The Carol Bruneau Interview

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Carol Bruneau is the Halifax-based award-winning author of several excellent novels, most recently Glass Voices (2007) and These Good Hands (2015). Nimbus/Vagrant Press will soon release (September 2017) A Bird On Every Tree, a collection of her short stories that I thoroughly enjoyed. As busy as she is promoting her new book, writing and enjoying summer, she graciously took some time to answer some questions about her background, favourite books and what we can look forward to seeing from her in the near future.

Miramichi Reader: Tell us about your background, education, employment, etc.
Carol Bruneau: Born and raised in Halifax, I have an MA in English from Dalhousie and an MA in Journalism from University of Western Ontario. I wanted to be a writer from age 7, then took a while to get to it. Before I started writing fiction I worked as a photo-editor with The Canadian Press in Toronto and after a brief career in journalism, while raising my three sons, began teaching writing. The job at CP taught me to see stories visually—a great asset. Teaching, especially at NSCAD, an art college, has taught me a ton about the creative spirit and visual art—all invaluable and all connected with writing.

MR: Tell us about some of the books or authors or other people (such as teachers) that may have influenced you to become a writer.
CB: Lucy Maud Montgomery and her Anne and Emily books were my earliest influences (along with Nancy Drew). As a teen, I loved Thomas Raddall’s novel Hangman’s Beach, because it’s set close to where I grew up and still live. Then came Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women, a huge influence, and while I was an undergrad at Dal, William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. Its narrative voices and approach to story enthralled me and still do, as they have many writers. I was blessed all through school to have great English teachers, especially Flossie Johnson in high school, and at Dal, Malcolm Ross, editor of the New Canadian Library, who was a brilliant and generous mentor and supervised my thesis on Milton Acorn. (Both these educators hailed from New Brunswick, I might add.) 

“I love travelling and all the stories set abroad were inspired by experiences in these places. I can’t set a story in a place I haven’t been—guess it has to do with my need for “accuracy” or authenticity, as much authenticity as you can get being on the outside looking in.”

MR: Let’s talk about your newest title, A Bird on Every Tree. It’s a collection of short stories, but are they all new, unpublished works? If so, over what period of time did you write them?
CB: The collection was written over ten or twelve years, and a few of the stories appeared first in literary journals while others were contributed to regional anthologies. Most if not all had lengthy gestation periods, mainly to accrue the insight and experience I needed to figure out their meanings. Often I’ll start with a key event or image, but then it can take years for the story to grow around it. Or, more precisely, for me to get why I should care about it, and then, why a reader should. Now there’s the trick.

A Bird on Every Tree is available for pre-order at Amazon.ca.

MR: In my review of A Bird on Every Tree, I commented that you must have visited all the different locales your stories are set in (Germany, France, etc); they are that vivid and full of little details only a person who has been there would know. Is that the case? Do you like to travel, and what are some of your favourite places?
CB: So happy you asked this. Yes, I love travelling and all the stories set abroad were inspired by experiences in these places. I can’t set a story in a place I haven’t been—guess it has to do with my need for “accuracy” or authenticity, as much authenticity as you can get being on the outside looking in. Still, I absolutely need to know what the air’s like in a place, the light, the smells, the slant of the sun, the all of it—whether it’s a gulag-like studio space in Berlin, a holy shrine in the Pyrenees or a no-star hotel in Florence. Because Halifax is small I love visiting large cities, in Europe the older the better, especially Rome. Most of all I love what I’ve seen of southern Italy, especially Sicily, and Naples is my favourite city—so beautiful, so filthy, so rampant with decay yet wildly life-affirming. I also love France of course, particularly Paris, Avignon and Poitiers, where I spent a fair bit of time doing research for my last novel, These Good Hands.

MR: Do you find time to write while vacationing?
CB: No, I don’t even try to, besides keeping a detailed daily journal. Trips are my prime time for being absolutely present in the world instead of being largely in my head.

MRDo you have a favourite book, one that you like to revisit from time to time?
CB: This is embarrassing—I have many favourite books but they change all the time, and unless a really great one leaves me stumped first time around I seldom read books twice. My excuse is that I read slowly, lingering over all that captivates me, first for pleasure, then to try and figure out how the writers did what they did. Two favourites from the past year are George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo and Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. That said, there are three novels I know I’ll re-read someday and maybe even again and again: Marilynne Robinson’s trilogy Gilead, Home and Lila.

MR: If you could write a biography of any person, living or dead, who might that be?
CB: My ancestor, Catherine de Baillon, one of Louis XIV’s filles du roi, who was sent from Paris in 1669 to help colonize Quebec. Of minor nobility, she married, had six children, and died of a plague, probably smallpox, the same day as her husband in 1688. Her ancestry supposedly traces back to Charlemagne, and many people with French Canadian blood are her descendants. Tragic as her life must have been, evidently, it served quite a purpose.

MR: What are your favourite Maritime things (people, places, etc)?
CB: I’m a pretty private person, so am happiest hanging out with my family and my closest friends. To me, there’s no place finer than Crystal Crescent Beach in Sambro, NS, or  Dunvegan, Cape Breton, or along the Bay of Fundy, in Advocate or at Cape Split. I also love Saint John, NB, for its history and edgy atmosphere—the way it’s full of stories. But mostly I love walking in the woods and along the Atlantic coast close to my home. It doesn’t get better than that.

MR: What are you working on now?
CB: I’m revising a novel entitled Neverfail, forthcoming from Nimbus Publishing/Vagrant Press next year. And I’m working on a new novel that’s been simmering for a while, set in present-day Halifax.

MR: Finally, what do you like to do when you are not writing?
CB: I enjoy taking photographs—purely for fun, a hobby I love–walking my dog, gardening in a hit-and-miss sort of way, lazing around in the back yard sipping wine, hanging out with the neighbours, looking at art, listening to live music. I love just about any and all kinds of music as long as it’s played well.

A Bird on Every Tree is available for pre-order at Amazon.ca.

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