With her debut novel, The Dictionary of Animal Languages, Heidi Sopinka brings forth a lush and entrancing body of work about 92-year-old Ivory Frame as she revisits her past during war-era Paris. Glossi Mag chatted with Sopinka on her greatest inspirations and challenges for the book.
K: You spent some time in the Yukon as a bush cook and lived in France, much like the protagonist. How did these past experiences in your life shape writing for the book?
H: It’s funny because you only really see things in hindsight. I’ve had such a strange kind of trajectory with this book. I started as a bush cook, and that sort of led me to become a pilot because I saw the pilots there and they told me how much money they make. I thought, wow this is a great job to have as a writer because I could do that for summers and write for the rest of the time and be set up. So that led me to flight school in Texas, and an elite program that the government ended up cutting funding for. So then I quickly went to grad school and then dropped out when I realized it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I wound up in Southeast Asia where I wrote for a British travel guide publisher and began scuba diving. I was underwater so much that I got a strange ear issue which forced me to come back home, where I started writing for magazines. After having a baby, I had this strong image of an older woman working on a project, and started to write it because I had time and a baby who slept a lot. That’s how it began, and as I wrote it, I started to form parts of the book in a way that I wouldn’t have expected. There’s travel, there’s encounters with animals, there’s a pilot, and even the fact that a huge portion of the book takes place in Paris, where I wound up on maternity leave. It seems like the perfect trajectory now, but at the time seemed very wild and all over the place.
K: How did The Hearing Trumpet inspire this book?
H: I was at the library looking for an Anne Carson book, and I came across Leonora Carrington’s novel The Hearing Trumpet. I took it down, it was such a strange looking book, and I remember the blurb on the back of it that went something like “reading this book takes away the tedium of your day.” It was so strange and interesting, the protagonist in the book was 92 years old, which is the same age as the one in my book. That’s so uncommon to begin with. I looked Leonora Carrington up, and she herself was 92, and I realized I really wanted to meet her. My whole life I never really had a mentor, and I realized my entire interest in an older character was to write one into being. I’ve done so much reading, but I hadn’t really written one. So she prompted me on this whole other journey of going to Mexico City to hunt her down, another exciting trip which really shaped the book as well.
K: What did it mean for you as a writer to set the novel during the war? Was it meant to be a catalyst for things to fall apart in Ivory’s life?
H: Well, I suppose it did function as that, but to be honest the protagonist was born in 1917, and anyone who’s lived during that time has gone through at least one or two wars. The fact that she lived in Paris during that time period, she just had to encounter that. I think war is something that really shaped people then, and it’s hard for us to imagine the choices that people made during that time. I really like the notion that I have my grandfather’s memoirs in the book a little bit as well. I find it interesting how we are all such survivors, and how we all deal with our experiences. In the case of my protagonist, she chooses to not look back, she chooses to become a different person. So it certainly helped in terms of the writing, but it was just something she encountered in that time period.
K: For Ivory, throwing herself into her work seemed like a very isolating experience. Did you feel the same way writing this book?
H: I think when writing a novel, you really have to drop out. In our culture where you’re so connected to everything all the time, it really requires you to go into a quiet room and have no contact with anyone or anything. Because I have a family, I had to physically remove myself from my house to write. There were a couple times I stayed at a friend’s cabin up north, alone in this forest. I really felt like my character at times, listening to birds in the morning, and the creeks in the trees at night, and how it felt so alone to have the sounds of nature surrounding me.
K: So do you recommend cutting yourself off from the world to bring your art into fruition?
H: Absolutely. I think it was Graham Greene who once said “you always have to have a sliver of ice in your heart.” You have to be such an observer of things, but in order to write about that, you have to remove yourself entirely which is a bit odd in our society. But I also think that all thinking and feeling people should spend time alone. And it’s not mystery, you will end up with something if you do. You might not like it for a while, but eventually you will. I do think an important part of the process is to go away and come back when you have something to show for it.
K: Have you ever had a friendship similar to the one between Ivory and Tacita?
H: I have a really close friend, Claudia Dey, who I have a fashion line with, and that’s such an inspiring friendship. I think sisterhood, and especially during a time when you’re still figuring out who you are is so special and valuable. I really wanted to capture having a friendship like that in a moment where you’re just coming into yourself.
K: You mentioned your fashion line, Horses Atelier. Do your interests in fashion and literature inspire each other or are they two separate things in your life.
H: I do think they are separate things, but as a result they feed off one another. It’s really amazing to spend a lot of time alone in a room writing, and it’s such a solitary and sedentary discipline. Design is the dead opposite. You’re in a room full of people, it’s super visual and collaborative. It’s really in the world, it’s very immediate, and you see things right away. It’s weird when you’re by yourself for a long time writing, and it’s nice to switch gears and show myself in something visual. I love how each of them makes you long for the other and makes you better at the other too.
K: Do you have any other projects on the way?
H: I have another novel on the way that I’m starting right now with my publisher in London. I’m excited to start something that’s wildly different than this book.