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Caroline Adderson: ‘Literary advice? Character is more important than plot’

Tonia Cowan/The Globe and Mail

Caroline Adderson has four novels and two collections of short stories and been nominated for more prizes than you can shake a stick at. A Globe and Mail review notes that her most recent, Ellen in Pieces, which tells the story of a woman's betrayals and regrets at midlife, contains "some of Adderson's funniest, sexiest writing to date."

Why did you write your new book?

A number of years ago I noticed a marketing trend in fiction: books that were clearly collections of linked stories were labelled novels. These were great books, books I loved – Olive Kitteridge and A Visit from the Goon Squad, for example – but they sure weren't novels. After I got over being annoyed that, a) publishers thought I couldn't tell the difference between stories and a novel, and b) publishers thought so little of my favourite form they wouldn't even admit to publishing it, I got to thinking. Would it be possible to compose a novel, one with an inciting incident, conflict that rises to a climax, and a denouement – the whole Fichtean Curve shebang – where each chapter actually is a stand-alone story? I wrote Ellen in Pieces to find out.

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Whose sentences are your favourite, and why?

Mavis Gallant's. I just opened From the Fifteenth District at random. "In March the wind blew as it had in the autumn. The east wind seemed to have a dark colour to it. Twice on the same March night, Carmela was wakened by the beating of waves. At the market, people seemed to be picking their feet out of something grey and adhesive – their own shadows." Adhesive shadows! The dark coloured wind! And that elegant temporal and positional shift! I have to lie down now to recover from her greatness.

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

Literary advice? Character is more important than plot.

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

Well, Paris in the Twenties draws me, except I suspect it wouldn't be so great for a woman, or if you had TB. I confess a middle-aged hankering for my own childhood years, the Sixties and Seventies, mainly because no one questioned the inherent value of the arts and a liberal education. And because nobody said "monetize."

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

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The grave's a fine and private place, but none, I think, do there get invited to literary festivals. I'll take what I can get now, thanks.

What agreed-upon classic do you despise?

Two Solitudes.

Which fictional character do you wish you'd created?

I also write for children so I'll pick a kid-lit classic. I wish I'd created Charlotte, from Charlotte's Web, so patient, dignified and wise. And she can write!

Which fictional character do you wish you were?

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Again, from kid-lit, I'd be Claudia from The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. I love her chutzpah, her sense of style, and her yearning to be changed. She convinces her brother (because he has money) to run away with her, but not the "old-fashioned kind of running away." She wants to run to somewhere as much as from the banality of home life. "To a large place, a comfortable place, an indoor place, and preferably a beautiful place." Where else but the Metropolitan Museum of Art?

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

I've been asked why I don't write about trains. I've been asked if I always write about "retarded people." I've been asked if my mother isn't embarrassed by my books. Nobody has ever asked, "Is the moment when you transform a mediocre sentence into a better, truer one the absolute best moment of your day?"

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