Erika de Vasconcelos in Portugal. Photo by Virginia de Vasconcelos.

Canadian novelist Erika de Vasconcelos has written two wildly successful novels published by Random House (My Darling Dead Ones and Between the Stillness and the Grove). But she put her mind to writing only after she had married and had two children. In fact, her success as a writer might not have happened at all without the encouragement she got at a high school reunion.

In 1994, de Vasconcelos left her husband, her two children (Sarah, 6 and Virgina, 1), and her home in Pape-Danforth, Toronto, and boarded a train to Montreal to meet up with old friends and former teachers for her high school’s 10th anniversary reunion. There she was bombarded with one particular question: “Where is the book?”

Indeed, one of her teachers even quoted lines she had memorized from a story de Vasconcelos—so promising a student—had written many years before.

Erika had to reply, “Well, I haven’t written anything yet.” On the train journey back to Toronto, she decided it was time to stop fooling around.

­In a blog on writing,  ­she explains: “I decided I was gonna be a writer when I was 7 years old. But I only became a writer when I was 30 and published my first book. So it took a long time, and I always thought I had a million good reasons not to write: finishing school, getting married, having children, doing the laundry, doing the dishes.”

“In the end, I wound up writing my novel when I was in the middle of a custody battle and a bitter divorce. I had two children; one of them was under the age of two. I was a new single mom in a city without the support of family, in literally the most crazy time of your life. It doesn’t matter how busy you are, or how much desk space you have. You have to stop making excuses and telling yourself that sometime in the future you’ll have the time to do it. Writing a novel is kind of like having children: there’s never a convenient time to do it. So just get down to business.”

I was first introduced to de Vasconcelos’s work by my writer friends in Canada, who encouraged me to discover writers like de Vasconcelos and Anthony De Sa, in my efforts to expand my horizons and to explore my own Portuguese heritage and ethnicity.

Although neither writer should be classified as only or “just” Portuguese—nor would they like to be—it was, for me, my first entry point to being drawn into a new world of novelists in Canada who deserve wider acclaim.

Through Ordinary Life in an Extraordinary Way

My Darling Dead Ones, a wondrous first novel, is really a series of stories spanning three generations of women. The first generation live in Lisbon; the second-generation woman is born in Portugal but immigrates to Canada after her marriage. The third-generation tale focuses on the daughters who are Canadian. Their stories take us through ordinary life in an extraordinary way.

The opening sets the tone for the rest of the novel:

I am kneeling before my grandmother. Her thigh is as thick as my arm. She is sitting in her chair beside the bed, pulling on stockings. They are thick and woolly, like little girls’ tights, and I must hold them up with an old elastic, a band she may have used before around some book, or a stack of letters. She is tiny, tiny. This is the chair she will die in, later, though we do not know it yet. About the chair, I mean. Death is expected. Wished for, almost. Yes. Wished for.

Among these pages there are women who travel the distance from their past in Europe to their present in North America, the connections that remain, the connections broken, what is held inside emotionally and what is lost. This book is also about personal relationships: core cycles of life, death, birth, loves lost, and loves found. One key element is the absence of men.

These are women’s stories.

All of the tales paint a broad portrait of a world inhabited by women, for women, with men drifting through their lives like a rainy day or a burst of a sudden storm, seemingly without consequence. To be sure, the novel is also about connection to Portugal, the new mingled with the old, invoking images of Queen Isabella and the displaced or transplanted culture that lives on.

The Essence of the Story

I asked de Vasconcelos about her Portuguese background, being a mother, her writing, and the importance of sticking to what you believe in.

Q: What are the most important attributes to remaining sane as a writer?

A: Staying in touch with reality by spending time away from your writing, be it with family, through travel, or some different kind of work.

Q: What was the greatest thing you learned at school?

A: I learned to love literature in high school. By the time I tried to study it in university, my love of literature was slowly being asphyxiated. I switched my major to Art History and have been a lover of literature ever since.

Q What is the biggest challenge when it comes to writing novels set in the past?

A: Not falling into the trap of trying to sound like you are in the past. You can never achieve that with true honesty. You can only get to the truth of the past through abstraction, to some degree. I don’t believe that accuracy is ever as important as truth—and by truth I mean the essence of the story within time, and through time.

Q: You were born in Montreal in 1965. What is your heritage?

A: My family is from Lisbon, and save for my parents and a cousin, all are still living in Portugal.

Q: When you were a child, your family made frequent trips to Portugal and you were close to your grandmother, who shared family stories and folklore with you. How much impact did your childhood have on your writing?

A: One’s childhood has an impact on everything in life. My childhood was happy and idyllic. I spent a lot of time playing on my own, creating my own toys, inventing things. The era I grew up in allowed for more freedom in childhood than kids have now. We spent all our time outdoors, playing, riding bikes, living in a sense in a world of children that was very separate from the world of adults and where we weren’t always being scrutinized. No adult in my childhood ever sat down to play with me. But I was deeply loved.

Q: Are the names of the characters in your novels important?

A: Very. I choose them very carefully. You can evoke a whole life story, or personality, with just one name. What does Rick sound like, for example?  Prick, dick? You get the idea.

Q: You employed family history as subject matter for your work. Can you tell me the primary method you used? Maybe even as a child you took notes when you visited family in Portugal?

A: Took notes? God no! I listened. I heard stories. When I became an adult, my mother gave me a typed copy of my great-aunt’s journal and I read it avidly. We are a family of women journal/diary writers. I have written in a journal since I was 12. My mother has extensive journals. And my great-aunt had them too. And there has always been in my family a sense of treasuring the past, of holding onto letters, photos, old things. My love of history is definitely inherited from the women in my ancestry.

Q. Even though there are a number of Portuguese-American and Portuguese novelists, there are very few women. In fact, two university presses carry no books by Portuguese-American women. Why do you think this might be the case?

A: I’m not sure. In the case of Portuguese immigrants to Canada, there has not been a very high emphasis on education. High school dropout rates are very high among kids from Portuguese backgrounds. And we know that historically, if there is a lack of education in the population in general, it will certainly be worse for the women than for the men. I’m sure there are a number of other factors that play into this—cultural norms, female discrimination, etc. It is difficult to write books if you are minding the store and having the babies and cooking for the family every night.

One of the most touching compliments I have ever had in my career came from a young Portuguese woman who came to see me at a library where I was giving a reading. She waited outside the door because she had two crying babies in her arms. She looked very tired and was probably quite poor. You could see on her face that life had not always been easy for her. But after the reading she approached me and asked me to sign her book and said she wanted to thank me for what I had done for Portuguese women. I get emotional even recalling this. Though she had probably never had many opportunities in her life, she could recognize that Portuguese women have a voice and stories that are worth being told. Maybe her children will finally be the generation that has the tools to tell them.

Q: How has being a mother affected your writing?

A: Oh, this answer would just take too long! But here’s what I’ll say. My children make it impossible and essential for me to write.

Q: In My Darling Dead Ones you used Portugal, Toronto, and Montreal as the landscape or background. How important is “place” to you as a writer? Or the notion of a landscape as the driving force in a story.

A: Place is important, but not as important as story or character.

Q: You have said you work all over, in cafés, at a desk, and that you first write in longhand and then translate it to the computer. Do you change the text? I mean is that translation the first step of revision for you? Or do you copy exactly what you wrote in long hand?

A: I revise at every step.

Q: What books are on your bedside table or coffee table or waiting for you on an e-Reader right now?

A: The book I keep on my night table and have read for the past decades, over and over, is The Diary of Virginia Woolf. She is my favorite writer and a woman I idolize and whose writing I return to again and again.

Q: Do you feel it is important to write about your heritage? What has it taught you?

A: Not necessarily. I think it is important to write about your obsessions.

Q: Many writers run from their past and would rather write about anything but their own culture.  What made you embrace yours?

A: I didn’t set out to embrace my culture. I was interested in telling a story about women and love, about women and history. It happened to be set in Portugal because that is the history that I know. For my second novel I had to learn an entire history that was foreign to me: Armenia’s. But that history was essential for the story that I wanted to tell. It always starts with the story, not the other way around.

 

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  • Luis Goncalves September 2, 2012 at 6:39 pm

    I am very thankful for this interview. Erika is a very intelligent woman and I truly appreciate her work.
    The question of giving voice to Portuguese-American, Portuguese-Canadian and Portuguese migrant women is crucial for our communities. They are the keepers of our stories.

    Reply