Interview by Kelly Harness

Krista Bridge, the Rogers Writers’ Trust–nominated author of The Virgin Spy and The Eliot Girls, met with HLR for the debut of our Writing and Roaming Series. We met at her Riverdale home, a warm space with a charming sky-blue kitchen floor. She discussed writing, mothers, daughters, sex, and where to find the most beautiful view of the Toronto skyline in the city. 

Bridge’s current novel, The Eliot Girls, focuses on a mother and daughter, Ruth and Audrey Brindle, whose lives are irrevocably altered the year that Audrey enters The George Eliot Academy.

HLR: You were named by Susan Cole in NOW Magazine as having the best debut of 2013. Congratulations!

KB: Thank you! I'd never have discovered that except that Elizabeth Ruth posted on Facebook that she was one of Susan Cole's top ten novelists, and I knew that I wasn't going to be on the list because a) I didn't expect it, and b) someone would have told me. I was curious to see what books were on there, and I was not expecting to see mine at the bottom. It was a wonderful surprise.

HLR: How is it for you as a writer, knowing that your work is out there and away from you?

KB: It's hard for me.  I don't know if other writers feel a great sense of satisfaction—for me, it's exciting to know that other people are reading it, but it also makes me uneasy. Because even though the goal of writing a novel is to get published, once it's out there, you can't change it.  So, I find it really hard to pick up the book and look at parts of it now because every time I open it to a page there's something I want to change.  And, reading reviews brings you into touch with those things about your book that you're not happy with, even if the reviewer mentions something other than what you feel is a flaw in your book. You just think more about what you succeeded at, what you failed at, and it's no longer something you can change. 

When I'm the midst of writing, I almost have to foster in myself this delusion that what I’m writing is great and have this kind of optimism about my writing.  I almost have to tell myself that it's better than it is, and it's only once I’ve finished that I can see it in a more realistic light.  Now that it's finished, I have that distance that I didn't have for a long time.

HLR: So, you read your reviews?

KB: I started out reading the reviews, and I was so anxious. When I knew one would be coming out, I would wake up at 5 a.m. feeling sick, and I thought after a little while that I was giving them too much power for determining how I feel about the book. I need to determine what I think is good and bad about the book and not let my own feelings be overly determined by what one other person thinks. So, I found in that sense that reading reviews is not helpful to my productivity, which is partly why I decided not to read them anymore.  

HLR: Switching gears a bit, you said in the National Post that you wrote your first story after a relationship ended, and that sentences came to you and tumbled through your mind. How do you start now? 

KB: Probably with characters. Sentences still come into my head at random times. If I'm starting a new chapter, I know what that chapter will be about, but what really catapults me into the mood of it is when a sentence lands in my head.  The more I do it, the harder it is for me to be aware of how I do it. It starts with a more general idea. My current book started with the idea of a certain character, this event in her life, and what its consequences are years later. 

With The Eliot Girls, it started with the character of Seeta Parsad, who came into my mind in 2003 or 2004. My first entry point into the book was Seeta playing guitar at an assembly. I knew that she was going to be a character who was victimized in the course of the book,  and I had sentences coming into my mind creating that scene where she plays “Feelin' Groovy.” So, that was the first specific thought I had for the book, and I had it a few years before I started my serious work on the book.  

HLR: Mother-daughter relationships are central to both your short story collection and your novel. Why?

KB: Mothers and daughters are a preoccupation of mine, and they do come back in what I'm working on now.  I grew up with a very dominant mother who has formed a huge part of who I am, so that's a relationship that interests me. I was interested in The Eliot Girls — which isn’t based on my past — in looking at how a mother can be very ambitious for the daughter in a way that really hampers her daughter's progress. Her ambition for her daughter actually blinds her to what's best for her daughter, and, in her attempts to be a good mother, she ends up failing her daughter and being a bad mother.  

HLR: Another compelling mother-daughter relationship is in “What You Said You Wanted,” the last short story in your collection. In this story, the mother is very clearly critical of her daughter. It almost seems as though she has a frustrated love for her daughter: “I love you, but why won't you do what I say?” There's a sort of push-pull. Do you find this sort of thread goes through a lot of mother-daughter relationships that you conceive?

KB: I think so.  It's interesting. I think that thread goes throughout my writing: the mother's frustration with the daughter, and the daughter's desire to please the mother and fit the image that the mother values. But the daughter's unable to fit this image and perhaps has a lack of desire to do so. The daughter struggles to differentiate what she wants from what her mother wants. That's a great struggle we all have in life: figuring out how to live and figuring out what we want. For a lot of these characters, determining the contours of the self is a huge struggle, and part of the reason for the struggle is this dominant mother who's influenced so many aspects of the daughter. 

HLR: I read your comment that the biggest misperception that people have about The Eliot Girls is that your mother is Ruth and you are Audrey. Are there any other things that people tend not to get right or read in a way that you wouldn't have expected?

KB: That's the really big one. Many people think I am Audrey, but I'm not. I went to private schools much earlier than she did, so I never really had that struggle to fit in and to learn the values of that world.   And, my mother is not Ruth.  I guess it bugs me a little bit when people think that she is.  I couldn't have written that character if the person I'd been picturing the whole time had been my mother.  People who don't write don't realize that you can't create this whole person on the page who’s an exact replica of someone you actually know. I'm too close to my mother to see her in the objective way I need to see a character.  You're inside a character, but you also need to be outside a character when you're writing them.

HLR: How do you do that? What sort of process do you take for, as you wrote in the National Post, detaching fiction from reality to find the life in it?

KB: I wouldn't say I have a specific process.  It just took me the years that I was working on the book.  If I was writing a scene or chapter about Audrey, I tried to remember things that happened, which was very difficult.  I found it almost impossible to remember what it was like to be there, what happened, how I felt when something happened.  It's really hard to take yourself back in that exact, realistic, and detailed way.

HLR: In The Eliot Girls, when all this turmoil is going on for Audrey, Ruth's transgressing against her own life, and her transgressions play out sexually. Women's sexuality is another big, big theme in your work. How do you feel it's handled, generally, in contemporary literature?

KB: I'm trying to think of books I've read where women's sexuality is really dealt with, and I'm not sure I can. In my own writing, I think that for Ruth, the affair is less about what Henry, her lover, offers her and is more about herself. For Ruth, the fact that he's not really charismatic and warm is a draw for her: he's so withheld that it ignites something in her.

For me, sexuality for my female characters is really tied into their sense of power or the opposite: wanting to please or seeing their sexuality as a submission to the desires of this man who really is not providing them with any satisfaction or giving them any of what they need.  In my mind, that's exactly what is igniting Ruth's desire for Henry: the lack of satisfaction is what feeds her and what makes her crazy. I feel that a key part of the affair is its inability to satisfy her.  

HLR: Sexuality for your women is brutal, sometimes, particularly in your short stories.

KB: There’s a lack of satisfaction that comes from engaging in a sexual life in “The Great One.” I would say that [the main character’s] sexuality is a part of the way she feels bad about herself, and that her entering this sexual world is less about sexuality than it is about all the ways she feels inadequate and all the ways she tries to overcome these inadequacies.  She chooses this awful, gross guy because she doesn't have the confidence or the sense of power to be with somebody who would be more satisfying to her. There's a lot of unsatisfied sexual life in that collection.  

// At this point, Krista and I embarked on the Roaming section of the interview. We went to her local coffee shop, The Rooster, which overlooks Riverdale Park and the Toronto skyline. //

KB: I work every day, and I write at home. Having kids brings discipline. Now, my older son is in school full time; my younger son is in pre-school two days a week, so I write then. 

Walking my dog is a fertile time for me.  I used to listen to podcasts during the walks, but I've found that since I've stopped doing that, my mind goes back to my writing and works out problems. Solutions just come, as do new ideas.  Also, right before I go to sleep, I'll often have a sentence, paragraph, or chapter come into my mind.

My favourite view of the city is at the bottom of my street.  It stirs me.  I grew up in Toronto, and I'm feeling the influence of place more.  Toronto is in the background of my writing.  One thing I wanted to do in The Eliot Girls was to give the George Eliot Academy a personality.  It's a small corner of the city, and it focuses on a part of the city that not many people can enter or see.