Ottawa author Elizabeth Hay launches her new novel, Alone in the Classroom, on April 28 at the Ottawa International Writers Festival. In her first book since winning the Giller Prize in 2007 for Late Nights on Air, Hay tackles “the hurts and desires of childhood.”
INTERVIEW BY PAUL GESSELL
What are the origins of Alone in the Classroom?
There were several things. My mother’s difficult childhood in the Ottawa Valley; a story she told me about a schoolmate who was raped and murdered; her impressions of her high school principal, who was a very strange man. Also a leftover story from when I did the research for A Student of Weather, about a renegade principal in a rural Saskatchewan school whose treatment of a student haunted me. I wanted to bring these stories together. At issue for me was the way childhood wounds play themselves out over time and the way school shapes us as much as our families do.
Is this the darkest book you have written?
There’s an incident in a classroom between a principal and a pupil, a very disturbing incident. Let’s call it punishment gone wrong. Is it a dark book? Some terrible things happen. But the central characters are strong. How people shoulder their sorrows and carry them through life is a fascinating subject.
Part of the story is set in 1930s Saskatchewan, as was part of A Student of Weather. Why are you so fascinated by that time and place?
I first saw southern Saskatchewan from a train when I was about 20, then from a bus, and it made a huge impression: vast sky, slightly rolling prairie, and nothing to impede the view. It seemed to wake up some earlier, deeper, half-forgotten part of me. This sort of thing happens so seldom that you have to pay attention and keep returning to it.
Has winning the Giller affected your writing?
The stakes are higher, it’s true. I’m aware of that. But the goal is the same. I’m always trying to pull off something that will seem natural, seamless, organic. I have an excellent editor. I rely on her to tell me what needs more work.
You will do a reading at the writers festival. What makes a successful “performance?”
I try to give an audience something real — not just a passage that holds their attention, but some of my thoughts as I wrote the book. I try not to waste their time.