“I find it exciting, if sometimes also terrifying, to sit down to a writing session having no idea what’s going to happen. It’s like life,” laughs Emma Hooper (’03 BA, Creative Writing), author of the internationally acclaimed and distinctly Canadian novel Etta and Otto and Russell and James. Though not autobiographical, the story contains elements of her maternal grandparents’ lives, vividly brought to life in the stark, dustbowl landscape of Depression-era Saskatchewan, a province Hooper frequently visited as a child.
Water is both a destination and a unifying theme – opening and closing the novel, drawing characters toward, or away, from one another. Even in its absence, water is reflected in the languid rhythm of the words. At its core, however, Etta and Otto and Russell and James is a journey. “I’ve never seen the water, so I’ve gone there,” writes 82 year-old Etta to her husband Otto in the opening passage.
As with the characters in the novel, Hooper’s own journey encompasses both geographical and imaginative leaps. Recalling her writing studies at UAlberta, the Edmonton-born Hooper credits the program with stretching her creative wings. “The safe and encouraging atmosphere of those workshops made for fertile experimenting grounds. A lot of those experiments didn’t work, but some did, and in observing (and perhaps slightly adoring) my writing professors, I realized, hey, that’s a job I could do. That’s a job I’d even like to do!”
After receiving her PhD in Musico-Literary Studies from the University of East Anglia in England, Hooper now lectures in commercial music at Bath Spa University. She also plays gigs around the world with her solo musical project Waitress For the Bees, a name born of late-night word association games. “Even though it’s a kind of nonsense, there’s something a little bit magic-seeming about it,” she laughs.
The multi-instrumentalist began learning violin at age three, eventually switching to the viola, and later, the accordion, a 30-inch saw (with teeth), and various forms of electronic and vocal experimentation – a fluidity of expression that finds its way into her writing. Etta and Otto and Russell and James reads like a wave of music, surging at times, but unfailingly melodic.
Hooper says it’s about expressing two sides of her personality. “A lot of what I know about writing I learned from violin practice,” she says. “It’s all about tiny steps towards an eventual goal, so many steps away that what you do is forget, most of the time, about the whole, big, goal, and just focus on perfecting the tiny thing. The perfect bow-hold. The perfect sentence. The perfect open string. The perfect rhythm of words. Until, one day, you go to work and realize: you can play a concerto. You have written a novel.”
Hooper, one of the Guardian’s “New Faces of Fiction 2015” recognizes the difficulty of getting published. Etta and Otto and Russell and James is her third novel, and in spite of two previous unsuccessful attempts, this one sold in a “breathtaking” 12 hours. “It was insane, really. The biggest challenge up to that point had been perseverance, the biggest challenge after was believing what was happening was real!”
Next up for Hooper is an academic piece on vocal range in Disney princesses, as well as a novel set in — as the author describes it — “stormy, lonely” Newfoundland. “There are mermaids,” she says, smiling.