The Chat with Krista Foss

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With Half Life (McClelland & Stewart), Krista Foss has delivered a spectacular sophomore novel, one that entangles complex questions of generational trauma, aging, and resistance with physics, indie music, and Danish mid-century furniture. She’s on The Chat this week to answer questions about her new book.

Madeleine Thien says of Half Life, “Every sentence is alive in this miraculous novel—one in which the listening ear of Niels Bohr bends towards an aspiring physicist, where history walks beside science, and where a world ‘undaunted by paradox’ exists only in theory. What do we believe, and who, and why? How do we continue if denied the love entwined with belief? What if forgiveness itself becomes a lasting injury? Krista Foss has a vast heart. She is a stunning writer.”

Krista Foss is the author of the novels Half Life (2021) and Smoke River (2014) both published by McClelland & Stewart. Her short fiction has appeared in several Canadian journals as well as Granta (UK) and has twice been a finalist for the Journey Prize. Her essay writing has been published in Best Canadian Essays and won the Prism International Creative Non-Fiction prize (2016) and has been nominated for a National Magazine Award. She lives in Hamilton, Ontario.

**

Trevor Corkum: Half Life is your sophomore novel, the follow up to your powerful debut, Smoke River. What was it like tackling a novel the second time around?

Krista Foss: For the first four years after Smoke River, I worked on an entirely different novel. That manuscript was like a lint brush gone rogue, collecting anything in its path: grief, unexpected houseguests, IKEA renos and medieval anchoresses. When I finished a first draft, my daughter read it, looked at me and said, It’s a bit of a mess. She was being kind.

So, the short answer: this sophomore novel began with pain, an exquisite flinch in which four years of writing and research had to be immolated. And then my daughter pointed to a different story she felt was sniffing at the periphery of the other manuscript, like an indoor cat that wants out. She said, write that. And because the only other option was to get depressed, I started to write immediately, and in a fever banged out the first draft of this book in under two months. And then spent several more refining it.

 

And because the only other option was to get depressed, I started to write immediately, and in a fever banged out the first draft of this book in under two months. And then spent several more refining it.

TC: The novel follows the life of Elin Henriksen, a science teacher and single mother in early midlife. How did Elin arrive for you, as a character? What changes did her character undergo as you wrote?

Elin was created from a productive panic. Her story touches on what I was terrified to write. By starting with a character who was initially familiar—a middle-aged single parent of Scandinavian heritage not unlike myself—there was immediacy and no excuse to delay the writing while I pondered voice. I told myself I’d change the similarities in the next draft.

Of course, that was a con; what was familiar about Elin became inextricable to her story. And yet that story became quite distinct from what I know. As did she, taking on quirks and preoccupations, competencies and ways of thinking, backstory and bad fashion, until she was gorgeously imperfect and sui generis

So, she started out proximal, and by the end of the writing, she was someone I approached from a distance, as invented as any of my characters, and more interesting, more real, because of that.

TC: Resistance is as a central theme—personal resistance, political resistance, how we resist our own gifts and dreams and histories and fears. Can you talk about this a little more?

KF: It begins in the literal. Elin’s mother, Lilliana, is barely a teenager when she joins the Danish resistance during that country’s WW2 occupation by the Nazis. The adrenalized heroism of war marks her for life: years into a comfortable, safe existence in the US, she turns her need to resist inward on her family.

Elin’s resistance is different: she pushes back against other people’s versions of her, the roles they need her to fill in order for their lives and narratives to work. This includes the world of physics where women have been sidelined from its historical memory and glories. Ultimately, Elin has to resist her own fearfulness: she’s afraid of the uneasy paradoxes of truth telling, forgiveness, and love. She has to get past what’s relinquished to understand what’s gained.

Mette, Elin’s singer-songwriter sister, resists artistic classification, as well as a conventional lifestyle, and the bitterness that can come from being defined by a single artistic output.

Finally, there’s Elin’s daughter, Bets, who is young and principled in the face of oppression — including the subtle and less subtle kinds from her parent. Her resistance is bracing in its clarity.

TC: It’s also a portrayal of strikingly generational feminisms. What were the rewards and challenges of exploring three powerful women from very different generations—scientist Elin, her creative daughter, Bets, and taciturn political-agitator-turned-matriarch, Lilliana?

One of the rewards of writing are those symmetries that arise naturally from your characters which you can’t pretend to have intentionally or consciously orchestrated. This certainly happened with these three women.

Elin and Lilliana are both mothers who want to see themselves mirrored in their daughter. Elin and Bets are both daughters who don’t recognize themselves in their mothers. This inability to see their reflections, their lineage, is because their feminism and power is divided by context, generational and personal.
 
The challenge of writing such characters is nailing their voices and balancing what’s powerful within each of them with what’s vulnerable so they’re believable and dimensional. They betray each other in dramatic and subtle ways, and in doing so contradict their own feminisms. Yet there’s a subtext of love there even in the harshest of moments. That’s a tricky tightrope to dance along but makes for such satisfying writing.

TC: The book mines the world of Danish modern furniture—a world, I learned, of ambition and rivalry, idealism and despair. How did Danish furniture find its way into the novel, and what kind of research did you conduct to get the details just right?

KF: I grew up with Scandinavian modernist furniture. Nobody else in our neighbourhood had couches and chairs that were so uncomfortable and unforgiving. As a child, I remember lying on the carpet, looking up at the angles and curves, the dark teak and the beautifully striped fabric imagining prehistoric birds with aquatic plumage.

And then one day it was all gone. I have four siblings—we were big-boned, rowdy children—so we may have simply wrecked the stuff.  Our house filled up with this rough-hewn early Canadiana instead, just as uncomfortable, way more durable. I was bereft.

My mid-century modern infatuation waited for adulthood to reappear.

Once the physicist Niels Bohr showed up in this manuscript, a door was open for his Copenhagen contemporaries. Those included Arne Jacobsen, the architect responsible for iconic Danish furniture design, who also escaped to Sweden during WW2. I entwined their narratives with my characters Lilliana and Tig Henriksen, who meet as resistance fighters, get married, and emigrate to the US where Tig tries to emulate Jacobsen’s success.

There’s a large antique store close to my neighbourhood that specializes in vintage mid-century modern furniture, and for a mental break from writing, I’ll haunt the place, hankering after pieces I can’t afford. It has been going on for years. So, while I did book research on MCM design, much of that insight evolved from hours of pure material lust.
 
Shortly after I finished the manuscript, an Arne Jacobsen dining room set showed up in this store. I couldn’t believe it. Neither could I afford it. But for a moment, I did sit in one of his chairs. And then I bought a small rosewood end-table by an unnamed designer which I love just as much.

**

Excerpt from Half Life

There will be no next house.

The Lilli once told Elin that a home was something you have a relationship with – it’s possible to love it more than members of your family.

I go to sleep in a Frank Lloyd Wright house and wake up in one, The Lilli said. It doesn’t matter to me if anyone knows or not.

In fact, it had mattered. Elin overheard Aunt Petrine yell out at a dinner party – they’d all gotten drunk and vicious – that the Burnham Avenue houses were part of an ill-fated partnership between Wright and a Milwaukee developer to create a low-cost suburb on the outskirts of the old South Side. The company, American System-Built Homes, went bankrupt after only five homes were complete.

Prefab kit houses were beneath Wright, her aunt said, her tannin-stained lips wet and vulpine. Besides this neighborhood is getting dangerous.

Her mother uninvited Petrine to the next holiday dinner.

But not before Petrine dropped by North Bremen, and said only, Solid. Affordable. It will keep you dry.

She is still paying off the bathroom. The backyard needs landscaping. She’s ignoring the slight lift in the roof tiles at the right corner. The eaves leak.

Now she wishes she’d loved it more.

She could lose it all, Elin thinks. Even a small life can shatter.

Hon, did you get your purse back from the bar?

Bets is eating a bowl of milk-soggy cereal. Her lip and eye are crusted. One side of her face is mottled: yellow-purple, green-brown. Despite being underappreciated, the house is generous with sunlight; the kitchen fills with the soft heat of early summer.

You might get your friend Maya to call for you.

Bets gives her mother a baleful look.

Nobody takes a purse to a club, Mom. I had everything I needed in my skirt pockets. I lost my house key and my fake ID in the ruckus.

Elin crosses her arms.

No, the ID is not traceable to me, in case you’re wondering.

Relieved, still worried, Elin tries to be cheerful: she wants to ask Bets if she needs to talk through what happened, if she is angry or disappointed or newly afraid. But her thoughts keep getting sucked inward by the gyre of causality – a mother’s nemesis. Did Bets work in a bar because Elin had? Had those few guilty glasses of wine when she was pregnant led them here? And what about the freezing February night when Bets teethed with pugilistic rage and a desperate, exhausted Elin dipped her soother in gin? Her own mother gave them gripe water when it still contained alcohol: poor parenting’s damning epigenesis.

Paradoxically, this makes her want to yell at her daughter. How dare you? How dare you risk everything?

A glance at her phone tells her she can make her second-period class. Principal Preet’s reproachful mouth, the impatient foot tap, are to be avoided.

Can you call a friend to stay with you today, hon?

For a fleeting instant, someone smaller and hurt stares out through Bets’s eyes. As quickly, her daughter retreats behind the drawn bow of a pained smile.

Sure, Mom.

She may need space, Elin tells herself; this new Bets is someone she barely knows.

Excerpted from Half Life by Krista Foss. Copyright © 2021 Krista Foss. Published by McClelland & Stewart, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.
 

April 8, 2021
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