By Janet Somerville
Recently longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, Claire Cameron read an early scene from The Bear, where a quick-thinking father puts Anna (age 5) and Stick (age 2) in a large metal cooler when a black bear invades their campsite in Algonquin Park. Squished inside “Coleman,” Anna holds her teddy bear Gwen for comfort, and observes, “I see stars and the wind is not breathing…. Outside the bones go crack crack crack…. It smells like rotting leaves under the cottage or fish guts in the boat. Yuck.” In her five-year-old stream-of-consciousness narrative, the bear’s wet nose reminds Anna of the leather chair at her grandpa’s place, and the lemon polish his housekeeper uses to make it shine. That thought comforts her in the face of fear.
Karen Russell, named a MacArthur Foundation Genius Fellow in fall 2013, applauded Cameron’s “shout out to lemons in The Bear,” and about her short fiction collection Vampires in the Lemon Grove, said, “It’s not even a metaphor. There are vampires in the lemon grove.” When she visited Sorrento, she saw “a tiny Italian grandfather with a lemon rind for teeth. He looked like a vampire on methadone.” Self-deprecating, warm and delightful Russell read from the titular story, in which the narrator explains, “Most people mistake me for a nonno with a tan that will not fade until I die and I never will.” In the lemon grove, Santa Francesca’s limonetta is the best on the planet, and the only drink that can touch his unquenchable thirst.
Helen Walsh, whose fourth novel, The Lemon Grove, was just recently published, claimed she still had not mastered the art of providing a précis, and was grateful to Emily M. Keeler for doing just that. It’s a contemporary tale of lust, set in Mallorca, told from the third-person limited point of view of Jenn, about the summer holiday she shares with her husband, Greg, her adolescent stepdaughter, Emma, and Emma’s 17-year-old boyfriend, Nate. Jenn finds herself “constantly adjusting to the weathervane of Emma’s moods,” and it is such tension between the two female characters that Walsh plays out so brilliantly.
During the open Q&A, each writer explained the challenges of and motivation behind their pieces. For Cameron, writing in the voice of a five-year-old meant the first draft was “more like acting.” She did not plot it out, but rather “threw obstacles in front of Anna.” And, before she began giving public readings from The Bear, she worked with a voice coach from Soulpepper Theatre, who had her “sing passages and work on my breathing… find new ways to be humiliated.” Russell “had fun playing with the vampire conventions.” Originally she was “thinking about an addiction story where bloodlust is undiminished, but blood won’t fix it. It is a difficult truth about desire.” Walsh needed “some light in my life. It’s in a different landscape for me, so the language evokes Mallorca.”
Spending time in the vibrant imaginations of all three writers was a heady antidote to the never-ending dreary cold of this Toronto winter.
Follow Janet Somerville on twitter @janetsomerville.