Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Emma Hooper talks about Etta and Otto and Russell and James, and so much more

Not only has Emma Hooper written a sparklingly original novel, but she is also a musician who performs as a solo artist in the hilariously named Waitress for the Bees. Her novel, Etta and Otto and Russell and James is a dazzler, and I'm honored to host her here.
A musician, Emma performs as the solo artist Waitress for the Bees and plays with a number of bands - See more at:
A musician, Emma performs as the solo artist Waitress for the Bees and plays with a number of bands - See more at:

I always want to know what sparked a particular book? What was the question that haunted you?

I think the question that drove a lot of this book was “Why not?” Why not walk 3,000 miles? Why not go find the caribou? Why not make paper maché animals until all the space in your yard and heart is filled up? These Why Nots are what built the story. First them, and then their partners, the just-plain whys. Okay, there’s no reason why Etta can’t walk all the way to the ocean one way or another, now we need to figure out why she’d want to... It was like a persistent three year old asking why? why? why?  I suppose that’s a bit of a cheeky answer, because that’s, I imagine, how most every story is made, but, still, in this case, that’s what happened, my imagination said:

Why not have a character walk across Canada?

And my brain replied: 

No real reason why not… now tell me why she would want to…?

And so on.

This is your debut, and it’s an astonishing one. What was it like writing this book?  What kind of writer are you? Do you make outlines? Do you have rituals? And do you already have something else you are working on?

Writing this book was very… sporadic. I’ve got three other jobs, as a freelance musician, an academic at Bath Spa University and a violin teacher, so the writing of this book took place in all the little gaps and spaces in between other things. Lots of writing on the train! (I’m actually writing these answers to you on the train right now… :) ). 

I don’t make outlines, I prefer to start each writing session having no idea what’s going to happen next… keeps things interesting for me, and I think the spontaneity allows for a more vibrant, living story. I do have a lot of organising ‘helpers’ tacked up around my desk and office though. For this book I had a big piece of paper with the names and birthdates of all of Otto’s siblings, for example… .

Because my writing takes places at all sorts of different times and in all sorts of different places (sound-checks for gigs are another good place to squeeze in a couple hundred words…) I don’t have straight-forward writing rituals. (Though I’m envious and in awe of authors who do.) I do have a few portable rituals though; listening to music is one of these. If I’m having trouble getting my head into the writing space I’ve got three or four musicians whose work I know puts me into the right zone; I’ll pop on some headphones and sink into writing that way, often.

And yes! There is something new I’m working on… it’s a new novel set in a tiny fishing island outpost off the coast of Newfoundland (which is itself off the eastern  coast of Canada). It’s got mermaids and sea monsters and a lot of rain in it. I’m fairly in love with it at the moment...

I love the whole idea of the persistence of love and memory. Otto struggles remembering the war. Russell, his friend can’t forget a particular woman. And Etta needs to see the ocean. hoping she can remember to come back.  Can you talk a bit about memory and its relationship to the book, please?

In Etta and Otto and Russell and James I wanted to explore memory as it pertains to and shapes our ideas of identity. Our sense of self is built out of these stories we tell ourselves about ourselves in the past, and sometimes these stories and memories can get so heavy that they stand in the way of who we want to be or could be now. Etta needs to rewrite her memories so that they are hers and not overwhelmed by Otto’s. Russell needs to let his go so that he can move on and out and away. 

Etta is 83-years-old and one of the most alive characters I’ve read. Tell me how you went about crafting her. 

Well, Etta and Otto are both loosely based on my maternal grandparents. My grandpa did come from a farm family of 15 kids and his hair did go white after his trip to the World War Two front, and my grandma did teach in a tiny prairie school. Many of the recipes included are her own as well. Of course much of Etta’s character is fiction too; I think she is who I want to be at eighty-three.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Sea monsters! Both real and mythical. The giant squid is particularly fascinating; I was recently at a film festival where I got to be in a room with one of the only two people ever to have seen a live one. Ever! He said it was shining gold in colour. Amazing. I love that there are these real life magical things still being discovered and explored.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

Hm… lots of people ask: “what actually happened at the end of Etta and Otto and Russell and James.” But I believe pretty strongly in Barthes’ idea of the death of the author (as in, interpretation is the key to truth in art, not authority authority), so I wouldn’t have answered anyway. So I guess that’s the question I’m glad you didn’t ask… 

As for what you should have… maybe what’s for lunch? Because I think that’s an excellent question and I do not know the answer, but wish I did...

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