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Author Podcast: Lori Lansens

abstract:

Bookbuffet speaks with Lansens about her second novel, The Girls (Random House, 2005). Listen to the audio and follow along with the transcript. This is an author whose work you will want to follow.





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article:

January 20, 2006
The GirlsScreenwriter and two-book author Lori Lansens was born and raised in Chatham, Ontario where she has set both her novels.  She lives in Toronto with her husband and two small children.  Her first novel, Rush Home Road (Random House, 2002) has been the subject of major international activity and was nominated for the Commonwealth Writers Prize for best first book, and the Rogers Writers Trust Fiction Prize. 

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INTERVIEW

 

  • Part I:        Drama, Chaos and Rural Life
  • Part II:       Symmetry & Symbolism
  • Part III:      The Nature of Love
  • Part IV:      The Immigrant Experience
  • Part V:        Contemplation on Strangeness

This is a story about Craniopagus twins, Rose and Ruby, who are joined at the scalp and have no chance for surgical separation.  Their story is both a meditation on the intimacy of love and on the unstrangeness of being strange.  In the final analysis, we are drawn to all the same desires, needs, hopes, and fears. 

 

Part I: Drama, Chaos, and Rural Life

 

BB: Lori, the book opens with one of the most memorable scenes that I’ve read in a while, which is an unwed girl gives birth to conjoined twins in a rural hospital during a killer tornado.  You have three acts of god in the first chapter.  That drama, that chaos, that electric atmosphere are all highly cinematic.  I’m wondering if you can tell us whether the confluence of all those ideas come from or through your experience as a screenwriter, how that may have contributed to the crafting of such an evocative opening chapter?

 

LL: Thank you Paula.  Yes, of course, I’ve written dozens of screenplays over the course of over a decade so it’s inevitable that I bring this sort of cinematic touch to fiction.  But, I was very conscious as I was writing, I really wanted the reader to experience the birth of the girls in a very visceral way; to sort of charge the environment by visual description, and the flashlights and the darkness, as you mentioned, the chaos and the confusion; in fact, the crowning of the babies heads in the darkness and then the silence as the twins are delivered, and the shock and awe and wonder.  So yes, it certainly comes from my experience as a screenwriter.  But I wanted this very heightened sense, and I think it worked in terms of the symmetry of the novel.  From the very beginning we have this balancing act.  We have the freak tornado that heralds the birth of these very rare conjoined twins and these two formidable forces of nature.

 

BB: Yes, exactly.  Both of your novels are set in your rural hometown region and identify with the working class immigrant population.  The girls grow up, as you say on page 55, “not hidden, but unseen”, which I thought was a beautiful phrase. 

The big city and the border are day trips by car, and this is an interesting aspect of the book to me because in Canada so much of the population lives within 150 miles of the border, so I think everyone reading this book—on both sides of the border can relate to this phonemenon that you’re speaking of.  How important was this connection to the landscape for you in writing your books?

 

LL: Well, it was hugely important.  Obviously in my first book, Rush Home Road, Adie Shad, the main character, is a descendant of a family who came to Canada on the Underground Railroad.  Chatham was a terminus on the Underground Railroad.  There’s this history of bootlegging in the area, and it was the home of the Neutral Indians.  This rich history of that part of southwestern Ontario was something that I learned very early and something that became a part of me and its something that I’ve always been interested in.  So it was obvious with Rush Home Road, setting it in that area. 

But with The Girls, sort of less obvious but it will make sense when I explain that I sort of had to set this story in a small town, preferably a rural situation.  As you said, the girls were not hidden, but unseen.  They didn’t see themselves and their freakishness mirrored in the eyes of strangers everyday, as they would have if they had grown up in the big city.  So they were afforded the opportunity to have this sort of normal life, or to be accepted as part of this community even though they are outsiders. 

There is no shock upon seeing the girls.  They’re part of the town and part of the landscape.  There was this wonderful sort of theme that worked for me, that was this proximity to America; setting the story in this region that’s very close to the Detroit border, and this feeling that two separate countries conjoined by the Ambassador Bridge in this particular part of the world, this sort of assumption that they’re the same and they appear to be the same, as the girls would, but very different, with different points of view and worldviews, so it worked on a number of levels for me.

 

BB: Through not quite alternating chapters, the narration is done by the girls and you manage to define their distinct personalities.  Ruby, of course, is the smaller, somewhat prettier, appendage-like—I hate to use that terminology—twin who has somewhat stunted legs and clubbed feet so she, by necessity, is carried by Rose, the larger, intellectual sister; who in her verse introduction, I just love this, would you say the first paragraph for us?

 

LL:  I have never looked into my sister’s eyes.  I have never bathed alone.  I have never stood in the grass at night and raised my arms to a beguiling moon.  I have never used an airplane bathroom, or worn a hat, or been kissed, like that.  I have never driven a car or slept through the night.  Never a private talk or solo walk.  I’ve never climbed a tree or faded into a crowd.  So many things I’ve never done, but oh, how I’ve been loved, and if such things were to be, I’d live a thousand lives as me, to be loved so exponentially. 

 

BB:  That’s so beautiful.  You beguiled me with that from the beginning.  It also sets up a perspective that we, as the readers, are able to vicariously be on the inside of what would outwardly appear to strangers as a freak show.  But of course throughout the novel we come to discover that the girls have so much more in common with us than not. 

 

LL:  Yes, that is something that I’m so gratified to keep hearing from readers, even in these early days as the book has just been released.  A number of people have asked me, or suggested, isn’t that voyeuristic to approach the life of these conjoined twins.  But in fact, this a situation where the conjoined twins, these two characters, are absolutely opening the door wide and inviting the reader to explore their spirits and their psyches and their souls, and not to define them by their rare and extreme bodies.  I think that is why, because we are meeting the individuals, that we are discovering that we are so much more alike than different.

 

Part II: Symmetry and Symbolism

 

BB:  Now the novel, as you mentioned earlier, has symmetry to it in several ways.  The twins move at age five-months from the tidy bungalow on Chippewa drive to the old, inherited orange farmhouse that Aunt Lovey’s great-grandfather had set aside for her, that, metaphorically, is like the girls.  You say, it relies on the “delicate balance of decay,” on page 51.  In the end they move back from the farm to the village. 

In another aspect of symmetry, Rose becomes and unwed mother and gives up her child like their mother had.  Ruby leaves all her Indian artifacts [to the Leaford Museum] and that sort of equilibrates in my mind, Rose’s accomplishment as a writer.  How much did you think about all of these various aspects of symmetry when you were putting the novel together?

 

LL:  Well, interestingly I thought about it constantly, and found myself drawing circles within circles within circles as the plot was unfolding for me and characters were unfolding for me. 

Of course, there’s always the question of the chicken and the egg, how much was actually deliberate or is it just that you find yourself on this path and you find this truthfulness in these images, this symmetry that you are finding. 

It starts from the very beginning.  As I said, not just with the nature of the elemental forces and the appearance of Rose and Ruby, but in their anatomy.  As you mentioned, Rose is not beautiful, Ruby is beautiful.  Rose is not ambulatory, whereas Ruby’s legs are not working legs. 

So there are circles within circles, as you say, the move from the village to the farm and back, the mother giving up the daughter who gives up the daughter, the neighbor who lost the child taking the husband of the woman who gained the children, this constant approach to balance. 

Even in small details, like the finding of balance when the women are canning and making sure that their pantries are even.  So it was something very conscious, and deliberate, and yet instinctive too, if that makes sense. 

 

BB:  The novel has several passages where you reference birds.  I’m thinking of the crows that Uncle Stash takes the pictures of and the herons just before the intimate moment, and the turkey at the death.  Could you explain your use of this literary device?  What is your intent?  What is your connection to the birds? (Painting: Ploughed field with crows)

 

LL:  In addition to the birds, I think it’s all of nature.  Again, living on the farm, anyone who has ever lived close to nature or in a rural setting I think experiences it in a different way.  In a more intense or immediate way, where the elements are more than an inconvenience, instead of I need my umbrella, its raining today, it becomes, are we going to be able to salvage the tomato crop this year? 

I think there’s a tendency, because of that, to credit nature, to give nature this personality, whether it’s benevolent or malevolent and to see it as a spiritual messenger.  I think that’s what Rose does, because she is a poet and I think that’s what we do as artists, and because of her life on the farm. 

 

 Part III: The Nature of Love

 

BB: There are also different kinds of love in The Girls.  There is the steadfast romantic love that Aunt Lovey and Uncle Stash have for one another, and that very distinctive honorific they use with each other, you; and then the singular love that Ruby and Rose have for each other despite all the inconveniences of each other’s physical presences and… then [the sexual encounter] in the basement…

 

LL: You’re right, Paula, there are all different kinds of love, this transcendent love between Rose and Ruby, and the blush of new love with Nick and Rose at the end of the book, and this, what I think is a desperate love between Mrs. Merkel and Uncle Stash.  I think it is exactly what you were talking about, the sort of message or exploration of love as tolerant, and complicated, and forgiving, and imperfect, and maybe understood by the spirit if not always the body.  I think through love, and through the universality of love, that the girls do find Normalcy.

 

BB: Aunt Lovey has set the tone for the moral fortitude necessary for the girls to manage and cope with the everyday challenges in a life as conjoined twins.  They take the bus to work; they shop and housekeep, and emotionally deal with the knowledge of their impending death, and finality of life.  I’m wondering how you manage to use this by keeping the reader going?  It’s actually a technique that keeps us in suspense as we’re going.

 

LL: Aunt Lovey is sort of a force of Nature.  I think the thing about Aunt Lovey and the gift that she gives the girls is that she tells them the truth.  She tells them very early on what their sort of restrictions are, what they might be facing in the future and in fact, how uncertain their future is.  Because they trust in her, they gain confidence.  They grow up confident.  She won’t let them feel sorry for themselves; she will not let them define themselves by these restrictions or limitations, and certainly not by their connection.  She wants them and wants for them more than mere survival.  She wants them to see themselves as individuals and think of themselves as individuals, and to pursue their passions and their goals.  I think it is that force, her force, which in turn drives the girls, which drives the story. 

 

BB: Now I was surprised in the story to see that Uncle Stash had been having an affair with Mrs. Merkel, and you referenced it before.  What was the purpose of that?  What are you showing us about relationships and about their particular relationship, the fact that Aunt Lovey really did know about this I’m sure, it seemed, and yet she was able to deal with it in a way that she still continued to love Stash?  There was no jealousy.

 

LL: Right.  Well, I’m not exactly sure if there was no jealousy, or if that’s something they dealt with, because we’re only seeing it from Rose’s point of view, Ruby doesn’t even know about the affair.  Rose has a very small window of understanding about the affair.  So I thought it was important that we see it only from her point of view and that we understand it only through that small window.  So I’m not exactly sure how Aunt Lovey discovered the affair or what the ramifications were, but it was certainly a shake-up in the same way that an expectation is shaken up when Rose and Ruby meet Frankie Foyle and have a very interesting intimate encounter.  But Rose and Ruby both tell us that Aunt Lovey and Uncle Stash have this incredible bond, this incredible relationship, so much that all they have to say is you, because anything else would be redundant.  I think that the point is, if love isn’t challenged by some kind of adversity or betrayal, then how can a person know its true depth? 

 

Part IV: Life, Death, and Impermanence

 

BB: It’s also a very Faulknerian technique that you’re using there, that narrow viewpoint of using only one person’s perspective on that incident, which is really interesting.  I hadn’t drawn that analogy until just now.  Now, many of the most dramatic scenes also have a comedic relief aspect.  I’m thinking in particular of the car accident where the deer ends up humanly sitting on top of the crushed passenger.  You do that so skillfully, I’m just wondering why.

 

LL:  Right.  Well, I remember thinking as I was writing about these characters, Rose presented herself, as characters do, almost complete, and she had a good sense of humor.  She had a very dark, slightly off-center, almost gallows sort of humor.  Of course, that would be related to her very honest knowledge about herself and her future.  The conjoinment seemed to have very little to do with her sense of humor being in tact or not being in tact, and I thought she saw things just slightly off, as she would of course. 

 

BB:  Right.  So you must have a strong connection with the immigrant experience.  Your depiction of Stash’s adaptation to Canada, the use of his accent, his adherence to Slovak phrases, and then his compulsion to spread his mother’s ashes and return to the old country.  There’s always the sort of subtleties of an outsider, but I wanted you to speak to that, the whole issue of being an outsider, being an immigrant, but still somehow managing to cope.

 

LL:  Yes, it does seem a very important pursuit, maybe even an imperative, to find a tribe, to find some way of belonging in a group, whether it’s a cultural group or a religious group, artistic.  And I think when a person leaves one tribe, he can only return to that tribe as a visitor, and so as an outsider.  Not to say that there’s anything negative in the connotation of being an outsider, necessarily.  But then, he’s not a full member of the tribe to which he’s immigrated, a certain outsider there too.  So I certainly have empathy as I watched the outsiders in my life.  Also, as a writer there is a feeling of being an outsider and straddling two worlds.  My husband’s family is Slovak and in many ways these stories are connected to or loosely related to the familiar stories of his Slovak relations.

 

BB:  That’s interesting.  The driving plot of the story is revealed very close to the beginning where Rose reveals that she’s not certain she and her twin will reach their thirtieth birthday.  Then, throughout the book you reveal the symptoms of their inoperable brain aneurism. 

I was really surprised and relieved that the reader never experiences the ultimate moment.  Yet, interestingly enough, the death is referred to of both the aunt and uncle.  When those moments come, it’s just a matter-of-fact thing that gets plopped down, and it’s sort of startling. 

So, I think that death, the life up to the death of these people, was an important aspect driving plot, that keeps the reader wanting to see how it resolves.  Was that a conscious literary technique of yours?

 

LL:  Yes, I think again somewhat deliberate and somewhat instinctive.  Knowing that there is this sort of ticking clock with Rose and Ruby, and the reader having this knowledge fairly early on that they are dying gave me a strange freedom to approach the other deaths in the story. 

It’s the story of Rose and Ruby’s life, and Aunt Lovey and Uncle Stash were fairly old.  We would have expected them to die over the course of the story; but you’re right, as death comes, even to old people often, it is sudden, and surprising, and somewhat matter-of-fact, and I couldn’t deal with Rose and Ruby’s death because the story is told by them. 

I thought it was very interesting, I listened to a couple of readers recently debate the ending.  They talked about Rose and Ruby and not knowing what happened to them.  One of them said she really would have liked an epitaph or something.

 

BB: (laughs) Well, it is almost epitaph-like, back to your symmetry, and the way you answer some of those questions at the beginning with that poetic ending…

 

Part V: The Nature of Happiness

 

BB: (continues) There is also, of course, that quote from Uncle Stash on page 466, “People don’t finish, Rose.  People stop.  Its not perfect.” I think encapsulates it right there.

 

LL:  That is Uncle Stash speaking about life, love, art, everything, yes. 

 

BB: The whole book speaks to what I found to be one of your strongest statements, which is the contemplation on the nature of strangeness. 

On page 237, you say, “The strangest thing about being strange is that its only strange when you hear about things, or when you imagine them, but never when you’re living them.”

 

LL: Right.  I think that’s something anyone can relate to.  When something unusual happens to us, in the moment it is happening it is actually not strange at all.  It’s only after in the telling, or if you heard someone else tell it, you would think it was strange. 

I think the thing about being strange, or being unusual, as Rose and Ruby are, is that they have no frame of reference for ‘normal’.  They are normal to themselves.  I think it is very much contemplation on the nature of strangeness. 

They are unchanged from what they have always been.  They are normal to themselves, living in a normal world, where people see them as abnormal. 

 

BB:  Now I think there wouldn’t be any reader who would probably not wish that we could magically separate the twins, and have them carry on separate lives, and so on. 

But I was interested about the conversations with various medical people and the references about the girls.  I was trying to determine whether there was any intended or perhaps, subliminal incitement about the socialized medical system that they’re in. 

Because there is mention of the one physician in the States who could possibly perform some sort of miracle.  I was wondering if that was an intentional thing?

 

LL: It was intentional, and it's mostly because the two pairs of crainopogous twins in real life who I was most influenced by, were Lori and Reba Schappell, who are American craniopogous twins living in the Midwest, who cannot be separated, it is impossible for them to be separated.  

And the Bijani girls [fact sheet from Johns Hopkins] who are Iranian twins who were separated in the year 2003 at the age of thirty, who were brilliant women who had gone to law school and journalism school and had degrees; who had decided that at this stage in their life they wanted to be separated.  They died on the operating table. 

It’s such a tragedy.  It is looking at somewhere in the middle between these two situations and finding this individual and rare pair of craniopogous twins, Rose and Ruby.  They, like Lori and Reba, do not find their conjoinment a burden.  In fact, research bore out that throughout history and long before surgical separation was common or even possible, conjoined twins didn’t typically commit suicide—I don’t think I ever read about a case—and never, almost never described their conjoinment in negative ways.

 

BB:  Right.  Well, look at the ‘Siamese Twins’ who fathered something like, fifty-some odd children?  

 

LL: You’re right, Paula, twenty-one children! I think many conjoined twins actually found great joy in this unique togetherness and this transcendent love.  So when Rose talks at the end of the book about how she feels, I believe her.

 

BB:  Yes, and there is that quote again, which I think would be nice, since we’re into symmetry if you would just read on page 457, the very end, I wouldn’t live a thousand lives…

 

LL: If I returned to the first chapter of this book, which I haven’t since my last crisis of confidence, I might alter it now to read: I have never looked into my sister’s eyes, but I have seen inside her soul.  I have never worn a hat, but I have been kissed like that.  I have never raised both arms at once, but the moon beguiled me still.  Sleep is for suckers, I like the bus just fine, and though I’ve never climbed a tree, I’ve scaled a mountain and that’s a hell of a thing.  One more change I might make is to say that I wouldn’t live a thousand lives, but a million, to infinity; to live the life I’ve lived as me.  I am Rose Darlen of Baldon County, beloved sister of Ruby, the world’s oldest surviving craniopogous twins.  Aunt Lovey and Uncle Stash were right, how lucky Ruby and I have been to be The Girls.

 

BB: I’m getting shivers.  That was beautiful.  Thank you very much for speaking to us today.

 

LL: Thank you, Paula, I enjoyed this very much.

 

Interview conducted by Paula Shackleton and transcribed by Alexandra Pierce

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