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Lori Lansens
Lori Lansens

Sarah Hampson: The Interview

'I've always been drawn to people on the fringes' Add to ...

As a youth, she was in a drugstore, watching. In a small town, like Chatham, Ont., where she grew up, there is only one, and all the townspeople pass through it, from the young to the old. Working there, she got to know their "embarrassing intimacies" - the purchase of personal products and what ails their mother, their child, and Phil, the geezer from the old folks' home who thought of her as his girlfriend, giving her jewellery he nicked from the ladies' afternoon craft class.

"I was aware that I was collecting characters," says Lori Lansens. At 14, she started making note of characters in a writing journal. Long before that, she remembers herself walking through town; turning phrases over in her mind; spending time by the river's edge; sitting in a tree, reading; loving the way the corn stalks swayed in the wind.

Now 47, she lives outside Los Angeles, in the Santa Monica hills, where she moved three years ago with her husband, Milan Cheylov, a producer on the television hit, 24, and their two children, aged seven and nine. But her stories have always come home, to the same place, a fictional town called Leaford in Ontario's backcountry.

"I saw Mary Gooch in that drugstore," Ms. Lansens says in reference to the protagonist of her latest novel, TheWife's Tale.

A morbidly obese middle-aged woman, "gilded with fat," whose husband doesn't come home on the eve of their 25th wedding anniversary, Mary Gooch sets out to find him in California, where his mother lives. He had left his wife $25,000 in lottery winnings and a note saying he had to think things over.

Ms. Lansens inhabits the woman's body, describing how it feels to be under the weight, unable even to attend to a wound on her foot, consumed by relentless hunger, lost. "I had to feel her grief and her shame and her heart palpitations.

"I've always been drawn to people on the fringes," she explains. "It's a matter of simple empathy."

The Girls, her highly acclaimed fictional memoir of two conjoined twins, Rose and Ruby Darlen, was set in the same town. "I'm not sure small towns accommodate eccentricity," she observes. "But you are much more conspicuous in them."

Ms. Lansens resisted the pull of Leaford when she sat down to write The Wife's Tale, a year after moving to California from Toronto because of her husband's work. "I wondered if it felt too self-conscious, but a writer always asks the question 'Is this true or false?' And it felt right that Mary Gooch was there." Baldoon County, her fictitious rendition of Chatham-Kent County, "is a place I can touch very easily." Her parents, who have been married for almost 50 years, still live in the house in which Ms. Lansens grew up, the middle of three children, a brother younger and one older, each sibling separated by only a year. And she always felt that her three books, starting with Rush Home Road in 2002, The Girls in 2005 and now The Wife's Tale, were linked. "They represent something whole to me, even though they weren't begun as a trilogy."

Her prodigious creative output came after years of frustration. She and her husband, who began his career as an actor, invested and subsequently lost their savings three times in projects that never came to fruition.

They had met by coincidence, through a friend, in Toronto when she was working in the classified department of The Globe and Mail and he had just returned from acting school in New York. She had always wanted to be a writer, but she didn't feel she could make a living as one. No one is her family was creative. Her father worked for a trucking company. Her mother was a homemaker. When she met her future husband, they talked about books. She was reading Mordecai Richler's Cocksure. Out of his knapsack, he pulled the same book. The next day, he visited her to bring a new copy to replace hers, which he had noticed was tattered. Inside its cover was his phone number.

As a couple, they tried to mount a play, which failed to attract an audience. Then came a film project which never got off the ground. And for five years, Ms. Lansens worked on a screenplay called Jesus Freaks in which Canadian actress, Molly Parker, was due to star opposite an unknown Heath Ledger. More then once, financing deals fell through. "It was like realizing your lover is never going to marry you," she says of the project. Her husband suggested she put aside film and try to write the novel she had always talked about doing. "And he said, 'Let's start having babies.' " In pursuit of their creative endeavours, they had put off having a family.

Within a year, she was pregnant with their first child and one chapter into her first novel. "I feel so gratified and so at home speaking to readers in such an intimate way," she says, comparing the connection to her reading audience to that of a film director, in charge of the narrative.

With The Wife's Tale, she was looking for a way to write about midlife. "I think we become acutely self-aware, counting the minutes left while thinking about those we have spent," she says. "This is about a woman standing on a precipice, looking at the first two acts of her life, and recognizing that she can change for the third.

"There are so many things in Mary Gooch's life that parallel my own: the obsessions, the fears, the concerns, the loves." The move away from Canada was wrenching, she says. "I very much resisted moving here."

So, if Mary Gooch's flesh is her prison, what does Ms. Lansens need to escape? "It's my creative drive I feel imprisoned by," she confesses. "I think there's a particular kind of gluttony associated with it. My one more is not a potato chip, but one more sentence, one more paragraph, one more page."

At the moment, she is resisting a family of fictional characters who are standing in the wings, requesting her attention.

She can see them, and some of their background, but she is not biting, not yet, anyway. For now, she is on a writing diet.

shampson@globeandmail.com

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