Profile with Carellin Brooks

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Carellin Brooks (Quebec & University 1993) is a Canadian writer whose next book, Fresh Hell, will be published by Demeter Press in 2013. In 2015, Bookthug will publish 100 Days of Rain. She holds a D.Phil from Oxford University and a B.A. from McGill University.

Rhodes Project: Where do you call home?

Carellin Brooks: Vancouver. I lived here until I was about eight. I moved to a hamlet outside of the city and then I went back to Vancouver. After that I lived in Salt Lake City, Ottawa, and Montreal as an undergraduate. Then I moved to New York, Oxford, London and San Diego. I spent a couple of stints in Japan as well. Vancouver is my favorite city in the whole world. I always planned to come back here, so I’m really happy I had the chance to do that.

Rhodes Project: Who is your favorite author?

Carellin Brooks: I’d have to say Sigmund Freud, off the top of my head. Though it’s impossible to choose.

Rhodes Project: What was the first job you ever held?

Carellin Brooks: I worked as a telemarketer when I was 15. I sold carpet cleaner over the phone. When I was even younger than that I was a mother’s helper for a summer.

Rhodes Project: When did you know you wanted to become a writer?

Carellin Brooks: When I was six. I was home schooled until grade three. They didn’t call it home schooling then. They just called it “keeping you home”. My mother and I did a lot of projects together. I was typing on the typewriter one day. We had an electric typewriter, which was pretty newfangled then. I realized that it was my thing. It was what I was already doing and what I was going to keep doing.

Rhodes Project: What is the most challenging part of being a writer?

Carellin Brooks: Going years without recognition. You can create a community, but it’s quite an isolating experience. Even with other writers, you often don’t talk much about writing. You’ll talk about grants, residencies, publishers – the business of writing. You don’t talk about what it is you do. It becomes a kind of private act that’s almost furtive. I don’t know if everyone feels this way, but you always have the sense that if you don’t talk about it, there is something shameful or wrong about it. You can kind of begin to doubt your own existence. 

Rhodes Project: What advice would you give to a young woman interested in writing?

Carellin Brooks: I continue to mentor students who are graduating from McGill University. I recently had a young woman come to talk to me. She wanted to be a writer and was so broken up about it. She was really worried that if she pursued writing, she would never make any money out of it or never make a living. On the other hand, if she trained for some other profession, she could be absolutely cheating herself as a writer. I didn’t tell her this because I just didn’t want to depress her more, but that feeling never goes away. It’s very urgent for her right now because she has just graduated and is on the cusp, but you still worry about it 20 years later. I was reading an interview with Nino Ricci who wrote a very successful book in the 90s called Lives of the Saints. He’s a Canadian writer. He said that it doesn’t get any easier. He has two kids now going into university and still doesn’t know how he’s going to help them with university.

I think it’s difficult for people to envision having a career that is going to satisfy them financially in terms of what they want and that, on the other hand, is not going to take away from their writing so much that they don’t have the psychological energy to do it anymore. I think that’s a perennial conundrum for many people.  

Rhodes Project: You used to teach, as well. Could you describe a memorable moment during your time as a teacher?

Carellin Brooks: In online teaching, one doesn’t often see or get much of a sense of the students. However, this one student I was teaching was pregnant when she joined the course. Then, while she was still pregnant, she and her husband broke up, and she was living in a fairly isolated place. She had the baby while the course was continuing. After the course was over, she wrote me and told me that my course had been such a stable thing in her otherwise tumultuous and difficult life. I was surprised that an online student could get that out of the course. The funny thing is that she was one of the most assiduous students. A lot of students sort of fade away in that kind of environment. She was very present, which was really funny considering how much she had on her plate. I guess this is sort of a stock answer, but being meaningful in people’s lives is certainly memorable.

Rhodes Project: Who is your favorite fictional heroine?

Carellin Brooks: I don’t want to say she is my favorite, but Emma Bovary certainly sticks in my head. I became weirdly obsessed with those types of novels because they were so much about money and the minutiae of money. She talks about how many francs she spent on gloves. That’s what really sticks with me. You just don’t see that in a lot of great literature. Yet it’s the texture of our everyday lives. You’ll think, “Oh, I’m going to go here and spend this much for a coffee.” The very minute parceling out of one’s life is not in coffee spoons, as Eliot said; it’s in pennies. Well not in Canada. We just got rid of the penny. It’s in small amounts of money that you are wandering around and parceling out and maybe going over your limit. I love the juxtaposition of what was supposed to be this really grand passion and what was this picayune and quotidian passion.

Rhodes Project: Who is your favorite real-life hero or heroine?

Carellin Brooks: From my own life it would have to be my grandmother, Doris Shackleton French. She is dead now. She led a very self-directed life. She was a published author of a number of books, and did a number of really interesting things in her life. She was a city councilor in Ottawa and was very involved in politics. She had a great self-realized life and I really admired that about her. We were very close and she’s been a real role model for me.

A public figure who recently died that I’ve been reflecting on is Henry Morgentaler. He was a doctor in Canada who fought for years for safe and legal abortions. In the U.S. there are now seven states that have passed a mandatory ultrasound law. Women, if they are going to get an abortion, are forced to have an ultrasound – even if they’ve already had one – in which all of the embryo’s characteristics, in terms of already being alive, are described. The women are shown that it has a fully functioning heart and lungs. I read a woman describe this process in a magazine. Her baby would have been born with such severe defects that it probably wouldn’t have lived for more than 24 hours, so she chose to have an abortion. She was still forced to go through this process. When I think about the more than 20-year-long battle that Morgentaler fought to make abortion legal, I find it so moving. The law that allowed women to have legal abortions in Canada was passed in 1988. I was a teenager before that time and I remember thinking that if I ever accidentally got pregnant I would have to go before a review board. That was the process. I would have to convince them that if I was forced to bring this fetus to term, I would kill myself. That was the only way to get a safe and legal abortion in Canada before 1988. This man single-handedly fought, despite being arrested and receiving death threats. Morgentaler was a guy who had a nice family. He was Jewish and had been through the Holocaust, so he already had plenty on his plate and he didn’t have to do this. He fought for it to happen and it was such a meaningful thing for women in Canada. It’s made it so that, since 1988, I’ve never had to think, “Gee, if I needed an abortion, what would I do?” He made a massive difference in the lives of women in Canada.

Rhodes Project: What do you do to relax?

Carellin Brooks: I’m a reader and I’ve always been a reader. A few years ago, I decided that being a reader has saved me from being a drug addict because it’s such a consuming addiction in itself. You don’t have time to develop any other sort of addictions when you’re a reader. Lately, I’ve been doing a lot more swimming in the ocean. A lot of people won’t swim in the ocean here in Vancouver because it’s quite chilly, even in the summer. I’ve also been doing the polar bear swim, which is when you go in on January 1st. For the past few years, I’ve wanted to go in the ocean every day for a year. I have never gotten to it, so I’m wondering if this is the year I’ll do it. Obviously it’s very different from reading, but what’s relaxing about it is that it really shocks you into an alternate state. You get the chance to experience things from a completely different perspective in a physical sense. I think that as writers, we are so much in our heads that we really need to have these kinds of intensely physical experiences in order to balance that.

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