The Chat with Laisha Rosnau

What happens when an author decides to create a novel based on the real lives of three reclusive women in early twentieth century BC? That’s the premise of Laisha Rosnau’s intriguing new novel, Little Fortress (Buckrider/Wolsak & Wynn).

In a starred review, Quill & Quire says “Rosnau has done a masterful job of using the lives of historical figures as the building blocks of a stunning work of fiction ...The narrative is utterly spellbinding.” 

Laisha Rosnau is the author of the best-selling novel, The Sudden Weight of Snow, and four collections of poetry, most recently, Our Familiar Hunger, recipient of the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize. Her first collection, Notes on Leaving, was the recipient of the Acorn-Plantos Poetry Prize and her work has been nominated for several awards, including the Amazon/Books in Canada First Novel Award, the Pat Lowther Award, and three times for CBC literary awards. Rosnau teaches at UBC Okanagan, and she and her family are resident caretakers of Bishop Wild Bird Sanctuary where they live in Coldstream, BC.

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Trevor Corkum: Little Fortress follows the real-life story of three women living in exile in Vernon, BC, in the middle of the last century. Why was it so important for you to tell this story? And why explore it through fiction?

Laisha Rosnau: I grew up up the hill from the house in which these three women secluded themselves, almost entirely, for 25 years. I came of age nearly three decades after two of the three women emerged from out of isolation, and yet I heard so little about them, and when I did, it seemed like mostly rumour or conjecture. Months after the last of these women, Sveva Caetani, passed away in 1994, a book of her artwork, poetry, and some of her writing was published, along with biographical notes and I realized the truth behind their story was stranger—and larger—than any rumours I’d heard.

The more I heard about the true stories behind these women’s lives, and what may have led them into exile, the more they fascinated me. What would lead a mother, her daughter, and their paid companion into exile, seemingly of their own volition, for a quarter of a century? What would pull them back out, and how must the world have changed between 1935 and 1960? What were the psychological circumstances underlying each woman’s experience that would “prepare” them, in a way, to go into seclusion, and how must it have been to emerge into the world again?

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What would lead a mother, her daughter, and their paid companion into exile, seemingly of their own volition, for a quarter of a century? What would pull them back out, and how must the world have changed between 1935 and 1960?

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When I first started researching the Caetani family and these three women, I wasn’t sure what I would do with the material, if it would be biography, creative nonfiction, or a long narrative poem. For all the research I could do, I couldn’t actually get inside the conflicted minds and emotional impulses, reactions, and interactions unless I fictionalized the material, and the story seemed much grander, deeper, and wider than I could conceive of in anything other than a novel.

TC: The lives of these three women are explored through the point of view of Miss Marie Jüül, who is an employee of Ofelia Caetani and her daughter Sveva—Italian nobility in exile. Why did you choose Miss Jüül as narrator for the book?

LR: Miss Jüül’s employers, Ofelia and her daughter Sveva, were much more infamous in the Okanagan than was their paid companion/family secretary, Miss Juul. If she was mentioned at all, what was said was how quiet she was, how tiny in stature, how devoted to the women she was. Even before doing the research, I wondered about this quiet, unassuming, diminutive woman—who was she, where had she come from, and what in her past made it possible that she should willingly give up her home country, family and a life “of her own” to be in service to these women?

I did most of the research for this project in the Greater Vernon Museum & Archives, to which Sveva Caetani had bequeathed her and her family’s papers, both official papers, such as medical and financial record, and personal correspondence. In that bequest were all of Miss Juul’s papers from approximately 1905 to 1973 when she passed away. A volunteer had translated Miss Jüül’s papers from her native Danish into English, otherwise, I wouldn’t have known what lay within. Once I did, I realized that her own life had been just as exciting and adventurous as the Caetanis’ had been, and more so, in some ways, as she’d been a farmgirl from Northern Denmark who struck off on her own as a young single woman in 1905. I wanted to trace the paths that led her life and the Caetanis to intersect in Rome in 1916, and how she went from that independent, adventurous young woman, to one in service to eccentric nobilities in exile in Canada.

TC: Fiction based on historical fact can be notoriously difficult to write. What challenges did the project pose, and what liberties did you take in writing?

LR: The largest challenge, by far, was what to include and what to leave out. I spent an entire year (a few hours a week) through the archives before I began to write, and could have read longer. I then wrote draft after draft, including scenes and details, then omitting them, then adding them back in, moving them around, deleting them again, remembering others I should include, etc. There are still scenes and details that I think, “Ohhh, I should have left that one in!” Nearly every character in this novel, including several of the minor ones, could have an entire novel written about them, so the process of focusing the novel was a huge challenge.

I had a kind of personal code of ethics when approaching the material. If I knew something to be true from personal correspondence and personal archives, I did not change the details. For that reason, I didn’t change anyone’s names. Likewise, if I knew the family was in a certain place at a certain time, I didn’t change that.

However, I did take liberties with filling in the blanks and extrapolating from what I knew to be true, and what I imagined to be psychologically possible for the characters. An example of this is the scene with Coco Chanel. I found handwritten notes between Miss Jüül, on behalf of Ofelia, back and forth to Coco Chanel in September 1929 (just before the stock market crash). I imagined that they must have met, because the notes were all about dress fittings with Coco Chanel. However, I have no idea what that meeting or meetings were like. I did research on Coco Chanel, on the politics of the era, and fictionalized a scene.

Likewise, the great love affair of Miss Jüül’s life—there are numerous letters between her and that character that expose what seemed to have been a true, mutual love. However, there were parts of the letters that were blacked out by censors during the war, I’m sure some letters missing (again, because of the war), and some parts of the letter that seemed deliberately oblique. So, as a novelist, I made things up.

TC: At the heart of the novel, you explore how world events—wars, the rise of Fascism, the Crash and the Depression—and personal circumstance conspired to contain and complicate love. It’s a story of the consequence of personal choices made in difficult times. What were some of the details you uncovered in your research that didn’t make it into the novel, but that helps contextualize the extraordinary lives of these women?

LR: So much didn’t make it into the novel! There are several letters in the archives between Ofelia and her sister, Emerika, that are in Italian, un-translated. From the details I did glean, there was some tension between the sisters and each other’s husbands. Emerika died young under mysterious circumstances in Argentina, and from then on Ofelia was desperate for communication with her niece and nephew with whom she lost contact—but I wasn’t sure what to do with that information. Details I question not including were the RCMP demands that Sveva and Ofelia, as Italian nationals, register as Enemy Aliens during the Second World War, and the women fighting against that designation—doggedly and successfully, somehow. They did have some priceless antique firearm heirlooms confiscated.

Another detail I would go back and include, if I could do just one more draft (keeping in mind I was researching and writing this for nine years, and eventually couldn’t do “one more draft” and maintain sanity!) was that Sveva Caetani wrote to Albert Einstein about the nature of relativity and the time-space continuum AND ALBERT EINSTEIN WROTE BACK. I mean, come on, why didn’t I include that?

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Sveva Caetani wrote to Albert Einstein about the nature of relativity and the time-space continuum AND ALBERT EINSTEIN WROTE BACK. I mean, come on, why didn’t I include that?

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And, significantly, Sveva’s personal diaries were not to be opened until 25 years after her death which is ... now. When I started researching the book in 2010, 2019 seemed like ages away. I now work at the museum and archives, and could put on the special gloves and go into the archives myself to discover what lies within but—oddly—I haven’t. I’m not sure why. Perhaps I’m scared I’ll discover I got it all wrong. Perhaps that’s someone else’s project to take on.

TC: How has the community in the Vernon area—including those who perhaps knew Sveva or Marie—reacted to you fictionalizing their story?

For the most part, positively, though I feel like there are those who knew the women, especially Sveva, who would tell me I got it all wrong. Sveva passed away in 1994, so there are several people living who knew her. There aren’t as many who knew Miss Jüül, though I was fortunate to meet a couple of women, who have since passed, who did. And, I don’t know of anyone who knew more than the rumours about Ofelia, though I have met those who heard her howl—or sing opera, depending on the person relaying the memory—from the house. If there is anyone who is upset about how I portrayed the women or the story, they have not yet told me, but there is still time!

The house in which the women secluded themselves is now the Caetani Cultural Centre and one can do both short- and longer-term artist residencies there. I wrote one of the drafts in a studio fashioned from part of the renovated dog kennel (it was a very large dog kennel, and well renovated!). As well, for my final draft, I rented the room that had once been Ofelia’s bedroom. I figured if she, or any of the women, had anything to communicate with me, they would let me know through the house. I never felt anything but good at the house, and writing came easily to me there.

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I wrote one of the drafts in a studio fashioned from part of the renovated dog kennel (it was a very large dog kennel, and well renovated!).

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I launched the novel in a large studio on the grounds of the Caetani House. At one point, I mentioned that there had been more of Sveva in earlier drafts, but I was sure she didn’t mind that the focus wasn’t entirely on her. As I answered, all of the lights in the room began flickering, obviously and rhythmically for some time, in a room packed full of people. So, I suppose Sveva did have something to communicate to me—to us—after all.

Excerpt from Little Fortress

“Lie beside me, Miss Jüül,” she said one night. “Just for a moment. I have a hard time falling asleep alone.” And so I did, lay in my evening dress on top of the bedclothes, Ofelia pinned under blankets beside me. We lay without speaking for some time, me listening to her breath, hoping it would deepen and lengthen to indicate sleep so that I could go. Instead, Ofelia whispered, “You’ve left home before.”

“Yes.” Over and over I’d left home – my childhood home, my home country, the home that I thought I had with H, so sweet and so small that we held it between us.

“Was there a reason for your leaving?”

She still knew so little of me, and this I didn’t regret. As much as Ofelia felt increasingly like a friend, I was a paid companion, an employee. I wouldn’t let myself be known as I had before. “There are always reasons for choosing to leave any given place, but no, there was nothing forcing me to leave. There were opportunities. I felt like it was time to go.”

Ofelia turned toward me in the bed, and I knew she was looking at me though I couldn’t see her eyes – the darkness in the berth was so thick I could barely trace her outline against the bed. “Do you think you’ll ever go back?” she asked.

“I’m not sure.”

“You know that your home is us, Miss Jüül.” Ofelia touched her hand to my cheek. “With me. We’ll make the most of Canada while we’re there, won’t we? Until we can go back home again.” I could hear how her voice faltered, how close she was to sleep.

When she touched me, it was meant as a small gesture, something comforting. While Ofelia was accustomed to being with the duke several nights a week, I wasn’t afforded that measure of intimacy. Only she or Sveva touched me in any way that wasn’t accidental. Each time they did, a current was set off under my skin with even the briefest touch. We are meant to be held, I thought as I got up from Ofelia’s bed. She was asleep. I made my way from her berth to my own, lay awake, imagined an ocean of water rocking against the boat but was unable to sleep, so I got up and went out to the deck.

It was a different world than before the war; I was a different woman. This is what I told myself as I watched the bulk and glow of icebergs in black water set against dark sky strewn with stars. They told me all I needed to know of the world. And what was that? We are moving within the gears of some impartial machine, the darkness of our unknowing illuminated by something that lumbers by in the night. Their faint glow rises from under the surface while we are drawn to specks of light in the sky. The distance of stars makes no difference to us. From below, they appear so close together.

Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

January 7, 2020
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