Vicki Laveau-Harvie is shortlisted for the 2019 Stella Prize for her memoir The Erratics. In this special Stella interview, Vicki discusses her special relationship with the Canadian Rocky Mountains — and hints at what she may be working on next.
What was your first thought when you heard you’d been selected for the Stella shortlist?
I was so delighted, and amazed — it sounds trite, but it was like something in a dream. I had not expected this outcome — it was enough for me just to be in the running for a prize dedicated to women’s writing.
Can you share with us some favourite passage from The Erratics?
The Erratics is a memoir about the legacy of family madness, how it shaped me and all those whose lives my mother touched.
But equally, it is an expression of my love for a particular place. I describe the foothills of the Canadian Rocky Mountains in Alberta as the landscape where my heart lives. This remains true, however much I cherish my life in Australia, however much I loved the beauty of Paris, where I lived for 25 years.
I like this passage, near the end of Chapter 1:
“When winter comes, summer is the memory that keeps people going, the remembrance of the long slanting dusk, peonies massed along the path, blossoms as big as balloons, crimson satin petals deepening to the black of dried blood in the waning light, deer on the lawns, stock still. Some people here, not transplants from the city like my parents, still make preserves in the summer, crab-apple jelly, tomato chutney, apple butter. They keep the jars safe through the autumn months, when the hay is rolled and the young coyotes practise yipping at the moon from the edge of the stubbled fields, to eat when the snow flies.”
I believe that the brain and the heart are connected to the page by a pen moving across paper.
What are your thoughts on Australian literature — past, present or future?
I love the Australian openness, the inclusiveness and the warm-hearted support your writing efforts can meet with. Organisations like the FAW are an illustration of this: platforms where writers can share and be heard, whatever they write and however they write it.
How long did The Erratics take you to write from concept to completion?
I wrote The Erratics in about 18 months. I then put it in a drawer for two years.
I took it out of the drawer on a whim when I saw that there was a Memoir Focus Week at Varuna. I applied, got a place and, on the urging of my consultant at Varuna (writer Carol Major) entered the manuscript in the 2018 Finch Memoir Prize Competition.
How do you write? (Where, when, on what?)
I write in large notebooks, by hand, pen and ink. I believe that the brain and the heart are connected to the page by a pen moving across paper. Until I’ve finished the first revision, I don’t write on my computer screen — I have tried but for me it doesn’t work. To go deep, I need the contact of my hand on the paper; I spend a lot of time in stationery shops.
I write at a generous eighteenth-century polished-wood desk with a tooled leather surface, borders of delicate shells and bouquets of flowers in gold leaf around the edge; deep wooden drawers with keys. This marvellous desk was my French mother-in-law’s and will belong to my children. I am presently its guardian.
What are you working on next?
I have only recently discovered that my French grandfather was not who I believed him to be. He had walked away from his Metis heritage in order to succeed in mainstream American life, where any hint of First Nation affiliation meant discrimination and misery. I am discovering a remarkable story and forebears more colourful than anything I could have imagined. I hope to write about this.
I’m doing research and don’t yet know what form this might take, but I am fascinated by the question of who we think we are, and what we want people to believe of us.
Vicki Laveau-Harvie is a former academic and translator. She has always believed in the power of the written word, the necessity of getting your tenses right and not using ‘I’ after a preposition. She lives in Gordon, Sydney, where she is working on a collection of love poetry, and encouraging the beginnings of a novel about betrayal of trust and vineyards.