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Synopsis: A gorgeous literary debut about unlikely heroes, lifelong promises, and last great adventures.
The letter began, in blue ink,
I’ve gone. I’ve never seen the water, so I’ve gone there. Don’t worry, I’ve left you the truck. I can walk. I will try to remember to come back.
Otto finds the note left by his wife in the kitchen of their farmhouse in windswept Saskatchewan. Eighty-three-year-old Etta will be walking 3,200 kilometers to see the ocean, but somehow, Otto understands. He took his own journey once before, to fight in a faraway land.
With Etta gone, Otto struggles with his demons of war, while their friend Russell initially pursues the woman he has loved from afar.
And James—well, James you have to meet on the page.
Moving from the hot and dry present of a quiet Canadian farm to a dusty, burnt past of hunger, war, and passion, from trying to remember to trying to forget, Etta and Otto and Russell and James is an astounding literary debut about friendship and love, hope and honor, and the romance of last—great—adventures.
Q&A with Caroline Leavitt and Emma Hooper
Photo credit: Caroline Leavitt
Photo credit: Martin Tompkins
Caroline: I always want to know what sparked a particular book? What was the question that haunted you?
Emma: I think the question that drove a lot of this book was “Why not?” Why not walk 3,000 miles? Why not go find the caribou? Why not make paper maché animals until all the space in your yard and heart is filled up? These Why Nots are what built the story. First them, and then their partners, the just-plain whys. Okay, there’s no reason why Etta can’t walk all the way to the ocean one way or another, now we need to figure out why she’d want to... It was like a persistent three year old asking why? why? why? I suppose that’s a bit of a cheeky answer, because that’s, I imagine, how most every story is made, but, still, in this case, that’s what happened, my imagination said:
Why not have a character walk across Canada?
And my brain replied:
No real reason why not... now tell me why she would want to...?
And so on.
Caroline: This is your debut, and it’s an astonishing one. What was it like writing this book? What kind of writer are you? Do you make outlines? Do you have rituals? And do you already have something else you are working on?
Emma: Writing this book was very... sporadic. I’ve got three other jobs, as a freelance musician, an academic at Bath Spa University and a violin teacher, so the writing of this book took place in all the little gaps and spaces in between other things. Lots of writing on the train! (I’m actually writing these answers to you on the train right now... :) ).
I don’t make outlines, I prefer to start each writing session having no idea what’s going to happen next... keeps things interesting for me, and I think the spontaneity allows for a more vibrant, living story. I do have a lot of organising ‘helpers’ tacked up around my desk and office though. For this book I had a big piece of paper with the names and birthdates of all of Otto’s siblings, for example... .
Because my writing takes places at all sorts of different times and in all sorts of different places (sound-checks for gigs are another good place to squeeze in a couple hundred words...) I don’t have straight-forward writing rituals. (Though I’m envious and in awe of authors who do.) I do have a few portable rituals though; listening to music is one of these. If I’m having trouble getting my head into the writing space I’ve got three or four musicians whose work I know puts me into the right zone; I’ll pop on some headphones and sink into writing that way, often.
And yes! There is something new I’m working on... it’s a new novel set in a tiny fishing island outpost off the coast of Newfoundland (which is itself off the eastern coast of Canada). It’s got mermaids and sea monsters and a lot of rain in it. I’m fairly in love with it at the moment...
Caroline:I love the whole idea of the persistence of love and memory. Otto struggles remembering the war. Russell, his friend can’t forget a particular woman. And Etta needs to see the ocean. hoping she can remember to come back. Can you talk a bit about memory and its relationship to the book, please?
Emma: In Etta and Otto and Russell and James I wanted to explore memory as it pertains to and shapes our ideas of identity. Our sense of self is built out of these stories we tell ourselves about ourselves in the past, and sometimes these stories and memories can get so heavy that they stand in the way of who we want to be or could be now. Etta needs to rewrite her memories so that they are hers and not overwhelmed by Otto’s. Russell needs to let his go so that he can move on and out and away.
Caroline: Etta is 83-years-old and one of the most alive characters I’ve read. Tell me how you went about crafting her.
Emma: Well, Etta and Otto are both loosely based on my maternal grandparents. My grandpa did come from a farm family of 15 kids and his hair did go white after his trip to the World War Two front, and my grandma did teach in a tiny prairie school. Many of the recipes included are her own as well. Of course much of Etta’s character is fiction too; I think she is who I want to be at eighty-three.
Caroline: What’s obsessing you now and why?
Emma: Sea monsters! Both real and mythical. The giant squid is particularly fascinating; I was recently at a film festival where I got to be in a room with one of the only two people ever to have seen a live one. Ever! He said it was shining gold in colour. Amazing. I love that there are these real life magical things still being discovered and explored.
Caroline: What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
Emma: Hm... lots of people ask: “what actually happened at the end of Etta and Otto and Russell and James.” But I believe pretty strongly in Barthes’ idea of the death of the author (as in, interpretation is the key to truth in art, not authority authority), so I wouldn’t have answered anyway. So I guess that’s the question I’m glad you didn’t ask...
As for what you should have... maybe what’s for lunch? Because I think that’s an excellent question and I do not know the answer, but wish I did...
Title: Etta and Otto and Russell and James: A Novel
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication Date: 2015
Book Condition: Used: Good
Book Description Simon & Schuster, 2015. Book Condition: Good. Former Library book. Shows some signs of wear, and may have some markings on the inside. Bookseller Inventory # GRP80635871
Book Description Simon & Schuster, 2015. Book Condition: Good. Shows some signs of wear, and may have some markings on the inside. Bookseller Inventory # GRP82238712
Book Description Simon & Schuster, 2015. Book Condition: Very Good. Ships from Reno, NV. Great condition for a used book! Minimal wear. Bookseller Inventory # GRP92676253
Book Description Simon & Schuster. Hardcover. Book Condition: GOOD. book was well loved but cared for. Possible ex-library copy with all the usual markings and stickers. Some light textual notes, highlighting and underling. Bookseller Inventory # 2762140095
Book Description Simon & Schuster. Hardcover. Book Condition: GOOD. Gently used may contain ex-library markings, possibly has some minor highlighting, textual notations, and or underlining. Text is still easily readable. Bookseller Inventory # 2795381378
Book Description Simon & Schuster. Hardcover. Book Condition: GOOD. Good clean copy with no missing pages might be an ex library copy; Possibly may have minor marginal notes and or highlighting. Bookseller Inventory # 2795827163
Book Description Simon & Schuster. Hardcover. Book Condition: Good. Ex-Library Book - will contain Library Markings. Minimal damage to cover and binding. Pages show light use. Bookseller Inventory # G1476755671I3N10
Book Description Simon & Schuster. Hardcover. Book Condition: Good. Ex-Library Book - will contain Library Markings. Book shows a small amount of wear to cover and binding. Some pages show signs of use. Bookseller Inventory # G1476755671I3N10
Book Description Simon & Schuster. Hardcover. Book Condition: Good. This book has a light amount of wear to the pages, cover and binding. Bookseller Inventory # G1476755671I3N00
Book Description Simon & Schuster. Hardcover. Book Condition: Fair. Ex-Library Book - will contain Library Markings. Bookseller Inventory # G1476755671I5N10