The Chat with Carol Bruneau

Carol Bruneau by Nicola Davison(2)

For anyone who adores the work of famed painter Maud Lewis and has wondered about her life, Carol Bruneau’s new novel Brighten the Corner Where You Are (Vagrant Press/Nimbus) is for you. In the book, she imagines Maud’s life, first as a child, and then through the tumultuous years of her marriage and her eventual discovery as a beloved and eccentric folk artist.

In a starred review, Quill & Quire calls it “a welcome addition to the Lewis legacy.”

Carol Bruneau is the acclaimed author of three short story collections, including A Bird on Every Tree, published by Vagrant Press in 2017, and five other novels. Her first novel, Purple for Sky, won the 2001 Thomas Head Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award and the Dartmouth Book Award. Her 2007 novel, Glass Voices, was a Globe and Mail Best Book and has become a book club favourite. Her most recent novel, A Circle on the Surface, won the Jim Connors Dartmouth Book Award. Her reviews, stories, and essays have appeared nationwide in newspapers, journals, and anthologies, and two of her novels have been published internationally. She lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia, with her husband and their dog and badass cat.

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Trevor Corkum: Brighten the Corner Where You Are is a fictionalized account of the life of Maud Lewis, one of Nova Scotia (and Canada’s) most iconic painters. Why did you want to tell this story?

Carol Bruneau: I was curious about the truth of Maud’s story underneath the obvious romanticism of the film Maudie, for instance. I wanted to know more about the real struggles Maud faced that shaped her life and art, and made her the person she was—the experiences behind her famous resilience. I wanted to challenge the one-dimensional image of Maud that overlooks the individual beneath and beyond the poverty and disability she dealt with, an image of simplicity and sweetness that has made her a commodity in a province that banks on quaintness. The sugar-coated view of the artist treats her as naïve and childlike when she was, of course, a lot more complex—a woman who came from a relatively comfortable, sophisticated background, had sexual urges and passions like most humans, and a fierce lifelong devotion to artmaking, and who married badly because she had few options.

In an earlier novel, These Good Hands, I’d written about a female sculptor whose accomplishments were overlooked by popular views that focused instead on her disability—mental illness—and her troubled relationship with a famous male sculptor. Belle Epoque Paris and rural Nova Scotia in the 1940s, 50s and 60s were worlds apart and Everett Lewis was no August Rodin, but he profited by exploiting Maud’s talent as Rodin profited by exploiting Camille Claudel’s. Both these women artists struggled not only with disability and extreme poverty but against all the oppressive conditions and attitudes misogyny could dish out. In considering Maud’s story as the subject for a novel, I immediately saw its odd yet very real parallels with Claudel’s. These Good Hands was good practice for writing Brighten the Corner Where You Are. Initially I thought writing Maud’s story would be a lot easier—and it was, geographically. The rest of it? Not so much.

TC: With Maud being such a popular and well-loved figure, how did you feel approaching her life as a novel? What challenges or limitations did you encounter?

It was daunting. Maud is a sacred cow in Nova Scotia! And everyone thinks they know all there is to know about her—I did too, until I started digging. The biggest challenges were, first of all, trying to find first-hand sources who had known Maud and her husband, Everett, and could or would share memories of one or both. (Most if not all were dead.) Secondly was how to free myself from the known “facts” or ideas about Maud that seemed to be set in stone. And thirdly, how to write dramatically about her day to day experiences—I mean, this is a woman who rarely left her “room of one’s own,” a corner in a one-room house, and during her lifetime rarely if ever travelled beyond the 60 miles between her home near Digby and Yarmouth, her birthplace. I was afraid my work would be literally like watching paint dry and describing it. Luckily this fear was unfounded.

TC: From what I understand, very little of Maud’s actual life was documented. Can you talk more about the liberties you took in imagining her rich inner world?

CB: Maud left no diaries, and any interviews she gave feature one-word answers: “oh yes” or “no.” And when I started to dig, I realized that much of what had been written about her was based more on speculation than objective facts. Very little had been published about her youth in Yarmouth, in those days a prosperous port town with global trade connections, incredibly vibrant and culturally sophisticated—the total opposite of isolated, rural Marshalltown where she ended up. Researching Maud’s formative years and the culture that surrounded her then was key to uncovering the complicated person she was.

My main goal from the start was to give Maud a voice—this woman who’d always been denied one and the agency that comes with speaking up.

My main goal from the start was to give Maud a voice—this woman who’d always been denied one and the agency that comes with speaking up.

Carol Bruneau

Maud, like most artists, lived by her imagination, and given her favourite subject matter—birds, flowers, cats, oxen, and other animals—appeared to have been more at home in the natural world than the world of people. One of my sources, Beth Brooks—whose father, Bob Brooks, was the photographer whose images first introduced Maud to the broader public—believes the artist was mildly autistic. This might account for Maud’s astonishing ability to focus so completely on painting in spite of her miserable surroundings. And given her limited mobility due to crippling rheumatoid arthritis, it’s only logical that her inner life and ruminations would be intense. Assuming this let me approach her character creatively.

At the same time, I was determined to frame her story as accurately as possible within its very real social and historical contexts and the milieus Maud would have known. From these contexts I drew a vocabulary that felt authentic, reflecting her upbringing in Yarmouth and her rural, married life. The last thing I wanted was to have her and Everett come off as stereotypical hicks. Once I found the right language for her narrative—a mix of sophisticated expression and rural vernacular—I felt freer to explore and dramatize events in her life, real and invented, by having her reflect on these. The biggest liberty I took was having Maud speak from the grave—the only way I could include events in her rise to fame that happened after her death in 1970. Her perspective as a somewhat unreliable omniscient narrator gave me all the licence I needed to rise above (sorry) the constraints I’d felt in writing about such a well-known figure. As much as Maud’s language gives her character agency, it gave me permission to create a fictional narrative underpinned by her innermost, often subversive, musings.

Parallel to all this is Maud’s artistic practice, her artistic resourcefulness and the fact that she had a remarkable sense of composition and colour and line, despite being untrained. It’s only now that curators are beginning to treat her work as worthy of this sort of discussion. For me, voicing Maud’s artistic concerns and intentions in her vernacular adds to her agency—another liberty on my part, for sure, but not at all unreasonable.  

TC: Can you speak more about the specific research involved in putting it all together? Did anything you uncovered surprise you or change your understanding of Maud?

CB: The novel took three years to complete. I spent the first year reading everything I could find about Maud in print and online—and there’s a lot, though often the original sources are undocumented and unnamed. I tried to immerse myself in the culture of the times, particularly the visual culture Maud would have grown up in—the world of silent film, magazine cover art—and the music she would have listened as a young woman in Yarmouth and on the radio in Marshalltown. I relied on the generous help of Beth Brooks, whose research for an NFB film about Maud included interviews with people who had known the Lewises, and journalist Sandra Phinney who had collected anecdotes about Maud from people who knew her in Yarmouth.

A breakthrough moment late in the process was gaining access to the court documents surrounding Everett Lewis’s murder in 1979, an aspect of Maud’s biography most people don’t know about. Discovering the details surrounding this incident and the perpetrator’s conviction filled a huge gap in the narrative I was creating. It helped me put Maud and Everett’s impoverished lifestyle in a realistic, ongoing social context—the unromantic fact that rural poverty spawns more than uplifting art, it creates criminals.  

Ultimately, my research showed me the dark side of Maud’s life I’d only been vaguely aware of previously. In exploring her secrets and her foibles, I came to know, as much as a novelist can, the essence of her character—an essence that won my awe and a deep love and respect for the real Maud Lewis, and an appreciation for her paintings I didn’t quite have before.

The final surprise, the best moment of all, came the day I finished the final draft of the book—a lovely p.s., if you will. Through the quirks of Facebook I was put in touch, finally, with a friend and contemporary of Maud’s, a then 97-year-old resident of the Annapolis Valley who was more than able and willing to share her vivid personal memories of visiting the Lewises. This gracious, sharp-witted woman was delighted to speak about both Maud and Everett, and corroborated the things I’d heard and imagined about the couple and their relationship. Our conversation was the perfect grace note to end on.

TC: What aspects of the project were most fulfilling for you personally as a writer?

CB: Giving myself permission to take a well-known story and make it new—this was the challenge and the reward. Writing Brighten the Corner taught me the endless possibilities that fiction offers when a writer, this writer, is able and willing to get out of her own way. Thanks for asking!

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Excerpt from Brighten the Corner Where You Are

The first thing you need to remember is that I’m no longer down where you are, haven’t been down your way in years, in what you people call the land of the living. You could say I’m in the wind, a song riding the airwaves and the frost in the air that paints leaves orange. As the rain and the sunshine do, I go where I want. The wind’s whistling carries me, takes me back, oh yes, to when the radio filled the house with Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys singing “My Life’s Been A Pleasure.” Though I’m not sure I would go that far. Freed of life’s woes, these days I see joys that, in life, I just guessed up. If you know anything about me, you might be thinking, oh my, that one’s better off out of her misery. Which might be true, but, then again, might not. But I dare say, without the body I dwelt in and the hands that came with it, I wouldn’t have gotten up to half of what I did in your world, I’d have spent my days doing what you do. Where’d be the fun in that?

The best thing about up here is the view. Now, I’m not so high up that folks look like dirt specks and cars like hard candies travelling the roads. Nor am I so low down that you can reach up and grab a draught of me in your fist. Up here, no one gets to grab on to anybody, or be the boss. No shortage of bossy boots down your way, folks only too certain they know best. So it was when I lived below, in a piece of paradise some called the arse-end of nowhere. I wouldn’t make that kind of judgment myself. Mostly I kept to myself; for a long time doing just that was easy. Out in the sticks there are lots of holes to hide down, until someone gets it in their head to haul you out of yours. Next, the whole world is sniffing at your door, which isn’t always a bad thing. Like living in the arse-end of nowhere isn’t a bad thing, pardon this habit of speech I learned down your way. Habits die hard, even here. Except, here I get away with whatever I want, which is a comfort and a blessing. Comforts and blessings mightn’t be so plentiful where you are. Here, for example, a gal can cuss to her heart’s content and who is gonna say boo?

Reprinted with permission from Vagrant Press/Nimbus Publishing @2020 Carol Bruneau.

March 15, 2021
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