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Books Suzanne Buffam: ‘Why everyone’s so convinced Moby Dick is a he is frankly a bit of a mystery to me’

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Suzanne Buffam's first collection of poems, Past Imperfect, won the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, while her second, The Irrationalist, was a finalist for the Griffin Poetry Prize in 2011. Her latest collection, A Pillow Book, was recently published by House of Anansi Press. Buffam, who is originally from Montreal, lives in Chicago.

Why did you write your new book?

For a long time, I feared – and had been warned by at least one senior (male) editor – that having a child would mean the end of my life as a writer. I started writing this book six years ago, on the heels of my daughter's birth, at least in part to prove to myself that wasn't true. The book's insomniac narrator resembles me a fair bit – she's a mother, a writer, a teacher, a spouse; she lives in a townhouse on the South Side of Chicago; she lies awake staring into her phone; she worries, complains and shops compulsively online while the world outside her door crumbles into geopolitical and ecological ruin. Through literature – its solitary acts of reading and writing – she finds a way to move beyond her own petty concerns towards larger historical and philosophical questions, and even, occasionally, to get a decent night's sleep.

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Whose sentences are your favourite?

Many of my favourite writers write in languages other than English – Thomas Bernhard, Robert Walser, W.G. Sebald, Marcel Proust, among others – and since I've only ever read their sentences in translation, in a sense, I've never really read their sentences at all. Reading books in translation is a bit like how I imagine falling in love online would be: However well acquainted you may think you are, you're doubtless in for a surprise when you meet face to face. Still, I'd take the clumsiest translation of one of Proust's sentences over almost anyone else's. Except maybe Beckett's – translated by Beckett himself, of course!

Which fictional character do you wish you were?

Majestic, mysterious, unassailable and utterly free, Moby Dick's seldom thought of as an ecofeminist icon, but think about it: He takes down boatloads of whalers with a flick of his tail and disappears into the deep without so much as a backward glance. That's a life I wouldn't mind living. Why everyone's so convinced Moby Dick is a he is frankly a bit of a mystery to me.

What's your favourite word to use in a sentence?

Sadly, it's much easier to say what my current least favourite word is to use in a sentence. Thanks to perhaps the flimsiest literary gimmick ever devised, the word "pillow" appears at least once, and often multiple times, in every paragraph of my new book, A Pillow Book. The reasons for this are somewhat inscrutable, even to me, but having committed to it early on in the work, I found it impossible to abandon, even when it began to seem the height of folly to persist. Then again, I tend to subscribe, perhaps foolishly, to Blake's dictum, "The fool who persists in his folly will become wise." While I can lay no claim to wisdom, by now the mere sight of the word "pillow" is enough to make me collapse in a heap of exhaustion onto mine.

Would you rather have the ability to be invisible or time travel?

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Luckily, I have both. Whenever I open a book.

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