Jane Urquhart’s newest novel is The Night Stages, an elegiac work of unusual depth. She was kind enough to spend some time indoors from the beautiful Canadian summer to answer a few questions about her life and love of reading.
Who would you say is your ideal reader?
I suppose my ideal reader would be one who is willing to let me take them where I want to go. I am also interested in any reader who has an ear for the cadence in a sentence. And, of course, all readers who find themselves visualizing while they read.
What’s the earliest memory you have of writing a story?
I cannot remember writing my first story, but I do recall constructing my first poem at about 5 years of age. Heavily influenced by Mother Goose, the process involved a frantic inner search for a word that rhymed with “market.” In the end I solved the problem by introducing a barnyard animal clever enough to “drive a car and parkit.”
Can you remember the last book that made you cry?
Beloved by Toni Morrison. I can recall exactly where I was when I was reading this, and I can remember being shaken by my own reaction as well as by the effect the book had on me. The darkly powerful relationship between mother and daughter both disturbed and enlightened me.
The book was also an awakening for me. Reading it all those years ago, I was conscious for the first time of what an enormous act of the imagination a work of fiction can be, and how emotionally risky that act sometimes is, both for the writer and the reader.
If possible, can you send a photo of your bookshelf? What makes these books meaningful to you?
I am hopelessly disorganized and never sort or file books, so it is a surprise to me that part of this portion of my bookshelf represents a cross section of writing from geographies that have been important to me over the years. There are the William Trevor Novellas from Ireland, A World of Love by Elizabeth Bowen, Colm Tóibín’s Mothers and Sons. There are Canadian titles as well; Margaret Atwood’s story collection Moral Disorder, and Penguin paperback collections of Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant (I wrote the introductions for these.) And then a very old dark green book called The Picture History of Canadian History, by the author and illustrator C.W. Jeffreys, filed, purely by chance, right next to Landscape and Western Art by Malcolm Andrews.
Added to this are two books that likely would have been among the texts that helped to inform my mind and soul when I was working on The Night Stages. They were written by brilliant female friends, who are not only wonderful writers, but wide and deep scholars. Victoria Glendinning’s brave, important, and moving Biography of Leonard Woolf would have increased my understanding of a male creative mind working in company, and Anne Pippin Burnett’s electric Pindar’s Songs for Young Athletes of Aigina helped me to appreciate the psychology and poetry of competitive sport, and the whole notion of victory.
Do you have a favorite literary character?
The dog in Chekhov’s Lady with a Dog. I love the fact that, although there is very little written about him, he is nevertheless central to the relationship that develops between the main players. I also admire the fact that his only line of dialogue is a growl.
What is the first book you ever remember reading (or having read to you)?
There were two actually, and I remember them both. The first was a Big Little Book, written by Margaret Wise Brown and illustrated by Richard Scary, and called The Little Miners. I expect that I remember it because I was born in a remote northern mining settlement and everyone around me was in some way or another associated with the mine, the headframe of which I could see out my bedroom window. This book would have affirmed my daily life and made it magical in a way it might not have been had no one chosen to illuminate it.
The second was Ferdinand the Bull, by Munro Leaf with drawings by Robert Lawson. This book had a very different effect on me, introducing me to a world I knew nothing about. We had no castles, no bull rings, no perched villages and no bulls—not even cows or fields—in northern Ontario. This book described another, distant place, that somehow outshone the one in which I was situated. And this would have been the first time, I suspect, that I would have heard the word “Europe” offered up as an explanation for the way things were in the illustrations and in the story.
Can you tell us what you’re reading now?
A History of Loneliness by John Boyne, and I am finding it a calm and sensitive unspooling of a very difficult narrative. It is also beautifully paced. There is enough time and space for the reader to fully enter the cloistered world of the narrator. It is a quietly compelling read.