Interview, Lillian Nattel

There are any number of paradoxes about Lilian Nattel and The River Midnight: paradoxes such as a career in chartered accountancy proving an excellent apprenticeship for writing a magic-tinged novel about 19th-century shtetl life. Or like transposing a P.E.I. landscape to a fictional Polish-Jewish village named Blaszka. Even like coming to terms with being a Jewish writer, yet deeming The River Midnight to be a very Canadian book. But the thing about all of these paradoxes is that they seem completely integrated into the down-to-earth life of the open-faced, articulate and patently sincere author of The River Midnight who claims her Montreal background as a profound influence in the writing of a first novel that's making international waves in the early months of 1999.

One thing is unequivocally clear, however. Though Nattel has always wanted to be a writer, her road to becoming one has been uphill. And the astonishing speed with which The River Midnight was accepted upon its completion in the summer of 1997 and its foreign rights sold to the U.S., Britain, Germany, Holland and Italy within a couple of months after, surprised no one more than its author, who believed, even as she was working on the book "that everybody knows that successful novels take place in contemporary America." She, on the other hand, was gripped by a particular vision of Jewish life in the Poland of a century ago, that, shake it off though she tried, simply wouldn't let her go.

That vision encompassed both a long folkloric tradition of magic in Yiddish literature and the preoccupations of a Canadian woman of the 90s interested "in the items that often get left out of books about the shtetl, except for marginalia: sex, women's lives, crime, the concrete ways that people live."

Nattel was born in Montreal in 1956 to Holocaust-survivor parents who arrived here in 1952. When she was growing up in Cote St. Luc in the 1960s and early 70s, "it was a unique area. It's less so now. Cote St. Luc was so universally Jewish that it certainly played into the formation of my imagination." Although her family wasn't traditionally religious, "our home was permeated by stories and songs and customs that both expressed the particularity of our background and the universality of human experience." The Holocaust was integrated into the totality of Jewish experience on occasions such as Passover, with her father drawing parallels between the enslavement of the Jews in ancient Egypt and his own concentration-camp experiences.

Although her parents grew up in big Polish cities, not shtetlach, "I was very drawn to that world because that was where my (ancestors) came from. There was a mystique around their background and the relatives I never got to see." Her parents spoke Yiddish when they didn't want the children to understand what they were saying: a wonderful incentive to do well at the afternoon Yiddish lessons she attended three times a week after Westminster school let out for the day.

But Nattel didn't live in a hermetically sealed Jewish world. Music classes run by nuns at École Vincent d'Indy "in retrospect gave me that sense of multiple cultures living side by side, the way you have Jewish Poles and Catholic Poles in the shtetl." She is quick to point out that the relationship between Jews and French-Canadians does not equate with that of the historic tortured connection between Jews and Poles, but as a Montrealer transplanted since her university days to Toronto, she sees a contrast in the Jewish life of the two Canadian cities. (Toronto has "an accepted, unified culture where you have all sorts of people from all different cultures but everybody agrees that they all share the majority culture.")

Nattel's early literary loves included L.M. Montgomery, Madeleine l'Engle [SPELL CHECK???] and I.L. Peretz (in the original Yiddish), and, around the age of ten, when she realized that not all authors were dead ("before that I thought the book industry was closed to the living"), she decided to become one herself. But she was derailed from her path when she graduated from York University in English literature and couldn't find work. In a dead-end job that not only didn't pay but where she was treated with contempt ("'Just shut up and type, don't think,'"), she lost her nerve. "I thought, I'm not a real writer, because real writers could write from 5 a.m. to 7 a.m. and sleep three hours and go to a dead-end job, and be great writers." And without any idea as to what an accountant does, she decided to study to become one because she wanted to be her own boss.

And that's where the paradox came in. Juggling a day job, studying at night, she learned about obstacles and how to overcome them. For the first time in her life, she became disciplined and acquired the skills of doing research. Within a few years of having become a chartered accountant, she realized that if she had a part-time practice, she would make time to write. In her 30s, she picked up the pen again. But going the route of small literary magazines didn't bring automatic success. "There was one year when I made 53 submissions and didn't sell a thing."

The idea for The River Midnight came when, at 36 and feeling at a crossroads, she decided to take a continuing education course in writing and personal creativity. During a class exercise, she imagined "an earth mother-type laughing; she was standing on a beach in prehistoric Hawaii beside a rack of drying fish." Nattel giggles. "Unfortunately I don't know anything about prehistoric Hawaii."

She had just given birth to Misha the midwife, the central character of The River Midnight. Initially she wrote a short story set in a shtetl. But she had to overcome her own resistance to being a Jewish writer before she allowed herself to develop it into a large, panoramic novel.

At first, she fought the fear in herself of being ghettoized and worried about being patronized as writing for a parochial audience. But, on a deeper level, she has come to see her plight as a broader, generational one. "For the post-Holocaust generation of writers I think it has taken longer to find a voice for ourselves that integrates our Jewish experience but also lets ourselves express who we are in our time. Because the Holocaust was such an overwhelming event, so epic, so grand, so tragic. It is so inexplicable and terrible, it has taken longer to stand up after that."

One of the factors that helped her find her voice, she says, "was the influence of being a Montrealer. Montreal has an old tradition of Jewish writers knowing about their own tradition. A.M. Klein, Irving Layton, Mordecai Richler for me legitimized the whole idea of being a Jewish writer."

Although until now she has travelled little, touring with The River Midnight in Britain and the U.S., "I've come to the conclusion that The River Midnight is a very Canadian book, even thought it's not set in Canada, and has nothing to do with snow. Growing up here legitimizes a story like The River Midnight. It's intrigued me to see people of my generation in the U.S., for instance, and after a couple of immigrant generations, coming out of an assimilationist background where their parents erase and wipe out their individual heritages and kind of blend in like mashed potatoes. People from all different backgrounds are so responsive to the book ... because of the legitimacy it gives to bringing in your heritage as part of who you are. It nourishes you like water feeds a plant."

There's another way this book is Canadian. Writing the outline for the novel in a cottage in P.E.I. in 1994, Nattel had a vision as she gazed out of her window at the Hillsborough River, some ten miles from Charlottetown. That vision sparked by the Charlottetown Bridge that connects the North and South Shores of P.E.I. ("The bed is swimming up a river, past stone pylons where black birds congregate like the parliament of Old Poland. The bed floats under the criss-cross metal beams of the bridge, between herons walking in the shallows with their skinny long legs...") has insinuated itself as a stand-in for the Polish landscape Nattel will visit for the first time only this spring.

In a remarkably frank interview, the only question Nattel hedges is the one about money. She will not say how much the advances for The River Midnight have been, but her life has changed in only one significant way since last year. She no longer has to work as a chartered accountant; it is profoundly liberating to not have to go through a tax season this spring. "This thing that I had run away from, this thing that wouldn't let me go, against all conventional wisdom has brought me my lifelong dream to be able to write full time."

The River Midnight

by Lillian Nattel

Review published in

March 27, 1999

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