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The Intricate Relationship Between Writing and Painting: An Interview with Canadian Author Pascale Quiviger

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Pascale Quiviger was born in Montreal and holds a Master's Degree in Philosophy as well as a degree in Fine Arts. She lives in England and Italy, where she paints, writes, and teaches visual arts. Her work has been exhibited in Canada and Italy.

She first entered the literary scene with Ni sol ni ciel (2001), a collection of six short stories. She followed this up with her highly acclaimed novel, Le cercle parfait (2003), which won the Governor General's Literary Award for French Fiction. The novel was subsequently translated into The Perfect Circle, in English, by Sheila Fischman and was shortlisted in the 2006 Scotiabank Giller Prize.

Pascale Quiviger spoke about the many facets of her work and the connections that run through them.

You are a teacher, a visual artist, and an author. How did it all begin?

I was passionately writing and drawing as a child, and it just never stopped. I have been encouraged by my parents in any way they could. I went on studying philosophy and painting; it just made sense to do so. I was reluctant to teach until I was 28. I was then harvesting grapes in a Tuscany vineyard and the neighbor kept showing up with a sketchbook to get some ideas for exercises. He started coming with a friend of his and said he knew ten other interested persons. I started teaching for them and more and more requests kept getting in. I thought that if I gave it a try I might be able to earn a decent living. I started traveling as a drawing teacher all around Italy and became quite passionate about it. It allows for very transparent relationships with people. Now I do not teach as much as I used to, only at ISLA, a private university in Siena.

Who would you say influenced you the most?

In life? My parents. Their value system, their struggles, their victories. Relationships with my siblings. One of my best friends, a Buddhist monk. And various others in which I could observe an overlooked form of courage. In writing, I would say Friedrich Nietzsche, Marguerite Duras, Paul Auster, Maurice Blanchot, Nicolas Bouvier, Christian Bobin, J.K. Rowling.

What drives you?

A blind faith in beauty. The quest for inner balance and broader horizons. Most of all, and very simply, I love writing and painting. When I can’t, I feel deprived.

Are there any links or connections between your work as a visual artist and your writing?

More and more. The Chinese tradition says that literature and painting have opposite qualities: literature must show concrete things with abstract tools; paintings must evocate the invisible with visible tools. I think of myself as surfing on those two crests, which are very complementary and seem to meet in a kind of middle way.

It brings me, for example, to write from very vivid mental images. Recently, I have also
started putting images with my words, in an art book and in attempts at illustrating my own children's stories. I also wrote unending texts about my paintings when preparing the two last exhibitions, one of which was actually inspired by Samuel Beckett.

So there is an intricate relationship between the two disciplines, both in the work and in the creative process. They even allow me to procrastinate with one when I feel stuck with the other. Adults have always told me that, sooner or later, I would have to choose between them; as a child, I wouldn't understand why, and I must confess that I still haven't.

What are your main concerns as a writer?

Trying to reach people in areas that they are often required to hide, hoping that it can be useful for them that words are being provided. As with painting, writing is an activity in which I feel true and it is probably the best way I can contribute.

Being faithful to what I am right now and to the specific way in which things move me. I couldn’t write the same book twice.

Trying to use each and every bit of inspiring material around me; sometimes a person, sometimes a landscape, sometimes just an object falling in a bin, or the angle of a clothesline. Going as far as possible when starting on one of those paths, not censuring myself nor fearing to go the wrong way. As a result, I write loads of crap but I have masses of fun.

How long did it take you to write the stories that make up Ni sol ni ciel?

It is very difficult to say how long is needed to write something. I could say that I started when I was two years old and finished when I was twenty-four. Technically, it took a year and a half to write the title story, and about two blissful weeks for the five others.

What would you say unifies the stories that make up the collection?

I discovered it afterwards. In all stories, the main character has a language problem that originates in a hidden traumatic memory.

Are there any plans for an English translation of the short story collection?

Not that I know of.

How was Le cercle parfait conceived? How did the idea of the novel come to you?

The novel needed to come out as a healing process from a broken relationship. It was combined with my newly discovered love for Italy. They merged in a narrative where a split character writes about herself in the third person for means of reconstruction. It was a difficult period for me and two friends insisted that I should sit and write something. My father told me to go get myself a notebook, and said he would pay for it even if it cost 50 cents. I didn’t have a computer at the time. I took a part-time job in the afternoon and wrote all morning.

How long did it take you to write it?

It took eight months to write the bulk of it, but I re-read it every six months for three years before I decided to submit it to L'Instant meme. By then, only a third of the original text remained. I thought that if I didn’t send it, it was bound to disappear completely.

What was the most difficult part of the work that went into the novel?

Distancing myself from the pain. Trying to transform anger into irony.

Which did you enjoy the most?

Describing Italy.

How would you compare the collection of short stories to the novel?

The novel has less magical or synchronicity components to it, but it contains more hope. Italy confers a light to it, which I hadn’t experienced yet when writing Ni sols ni ciels.

Which would you say was easier or more difficult to write than the other? Why is this so?

Ni sols ni ciels was more difficult because I was filled with doubt about the value of the work. That it was later rejected by 13 publishers didn’t make it better. With Le cercle parfait, I just intended to heal, not to write a book, so there was an intrinsic value in my writing sessions, and that made it easier.

What was your first reaction when you heard that Sheila Fischman was interested in translating it into English?

I was introduced to her two minutes before I was told that she was likely to be my translator. I was absolutely charmed by her person and that made me all the more enthusiastic.

How do you feel about the idea now?

Sheila Fischman has been very generous in letting me take some part in the process, and there hasn’t been a sentence in which I haven’t felt understood and respected. She produced a great work and I am very grateful for the Giller nomination she brought to us.

In an article published in the Globe and Mail, Andre Alexis says, “A novel comes from a language and a tradition. It is written with a language (or languages) in mind, and taken from its original linguistic contexts, it does not have the same resonance, or the same meaning.” What are your views on this?

I agree that it does not have the same resonance or meaning, but this is not to say that it has none. The translation of Le cercle parfait into The Perfect Circle was my first experience in being translated, and I found it uncanny but not unfriendly. I discovered new things about my text, about my way of writing and about my syntax habits, as if they were suddenly revealed to me. It was fascinating to witness some changes of rhythm that were providing new colours to the background. I do think that a translation is bound to be in a different place, but I feel that Sheila Fischman took my words in a safe and familiar one. A good translation is bound to stand on its own and have a value in itself. Maybe a good translation is precisely one that doesn’t try to be an identical twin to the original text.

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