A Conversation with Emma Richler,Author of SISTER CRAZY
Q: You are an actress with ten years of stage and television experience. When and why did you turn to writing?
A: I think I always meant to write, it’s possible, but it doesn’t really signify, because I was not ready until I actually started, and I started when the desire was too strong to ignore, that’s all. Although I was serious about acting and was lucky enough to play several good parts, I discovered, especially in times between acting jobs, that I needed and wanted writing more, and it was confirmed for me when I began work on SISTER CRAZY in autumn 98. This just feels righter than anything I’ve done before.
Q: Did your father, writer Mordecai Richler, influence you or persuade you to write as a child?
A: He never encouraged me as a child, no, but when I showed him my first story, ‘Talking Man’, he was very serious, and, I believe, quite chuffed. He certainly encouraged me to continue at that point, yes. My father does not mess around, writing means too much to him, and so I trusted he was right to give me the nod, so to speak, and on I went.
Q: You capture the voice of a little girl so splendidly that I wonder if you kept a journal when you were little and went back and read a couple entries in preparation for this collection.
A: I may have written scraps, off and on, in my teens, but they are lost to me now. Also, it would never occur to me to dip into them even if I knew of their whereabouts. I draw on childhood, of course, but it’s all a loot bag mixture of memory and imagination and not something I am all that conscious of, thank goodness.
Q: SISTER CRAZY is written in the first person, and like the narrator Jemima, you are the middle child in a family of five children, three boys, two girls. It seems only natural to assume these stories may be semi-autobiographical. Is there any truth in this assumption?
A: I know it’s kind of tantalizing to see it that way, maybe even provocative on my part, although I certainly never thought along those lines, the Weiss family simply fell into place in that shape. This is my first book but I daresay many writers operate in a similar fashion, that is, everything is up for grabs, everything that is available to you goes into the system somehow, you throw it up in the air and who knows how it comes down. You begin with what you know and feel and of course some details match up to life, but these are only ever the details, a piece of furniture, the colour of someone’s hair, a familiar expression. Everything is raw material and I could not tell if I tried, even if I wanted to, where and when imagination takes off and how it does what it does to experience.
Q: SISTER CRAZY is also the title of the short story largely about Harriet, Jemima’s younger sister. Harriet is slightly strange, bird-like, crazy about animals, overly fussy about one food touching another and spends much time prancing around and talking gibberish. Is this what you mean by “crazy”? Where does the title come from?
A: Harriet’s behaviour is the very light side of crazy, it is a launching pad maybe, for a story which is very much about a whole different kind of crazy, and it is an idea, with all its tortuous ways, that runs through the whole book, not merely that very story. This is the reason I chose it as the overall title, one, I believe, that works on many levels, some quite obvious, and others, I suppose, more elusive, which is a happy coincidence. And to my ear, at least, the title sounds fun to boot!
Q: Jude, only fifteen months older, is the object of Jemima’s affection throughout her childhood, and continues to influence her as an adult. He eventually leaves the family, and, in a way, betrays Jemima. Tell us more about their relationship.
A: I’m afraid I have to pass up on this question because up to now, all I know about Jude and Jem’s relationship is in the book and whatever else may come my way may very well evolve into some other book, I have no idea, but it is not really on offer for discussion or analysis, certainly not by me!
Q: Your stories abound with references to and summaries of films that Jemima watched en masse with her family as a child – The Wizard of Oz, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Un Homme et un Femme, Jules et Jim. There is also a cinematic feel to the imagery of your writing, the minute details, the jumping from one period to another, one place to another. Is this intentional? Is this your dramatic training and experience shining through?
A: When I read this question, I smiled because none of this ever occurred to me and I thought it was a fun observation on your part. That should deal with one issue, then, no, it was never intentional. I have been influenced, though, by storytelling of all kinds, from being read to throughout my childhood in a remarkably sensitive and vivid fashion by my mother who had experience as an actress and is a very expressive person. I also grew up in a family house full of books and reading and got thoroughly hooked, even taking up reading professionally in a publishing house here in London in recent years. I went to a French convent and read French literature at the Universite de Provence and my immersion in things French has also marked me deeply. There was a genuine enjoyment of cinema, theatre and music in our family and it is only natural it seeped in, in whatever the ways it did, and I have an enduring interest in the theatrical, coloured as well by my own more specific engagement in that world, although again, this operates on unconscious levels. I am not a technician!
Q: Jemima, as an adult narrator, is a loner obsessed with the wonderful, magical memories she has of her childhood. References of playing with knives and hospital stays as a young adult are juxtaposed against childhood games and sibling/parent relationships. It seems your collection of stories hinge on a woman trying to define herself against the backdrop of brilliant family memories. Do you agree with this conclusion?
A: Yup. I’ll stick to my original answer here, if you don’t mind. This really ain’t for me to discuss!
Q: SISTER CRAZY is composed of seven interconnected stories, symphonic in that they are separate, yet together complete a portrait of Jemima and her family. There are seven wonders of the ancient world, seven seas, seventh heaven, seven people in Jemima’s (and your) family. Why did you choose seven? And why this order?
A: That is very interesting, but I never chose seven. When I felt my book had come to a natural finish, there were seven stories. Of course it struck me as felicitous because there are seven Weisses and so on, but it was no guiding light of a number, as far as I know anyway. Same goes for the order, I wrote it as I felt and thought it, it’s as simple and as complex as that, I guess.
Q: Dad is a cowboy on the Western range, Mum is a good witch with druid roots, Jude is a cool knight on a quest with whom Jemima is in love, Ben is a gothic type with a preference for dark rooms, Harriet is angelic with a crown of blond curls, Gus is scientific and the baby of the brood. How would you describe Jemima?
A: A Fine Mess.
Q: You describe the intricacies of the Weiss family with sensitivity and poignancy, and with a strong voice that is both serious and comic. Will you continue to write? What is next for Emma Richler?
A: Thank you for appreciative comments! Yes, I am carrying on with this bloody hell of a crazy job and I am writing a novel now, but I cannot be more expansive than that unless you submit me to extremes of torture, such as drawing and quartering, in which case there will be no novel and some people may be quite sad to see me go. My mother, for one.