Our next instalment of this year’s Giller special features our chat with Éric Dupont, author of Songs for the Cold of Heart (QC Fiction/Baraka Books), which was translated by Peter McCambridge.
The 2018 Giller Prize Jury says:
“Once upon a time in Quebec there was a girl named Madeleine. A tiny red headed waif with only a suitcase in her possession steps off a train in a frozen village, and a strapping Quebec man falls head over heels in love with her strangeness. A baby is born from this union that is so big, it manages to kill both its parents in childbirth. As magnificent a work of irony and magic as the boldest works of Gabriel García Márquez, but with a wholly original sensibility that captures the marvellous obsessions of the Quebecois zeitgeist of the twentieth century. It is without any doubt, a tour de force. And the translation is as exquisite as a snowflake.”
Born in 1970, Éric Dupont lives and works in Montreal. He has published four novels with Marchand de feuilles and in France with Éditions du Toucan and Éditions J’ai lu (Flammarion). He is a past winner of Radio-Canada’s “Combat des livres” (the equivalent of the CBC’s Canada Reads contest), a finalist for the Prix littéraire France—Québec and the Prix des cinq continents, and a winner of the Prix des libraires and the Prix littéraire des collégiens. His fourth novel, Songs for the Cold of Heart (La fiancée américaine), translated by Peter McCambridge, has sold over 60,000 copies in Quebec alone.
THE CHAT WITH ÉRIC DUPONT
Trevor Corkum: How does it feel to be a Scotiabank Giller finalist for the first time?
Éric Dupont: Like a thousand Christmases.
TC: Songs for the Cold of Heart is a giddy, richly imagined novel described as a “whopper of a tall tale.” What was the most pleasurable part of writing the book?
ED: I am not sure. I think it may have been the time when, after a few days of frantic typing with little or no sleep, I woke up and read the first 300 pages of what I had written and could not stop because I found the nuns who populate the first part of the book so incredibly funny—and a little scary.
There was also that night when Papa Louis died in the book. It was snowing, both in the book and on my street in Montreal. I know very well that I am the one who killed him, and I never wanted him to live forever, but it still felt strange. Can dead characters hold grudges?
TC: What particular fears—if any—did you harbour as you wrote?
ED: Honestly, I was afraid to die before I finished. The first version was much longer…
TC: In an alternate life, what career would you choose if you weren’t writing?
ED: Knowing what I know now, I would try my luck in music. Maybe I would try to become an opera singer or a pianist.
TC: The Giller Prize is celebrating its 25th anniversary. Can you talk about a previous winning title (or finalist) that you’ve enjoyed, or that has inspired you in some way?
ED: I really enjoyed reading The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt. I liked the depth of his characters and his sense of humour.
Excerpt from Songs for the Cold Heart
Years before her mother bundled her onto a coach bound for New York City in a December blizzard, Madeleine Lamontagne had been a little girl who loved Easter bunnies, Christmas trees, and the stories told by her dad, Louis Lamontagne. Nothing out of the ordinary there. After all, everyone loved to hear Louis “The Horse” Lamontagne’s tall tales. Before television, his stories were the best way to pass the time in Rivière-du-Loup.
As any drinking man in Rivière-du-Loup will tell you, it was TV that killed the Horse, not the combustion engine. They’ll also tell you—and there’s no reason to doubt them—that any man’s story, wherever he may be, never finds a more attentive ear than his daughter’s, especially if she is the oldest and as such occupies a special place of her own in her father’s heart. All of which is to say that Louis “The Horse” Lamontagne, or Papa Louis as the children of
Rivière-du-Loup liked to call him, never had a more attentive audience than his little Madeleine, sitting right there on the sofa in her father’s funeral home on Rue Saint-François-Xavier, in the parish of the same name, in the town of Rivière-du-Loup in the province of Quebec.
Amid the 1950s furniture stood a ghastly ashtray mounted on an honest-to-goodness moose leg. A cousin had made it after carving up the carcass of the animal that Papa Louis had killed in the fall of 1953, when Madeleine was just three years old. She was now eight. Papa Louis was sitting in his armchair, and her two brothers on the bottle-green sofa. In her left hand, she held a full glass of gin that Papa Louis was eyeing thirstily.
“Get a move on, Mado! We wanna hear the story!” It was Madeleine Lamontagne’s oldest brother Marc, age seven, who had just told his sister to hurry up and get Papa Louis a drink so the story could at last begin. The other brother, Luc, watched a dust mote drift through the air.
“Cut it out!” Madeleine retorted before sitting down to his right.
Marc slid his hand in under her thigh. She twisted his finger back, just enough to get her point across, not quite enough to dislocate it. Madeleine grinned. The gin was having its effect. There would be a story. To her left, Marc slipped his hand back under her thigh, and this time she let him. “His fingers must be cold,” Madeleine reasoned, thinking that if she picked a fight with her brother, Papa Louis might suddenly decide to send them all off to bed. Fortunately, Marc turned his attentions away from her and watched Papa Louis knock back his gin. To Marc’s left, little Luc, his dark-haired head leaning against his big brother’s frail shoulder. He was going to fall asleep from one moment to the next. Luc, age five, had come into the world the day of the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II: June 2, 1953. The sofa was almost full, but there would have been room for the cat if their mother Irene had allowed it.
Excerpted from Songs for the Cold of Heart. Copyright © 2018 by Eric Dupont. English translation by Peter McCambridge. Excerpted by permission of QC Fiction, an imprint of Baraka Books. All rights reserved.
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