25th Trillium Award

Five Explorer Questions With Marianne Apostolides

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Marianne Apostolides' writing is something to behold. Nuanced, beautifully layered, it leads a reader to anticipate one thing, and then surprises them with another. Her book Voluptuous Pleasure (BookThug), was met with critical acclaim and rightly so. In it, Apostolides wrestles with the very nature of language - how it carries an inherent deception. We're grateful she was nice enough to talk to Open Book Explorer about her book ? even while in the midst of promoting her newly launched novel, Sophrosyne.

Open Book:

Voluptuous Pleasure begins with a Barthes quote on how the very nature of language creates fictional context. Do you consider narrative non-fiction as a form of fiction then, or is it more complicated than that?


Oh, it?s more complicated! But the very complexity makes ?narrative non-fiction? a fun place to play as a writer.

I?ll explain by giving an example: ?Coyote Pup? concerns a divorced mom who?s had an affair, and is doing her best to raise her young kids in a difficult situation. If I were to take the same material and write a fictional story, it wouldn?t resemble the piece I?ve written — not at all?. Why? In part because I?m constrained by the facts; I can?t conjure new people or settings to serve the story. But that?s almost a minor issue. Far more significant is my relationship to the reader.

As a reader, you approach a story differently when you?re told that its characters are actual people, not figments of a writer?s imagination. We have an intimacy, you and I; it?s an odd and intense intimacy — one which alters how I tell you what I know, and what I?ve felt, and what I?ve done.

But the reader isn?t entirely safe in this relationship! By writing non-fiction that slyly explores (and undercuts) the ways that narrative is constructed, I?m making my readers aware that they?re constantly constructing their own identity/ story/ meaning. Since we all do that, we?d better be sure we know we?re doing it, and know the risks of doing it, and know that we might be deluding ourselves in the process?.

In other words, I want to make narrative treacherous for my readers; I want them to feel like they?re standing on unstable ground. Keenness, alertness, awareness to the risk of story: that?s what I?m going for when I write non-fiction.


Can you tell us about how the book came about and your writing process?


The book began in the wake of 13 rejections for a manuscript I?d been writing for nine years.... It would?ve been very easy to give up writing at that point, but I?ve always been stubborn, and that character trait (or flaw?!) served me well in this case?.

I should explain: I?d written a manuscript about my father?s childhood in 1940s Greece. This was my second book, the first being a straight-up memoir about my struggle with eating disorders — a memoir that got published by WW Norton, almost as a fluke. I really knew nothing about the creation of narrative at that point; I was just writing by instinct and urgency. While that naiveté worked with my first book, it didn?t work with the manuscript about my dad?. The intricacies of the writing process trapped me; the manuscript wasn?t sure what it was, and I failed to handle the material with any degree of sophistication.

The rejections made me aware that I needed to build my chops as a writer. I decided, therefore, to write shorter non-fiction pieces. By working on a smaller scale — one incident, sustained over 20 pages — I could take risks with the narrative without extending myself too far (i.e., without moving beyond my capabilities as a writer). Stories like ?Layers? and ?Like A Cat,? for example, are intricate explorations of time?s movement and memory, using a complex narrative structure.

After I?d written a few pieces, I returned to the material from the failed manuscript. Not the manuscript itself (?that would come later?), but to the interviews and historical research. I wrote three more pieces, and suddenly I realized I had a book?.


Three of your pieces cover interviews with your father about his life in Greece during the Second World War and the simultaneous Greek Civil War. They also deal with his own father?s cruel death during that time. Bearing in mind Barthes? quote, and the context it may (or may not) create, how do you feel about the outcome of these stories? Do they read (to you) as a genuine representation of your interaction with your father? Of the events?


I?m not sure I?ll ever write anything that gives me as much satisfaction as those stories?. I could quit writing right now, and my literary life would?ve been worth something.

I hope those stories do two things:

  1. make the reader feel the fear, anger, and pain my father experienced as a child;
  2. make the reader feel the guilt and self-disgust I experienced in attempting to cull his stories from him, and to set them down in a book.

You?ll notice that my intention wasn?t to ?tell the truth? of my father?s story, or ?convey the reality? of the Greek Civil War, or even portray the development of my relationship to my dad. My intention was to use language to give the reader a physical, intuitive understanding of the trauma of a wartime childhood, and the persistence of that trauma into the next generation.


Your father?s remarkable story is also told in another of your books, The Lucky Child. Do you view that book as something disparate from the theme and structure of Voluptuous Pleasure?


As you can probably guess by now, The Lucky Child is a rewrite of the failed manuscript that was the impetus for Voluptuous Pleasure. These two books could not exist without each other. It?s as simple as that?.

After writing a draft of Voluptuous Pleasure, I took the Greece manuscript out of the filing cabinet, and had a go at it?. I ended up lopping off the final third and replacing it with a ?swirly? epilogue ? one that takes the style of ?The Subject of the Game,? the first piece in Voluptuous Pleasure. Without that epilogue, The Lucky Child would just be a story of wartime; with it, the book is shot through with an electric current, calling the reader to re-examine everything he?s just experienced in reading the book. In this way, the themes I?m exploring in Voluptuous Pleasure — namely, how do we construct the narrative of our selves and our lives — surge through the whole book. The narrative shape-shifts in the reader?s hands, right at the very end. I couldn?t have pulled that off it I hadn?t written Voluptuous Pleasure.


Greek philosophy plays a significant role in Voluptuous Pleasure (Socrates, Plato), and your new book Sophrosyne also (obviously) wrestles with a Greek construct. Does philosophy act as an impetus for your writing, or does it emerge as you write, prompting you to explore further?


Philosophy isn?t the impetus/ drive for my writing; instead, it?s like the loamy soil?.

Just so you don?t think I?m weird: a lot of philosophy is deadly boring to me. But some philosophers are gorgeous writers?. Deleuze, Nietzsche, the pre-Socratics, Plato: they use language to lead us toward the unsayable. This type of writing can be incredibly exciting?.

I tend to read philosophy most widely in the periods before I commit to a narrative. As I read, I can sense my own writing starting to stir?. I?ll take reams of notes, jotting down thoughts or drawing little diagrams that illustrate the movement of ideas. (?I know my mind is really stimulated when my journal is filled with pictures?!)

When I?m reading really good philosophy, I can sense myself alive with ideas and questions ? the desire to ask and explore. Eventually, those ideas/ questions start to become embodied by characters, forming something essential of their psyche or struggle. Or maybe a rhythm asserts itself as I scribble in my journal, and maybe this rhythm develops into the voice of a character — an idiosyncratic way of thinking. Or maybe it?s less direct than that. Maybe I just start to feel exalted by the endeavour of thought?. That desire to know is the origin/ source of my writing.

Marianne Apostolides is a writer and critic living in Toronto, Ontario. She is the author of four books, including Swim (2009), The Lucky Child (2010), which was long-listed for a ReLit Award, and the newly released Sophrosyne (2014).

For more information about Voluptuous Pleasure please visit the Book Thug website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

Check out our other Open Book Explorer Interviews in our archives.

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