Jane Urquhart is the author of eight novels, including The Underpainter, The Stone Carvers, A Map of Glass, Sanctuary Line and, most recently, The Night Stages, which is being published this month by McClelland & Stewart. Her work, which also includes three volumes of poetry and a collection of short stories, has received the Governor-General's Literary Award, the Trillium Award and the Harbourfront Festival Prize.
Why did you write your new book?
About four years ago, I became interested in a mid-20th-century Irish bicycle race (the Ras) on the one hand, and artist Ken Lochhead's 1958 mural in the (then) new Gander Airport on the other. Once these two interests turned into preoccupations, characters started to take shape, and I began to write. During the past two decades, I have lived for part of each year in the mountains of southwest Ireland. Some of what I learned about poetry while I was there got into the book as well. As did the landscape.
Whose sentences are your favourite and why?
Seeing this question I immediately thought of Stephen Crane and some beautiful sentences from The Open Boat: "Slowly and beautifully the land loomed out of the sea. The wind came again." The cadence of those simple sentences is as achingly beautiful as it is comforting. Or this from The Red Badge of Courage: "It rained. The procession of weary soldiers became a bedraggled train, despondent and muttering, marching with churning effort in a trough of liquid brown mud under a low, wretched sky." And then Mavis Gallant's brilliant, surprising and always utterly original sentences came into my mind. No one but her could have written: "Their shadows slid impartially on the fields of Italy and France. But Guy and Susan could not see anything but the dining-room wall. Along this wall, an army of ants bore the foundations of the house up to the roof."
Which book got you through the darkest period of your life?
The Laurel Poetry Series Emily Dickinson: a slim, mass-market selection of poems edited by Richard Wilbur and published by Dell paperbacks in the early 1960s. I found the book on my mother's shelves when I was staying with her after my first husband died at a very early age. I had read Emily Dickinson before, and have tirelessly done so since, but I've never forgotten this one skinny book, printed on brown, fading paper, with a pale and not very well-designed cover. Opening it at that time, and reading Dickinson's unforgettable words, dignified sorrow for me, and made my own small experience universal.
Which book do you think is underappreciated?
It is a story, not a book, but I would say The Secret Sharer by Joseph Conrad is underappreciated. This may be because it is so often published in conjunction with Heart of Darkness that readers, sated by the ennobling literature of the first part of the volume in their hands, give the second a miss. A shame, because it is just as dark, and scary, and profound as its own "sharer."
Which fictional character do you wish you were?
Babette in Isak Dinesen's Babette's Feast. She has great strength of character and more creative courage than any other man or woman in literature. We come to know that she was a pétroleuse, for example, fighting for the rights of the poor during the final days of the Paris Commune. But she was also a great and courageous artist. When denied the opportunity to practise and perform, she kept her art silently alive inside her for decades until the day came when it could be set free. As she says near the end of the story: "Through the world there goes one long cry from the heart of the artist: Give me leave to do my utmost."