At the Centre of Something Very Big: An Interview with Rosemary Sullivan

POSTED: February 15th, 2016

Rosemary Sullivan was born in Valois, just outside of Montréal. She is the author of 14 books, including The Garden Master: The Poetry of Theodore Roethke (1975), By Heart: Elizabeth Smart/A Life (1991), Shadow Maker: The Life of Gwendolyn MacEwen (1995), which won the Governor General’s Award for Non-fiction, The Red Shoes: Margaret Atwood Starting Out (1998), Labyrinth of Desire: Women, Passion, and Romantic Obsession (2001), and Villa Air-Bel: World War II, Escape, and a House in Marseilles (2006). Her poetry includes The Space a Name Makes (1986), Blue Panic (1991), and The Bone Ladder: New and Selected Poems (2000). She was the founding director of the University of Toronto’s MA in the Field of Creative Writing Program. In 2012 she became an Officer of the Order of Canada for her contribution to Canadian Arts and Culture. Her latest biography, Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva, won the 2015 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Non-fiction and has been shortlisted for the 2016 RBC Taylor Prize.

This conversation took place at Rosemary’s home in Toronto near to the end of February, 2015.


Nicholas Herring: What drew you to poetry?

Rosemary Sullivan: That’s what I wrote first.

NH: Were you writing at a young age? Did your parents encourage you?

RS: No, I came out of a lovely, Irish family in which there was neither art nor literature nor music; though, mum would take us to the library when we were kids. She was a very lovely mum. She’d finished her high school, and she always remembered Macbeth because that was the play they did. My dad left school at thirteen.

The rule they gave me was this: anything you want to do, you can do. And there were no directives. It wasn’t, “You have to do this; you have to do that.” So, when I got to university, it felt like I’d died and gone to heaven. I should say that I was discouraged early by somebody who was actually quite competitive about writing. And then in my mid-twenties I met this wonderful poet, Jeni Couzyn. She was a writer-in-residence at the University of Victoria. I had already met P.K. Page. And suddenly, Jeni was encouraging me to write, and she said, “You know, you have to love your poems; even if you think that they’re mangy cats, you still love them.” And she would say things like, “You’ve taken this poem as far as it can go right now.” P.K. even published a couple of my poems. So, yes, I started out as a poet. You know, I’ve always thought that poetry moves in vertical-time. Narrative moves horizontally, but the poem has to be a kind of sudden gestalt. Poems are very hard to write.

NH: What was The Space a Name Makes, your first published volume of poetry, trying to tackle?

RS: Not so felicitous a title, but I had this conception that you’re born, like a little dot in the universe, and you have to keep moving the boundaries out until you create a space, fill that name you’ve been given. So, you have to become “Rosemary Sullivan,” and the circles have to push and push and push until you find your space in the world.

NH: How much, growing up, would you say you struggled with being “Rosemary Sullivan”?  

RS: It was hard to be “Rosemary Sullivan” in this large, Irish family of five children, financially-challenged, but not poor. I paid my own way to university. When I told my father I was going to university, he got the principal of the boys’ school to say to me, “Rosemary, you don’t need to go to a university. It’s wasted on a woman.” And I said, “I’m going.” I got a few scholarships; one from the Rotarians, a scholarship from McGill University. I never depended on anything financial from my parents. When I got my degree, my father rethought it all, and decided that the great achievement of his life was that his five children had university degrees.

NH: Did you feel a great deal of pressure at university to do well and to prove your father wrong?

RS: Not at all. I was there, and it was thrilling. You know, I had a decent brain. I took a course in economics and the professor used to tell all the guys in the class, “Look, this girl can do it. Why can’t you?” I took mathematics, and ended up falling in love with literature.

[pullquote]“ … I had this conception that you’re born, like a little dot in the universe, and you have to keep moving the boundaries out until you create a space, fill that name you’ve been given.”[/pullquote]

I had a very weird brain for those days. When I did my exam for first-year literature, there were five questions; I answered three—if I’d had to have answered four, I couldn’t have. I still remember to this day that they wanted an analysis of Shakespeare’s songs in his plays—I didn’t pay attention to the songs! But the three I did answer, I could give them the page the quotation was on that I was using. I had studied so much that the night before the exam I couldn’t study any more. I just laid down and I was listening to Beethoven—not really ever being introduced to classical music—and I had this out-of-body experience rising from the couch, elevated in the air with the excitement of the music, and it was just because I was so revved up. University was the place I wanted to be. I didn’t have any obligations to anybody. It wasn’t about the rest of the family. Whatever they wanted to do was their business. My father was always very proud of me. My mum told me that my father believed that anything I wanted to do, I could do. I mean, I had his total support.

NH: That’s a pretty tremendous thing.

RS: It was a tremendous thing, especially for a girl.

NH: When you were an undergraduate, or, perhaps even before, what were the books that made you feel like you were finding your tribe?

RS: In the library, when I was a kid, I was reading ordinary stuff like Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys and I’d only ever pick up the occasional classic. When I got to university, the book that really blew me away was Leonard Cohen’s The Favourite Game because it was Montréal. Suddenly this absurd theatre you’d go to, the System Theatre that was full of lechers and people getting in out of the cold, was in a book! Mount Royal was in a book! It was your landscape in a book. Remember, I was in university from ’64 to ’68, and that was the period when, if you were Canadian and you wanted to make a name for yourself, you set your novel in London or New York—you certainly didn’t set it in Montréal. It was wonderful to see.

NH: How did the University of Toronto enter the picture?

RS: I had been teaching for three years at the University of Victoria, my first position in Canada after two years teaching in universities in France. My application to U of T really had to do with my feeling that—Victoria was so beautiful, but, in those days, there seemed to be no politics—you could get in a canoe and paddle off for a little while. Keep in mind, I’m from Quebec!—it just wasn’t exciting enough for me. How power functions in the world fascinates me, and so I wanted to be nearer to the centre of these systems. I applied, and because I really didn’t care whether or not I got the position, I got a job at Erindale (College, now University of Toronto Mississauga). It was great to be at the suburban campus; there was little administration and you got to do what you wanted to do. It was great because nobody really cared, and so, you got to do what you wanted to do. I moved downtown in 1991. My deal when I came to U of T was that I would teach a year and then take a year off. I had a Canada Council grant to go to Europe and I went to England determined to turn myself into a writer.

NH: When I was reading Labyrinth of Desire I had a sense that you were not only attracted to a certain kind of Latin American writer, but also paying homage to, if not Borges outright, then a group of writers; is this accurate? Were you writing so as to place yourself within a context more capable of bridging cultural divides?

RS: I came back to Canada at just the moment that witnessed a rise in national passion. That would have been 1974, and by that time, Margaret Atwood had been up to wonderful things, especially with The Edible Woman (1968), and Surfacing (1972) hitting the culture. There were ways in which, if you taught at university, even as an academic, you could meet the writers, and you were in the same game: you were trying to create Canadian culture; or, create a Canadian identity. I remember this conference we went to, which was called “Crossing Frontiers.” It was at Banff, and they had writers and academics and historians from the United States and Canada. You had Americans like Leslie Fiedler, who had written Love and Death in the American Novel (1960), and he started off by saying that the Canadians had invented the myth of the west, that it was the voyageurs who truly performed the endeavour of nation building, and we said, “Take your myth—we have a different story!”

It was really very exciting. You really felt you were laying down something. Dave Godfrey and Dennis Lee and Margaret Atwood had all kind of decided that since the publishing industry was all Americanized, let’s take over the universities.

[pullquote]“I had time to evolve this notion that in the continental house, the Americans were the main floor, the Canadians were the attic … and you buried the bodies in the basement, in Mexico.”[/pullquote]

We were all about creating space for Canadian literature and Canadian universities. I had a politics from the beginning, and whether that comes from being Irish—and I think it does; I mean, I could have gone to Cambridge or Oxford, but I had a chip on my shoulder: “I’m not doing that”—going to the working-class Sussex, where Virginia Woolf was a god, was my way of sticking it to the empire. But in Canada I had time to evolve this notion that in the continental house, the Americans were the main floor, and the Canadians were the attic—and you put in the attic what you don’t care about, but you know it’s always there so you can retrieve what you like, when you like—and you buried the bodies in the basement, in Mexico. So, for me, the ties were always Canada and Latin America, and the question, again, as I saw it, was this: how do we make these ties real?

I went to Latin America for the first time in 1979, before I’d met Juan [Opitz]. I went to Guatemala and Peru and to Mexico, and I just loved the cultures. It was the culture that drew me at the same time as the literature; it wasn’t the literature that came first. I was reading the first English translation of Octavio Paz’s The Labyrinth of Solitude (1962); so, my own Labyrinth of Desire may or may not contain an echo. In Solitude, Paz asks what it means to be Mexican—“we have no writers; we have no identity.” I was thinking, “Yes, but I know who Mexicans are.” The question is a very Canadian question, so there must be a correlation between an imperial project that denies and suppresses native cultures so that it takes a long while to assert your identity. In fact, what fascinated me as much as anything was the pan-cultural movement in Latin America that went from Chile and Argentina up to Central America. People think of García Márquez as a fiction writer, but he was a journalist, and One Hundred Years of Solitude is rooted in the politically tragic history of Colombia, turned into something else, turned into a myth. My passion for Latin America had to do with cultural identity. When I went to Chile the first time, I thought, “My god, this is a mirror image of Canada. The southern cone, Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay—who, in my estimation are the Canadians of Latin America because they watch and reflect—looks so much like Canada.

NH: Where were you with your writing career?

RS: At this time I was taking myself very seriously as a writer. I couldn’t find a way in to British culture—it was such a closed society. I only made a couple of friends, one Scottish, one Australian. I just found the British so closed. I would later revise my opinion of the British, but at the time, I simply had no way in. I had no job. I was just floating around. I knew I had to do something, and I saw this sign that said “Aeroflot: Fly to the Soviet Union.” I thought, “Okay.”

NH: You’re kidding me! You just did it?

RS: I bought a ticket alone and took a trip to the Soviet Union. I had a friend from Dijon, his ex-wife was an anchor on the BBC, so she put me in touch with the BBC reporter in Moscow. I met him and some dissidents in Moscow.

NH: I imagine this trip must have made you acutely aware about the issue of free speech, not only under communism, but throughout the world.

RS: I must have written Josef Škvoreckỳ and said, “Look, I’ve seen Soviet communism, I need to see something else.” He said, go to Czechoslovakia, and so I went there by myself. I was on the train, carrying some dissident literature—just stuff that I was reading—and I suddenly realized that we’d crossed the border and I might have to get rid of the stuff. I didn’t know if I should put it down the toilet—I think I finally just left it in the seat. I got there on a Sunday afternoon and I didn’t even have Czech money. I’d expected a money exchange at the station but there was no kiosk. Nobody was at the station, anyway. I put my German marks into the telephone, which worked, and phoned the number that Josef had given me. He had told me to never use his name, but just to say that I was from Toronto and in need of a place to stay. I got into a taxi that had Canadian hockey paraphernalia in it, and even though the driver didn’t speak much English, he kept saying, “Jack London, yes?” This was ’79 and people didn’t visit Prague too often, so I was definitely an object of curiosity: I mean, a young man knelt before me in the street and I wondered if I was dressed inappropriately. I had this wonderful moment walking by Prague Castle and these university students were down in the sand of a nearby construction site building a replica of the Castle and they called up to me.

[pullquote]“One of the students spoke French so we ended up talking. I asked him if he knew of Josef Škvoreckỳ, and he said that he did, but that Josef Škvoreckỳ didn’t exist.”[/pullquote]

I told them I didn’t speak Czech, and they replied, “Play.” So, I got down and I helped them build the Castle and people walking by began throwing money into the Castle moat, and we collected the money and went and had drinks. One of the students spoke French so we ended up talking. I asked him if he knew of Josef Škvoreckỳ, and he said that he did, but that Josef Škvoreckỳ didn’t exist.

When I got back to Canada I joined Amnesty International, and in 1982 I put together a conference called The Writer and Human Rights in aid of Amnesty International, and we had, I think, 60 writers from 30 different countries. We wrote everybody: Doris Lessing, Nadine Gordimer, Eduardo Galeano; and most of them said, “Yes, we will come.”

NH: Did Galeano come?

RS: Galeano came, and when I met him, I thought, “Yeah, this is why I’m doing this.” I’d read Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent and Days and Nights of Love and War. And we became friends, actually. When he came back to Toronto on another occasion, I met him in Québec and took him through the Château Ramezay, and that’s why, I have to say, in Memories of Fire, this is why we get Québécois material. He was fabulous.

NH: How was it that you came to biographies?

RS: I joined This Magazine because the guys I admired among Canadian journalists were Rick Salutin and Ian Adams. I came to be on the editorial board, and we’d sit around and discuss every article, whether we took it or not, and how it would be edited, and then the women at the magazine said, “Hey, we need a column for women.” We decided to call it “Female Complaints.” I wrote the first column for “Female Complaints,” and it was about Elizabeth Smart—she had just died. It was called “Muse in a Female Ghetto: A Portrait of Elizabeth Smart.” I remember Rick said that it was a piece of crap.

NH: That piece won an award, right?

RS: Yes, it won a National Magazine Award! And then an editor from Penguin, who had been involved at the Writer and Human Rights congress, Catherine Yolles, said to me, “Would you like to write a biography of Elizabeth Smart?” I thought, well, if someone is going to write a biography, it might as well be me. I had already met her in 1979—I’d gone to England to see how she had survived romantic obsession. So, I said, “Yes.” And they said, “We’ll give you $5,000.” I said, “That’s not going to be enough.” Then they said, “We’ll ask somebody else.” I said, “$5,000 is perfect.”

During the writing of By Heart: Elizabeth Smart/A Life, I discovered that I loved biography. I loved that conflation of the personal and the public. Let me add that when I wrote about Elizabeth Smart it was the first time I had to contact the CIA. It turns out you can ask for files on anybody, so long as they’re dead. So, I wrote for the file on Smart, and the CIA replied, saying that it “couldn’t be released in the interests of national security.” To think, Elizabeth Smart!

NH: Listening to you recount your exploits, if I can use that word, where on earth does all this energy come from? Where does this fire come from and how do you maintain it?

RS: I think the most important thing is that it’s not a pattern, you know? It’s not a plan—what comes up, I take. So, something comes up and you step over the cliff: you don’t know where it’s going; but you always know something is coming up. After I did the Writer and Human Rights conference, I saw this advertisement for the Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute, and I thought, “There’s my reward.” I applied and I got sent to India for three months.

NH: For someone who professes to be so shy, it certainly takes an inordinate amount of courage to go off to India or Russia or France!

RS: I was a loner. Going off alone was rather easy. I was essentially alone, creating my own narrative because I felt that nobody was watching. In a way it was a great gift. My older sister was the beautiful one, the one that everyone adored, and so on. But it turned out that she was the one who had to be perfect—I could be the brat. I was given the oxygen and the space to do my own thing. I can say that I was shy, and I think I was emotionally insecure, but, boy, was I intellectually secure. When I was in my third year at high school I was the CBC Youth Councillor, and I was doing debates at McGill University. I mean, all that emotional insecurity was balanced by a sense of intellectual arrogance; not “arrogance,” but aggression. I always give the Catholic Church a hard time because of all that guilt, but the nuns really nurtured you. I was in an all-girls high school. I was the student council president and I was the valedictorian. My crisis of faith came when I was about 15 because we were doing a retreat, and I was very—well, God used to get me up in the morning, you see. I was very mystical as a kid. I would ask God to wake me; I’d see him in the clouds. I could get high on the incense—it was wonderful! Anyway, we were on this retreat, and I decided to give the nuns a test: if they cared about my soul, they’d keep me at the retreat; but if they didn’t care about my soul, well … I told them that I was doing a TV debate at the CBC Youth Council, which was a lie. And they said, “Go.” I thought that they cared more about their public image than my soul! Frankly, when I was finally on TV debating, I was so nervous the host was kicking me under the table. I was a combination of huge confidence and huge insecurity. You do reach a point when you realize, “What does it matter?” Insecurity is pointless.

NH: With so much solitariness out on the road, did you have time to be self-reflective?

RS: Yes, I used to keep notebooks, to which I sometimes return, containing that endless self-examination, vocabulary lists, and the like. I had mystical moments: I remember when I was a student at Sussex and I used to take the train from Lewes to Falmer. You had to walk underneath a glassed awning and down to the other side, and whatever chemistry hit, the way the sun hit the awning, I mean, I experienced an out-of-body phenomenon. I always had a metaphysical longing in me.

NH: When you were younger and off travelling, did you struggle with the voice in your head that wants, or urges, you to feel deficient?

RS: I remember walking down Bloor Street once and feeling incredibly lonely. I was teaching at U of T; I didn’t have a boyfriend. I stopped myself with this recognition, and I said to myself, “This is a habit; this isn’t real; you’re not lonely.” With me, most of the time it was bluff. Jumping to the present, I mean, what kind of impulse is it to write a biography of Stalin’s daughter? Such a gargantuan and intimidating project. But I did it.

I want to be clear: I’ve never been motivated by career. Every book I’ve done, whether a kind of gift or an impulse, was simply because it came along.

NH: How did Labyrinth of Desire, which I think is your best work, come about?

RS: There was a Canada-Mexico exchange—I applied for it, and I got it. So, I got to spend a month in Mexico. My project was to write about the wonderful painter Leonora Carrington. Because I knew P.K. Page, who knew Leonora, I phoned her, and Leonora said that I could stay. The book started there, in Mexico, with me staring out a window, wanting to take stories of love affairs apart so as to discover what the myths were.

NH: When a book comes out, what is it like to know that you cannot anticipate the life it will lead?

RS: A letter will come to me about Villa Air-Bel, a son saying, “My father escaped over the Pyrenees: where do I start?” I think more and more that the lives of books are painful. If you’re lucky, you hit the wave at the moment when the world is waiting for the book. Maybe you do this once in your career. Writing The Red Shoes: Margaret Atwood Starting Out, as the last in a kind of trilogy—Elizabeth Smart, who was trapped in silence, and Gwendolyn MacEwen who was trapped in fear, or despair, and then Atwood, who pulls it off—I mean, she was writing just at the moment when Canadian nationalism is ascendant, when feminism is ascendant, and it’s perfect timing.

[pullquote]“I think more and more that the lives of books are painful. If you’re lucky, you hit the wave at the moment when the world is waiting for the book. Maybe you do this once in your career.”[/pullquote]

The life of a book is really a matter of luck. I wouldn’t be able to live as a writer from the money my books make. But you cannot write for money—this never works; you have to write what you can write. There is simply no correlation between success and trying to be successful. I think it’s important to have small publishing houses that are willing to nurture a writer for their first couple of books as they’re learning their craft. I have to say that I consider myself incredibly lucky. Villa Air-Bel did not sell a lot. It came out in a number of countries, but that doesn’t really mean too much. You know, that could have been my apogee, but I’ve had one more kick at the can with Stalin’s Daughter .

NH: Is that how you feel about it, “one more kick at the can”?

RS: No, even as I said that, it wasn’t right. I was given one more significant challenge. Could I pull it off? It was the biggest challenge I’ve ever faced. I went to Russia with two translators and conducted every interview through them. The interviews went brilliantly—very candid commentary. People were very open and generous. There was a window. Since I’ve written the book, two people crucial to Svetlana’s story have died. I don’t know if you could write about Svetlana with Russia and Putin as they are right now. So, the writing of the book, the timing, was perfect for me. It was extremely exciting.

NH: I was listening to the New Yorker: Fiction podcast, and regarding Muriel Spark, Joseph O’Neill said that when Spark converted to Catholicism it was a turning point for her fiction because this movement was a way to realize the totality of her artistic vision. Did you ever experience a moment like this, when the sum of your dreams and imagination could be sensed?

RS: I’m suspicious of the notion that her conversion was the last piece. I lost my confidence in the orthodoxy of the Catholic Church. I felt that it was more of an institution, that like other religions, it had more to do with money and misogyny. I’m not sure there is a religion that at its core is not misogynistic. In 1977 I moved to Toronto and I didn’t know anybody. I started to do yoga and there was an ad for a Sufi summer camp on the wall. I knew that P.K. Page and Doris Lessing were interested in Sufism. I didn’t know anything about it. So, I flew to North Carolina and attended this camp.

NH: It’s becoming apparent to me that you have a really great set of eyes! 

RS: Ha! It was very interesting. Most of the people there were orphans from the drug movement. There were a lot of artists from New York. Some of them had fried their brains. I fasted for two days. I loved it. I didn’t learn much about Sufism, but it was fun.

Though, to return to your question, “did I ever have such a moment?”: I remember going to visit P.K. Page at her stepson’s cottage, and for some bizarre reason I got it into my head that I was going to have a car accident. This would have been around 1979, and my thinking was, “I’ve pushed this life as far as I can.” This was about escaping my childhood, in a way. I believe, like Keats, in negative capability: there is a mystery to which the mind can gain no access; so, affirm the mystery—do not pretend that you can define it. And as soon as people define it, they fall into orthodoxy or rigidity. But if we’ve evolved from, we’re evolving to. I remember P.K. saying once, “If the planet is a plant, maybe you’re a nodule of growth.” Yes. And I’ve somehow found wise women—I mean, not-so-wise Elizabeth, whom I loved, wise-P.K., wise-Leonora—who’ve really reminded me that life is so much larger than your own little ego game. But I’ve been so afraid of being directed by men, that men are not my spiritual teachers—it has been women who have been my spiritual teachers.

If you don’t mind me asking, why did you like Labyrinth of Desire?

NH: Love is so—

RS: Painful.

NH: Yeah. I think Labyrinth helped me to forgive my fears.

RS: I wrote Labyrinth to women, but I meant it for all relationships—that projection of both fear and longing on another person, how you have to strip that back and own it.

NH: I’ve never learned anything about love and about loving from men. My father never told me anything; my friends never told me anything. I wanted it, but it terrified me.

RS: Well, the point of Labyrinth was that romantic obsession is a point to reach so that you can get cracked open, but do not get stuck there. And if you don’t have it, if you don’t love at that level of throwing yourself, of total submission to the experience, you won’t find the depths of yourself.

[pullquote]“You can be destroyed by love, but you’re not, and you can go there in a better, stronger and healthier manner.”[/pullquote]

People who hold themselves, who are afraid, lose. You can go through these things and not be destroyed. You think you can be destroyed by love, but you’re not, and you can go there in a better, stronger and healthier manner.

Though, you do have to keep reinventing yourself. I remember when Juan and I were having a really tough time, and he said to me, “Don’t invent me. I’m real, or at least I think I’m real.” And I thought, “Is that what I’ve been doing? Inventing him?” Because you can reach a level of intimacy with another person, you can learn about yourself from that other person, which does not happen very often. I need Juan as my still centre to be creative.

NH: What I also loved about Labyrinth was that it struck me as the net where your life and the lives of those you’ve written about were brought together, only to be released. I guess, if I can put it this way: your books feel like nets—though, perhaps sieves is a better image—through which the attentive reader can catch a whole multitude of lives, which, upon release, can lead one to visit a wide assortment of other biographies and fictions. Villa led me to Victor Serge, who has led me to others. Do you have any thoughts about this phenomenon, about how we construct ourselves, how we build the directions of our lives, through what we read? 

RS: I’ve always felt that you find the book you need to find, when you need it. You know, you take it down, and there it is. This is a kind of wonderful symbiosis—you and books. I stopped writing biographies after The Red Shoes because I was tired of living other lives. I came up with the idea for Villa because I saw the movie Varian’s War with William Hurt, which was terrible. I checked into Varian and realized there was a biography of him. So, then I thought, “What about the Villa?” The proposal was four seasons in the life of the Villa, from 1941 to 1942, or something like that.

[pullquote]“I stopped writing biographies after The Red Shoes because I was tired of living other lives.”[/pullquote]

The only living person who had a strong enough memory of the Villa was Victor Serge’s son, Vlady. So, Juan and I set off for Cuernavaca, Mexico. I had talked to Vlady a couple of times on the phone, in French and in English, and I could feel that spark, that very real spark of intellectual interest. When we got to Cuernavaca, we phoned, because Vlady was expecting us, and we were told that he was gone. I thought, “Wow, that’s weird.” I told Juan to try this time, and so he called again. Apparently, Vlady had had a stroke that night and was on his way to the hospital. He died about five days later, having left behind a list of some people for me to see. So, the idea of four seasons was out the window. I realized I could start with Mary Jayne Gold, the American heiress, and instead of just detailing what the Vichy government was, I would speak to what led up to its existence. This way was a much more satisfying journey, and less contrived.

But what I love about biography is the narrative drive. You have to create a scene to make it meaningful, but you know that nothing is made up. I used to love to say that when I introduced the reader to Elizabeth Smart and said that she was wearing a hat from Peter Jones, well, I’d seen the bill. Also, I think life is as fantastic as fiction. That’s my story. Fiction is always rooted in the real world, anyway. What fiction does is to subsume the realistic, and I flip this, but I still have to have the same narrative drive.

NH: What has the composing of other peoples’ lives taught you about yourself?

RS: Oddly, or perhaps fittingly, who I am is in my books. I don’t write fiction because I don’t think I would have a gift for fiction. But each biography is a huge map of experience to itself. Through Villa Air-Bel I came to know Varian Fry; I came to know his wife; and I was able to return and live in France. There weren’t many interviews because it was an historical book. The whole process was very moving. And so, Stalin’s Daughter has its own landscape.

NH: Are you aware of what you bring, as a biographer, to the biography you’re working on?

RS: When I went to university I was taught the biographical heresy: biography has nothing to do with the writer’s life; the poem is in a magic urn; the work stands by itself—never confuse the writer with the work. All that nonsense. Growing up, I didn’t read biography, but I have always had a knack for storytelling—I have to say that I have a mind for stories—and so, you can come up with moments, if you’re listening for them, to make a biography very moving. I do have a romance with Latin America that I bring to the table.

NH: What strikes me about Latin American writers is the sense of solidarity, that regardless of geography or ethnicity, they’re all in it together. That may sound naive.

RS: It’s absolutely true. And you know why that is? If you look at every one of them from that generation, from the 40s to the late 60s, which means Alejo Carpentier from Cuba, Gabriel García Márquez from Colombia, Manuel Puig from Argentina, and so on, they wrote mostly from exile. They were all a part of this continental experiment to create a Latin American dignity and culture. And then it went dead for a while. And now we’ve got these guys like Roberto Bolaňo, who I adore—I mean, if I’m going to read fiction, I’m going to read Bolaňo—who’ve caught something, again. When I talked about writing about Chile, I was always told, “Nobody is interested in Chile.” But something really interesting has happened there: 17 years of dictatorship; and then the post-dictatorship psychosis of suspicion and fear; and then an exorcism—it’s such a sane culture right now. Very confident. And this transition is so hopeful. It would be fun to find a way to write this story because there is so much darkness. You know, the president, Michelle Bachelet, she and her parents were tortured under Pinochet.

NH: Shifting continents, how do you feel about the state of Canadian literature?

RS: My theory about Canada is that we were the first post-national country. We didn’t have to go around flying the flag because we were an inductive experiment. The Americans are deductive: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Whereas, with Canada, it was an invitation to create something new. It’s exciting to see so many voices, both regional and immigrant, but I don’t know if we have the support system to identify the good books any more. Chapters and Indigo have taken over. But I do think it’s a very strong writing community.

NH: Was the experience of writing Stalin’s Daughter significantly different than your other biographies?

RS: It has not been any longer than the others. For some bizarre reason most of my biographies have taken between three and three-and-a-half years. However, for the earlier works I was doing other things. With Stalin’s Daughter, it was Russia, Russia, Russia. I’ve actually felt my mind expanding. You know how you’re supposed to become more forgetful with age? If you ask me something, I can tell you it’s in that file, under that heading. I’ve become like a filing cabinet. I’ll be glad when it’s over. Let me also add that I do feel that somehow Stalin’s Daughter pulled together my vision of the world: how power functions and what is opposed to that human appetite for power; where real value and meaning lie; what integrity is; and the notion that all lives have to have a spiritual dimension, but it’s a very difficult thing to talk about, and very difficult to sustain.

[pullquote]“I’m more compelled by morality: how do you counter the ruthless greed and violence and cruelty that seems to be more and more the fabric of the international world.”[/pullquote]

Maybe that post-partum stretch after the book is done will turn me back to that quiet space where I can think, but I find, at the moment, life is too hard to be preoccupied with “what’s it all about?” and “where are we going?” and “is there a heaven?” and all of those things. I’m more compelled by morality: how do you counter the ruthless greed and violence and cruelty that seems to be more and more the fabric of the international world. To me, right now, maybe you can’t have environmental responsibility without a dimension of spirituality, but maybe at that point, spirituality is synonymous with a kind of moral imperative. We’ve got to be human—we have to recover what human is.

NH: When the book is published, can you anticipate what this will feel like?

RS: There is a feeling that you’ve let go. I mean, you know that there is some mystery still to find. There were one or two things that surfaced after Shadow Maker that turned out to be false, so they wouldn’t have been in the book anyway. But I mean, you finally decide to let go. With this book, it’s a bigger book because the life was such a meeting of a private life and world history. I had to get my political history right. I always have one friend who reads, and I got her to read the first draft, which was about 200 pages, and she said, “Rosemary, this is a great biography of Stalin.” I was doing the history rather than the person. To have written a book about Russia without speaking Russian is outrageous. You know, I believe it’s too good a book, and too accurate a book, for anyone to fault me. But that’s my newfound arrogance. I’m actually waiting to get attacked.

NH: Really?

RS: Sure. I’m also waiting for the right wing to say, “Look, we told you stupid liberals never to trust the Soviets.” I don’t know—maybe nothing will happen. So, I am kind of excited, and a little bit afraid of my excitement because I don’t want to puff up my expectations and find that it was totally groundless. I mean, I’ve written a book—I know it’s a good book; I’ve pleased the editor, who’s the head of HarperCollins—it’s in their hands. Whatever the life of the book is, is what it will be. I’m trying to have no expectations, secretly hoping that it will surprise people. It’s a very serious book, so it might have a very tiny readership. Again, so much of it is luck.

I feel like I’ve been at the centre of something very big, whatever happens. I’ve been in Russia; I’ve talked to Stalin’s nieces and nephews and grandchildren; I’ve been through Georgia; I’ve been to the CIA officer’s house for the weekend—I’ve accumulated an exciting time in my life, and if that’s it, then great. There’s a mystery to writing poems. I used to find I would write two and then the third would come from somewhere and be thrilling. When you write non-fiction, you’re taken over by the journey—that’s where the excitement is. With biography, you have to get everything hitting the reader at the right moment, but you don’t get subsumed like you would when you’re writing out of inspiration.

NH: When you’re writing biography do you have a routine that you adhere to?

RS: 8:30 in the morning till 4:30 in the afternoon. I’m slightly exaggerating. But how do you dive in? You read massively. I have a shelf of a couple hundred books. When you finish a biography, there is another six months of permissions and photographs and whatever else. My process is to do the research, and when I feel that I’ve got a head full of the story, you start to write the story, and then you keep reading. The process is a bit spooky, but I love it. I feel like a detective, rather than, say a voyeur. To get the real story is always such a service to your subject, frankly.

I’m not sure how much I doubted Stalin’s Daughter. I certainly doubted at the beginning that I could pull it off.

NH: What will you do after the book comes out?

RS: Maybe someone will throw an idea at me that makes some sense. I’m definitely not going back to Russia. Just about every book I’ve done has had some nibble from a filmmaker. You know, Svetlana was such a big figure that most other lives would feel small in comparison. I mean, you don’t get to write about Stalin and his daughter all the time. I would like to write a small book like Labyrinth about some discovery I make. It’s possible it could be Chile. I would like to play a bit.

NH: What about poetry?

RS: No, I haven’t written poetry since about 2004. This happens to a lot of us, I think—unless you’re like Dionne Brand whose poetry just keeps getting better. I don’t think Michael Ondaatje has written poetry for a while. Poetry comes, in a way, and demands a certain kind of attention. P.K. Page used to say “at-tension,” and if I got to that space, yes, I’d love to write some poems. For me, poetry is usually really sad. I don’t think of my poems as happy poems, usually.


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