Community & Current Events

Interview with author Elizabeth Hay

Author: Canadian Living

Community & Current Events

Interview with author Elizabeth Hay

The Canadian Living Book Club pick for December is Late Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay, the winner of the 2007 Scotiabank Giller Prize. We spoke with Hay about her inspiration, how she builds her characters and why the North is so compelling.

Canadian Living: What was your inspiration for the book?

Elizabeth Hay:
Often something I’m curious about acts as a magnet for other connecting things. I was fascinated by the dilemma of being shy and by the movement out of shyness and hesitation into a larger world. I could see that a small radio station would provide me with a laboratory of sorts in which to study the shy and the self-confident alike speak on air and stumble and either recover or not. I worked in a small radio station myself in the 1970s in Yellowknife. By returning to it for the purposes of fiction I knew I would have an inherently colourful setting: a challenging workplace in a lively town set within the vast North at a time when radio was about to be displaced by television, and when Judge Thomas Berger was holding his hearings into the proposed Mackenzie Valley gas pipeline, a massive development that threatened to change the North forever.

CL: What is it about the North that makes if the perfect setting for the story?

EH:
The book is about the romance of the disembodied voice – a man hears a voice on the radio and falls in love. It’s also about the romance of the North. We’re drawn north, I think, because of its remoteness, its solitude, its mystery. By the desire to make a fresh start, and by the hope that we might discover something about ourselves and about the world that we didn’t know.

CL: All of your characters are very real – where did you find them?

EH:
I find my characters by working from the outside in. First I picture what they look like. I enjoy this physical detailing very much – the sort of clothes they wear, how they walk, how they listen. Then I place them in a setting with other characters and things start to happen. I get to know a character over time just the way I get to know a real person over time.

CL:. Are any of the characters in the book particularly close to your heart?

EH:
Harry Boyd is very close to my heart. He’s a rumpled romantic who, at 42, is careless of his tongue and careless of his heart. He’s not a snob. He’s had enough success and failure, personally and professionally, to be interesting company, day after day.

CL: What is your favourite part of the book and why?

EH:
One favourite part is the scene in which Gwen, working the late night shift, starts to relax and try new things, and gradually finds her voice on air. I love to watch a person who can’t do something learn how to do it. That shift from incompetence to competence is one of the most exciting things on earth. Another favourite part is the canoe journey, since I also love to watch people enter a new world and immerse themselves in it.

CL: Can you describe your writing process?

EH:
I make a lot of notes on steno pads. Then I type up my notes on the computer and print them out. Soon I have snowdrifts of paper. I try to see the threads in the material and pull them through. It’s like weaving perhaps. I’m aware that I’m making something. My desk is a mess.

CL: What books and authors are you inspired by?

EH:
I depend on other books to keep me going. When I run out of steam or can’t get started, I read a page or two of someone I admire. I read J.M. Coetzee for his spare language and moral stringency, Graham Greene for his despair and terrific plotting, P.G. Wodehouse for the belly laughs, Virginia Woolf for her wicked humour and teeming mind, Ondaatje for the way he writes from under the skin, Alice Munro for the way she makes lives slowly collide, Penelope Fitzgerald for every single surprising word. And so on.

CL: If you were leading a book club discussion of this book, what are some questions you’d like to see discussed?

EH:
Talk about the contrasting worlds in the book, the hothouse of radio versus the cool house of the tundra. Talk about the meanings of ‘air,’ the kinds of exposure, the power of place, the power of the human voice. Talk about the play of hints in the book and how they underline the tug of the future and the tug of the past. Talk, too, about the play of affection among the characters. What did Dido see in Eddy? What drew Gwen to Harry? Where does Eleanor find her strength? How revolutionary was Judge Berger’s Inquiry? Are we a northern country? What gives us the right to exploit the North? Talk about the long light, the long seduction, the long journey in the book.

There is a Reader’s Guide on the web provided by the publisher, and it’s very good.

Click here to read an excerpt from Late Nights on Air.

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Interview with author Elizabeth Hay

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