Format: Hardcover, 176 pages
Publisher: Random House Canada
ISBN: 978-0-307-36000-7 (0-307-36000-8)
Pub Date: July 26, 2011
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When did you first learn of confabulation as a symptom of brain disease, and what was it that inspired you to explore this phenomenon in a novel?
I read about confabulation in a beautifully written book by Paul Broks, called Into the Silent Land. The book centres on clinical examples of neurological disorders. The difference between Broks’ book and others of its kind is that he is a beautiful, poetic writer, and he took me into the mysteries of the brain in such a profound way that I knew I had to somehow delve into them myself. I’ve always been obsessed with the workings of memory, and my books have explored this theme in many ways. Anna’s particular take on memory was a joyful, playful way to engage as a writer. Her disorder allowed me to explore language in a way that set me free. I loved the process.
How did you come up with the idea to include Mike’s pictographs in the book, and what was your process for collaborating on them with Aleksandar Maćašev?
In exploring the nature of language, I wanted to show how words are often inadequate as a means of expressing our emotions. We rely a lot on words and talking, but there’s so much more going on when we communicate. I wanted to represent that in a novel – to write a novel that explored the inadequacies of its very building blocks. A wonderful challenge. I came up with an idea for an international language for human emotions, the way we have international signs. I spent hours talking to Aleksandar about my ideas and what a feeling might look like if expressed in standard graphic design. I left the specific look of each sign up to him, but we collaborated on the content and the narrative development of the visual language. It develops from standardized (ISO 7001) to more figurative, and then the signs lose their frames, go off the grid, and end up challenging all the standards. Graphic designers will see some codes of visual language in the signs that others won’t. There are also references to art history in their progression.
Are there any tips you would give a book club to better navigate their discussion of Vital Signs?
For me the novel is about love and communication, and how difficult these two things can be in a long-term relationship. We can’t be certain whether what we perceive about another person, or what we think we know about them, is true, and the novel explores this uncertainty. There are three levels of narrative in the novel: what Mike says, what he wants to say (in italics) and what he relays through the signs. I would love it if readers saw how these three narrative threads are interwoven, how they do a kind of dance with one another.
Has a review ever changed your perspective on your work?
I’m always somewhat surprised at anyone’s reading of my novels, because the writing starts out so privately, and then by the time the novel is published I’m usually on to something else and there’s a big distance between my initial idea, what went on in the process of writing, and what readers perceive. I’m grateful for all interpretations and all dialogue with my work. What a privilege it is to have people engage with my writing, in whatever way that comes about.
What novels have inspired you as a writer?
This is always a very difficult question, because there are so many great writers that have inspired me, but current favourites change all the time, and I can never say how they leave their mark. These writers I love (there’s no order or logic here): Anne Carson, John Berger, Milan Kundera, J.M Coetzee, Michael Ondaatje, James Baldwin, Philip Roth, Arundhati Roy, Carol Shields, Wilson Harris, Ali Smith, Derek Walcott, Jean Rhys, Dionne Brand, Elizabeth Smart, Miriam Toews, Paul Harding, William Faulkner, Ben Okri, Marianne Wiggins, Louise Erdrich, Caryl Phillips, Doris Lessing, Gabriel García Márquez, Sándor Márai, Marilynne Robinson. I could go on and on!
If you were not a writer, what would your vocation be?
In my wildest dreams I am a musician – a cellist or a singer – and music would be my first choice, but I am shy, and not a confident performer. As a child I wanted to be an archeologist, and now I wish I had the skill and steady heart and head to be a doctor working for Médicins Sans Frontières.
Are you working on any new fiction now?
I’m writing a novel that involves four different ways of looking at love.
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