Our first pick for the Canadian Living Book Club is The Girls, by Canadian author Lori Lansens. The Girls tells the story of conjoined twins Rose and Ruby Darlens and their lives and loves. (Click here to read an excerpt from the book.) We chatted with Lansens about her novel and her writing process.
Canadian Living: What, if anything, do you think makes this novel Canadian?
Lori Lansens: I'm not sure how to identify a novel as Canadian. I was born and raised in Canada -- so the geography and character of the country are on my spiritual hard drive and thus filtered through my work. The story of The Girls is set in southwestern Ontario. Rose and Ruby Darlen, because they live in border territory, are hugely influenced by America and have an interesting frame of reference for their Canadian identities.
CL: What is your favourite scene in The Girls?
LL: My favourite scene in The Girls is a crucial chapter, near the end of the book, where Rose Darlen finally has the courage, and the opportunity, to ask quietly (and privately) for a thing that she has wanted all her life. A kiss. The kiss is symbolic for Rose, not just a wish before dying, but a tearing down of a wall.
CL: Why did you choose to make Rose and Ruby joined at the head?
LL: Craniopagus twins are among the rarest of conjoined twins, and perhaps one of the most visually dramatic. The girls can't look at each other, except in mirrors, yet their intimacy is complete. There is a natural tendency among people, because of the nature of their conjoinment, to imagine that Rose and Ruby's thoughts and minds are one, but of course they're not. For me, the cranial conjoinment was the most striking. I also wanted to juxtapose Ruby's beautiful face with Rose's distorted features. And Rose's strong body with Ruby's weak one.
CL: How do you think the story would have changed if they had been joined in another way -- say, at the torso?
LL: I think that the girls would have had to fight less fiercely to be seen as individuals. Perhaps they would have struggled less with their own identities and might not have developed into the very different women they become.
CL: Aunt Lovey seems attracted to outsiders, like Stash and the girls. Yet she herself grew up as someone who belonged in her community -- or so I gather from what I read. What do you think is her motivation in this?
LL: As a writer I've always been attracted to outsiders. I think I can gain the most insight into human behaviour from looking at characters who appear to be on the other side of "normal." The main characters in my body of work (screenplays or novels) all stand apart to some degree, though not in the obvious way that Rose and Ruby do. I suppose Aunt Lovey is like me. Her interest is not purely benevolent. My goal is to study the outsider and to explain the character to myself and to readers. Aunt Lovey's goal is to enfold the outsider, to love and nurture and bring them "inside."
CL: One conclusion I came to after reading The Girls was that no matter how much you love someone and how much time you spend with them, you can never truly know them. Why do you think this is?
LL: I think that speaks to the idea of truth, and memory and honesty and identity. And it's an interesting discussion because of all the recent hoo-ha over the nature of the memoir. I think it's a biological imperative to keep secrets. We all bend the truth. Sometimes we fabricate, or deny, or extrapolate because we don't want to hurt another person. Sometimes we are simply deceivers, of self and others. All of us. So we can never, no matter how intimate and soulful our connection, fully know another person. Our secrets, ultimately, are all we have. They define us. They sustain us.
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CL: When you started writing this novel, did you know what would happen at the end? How does your writing process work in terms of plot development?
LL: I felt when I began the story that the novel would come full circle. Generally when I approach a story, the characters and setting come first, and a sense of the plot in broad strokes, but the details come with the evolving character. The characters often tell me who they are and sometimes contradict me (because at first I'm only speculating). An example would be -- when I began writing The Girls I imagined that Rose would tell the story, Ruby would read each chapter and add her response. I realized, almost right away (because Rose told me) that Rose wanted to tell the whole truth (her version of it anyway) and this meant she had to keep the story a secret, in the same way she has kept other secrets from her twin. It was incrediby liberating to let Rose write her true story, and to find Ruby's voice as she told her own very different version of their lives together.
CL: If you could, would you go back and change something about the book? If so, what?
LL: I wrote a little bit about Uncle Stash's approach to art. He explains at one point that we never really "finish" a thing (life, art, relationships), we simply abandon them. We accept our imperfection, and must go on to the next challenge, which we will again leave somewhat incomplete, and necessarily imperfect. That's how I feel about The Girls.
CL: How do you choose your characters' names?
LL: I try different names on characters until they fit. I cannot begin the writing process until I know the character's name.
CL: If you were organizing a book club meeting about The Girls, what is the first question you would ask people to discuss?
LL: I think it would be interesting to discuss the myriad contradictions in The Girls. Rose tells the story about visiting Dr. Mau. Ruby mentions it too, but their sense of what happened is not the same. And I think it's interesting to note, too, what the girls say about each other, which doesn't always jibe. Then, there are the many loose threads. I love to hear readers speculate about what Nick went to jail for, about the nature of the affair between Mrs. Merkel and Uncle Stash. That sort of thing.
CL: What authors do you consider yourself most influenced by?
LL: John Irving. John Steinbeck. Mordecai Richler. Alice Munro. Margaret Atwood. Margaret Laurence.
CL: What are three novels you think every Canadian should read?
LL: I wouldn't begin to know the three books but I might cite three authors: Margaret Laurence, Mordecai Richler and Alice Munro.
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