The Cora Siré interview

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In Fear the Mirror, Cora Siré brings together thirteen stories of moments that have marked the dark intersections within the Montreal author’s own personal history. A feminist mother who fled Estonia. A father who arrived in Canada with nothing but a violin. A Catalan boy whose parent is dying. A love triangle among novelists. Bodies stolen in the night and never found. Blending essay, memoir, and fiction, the Montréal author draws on her encounters in Latin America and elsewhere to compose loving and conflicted portraits – of family members, writers, filmmakers, and gravediggers – culminating in the persistent legacies and strange alchemies that haunt the person she sees in the mirror.

Cora Siré is the author of five books, including Fear the Mirror recently published by Véhicule Press. Her fiction, essays, and poetry have appeared in anthologies and magazines in Canada, the US, Mexico, and Europe. Author website: www.quena.ca.

What were the research and editing stages for Fear the Mirror?

There are thirteen stories in the book – some memoir, some fiction, most to some extent autobiographical – and each story required its own specific research. On the memoir side, I had to unearth family papers such as my mother’s letters referred to in the title story of Fear the Mirror. These letters were written after the murder I describe in the story, and it was a fraught process, emotionally, to read them and decide which excerpts to include in the book. I also went back to photos taken during my childhood to pick up details and clarify my memories. Some stories required research into the setting, time period, or referenced art forms. The book is filled with songs, films, poets, and I had to make sure I got their significance right. Once the manuscript was accepted by the publisher, Véhicule Press, I had to complete several rounds of edits over many months – redrafting the stories, determining their order, polishing the prose. I’m extremely grateful to my editor, Dimitri Nasrallah, whose literary instincts and insights were instrumental. He was also patient and kind so that my confidence was never shattered in the process.

“In service to the reader, I try to allow them the space within a story to project their own emotions, a process that, when I’m reading, gives me great satisfaction.”

What was it like as an artist to unearth so many bits and pieces of your bloodline?

Chaotic and exhilarating. As if I were building a scaffolding, the structure of the book, while working on a giant collage, piecing together the fragments, shifting them around on this internal canvas only I could see, a creation which could be called “the story of where I belong.” Certain elements made me frantic – partly because they revealed the extent to which I’m a misfit, neither this nor that. Because of my mixed origins, because of the colliding vectors of Canadian, European and Latin American influences that have formed me. Also, coming from a long line of refugees who lost everything in their displacements, there were inevitable gaps as well as mysteries I explored in writing Fear the Mirror.

How would you describe the city of Montreal to someone who has never been?

I would describe Montréal as an island of many neighbourhoods each with its own sensibility and character. I’ve written a sequence of poems about the place in my latest collection, Not in Vain You’ve Sent Me Light, and there are several stories in Fear the Mirror in which I celebrate the city. For example, in “Braver Than Anyone” I call Montréal a city of exiles where poets gather to listen to other poets. In “Rasputin Red” the city is seen from the point of view of an outsider, Lazarus, who’s a collage artist living a precarious existence. When he first arrives, Lazarus thinks Montréal appears to resemble an eye beneath the bulge of the mountain, the eyebrow. Later he revises his analogy: Montréal is like many eyes, an argus of sorts, depending on where you live. Sometimes the eyes are friendly, seductive even, other times cold and dismissive.

When writing, how do you keep the focus on the emotional core of the overall story? Is that something you’re conscious about?

It’s tricky because there are usually multiple layers of emotion underlying a story. While I’m conscious of emotional texture, I’m also striving for authenticity. By this I mean what’s been described as a kind of dangerous honesty that reaches for narrative truth, allowing the reader to sense the underlying emotions of a story without necessarily spelling them out. I also like to weave in humour or irony. In service to the reader, I try to allow them the space within a story to project their own emotions, a process that, when I’m reading, gives me great satisfaction.

Who were the toughest characters to write in Fear the Mirror?

My mother, no doubt. I circle into her from various angles and in various stories in the collection, trying to do justice to her complexity. She was a feminist and devoted to our family, so there was a push and pull to her presence in my life that had much to do with her sense of ambiguity around her role as a mother. It sounds awful, but the truth is it’s easier to write about family members once they’re no longer alive. On her deathbed, my mother said, “There are some secrets that I’m taking to the grave.” This has haunted me, partly because I regret not asking her precisely what secrets she meant. But I was pretty young and scared in that moment. My mother had such high standards, both in literary terms as well as humanistic ones, I do wonder how she’d react to my stories.

Many new authors have no idea what to expect after a book has been accepted for publication. What is the best advice you could give a new author as they go through this phase of their journey?

I’m very careful about doling out advice, just because I’m still figuring things out myself and also because every author’s experience is unique. In my case, once a manuscript has been transformed into a book and I’m holding it in my hands for the first time, there’s usually a combination of euphoria and dread. I feel incredible gratitude to the publisher and editor involved – it takes a huge, concerted effort to make a book – but I also worry about how the work will be perceived. There’s usually a launch and that’s fun, even if it’s virtual because of the pandemic, and then there’s … radio silence, for a while. That’s when a whole new skill set comes into play. Writing is solitary work while promoting means going out there and sharing yourself which can be hard if you’re an introvert. Plus the book inevitably exposes a part of yourself that may have been hidden until now, so there’s some fear around that. Psychologically, I try to detach myself from the book, consider it a friend rather than an extension of me, and do everything I can to support the book without letting the response to it define my emotional state. That’s what I tell emerging authors who ask me about this: treat your book like you would a good friend and be as supportive as you can, put all your energy into helping your publisher promote the book, but without selling your soul.

What are some books/authors you would like to recommend?

I’ll start with my community of authors here in Montréal, a veritable chorus of creative brilliance. There are so many ingenious writers living here who are working in French, English, but also Spanish and other languages. To begin with, authors writing in English, I would recommend books by Su J Sokol, Sharon Lax, and Caroline Vu. Also, the novels by Dimitri Nasrallah, my editor for Fear the Mirror, including his latest book, Hotline. Rana Bose is another excellent novelist I would recommend. His latest book, Shaf and the Remington, will be launched very soon. There are also so many fine poets in Montréal, such as H Nigel Thomas and Kaie Kellough as well as Greg Santos and Klara du Plessis. Also, I would mention Sina Queyras who has a new book of prose just out, Rooms: Women, Writing, Woolf (Coach House Books).
Among authors writing in French, I would recommend works by novelists Larry Tremblay and Alexie Morin, and by poets, Louise Dupré and Flavia Garcia. Some of their books have been translated into English, and there is more and more work being translated from English into French as well, thanks to a flourishing community of literary translators here in Montréal. A phenomenal local author writing in Spanish is Gloria Macher who has published five novels as well as a collection of stories and a poetry collection.
I’d also recommend some of my favourite Latin American writers, just because they’re doing a lot of really stunning work with an intensity that’s intriguing and resonant. I’m thinking of authors like Alejandro Zambra and Benjamín Labatut, both from Chile.

What are you working on next?

I’m working on a new novel. The story was triggered by both the reckonings from the MeToo movement and the divisive threats posed by the far right. Through a series of encounters and adventures, my main character goes from having given up on herself to find the possibility of self-illumination. It’s about the powers of the imagination, and the extent we can channel them to shift from a state of rupture to rapture in our fractured world.


3 thoughts on “The Cora Siré interview”

  1. This quietly reflective interview feels like an intimate conversation where one listens intently under an open sky. Thank you, James M. Fisher, and Cora Siré, for this honest and insightful offering. Can hardly wait to dig into the book.

    • The interview piqued my attention –
      It seemed Itself to be a well crafted short story.
      Having timed out three times on the verification for a comment I wonder at others presentation skills!
      It sounds as though Lazarus could very well be chief metaphor maker…and then the names of so many other authors from the area!?
      Rich treasures indeed.

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