The Chat: Trevor Corkum Interviews Lisa Moore

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This week on The Chat, we turn our attention to YA fiction. We’re in conversation with novelist Lisa Moore, author of the acclaimed new YA novel Flannery. The novel tells the story of Flannery Malone, a precocious, headstrong, 16-year-old living and loving in contemporary St. John’s, Newfoundland.

The National Post says "Flannery is a fully realized and nuanced protagonist, contradictory in all the most consistent ways." Publishers Weekly calls "Flannery ... precocious and independent, a pragmatic heroine with a fierce attitude, quiet patience, and indomitable survival instinct."

Lisa Moore is the acclaimed author of February, which was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and selected as one of The New Yorker’s Best Books of the Year. Her novel Alligator was a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and won the Commonwealth Fiction Prize (Canada and the Caribbean). She is a three-time finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, most recently for her novel Caught, which was a national bestseller. Lisa has written for Elle and The Guardian, and her work has been translated into Italian, Spanish, Russian, German, Turkish, and French. She teaches creative writing at Memorial University.

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THE CHAT WITH LISA MOORE

Trevor Corkum: How was Flannery born?
 
Lisa Moore: Flannery was born from living with four different children—my daughter and son, my step-daughter, and my nephew. All the kids from the neighborhood tore through the front door and out the back, through the garden gate and back in through the front door. Doors always slamming, door bell ringing. Water balloons pitched from an upstairs window at the adults waiting below on the doorstep. Or water-guns squirting out through the mail slot.

Once we had a lien on the house. We had numerous warnings about the heat being cut off. Sometimes the phone was cut off. We checked the winter coats for money; we looked in cracks of the couch. We had an old TV and you changed the channels with a set of pliers; there was a constant rolling line from the top of screen to the bottom.

We also had big dinner parties with lots of candles jammed in the empty wine bottles. Or we shoved the dinner table back against the wall and had dance parties and the kids charged the adults admission to the bathroom. Somebody sat on a guitar. All the adults were trying to write books or M.A. theses, and we all worked part-time at a hundred different jobs.

For a while there was an insane black cat named Blackie that attacked us all. It leapt from the stair rail onto our backs, dug deep, and clawed off our flesh. She might have been rabid. We had to run up the stairs two at a time while the cat was in flight, and then slam the door to the baby’s room so that, if we were fast enough, the cat hit the door and slid to the ground and we gained a crucial second or so while the cat shook out the stars that floated over her head, and we could make it then to the third floor.

For a while there was an insane black cat named Blackie that attacked us all. It leapt from the stair rail onto our backs, dug deep, and clawed off our flesh.

Most times though, she landed on our backs with enough force to knock the wind out of us. My daughter’s kindergarten teacher dressed as an angel at the Halloween parade at Bishop Field School and all the parents thought she should always dress that way, because she was heavenly and gentle and full of compassion and insight. I read aloud to the children at night, brushed tangled hair (the drama, the howls) and watched tears fall on math homework. We went through a phase of baking bread. It was the most alive I have ever been.

TC: Your protagonist, Flannery, is a love-struck, smart, and streetwise 16-year-old living in St. John’s. Imagine you’re spending a day with her. Where does she take you? What do you talk or argue about? What’s the one thing you learn from her?
 
LM: I think she has a wry sense of humour; she’s pragmatic, sometimes arch, but open to love and trust. She feels things intensely; she is brave and authentic. Everything is vivid for her. And new.

I might say to her, Oh could you please just protect yourself a little bit more? All kinds of emotional disasters will befall you. Your heart will splinter into a gazillion pieces more than once, and couldn’t you maybe just don a suit of armour and clunk around all clumsy and lopsided, like the rest of us, you know, just to be safe. There must be a helmet out there for the heart.

I might say to her, Oh could you please just protect yourself a little bit more? All kinds of emotional disasters will befall you.

But thankfully she wouldn’t listen to any of that. She’d say, I want to feel it all. I want to love. Of course she wouldn’t actually say those things, or even think them. But that’s how she would act. 

TC: What’s in Flannery’s bedside junk drawer?
 
LM: A scratched DVD of The Princess Bride, peacock feather earrings, a booklet of fake tattoos, a flip book of black and white photographs of a man and a woman dancing the tango (the woman has a very straight nose and her hair is slicked back in a bun with a big giant red flower, probably fabric, probably perfumed, and there are really a lot of ruffles on her dress). A keychain with a troll doll with fluorescent pink hair. A box of condoms her mother has insisted she keep in her room, though she has, as yet, no use for them and an ordinary black notebook, with unlined pages where she’s probably writing a graphic novel.

TC: This is your first novel for younger audiences. How did you find the transition from writing fiction for adults to writing fiction for teens? What did you learn in the process?
 
LM: I had to think my way out of my own childhood and teenage years, and into the 21st century. I think a lot of the emotional challenges are the same, but there are cellphones and lots of other inventions that make the lives of teenagers today more complicated and also more full of creative possibility. I had to think of the dangers and excitement of the present for teenagers, and at the same time, cast back, so I could remember what it felt like to experience as deeply and fully as teenagers do. I think teenagers have access to an incredible potency of emotion. Everything undiluted, one-hundred proof, ultra-vivid and charged. I needed to remember what that felt like.  

I think teenagers have access to an incredible potency of emotion. Everything undiluted, one-hundred proof, ultra-vivid and charged.

TC: Finally, there’s a lot of press lately about budget cuts to libraries and arts organizations in Newfoundland and Labrador. Given that you’ve written Flannery with younger writers in mind, what role do you think libraries continue to play for young people in 2016? Are they more or less important, in your opinion, than a few decades ago?

LM: Libraries are more important than ever before. We imagine that with the Internet we have access to everything we need to know. It’s all there, keystrokes away. And that’s the problem: it’s all there. How do we negotiate a path? Librarians are information specialists. They guide us through.
In a library you are surrounded by books you can take down from the shelf, hold in your hand, read the back, sample pages in the middle, choose other books that seem to deal with a similar subject, or books by the same author—and the choice of these books has been curated. They are chosen for particular audiences—sometimes audiences of particular regions. In a small library on Bell Island, Newfoundland, I might find a book about Bell Island, Newfoundland. I might read about the mines, and then I might wander past the boarded up entrance of a mine and know it in a new way.
I’m all about the romance of a library book, the object, the cellophane cover, the old ones that still have the card in the back, stamped with the dates of all the readers who came before.

But libraries offer so much more than just books-as-objects. For instance: An author might visit and read from her book, and then answer your questions. If you have no money to buy books or a computer, you will have access to those things in the library. It is a public space that’s not a commercial space, and those kinds of spaces are harder and harder to find. They allow you to linger. They encourage loitering. And it is in loitering that community ties are formed, maybe over apple juice and cookies.

[A library] is a public space that’s not a commercial space, and those kinds of spaces are harder and harder to find. They allow you to linger. They encourage loitering.

Librarians are information specialists, they are carving paths through the chaos of the Internet, they zoom in and zoom out, exploring subjects from all perspectives, opening an interest up like a fractal, that opens and opens and opens infinitely. Librarians make connections for us, both logical and intuitive; they leap and dip through subjects, create links, they grow the subject, they create knowledge by exposing the networks of roots between subjects. They say: there’s this and this and this. You may also want this. Soon they have thrust you into unknown territory.

And they find the things you didn’t even know you needed. And through this leaping and dipping through the world of articles and essays and books, backwards through centuries, or breaking news, through arcane studies of chemistry or art, through novels, poetry, and stories true and imaginative, they help us find our way, through our own communities, and through the forging of new communities.

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Excerpt from Flannery

The man is holding up a tiny, delicate glass bottle. It’s shaped like a bottle but it appears to be liquid fire. It is pulsing like it is a heart, and the heart is flushing with blood that is not blood but white, boiling light with a yellow halo.

The man dips the little vessel into a vat and there’s a hiss and a cloud of smoke and he lifts the glass heart out of the vat and it’s a perfect bottle for a love potion.

Reprinted with the permission of Groundwood Books.

May 31, 2016
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