence Boulevard in Montreal. I don’t know if that cafe’s still open, but it was my favourite place to go when I lived in the neighborhood. I lived in Montreal in the wintertime, and the cold was incredible. My roommates and I couldn’t afford to turn the heat up very high in our apartment, so I used to sometimes go to bed at seven p.m. just to be warm. I would wake at two in the morning, put on my best clothes, and walk to the cafe a few blocks away. I sometimes stayed there writing until morning.

What are your writing habits ? (in the evening, the morning, in an office, on a desk…)
Like most American writers of my acquaintance, I have a day job. I’m employed as a part-time administrative assistant at a university in New York City. The hours are flexible, so sometimes I write at home in the mornings and then go to my job in the afternoons, or sometimes I go to my job first and then write for the second half of the day, and I always write full-time on weekends. I prefer to write in my home office whenever possible, but I also write on the metro traveling to and from my job.

The concierge is curious ! What are your next litterary plans ? Could you tease our curiosity ?
Thank you for asking! I’m working on my fourth novel. It’s as yet untitled and still a bit of a mess. But my second and third novels are being translated, and will be published en français in the next two years: The Singer’s Gun will come out in French in 2013, The Lola Quartet in 2014. I’m afraid I have no idea what the French titles will be. The Singer’s Gun is about a man who sells fake passports to undocumented immigrants in New York City, and The Lola Quartet is about a disgraced journalist.

Who are your favourite writers ?
I have so many. I love Roberto Bolano; his novel 2666 is one of my favourite books of all time. I also love Jennifer Egan, JD Salinger, Norman Mailer, John Updike, Irmgard Keun, and Irene Nemirovsky.

What topic in the international news makes you angry ? Which makes you laugh ?
The recent murder of the American ambassador to Libya made me angry. It was a senseless and reprehensible crime. I have to admit that I haven’t come across an international news story that’s made me laugh in a while.

What is the situation of thriller litterature in Canada , compared to the USA ? What  is the difference ?
To tell you the truth, I don’t feel that I know very much about thrillers. I’ve always tried to write literary fiction, but with the strongest possible narrative drive, and an unexpected side effect has been that my work is sometimes categorized as a thriller or as crime fiction.

What is your favourite style of music ? Your favourite song ?
My musical tastes are fairly eclectic. I listen to a lot of ambient electronica while I’m writing, mostly Underworld. I love Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, and Andrew Bird. I also love the work of the modern classical composer Max Richter, especially the soundtrack he composed for the film Waltz with Bashir.

What is your favourite movie ?
I have a great many. If I had to pick just one, I believe it would be The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, directed by Julian Schnabel.

What are your passions and hobbies ?
My main hobby these past few months has been studying French. I’ve been engaged in touring and other promotional work for my third novel, The Lola Quartet, which was just published in Canada and the United States, so it’s been hard for me to take lessons recently, but I took some classes at the Alliance Francaise in New York City in the early summer, and am hoping to resume in October or November. I’m sorry to report that my French is still terrible, but I love studying it and hope someday to be fluent. I also love photography. I’m on a book tour in the United States this week and it’s been a tremendous pleasure to take pictures of all these new cities I’ve passed through.

What will your final word for our french readers be ?
I’m honoured to be translated into your beautiful language. I hope you enjoy my work.