“A love letter to my homeland, the Canadian prairies” is how author Emma Hooper describes her début novel, Otto and Etta and Russell and James (Fig Tree, January).
The novel opens with 82-year-old Etta leaving her Saskatchewan farm early one morning to walk 2,000 miles to the ocean she has never seen. She leaves behind her gentle husband Otto, who spends his time struggling to decipher her recipe cards; and elderly neighbour Russell, who once carried a torch for Etta—and perhaps still does. The present-day narrative is interspersed with flashes of the past, from Otto’s childhood on a farm during the Great Depression as one of 15 siblings, to his meeting Etta when she came to teach at his rural schoolhouse.
Etta and Otto are “really loosely based” on Hooper’s maternal grandparents, who lived in Saskatchewan (where her grandmother, too, was a teacher in a one-room school and her grandfather was one of 15 children). Hooper herself grew up in Alberta, the neighbouring province, but spent a lot of time in rural Saskatchewan.
Hooper originally saw Otto as the “hero” of the novel. “My impulse was to write [about] Otto walking because I think it’s societally ingrained to have the man do the ‘thing’, but I thought it would be a lot more interesting if I switched that around. That’s where the story comes from—Etta needs to do the journey this time.”
Hooper, who moved to England in 2004, wrote Otto and Etta and Russell and James over two years, fitting it around a part-time lecturing job at Bath Spa University and “a full-time gig” as a musician—a violist—doing both touring and session work (“a lot of the stuff that pays is somebody deciding that they want some string parts on their album”).
On the festival circuit she has played WOMAD Festival with Peter Gabriel and Glastonbury with various indie rock and folk bands, and she plays the viola in The Stringbeans, a Bath-based string quartet.
Hooper is also behind a solo music project, the brilliantly named “Waitress for the Bees”, where she sings, plays the accordion, the glockenspiel and—more intriguingly—a musical saw. This is, I discover, an actual 30-inch saw with teeth—“you just have to hold it in a curve”—played with a cello bow. It’s a musical incarnation that so impressed the Finns during an artist’s residency in the country that she was awarded a Finnish cultural knighthood.
As one might expect, Hooper’s writing is strongly influenced by her music: “I’ve got an obsessive nature when it comes to the rhythm of the words and I’ll have sentences that are perfectly grammatically correct, but it has to have just the right amount of syllables.”
Even the layout of the novel—some chapters are very short, just a paragraph or two, leaving lots of space on the page—is due to her musical sensibilities: “It’s like when you play a symphony or a concerto, or even an album, it’s one long piece, but the white space between the songs or between the movements is very important. You need a minute to digest and then move on.”
The Italian author Alessandro Barricco (Silk, Novecento) provided literary inspiration for her first novel: “He’s the first author I read where I thought: ‘This is as much poetry as it is prose.’ There is really careful thought put into the rhythm of the words and the white space and so, whenever I wanted to get into writing—if I wasn’t in a writing mood—I would open up one of his books and just read a page and that would set the rhythm going.”
Hooper describes her novel as “a book about the journey that you have to take“, adding: “It’s a literal journey for Etta, who walks from Saskatchewan across Canada to the ocean because she’s never seen it. She needs to reinforce who she is as she starts to lose her memory.” Otto’s journey is a metaphorical one as he “stays home and has to learn to live by himself”. His physical journey lies in the distant past, when he joined up to fight in the Second World War and was shipped to Europe. It is these memories that are starting to resurface as he waits for Etta to return.
The sense of an ending
As the novel goes on, the past and the present—and what is real and what is imagined—all start to blur.
“I wanted it to be non-linear and a little bit confusing at times. But you don’t want to turn people off and you don’t want to be self-indulgent, so striking the right balance took a little bit of back and forth.”
I found the ending of the novel to be ambiguous, which Hooper is delighted to hear. “I had a meeting with Juliet [Annan, her editor] and the publicists last week— and they were like: ‘So, we all disagree on what happens at the end . . .’”
This is exactly the result Hooper was aiming for. “Within my academic life, I’m very into the ‘death of the author’, what that did to art and what it continues to do. I really like the idea that people can come up with really strong opinions as to what happened and it really doesn’t matter what I think. So it’s definitely, deliberately ‘choose your own adventure’ there at the end,” she says.
So did Penguin ask for a clearer resolution? “Not as my publishers, I think just as human beings. People want to know if they are right or not. And most people don’t have the chance to ask the author.”
Her parting wish, before she catches the train back to Bath, is for readers of Etta and Otto and Russell and James to “trust the conclusion that they draw”.
Formats EB/HB (both £12.99)
ISBN 9780241003329 / 9780241003350
Rights 18 territories to date including US (S&S)
Editor Juliet Annan, Fig Tree
Agent Cathryn Summerhayes, WME
1980 Born in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
1998-2203 BA (Hons) Music and Writing, University of Alberta, Canada
2004-2005 Moved to UK, took at MA in Creative Writing (Bath Spa University); works as freelance musician, plays viola in The Stringbeans Quartet
2006-2010 PhD in Musico-Literary Studies (University of East Anglia); releases solo music project, "Waitress for the Bees"
2012-present Senior lecturer in commercial music, Bath Spa University