On April 16, 2013, Simon & Schuster Canada will be launching this wonderful debut novel from Hilary Scharper – Perdita. In support of the launch, I am happy to host Scharper on the first stop of her Blog Tour. Before we get into the interview, I would like to share a bit of background on the novel and some information about Scharper.
From the book’s description:
“After a love affair that ends in tragedy, Garth Hellyer throws himself into his work for the Longevity Project, interviewing the oldest living people on the planet. But nothing has prepared him for Marged Brice, who claims to be a stunningly youthful 134. Marged says she wants to die, but can’t, held back by the presence of someone she calls Perdita.
Garth, despite his skepticism, is intrigued by Marged’s story, and agrees to read “her” journals of life in the late 1890s. Soon he’s enthralled by Marged’s story of love, loss, and myth in the tempestuous wilderness of the Bruce Peninsula. He enlists the help of his childhood friend Clare to help him make sense of the mystery.
As Garth and Clare unravel the truth of Marged and Perdita, they discover together just what love can mean when it never dies.”
Early reviews have compared this novel to some literary heavyweights: Jane Eyre, Rebecca and Possession, in particular. I am a great fan of these works so was quite excited to read Perdita.
This novel very skilfully weaves together the themes of love and loss while bringing to life the strength, beauty and power of our natural world. Scharper has coined the term “eco-gothic”, an emerging literary form, to describe the style of her writing. In our Q & A session (see below) Scharper happily addressed my questions about this genre.
Hilary Scharper spent her summers as a young girl on the shores of Georgian Bay where she developed a deep love of its natural beauty. Later on, she studied anthropology at Yale University and eventually became interested in peoples’ stories about their relationships with the natural world. An anthropology professor at the University of Toronto, Scharper teaches wilderness and cultural approaches to nature.
Perdita will appeal to many readers and I feel it is a wonderful crossover book – a novel that will be a great treat for both mature YA readers and adult readers alike. The story moves back and forth in time and will hold appeal for those who enjoy historical fiction. As well, Scharper includes some very interesting mythology in her storytelling – I found this aspect of the novel fascinating. While I live in Ontario and have a good familiarity with the Bruce Penninsula, and really enjoyed being able to relate so well to the settings in Perdita, I feel readers who may not know as much about the area will gain a beautiful appreciation for this special place.
You can read the first chapter on Scribd.
So, without further ado, the Q & A session:
Literal Life: Your new novel, Perdita, may be an introduction for many readers to the concept of ‘eco-gothic’ as a literary form. Can you explain what this term means to you?
Hilary Scharper: Through the eco-gothic, I’ve tried to blend my love of the Gothic genre with my love of wild nature. As result, I do not treat nature as merely a backdrop or setting, but rather as an active and indeed central player in the narrative. I also like to think that the eco-gothic recognizes and engages with the fact that “we” are indeed at a moment of great ecological change and transition, and that some of our biggest challenges are in the area of human relationships with nature. Our imaginations are going to be key in this endeavor, and novels such as Perdita pick up on the challenge of getting us to explore those aspects of ourselves that seek out a deep interconnectedness with the natural world.
LL: For you, how do ‘eco-gothic’ and magical realism differ as genres?
HS: The novel has elements of both genres and these feed off one another throughout the story. In some respects, Garth Hellyer as the “modern” historian experiences magical realism, while Marged Brice (and the mystery surrounding her age as well as the figure of Perdita) conjures up the gothic. The wildness of Georgian Bay, however, and the moody unpredictable, natural landscapes of the novel are distinctly gothic—they do not represent an intrusion of magical elements into a convincing reality, but reflect something much more metaphysically complex and (for me) vibrant. The gothic doesn’t just “play” with our sense of reality—it lays claim to it in distinctive and often haunting kind of way. I wrote on this topic recently for The National Post.
LL: I know the Bruce Peninsula region of Ontario holds a special place in your heart and it made for a wonderful setting for Perdita. Are there other settings you can think of that would work well for future eco-gothic novels? (Will you continue writing in this genre?)
HS: I think there are an almost infinite number of settings for the eco-gothic—since it is about a unique connection to nature, not about specific places. The Bruce Peninsula and Georgian Bay are my own eco-gothic settings, but it’s my hope that readers will recognize their own distinctive connections. These may include the light at a particular time of year, the sound of migrating birds, a walk along the waterfront, an early morning fog, or the first smell of snow in the backyard. In my next novel, I take the eco-gothic into Toronto’s “Cabbagetown” and explore how the library of a famous literary father and a mysterious linden tree in the backyard come together in the life of a young woman named Katherine Harris. In this next novel, I explore an urban eco-gothic and the various kinds of wild nature found in cities.
LL: You will be celebrating the launch of Perdita on April 25th at Massey College in Toronto. In honour of your novel, you have said you will be wearing ‘eco-gothic attire’ and have invited others to join you by doing the same. Can you tell me what you will be wearing?
HS: The actual wording on the book launch invitation states that I will be “venturing” eco-gothic attire. I chose “venture” deliberately because I want to share the spirit of adventure underlying this novel. The gothic isn’t primarily about rational thought categories and controlled settings—it’s also about going “off-leash,” so to speak, and having a bit of fun. That being said, I will be wearing a long, hunter green velvet dress—romantic gothic couture designed by Rose Mortem. I asked Rose to combine the sleeves of her “Aislinn gown” with her “Calista Hooded faierie gown.” She did a gorgeous job and lined the hood with black lace. I’m still looking for my shoes…
LL: As well as being a novelist, you work as an Associate Professor of Cultural Anthropology at the University of Toronto. Does this work feed into your creative life and does it make historical fiction a natural fit for you as a writer?
HS: My work as a cultural anthropologist absolutely feeds into my writing—although I find writing fiction much more difficult than academic prose. I think the historical sensibility of the novel comes more from spending the last four decades of my life reading “classic literature.” To capture and convey a different historical time period is very much an act of imagination, but it also comes from steeping oneself in the language and cultural voices of a period. As an anthropologist, I’ve been very attuned to the different manners, customs and sensibilities conveyed in 19th century novels. As a result I’ve tried to situate my historical characters in a “natural” and convincing flow of settings and experiences.
I would like to thank Hilary Scharper for her time, and Loretta Eldridge, at Simon & Schuster Canada, for facilitating this interview.
Edited to add:
Continuing on the Blog Tour, in support of Perdita, Ms. Scharper visits the following blogs to talk a bit more about her debut novel:
April 15th: Historical Novel Review
April 16th: Browsing Bookshelves