Raised in Alberta, Emma Hooper brought her love of music and literature to the U.K., where she received a doctorate in musico-literary studies at the University of East Anglia and currently lectures at Bath Spa University. She comes home to Canada to cross-country ski whenever she can. You can find her online at emmahooper.ca.
Shauna Kosoris: What inspired you to write your debut novel Etta and Otto and Russell and James?
Emma Hooper: The characters of Otto and Etta are inspired by, and loosely based on, my maternal grandparents. My maternal grandmother taught in a small prairie schoolhouse, like Etta, and my maternal grandfather came from a farm family of fifteen kids, like Otto. His hair all did turn white when he was over in Europe for the war. It’s a family trait, actually. I’ve got a natural white streak, and my brother does too… .
Etta’s journey has a very Forrest Gump-like feel once other folks start to follow her and bring her supplies. Was this intentional?
Ha! No, I can’t say any Forrest Gump relation was intentional, but I’m certainly not the first, or last, one to use this type of ‘inspirational journey’ plot… it’s a good one! I think it’s pretty much inevitable that people will find another book/movie/story like yours, no matter what you’ve written. There are only so many basic plots and basic character demographics, so I don’t mind so much. The content, the details, the style and the tone of the writing are the distinctive features, I believe.
Thinking of the details, why does Etta decide to go east to the Atlantic ocean?
Two quick answers for that: 1) Personal history (retracing Otto’s steps) and 2) The Rocky Mountains…
Oh yes, the Rocky Mountains would be a rather big obstacle when travelling on foot! While Etta is off on her adventure, Otto bakes through her recipe book. Are these recipes from a family cookbook?
Yes they are. They are my grandmother’s, and, like the ones in the book, the originals were full of little coded shortcuts and amendments that made it difficult for anyone but my grandmother to really get them right! Like Otto, I’ve tried the cinnamon buns so many times…though I wouldn’t say I’ve succeeded! Matrimonial cake/squares I’m better at. I’ve never tried the flax flower paste though…
You’ll have to give the paste a try! Along with writing books, you’re the solo musician Waitress for the Bees and a member of the string quartet The Stringbeans. Has music had any influence on your writing?
I think my musical background makes me overly sensitive to things like rhythm and pacing in my own writing. I can spend ages labouring over one sentence that’s perfectly okay in terms of grammar and content, but doesn’t have quite the rhythm, quite the right tempo. It pushes prose a bit more in the direction of poetry, I think (although I also think there’s no definite line there, no black and white. I like the idea of prose that reaches into poetry sometimes and vice versa).
So what are you working on now?
Putting the finishing touches on book two! It’s got mermaids…
That sounds exciting – I can’t wait! To finish up I have a few questions about what you read. What book or author inspired you to write?
One of the first ‘big kid’ books I remember reading was called My Daniel; it had something to do with dinosaur bones and the loss of a brother. I remember crying and crying as I read it and LOVING it. With that came the realisation that writing, books, could have this hugely potent impact that readers could let themselves go into.
Nowadays, I admire writers who play with magic and reality, and who embrace joy as well as suffering in their books. Examples are Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Karen Russell and Jonathan Safran Foer.
Is there a book or author that you think everyone should read?
Not exactly, no, I think everyone is allowed to have different tastes and things that will speak to them more or less. However, I do think that everyone should READ something! So, I guess my answer to the question is: Anything and everything!
That’s totally fair. Finally, what are you currently reading?
A nonfiction book, actually, which is fairly rare for me, called Bad Singer: The Surprising Science of Tone Deafness and How We Hear Music.