Emma Hopper knows a thing or two about how to tell an epic story. His groundbreaking debut novel, Etta and Otto and Russell and James, it was a love story of 50 years, three lives, two continents and an ocean; her second book, shortlisted for the Giller Prize our nostalgic songsit was a family lyrical saga based on old stories, folk songs and seaside myths.
Now the Alberta-born, UK-based author returns with another ambitious saga, this time set in the golden age of the Roman Empire. We must not be afraid of heaven it was inspired by the second-century hagiography of the Christian saint Quiteria, who is said to be one of nine sisters born to a mother who ordered them all to be drowned.
In the novel, Quiteria and her four surviving sisters are raised by different families, but maintain their connection as they grow older, until they are kidnapped by soldiers from their small Portuguese town and brought before the commander, who turns out to be someone from their past. .
Born and raised in Alberta, Hooper, also an academic and musician who performs solo as Waitress for the Bees and with the Red Carousel string quartet, now lives in the south-west of England, but says she’s “come home [to Canada] as often as possible, and we talked about maybe one day getting closer to the rest of the family.
Hooper spoke with CBC Books during a recent trip to Italy, where she was researching her next writing, prompted in part by her deep immersion in stories about saints. With church bells chiming in the background, she talked about why she wanted to reimagine historical legends in We must not be afraid of heaven.
Delving into the past
“[This book] it was a heavier investigative effort. I hadn’t really written much about history before, so it was a lot of fun to dig in – read a lot and go to a lot of cool places and learn a lot. But it definitely took longer to work on than my previous books. I planned to finish it before my second son was born, and now he is four years old. [laughs]
“It was really the character that led me to this. Quiteria was a very small saint, even when you’re Catholic, you may not even know her. I was always fascinated by magical realism, so I always had in the back of my mind mind that loved these saints And then I read about it somewhere and ended up digging into this particular Roman era.
Since we don’t know much about that era and the people of that era, I thought I’d have fun exploring that era in my own way.
“Research-wise, it wasn’t a very structured approach, but I went to the parts of Portugal and Spain that I wanted to cover. Of course, it was a long time ago, the second century, so there’s a lot you can only speculate or read, and there has been much speculation about the lives of working-class women back then, but we have very little in terms of records.
“So I did my best, but it was also exciting, since we don’t know much about that era and the people of that era, I thought I’d have fun exploring that era in my own way.”
“As a kid, I loved that saints were these magical people. But as Catholic kids, we’re taught that they’re real people, so magic is real. And I think that probably had a big influence on my writing career even before this book, that kind of idea of this slightly permeable barrier between the magical and the real.
I think it probably had a big influence on my writing career: that kind of idea of this slightly permeable barrier between the magical and the real.
“And then, as an adult, I’ve been drawn to saints because their presence is still present in our Western society, or especially Western culture based in Europe. These are our popular icons, not the only ones, but they’re a big part of what which constitutes our history.
“So, I wanted to investigate that as real people, they had real flesh and blood and real motivations, and see what the miracles had actually been, what they felt like, and if they were real miracles, from the point of view of a little bit more grounded reality.” .
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“One of the best things about Quiteria is that there are different versions of her story depending on where you go. The Portuguese narration of her story is that she was one of nine babies born at the same time, and the mother was in shock. for having these babies and fired them. So the opening scene of the book is sort of a retelling of the actual hagiography.
“There was a lot of wiggle room with this story – if anything, there was more room for me, because we know so little about what people’s lives would have been like back then. So it was actually quite easy and fun to have these little guys. miracles and things that I knew she had in her hagiography that I wanted to fit in. But then there was so much more for me to fill in when it came to trying to tell her story.
I wanted to explore the idea of a story from multiple points of view: the same stories, but how they appear when they come from different people.
“I wanted to explore the idea of a story from multiple points of view: the same stories, but how do they come across when they come from different people. When it comes to popular stories, we have one version of them, but that version is very elaborated by whoever tells them. had been saying, and obviously there will be many different ways to interpret it.
“So I decided to explore that idea among the sisters. I remember hearing about one of the Disney cartoonists who was working on Frozen, where they wondered how they could draw the two sisters in a different way. That’s a challenge that she wanted to have: Not only are these characters all female and the same age, but they’re actually literally identical, except for one that has scars. And yet I wanted to make them different as much as I could, I thought it would be interesting.”
Pushing against the system
“The ideas of early Christianity were really interesting for some philosophical reasons: There’s this idea that working-class women might have a little more power and agency as saints. Suddenly, they’re powerful: they’re elevated above other people. , even men.
There is this idea that working class women could have a little more power as saints. Suddenly they are powerful, towering over other people, even men.
‘And that was one of the attractions at the time, that slaves and the working class could be like gods because they had an afterlife. It was an opportunity for people to see mobility, even if it wasn’t until after death.
“I think the sisters were lucky in a way because of their non-traditional upbringing. At that time, the patriarchal family unit was everything, but they are outside of that system.
“What they have is each other, and that is their most important bond. And I think that’s something that makes them break out of traditional submission systems and be able to have the strength and motivation to rebel.”
borrowing from music
“[The structure of the ending of the book] maybe it’s borrowing from my music career, where that must be a little bit of rhythm, where as the paragraphs get smaller and smaller they push you forward faster and faster and a little bit out of your comfort zone Reading. It’s kind of an increase in tempo as you go to the edge of the cliff, almost literally, and at the same time, it’s also kind of a blur of who’s speaking or whose perspective.
As the paragraphs at the end get smaller and smaller, you go faster and faster: it’s a kind of increase in tempo as you go to the edge of the cliff.
“There’s a definite crossover in things like tempo and pacing, but also in the process itself. I really intended the characters to not blend more than I wanted, and one of the ways I tried to to make them think for themselves was to have a playlist. When I was writing, say, Marina, I would listen to my Marina playlist to get into that headspace.”
Emma Hooper’s comments have been edited for length and clarity.