In her sixth novel, Nova Scotia author Carol Bruneau has turned her acute critical eye to perhaps the most popular of Nova Scotia painters: Maud Lewis. Despite her fame, Maud Lewis’s personality and inner life remain unknown, and as she died in 1970, unknowable. In non-fiction, at least. In Brighten the Corner Where You Are, Carol Bruneau imagines Maud Lewis narrating her own story, and in so doing she has created a literary response to Maud’s painted legacy that adds much to our understanding of this much mis-understood artist. The literary critic George Steiner maintains that the best (and only legitimate) criticism of art is more art. “The best readings of art are art,” he wrote, as Carol Bruneau proves with her incisive, generous, and powerful reading of Maud Lewis’s painted world.
This interview was conducted over email in early September 2020.
Ray Cronin: What first drew you to the idea of writing a novel based on the life of Maud Lewis?
Carol Bruneau: I was asked to do so, and at first I declined, thinking Maud’s story was already so well-known, how could I possibly shed new light on it? Then I thought of Camille Claudel, whom I’d written about, and saw the unlikely yet obvious parallels between their lives as women artists. Recognizing these parallels enabled me to consider the potential of a fictional treatment of Maud’s story. I thought its being a local story would make it easier to research than Claudel’s, which was naïve, to say the least.
RC: The book is narrated by Maud Lewis’s—let’s say spirit— a device that allows you to create a unique vantage point from which her story unfolds. Not omnipotent, exactly, but more knowing than not, and freed from temporal restraints. It works wonderfully. Was this approach always your intention?
CB: Yes, it was the only way I could write Maud’s story, especially since so many events contributing to her fame happened after she died. Taking this leap was the only way I could free myself enough from “the facts” of Maud’s biography, as others have written them, to explore their meaning in a work of fiction.
RC: Maud left no written record of her own, and gave only a few interviews in her lifetime. How much of a challenge was it to find a “voice” for your Maud?
CB: From the outset, it was my goal to give Maud a voice of her own—this woman who has been talked about but was rarely heard, was bossed around and seemingly denied much agency in her lifetime. I started by trying my best to enter her world—for example, exploring aspects of what would have been her early world, the era of silent film, and the social and cultural milieu of Yarmouth. I listened to her interviews on YouTube over and over, to try to catch the flavour and nuances of her speech. It was tricky, because she was, evidently, a woman of few words. But I began practising having her “speak” the way I always do beginning any novel where the protagonist is narrator, by imagining and sketching out her responses to certain well-known events in her life, and then letting her narrate what I imagined would be scenes from her day to day reality. Throughout the writing process, cultural contexts for her responses fuelled my efforts to sustain her distinctive voice.
RC: The voice you did find seems pitch perfect. How did you research the accent, cadence, and vocabulary for your Maud?
CB: Voice to me is the most engaging element of any story, fiction or nonfiction. I’m very familiar with and love Nova Scotian vernacular, having grown up and lived most of my life here. I was also blessed with having aunts from Maud’s generation and from a milieu similar to hers in Yarmouth. A lot of their expressions became second nature for me—although these women didn’t cuss like my Maud does.
On this note, I was very aware of writing this story for a contemporary reader, and deliberately chose language—especially for Everett’s dialogue—that would capture the harshness of the characters’ lives and the occasional brutality of Everett’s behaviour. So, lots of use of the f-word, which people of that era didn’t use, or at least not so freely (certainly not my aunts). The harshness of Ev’s speech was crucial to keep his character from veering into caricature as a stereotypical Maritime hick.
Regarding Maud’s language, I tried to reflect in her vocabulary both of the worlds she came from—the relative sophistication of Yarmouth during her youth, and the backwoods deprivation she experienced in Marshalltown. As she was a person who spoke little in real life, or so I gather, I imagined her having a very rich inner life and the varied vocabulary which would complement this. Her voice and her vocabulary are what empower her and give her agency in the novel.
RC: This is not your first fictional telling of a visual artist’s life (you’ve already mentioned 2015’s These Good Hands, which looks at the life of sculptor Camille Claudel). What draws you to the visual arts as subject?
CB: I’m endlessly interested in the creative process for both writers and visual artists, and how many parallels exist in how we go about creating our work regardless of medium and form. I’m a little envious of visual artists because of the magic they create with immediate, tangible materials. Viewing all forms of visual art is respite for me from text—and it helps feed my way of seeing things, as I’m a very visual writer. Voice is one thing, but the writing process only takes flight for me once I’ve discovered and then work to render a story’s visuals.
RC: Maud’s work is often presented as depicting a “world without shadows,” a uniformly happy place that is an escape form the cares of the world. From reading your novel I strongly suspect that you don’t agree with this characterization. What sort of world do you see in Maud’s paintings?
CB: Implicit in her work’s lighthearted, playful imagery are suggestions of life’s dark side. Take her cheery paintings of oxen, for instance: depicted in summer and winter, these wide-eyed, bejewelled animals are permanently yoked, so the chain with its sharp, heavy hook dangling between them is only momentarily unhitched from the burden it’s their purpose to bear. If the oxen’s gaze is docile, it’s in accepting fate while savouring this singular moment of limited freedom.
I can’t help but see Maud’s own circumstances reflected here—the joy she experienced in making art always subject to her life’s constraints, and yet for all that, undiminished. And then look at her white Fluffy paintings—there’s a sad-sack cat if I ever saw one, not a bird in sight.
Just as Matisse trusted viewers to fill in objects not shown in his paintings, I think Maud nudges us to read behind the sweet, sunny details in hers. For the oxen, the only lasting release from their burdens and confinement is the grave. For Fluffy, the thing that’ll make him smile is, too bad for any bird, dinner.
RC: Your Maud never indulges in self-pity, despite what many of us would consider ample cause. Do you think of this as stoicism? As toughness? Or something else?
CB: One of my sources believed Maud was mildly autistic, which makes sense to me the way she was able to focus so completely on her painting and the world of her imagination. Somehow, I don’t think Maud would have thought of herself as tough or stoical—she was the way she was, and that humble acceptance and inner resourcefulness was perhaps a lot more typical of people in her era and her culture than it is now. She had no other options but to keep on keeping on, whereas today people with similar afflictions perhaps have a bit more support. As another of my sources suggested, Maud didn’t have a lot of expectations. So my feeling is that she wouldn’t have felt hard-done-by, and in the absence of this, if she was stoical it’s more in our perception of her.
RC: Everett is often depicted as domineering, if not brutal, and miserly, when not simply cruel. Can you talk about your approach to his character?
CB: I felt this was definitely one way of looking at Everett’s character and by many accounts true. But Ev was also a product of difficult circumstances, and the fact remains that he gave Maud a roof over her head, which allowed her to practise her art. In creating any character I think it’s vital to see their humanity, and with a few exceptions, most humans have good and bad traits, and at least something, however small, to redeem or partially redeem their faults. Another source of mine who has childhood memories of Everett recalls the kind twinkle in his eyes. Keeping this in mind continually helped me balance my character’s awfulness with the sense that underneath was a person probably pretty damaged by life, through no fault of his own. When I write, I try to be as non-judgmental of my characters as possible, to let the characters speak and act, and to allow the reader to decide whether they deserve forgiveness or condemnation. In Ev’s case, I was aiming for the middle ground between Ethan Hawke’s crusty but lovable Everett and the completely despicable abuser others have cast him as.
RC: In your book, Everett has one staunch defender: Maud. Yet she seems to see his character clearly enough. Are you imagining a form of Stockholm Syndrome? How did you navigate the fraught picture of Maud and Everett as victim and abuser?
CB: Yes, my Maud defends Everett—she is completely dependent on him and has no choice but to get along with him, even when this means overlooking and excusing his abuse, and protecting him from its possible consequences. From what I’ve seen and read about abusive relationships, this has a logic of its own. But I think beyond this, Maud has an empathy born of her own hardship that enables her to see the wounded person beneath Ev’s cruel exterior, and to forgive him his many failings. That said, another thing to note is that in the novel Maud is by intention at times an unreliable narrator. A major feature of her personality is denial.
In writing what is in some ways a historical novel, it was really important to me that something at its core would be meaningful and relevant to readers now. The sad reality of domestic abuse is as alive today as it was in Maud’s time, and I suspect the dynamics behind it remain unchanged. In fact, during these times of COVID, with quarantines and self-isolation, maybe Maud’s situation is all the more resonant.
RC: Perhaps the most poignant parts of Maud’s life story are the most swathed in mystery: her relationship with Emery Allen and her subsequent pregnancy. How difficult was it for you to give voice to something that Maud Lewis, in life, never spoke of?
CB: Actually, the fuzzier parts of Maud’s biography allowed the most room for creative invention. I had no trouble at all imagining her relationship with Emery, and the simple fact that she got pregnant and he didn’t remain in her life provided all the bones I needed to explore and imagine and dramatize how this time in her life unfolded and influenced what was to come. It was very helpful to see the simple drawing Maud made some years later of her and Emery—it’s such a poignant glimpse of her romantic longing and wishful thinking. And ancestry.com provided enough clues about him—the fact that he was only 5’3” or 4”, for instance—that I was able to flesh out his character and explore Maud’s many reasons for falling into his arms, especially at a time when women were condemned for having sex outside marriage.
Various ideas, opinions and conjectures exist about Maud’s daughter and the details of her adoption, and Maud’s later rejection of her. I based this aspect of my story as much as possible on the context of the time, and on what I sensed about Maud’s personality—that she probably did believe and accept what she was told about her child being male and dying at birth. In any case, Maud’s relationship with her daughter remains a mystery, and with due respect to her descendants, rightly so.
RC: One of the richest parts of a very rich novel are the finely crafted secondary characters that people Brighten the Corner Where You Are (I’m thinking of Carmelita Twohig, for example, or Constable Colpitts). How much are they based in research, or invention?
CB: Ah, thank you so much for your kind words! Carmelita Twohig and Const. Bradley Colpitts are pure invention. Carmelita kind of represents the do-gooder in all of us, the way we might think we know what’s best for someone else when we don’t actually. I had her name floating around in my head for months before I imagined and introduced her character to the story, and figured out her role. Constable Colpitts just appeared one day when I was thrashing around blindly wondering what the heck to write next. The quotidian aspects of Maud’s story offered one huge blank canvas—very daunting at first, until I allowed such surprise visitations as Colpitts to remain on the page, and let myself follow where they lead. The only research required was on pre-RCMP town policing in Nova Scotia during the 1960s. As a fictitious character, Colpitts has no role in the very real investigation of Everett’s murder. But he does reflect the reality of law enforcement pertaining to domestic violence in the 20th century.
RC: Let’s talk about process. Do you write for set lengths of time, or set a target for how many words you will write in a day? Do you have a particular place where you work—your version of Maud’s corner by the window? How long did it take to write the novel, and how many drafts did you go through?
CB: Until just recently, COVID threw my writerly discipline out the window. But normally I make myself show up at my desk every weekday, starting after breakfast and stopping by mid-afternoon. I’ve never had a daily word quota—a good day can mean anything from getting a decent sentence or two or an image down, to drafting a complete scene. It depends on the stage I’m at with a book. My favourite part is once I’ve got a solid working draft to play with; then I can dive in and work every day from dawn till nighttime, forgetting to do things like eating. Once the story’s interconnected dots start lining up and the crazy random aspects begin to gel, I know I’ve got things in hand. That’s when I know I’m on the right track. But the first draft is always brutal, and it always takes at least 100 pages before I start believing in the characters and the story enough to keep going.
Re my writing space—as a matter of fact, my writing space is a bright, sunny corner like Maud’s, only considerably more upscale. A couple of years ago, I won a fabulous desk with storage, ergonomic chair and fancy lamp in a raffle, which forced me to give up the paper-piled table and broken, cat-picked office chair I used writing all my previous books. Suddenly I had a grown-up desk to show up to, and it couldn’t have come at a better time, just as I was ready to start working in earnest on the new book. In all it took about three years to complete Brighten the Corner Where You Are—a year to research, nearly two years to write. Getting to sit at The Desk was a huge motivator when I began to face the first of many blank pages. It’s hard to say exactly how many drafts the book involved, since my ‘first’ draft was technically an incoherent assortment of loosely connected scenes, sketches and snippets. Drawing on these to create a semi-cohesive narrative took eight months, then I spent another eight months revising this draft into the version I gave my editor. Given the rewriting I did and normally do, the final version represents the ninth or tenth draft. After a while I quit counting.
RC: Are you planning any more forays into the lives of artists?
CB: Not if I can help it—but never say never. If you’ve got any suggestions, who knows?
Brighten the Corner Where You Are is published by Nimbus Publishing/Vagrant Press. It is available on-line or in-store from your favourite local bookseller.