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book review

Tonia Cowan/The Globe and Mail

Frances Itani is a member of the Order of Canada, and a former nurse whose career path was changed by a meeting with writer W.O. Mitchell. She has won the Commonwealth Writers Prize. Tell is her 14th book.

Why did you write your new book?

I wanted to explore two questions. Both deal with loss, both deal with secrets withheld. What was the loss felt by soldiers who came home from the war in 1918-19? How were their wounds – visible or invisible – perceived and treated? I also became interested in secrets of birth: Who raised the children born in shame (of that period)? How could someone give away a child? What were the consequences of burying the shame, the guilt, the loss?

I knew, too, that I wasn't entirely finished with minor characters from my earlier novel, Deafening, who had stories of their own to tell. I became interested in the fictional couple who lived in the tower apartment of the small town of Deseronto, Ont. (My own great-great aunt and uncle, I learned – entirely by accident – once lived in the real tower apartment of the Post Office building, which still stands on the main street of the town.) Lastly, I introduced music: choral singing and a musician from wartorn Europe. I wanted the challenge of intertwining all of these threads (loss, music, trauma) thematically.

Whose sentences are your favourite, and why?

Two writers immediately come to mind: Jane Gardam and Seamus Heaney. Gardam, because there is breath and life in every word, in every sentence she writes. Her work is ribboned with wit, compassion, humour. I laugh out loud and with delight when I read her novels. I read with respect because of her profound knowledge of the human condition. Heaney, because his poetic lines are strong, direct, rooted. His Station Island poem is my favourite. He also wrote (in Lightenings): "Sink every impulse like a bolt.… Do not waver/ Into language. Do not waver in it." What writer can resist language like that?

What's the best advice you've ever received?

Many years ago, when I was beginning to write, I asked novelist W.O. Mitchell how he decided what to work on in any given day. He replied with no hesitation: "You go where it grabs you the most!" I loved that advice.

Which historical period do you wish you'd lived through, and why?

I'd have done well in the old steamer-trunk days, late 19th and early 20th centuries. Crossing oceans by ship, extensive libraries on board, intrigues that deepened with the length of each crossing. Mind you, because I dislike flying, I have crossed oceans and seas by ship, a number of times: the old Cunard line; the QEII, the Soviet ship Baltika from Tilbury, England to Leningrad in May 1965 during the Cold War. That was a trip! (And the same ship in which Kruschev had travelled to New York when he banged his shoe on his desk at the United Nations.)

Would you rather be successful during your lifetime and then forgotten or legendary after death?

This question raises old memories and mixed feelings. My Grade 4 teacher in my one-room school in rural Quebec made our class memorize Henry Austin Dobson's poem, Fame and Friendship. "Fame is a food that dead men eat/ I have no stomach for such meat/ In little light and narrow room/ They eat it in the silent tomb…" etc. I still know every word of that poem. Now that I think of the teacher who drilled this into our heads, I'm wondering what on earth she knew about fame, about pomp and circumstance, about legend, about creation, even about friendship, for that matter. This was the same teacher who taught me to sing (to accompaniment) La Marseillaise, and then pounded the keyboard as if she would kill the keys for letting such a tune out of the piano.

What agreed-upon classic do you despise?

The Scarlet Letter. I don't despise the novel; I just couldn't read it. During the 1980s, I studied early American literature at the University of Maryland in Heidelberg (then West Germany), but did not read Hawthorne at the time. After returning to Canada I tried several times to read the novel but gave up each time. Finally, I bought it on audio tape and listened while driving to Peterborough, where I was to give a reading at Trent University. The Scarlet Letter kept putting me to sleep at the wheel, so I gave it up, once and for all, without serious accident.

Which fictional character do you wish you'd created?

"Old Filth" (Failed in London, Try Hong Kong), a.k.a. Sir Edward Feathers, by Jane Gardam.

Which fictional character do you wish you were?

Mrs. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse. I want to oversee the creation of Boeuf en Daube. I want to sit at the Ramsay dinner table, observing. If I can't be Mrs. Ramsay, I'll be the main character in the Princess and the Pea. (I'll want my own palace chef, of course – once I've passed the test.)

What question do you wish people would ask about your work (that they don't ask)?

How did you ever get through the baby-rearing years, studying at nights and during the summers, staying sane and managing to write at the same time? There is no answer to this question. And maybe I didn't stay sane.

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