Friday, July 15, 2011

Q&A: Peter Behrens

Peter Behrens' new novel – a follow-up to his Governor General Award-winning The Law of Dreams – came out this week and he's working the blog circuit. House of Anansi got in touch with me last month about participating; yesterday I reviewed his book, and today I have a Q&A I did with him via e-mail.

Peter Behrens

Q: Did you envision yourself returning to this family when you wrote The Law of Dreams?
A: I began this novel before Law of Dreams. While I was writing it I realized that the Famine was one of the key to understanding Joe's character. So I stopped, went back, researched, and wrote the famine novel. Then I could write The O’Briens.

Q: After your first novel did so well did you feel pressure when you sat down to write The O'Briens
A: No pressure. But setting out to write a novel is always a bit frightening. Intimidating. There are moments when it seems impossible that will ever be finished. That I will know enough to be able to write it and finish it. Each book is a separate thing, a separate experience. The stories in my 2 novels are linked – but the books are totally different animals. They breathe differently, smell different, speak in quite different voices.

Q: It's unusual to read a novel that sees a character do from his teens to his 70s, was it challenging to spend that much time with Joe?
A: No. He is closely based on my grandfather. I was curious, very curious about him. I wanted to try to understand him a little better. I should say, I don't believe it's possible to “know” in the sense of “understanding” other people thoroughly, completely. Even "understanding" ourselves is a mystery quite beyond our grasp. Yet “realist” novels often pretend that characters can be "explained" wholly. But ...we are all secret beings wrapped up inside ourselves. I can offer glimpses of Joe.
But I wanted to spend all this time in Joe's company. He is very interesting to me. He is an intelligent man, yet a mystery to himself, as well as to his wife and children. Introspection not his forte. Forward motion all the time. He knows/feels LOVE but in such a blunt instinctive way; he's almost like a patriarchal animal watching over his brood/children. His instinct is to protect them, protect them, protect them....from what? The world? Someone in the book says that being loved by Joe felt a lot like being hated.

Q: You write from several points of view in this novel, did you have a favourite (or a voice you connected with best)?
A: No, I feel very attached to them all. But I guess I had most fun with Frankie. She's sharp, questioning, subversive.

Q: It seems like the family is touched by every major event of the era, how much time did you spend researching this novel?
A: Not quite true, for example they had no experience direct or indirect with The Holocaust...but they were certainly touched and shaped by the wars of the century, by its economic booms and busts...I've always been deeply intrigued by history, have read history and thought about it all my life. I only undertstand the present by seeing historical dimension. I can’t begin to understand anything or anyone until I have some grip on their history. That's how it works for me. Other people don’t need the historical dimension in the same way. It's in my hardwiring though.
The story of the O'Briens is based on my family's story. I always knew it, it seemed powerful to me, a set of myths I had to reexamine and query and explore.

Q: This novel is ripe for summer reading – big books are great for vacations – what are you hoping to read this summer?
A: Well I'm on a book tour now and have a with me a big fat paperback edition of Hilary Mantel's novel, Wolf Hall. And I've just finished Hampton Sides' Hellhound on His Trail a nonfiction account of the summer of 1968, the assassination of ML King JR in Memphis, and the effort to find and capture his assassin.

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