Madeline Sonik is a writer, anthologist, and teacher who lives in Victoria. Her book of personal essays Afflictions & Departures, was nominated for the BC National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction, was a finalist for the Charles Taylor Prize, and won the 2012 City of Victoria Butler Book Prize. She also has written a novel, short fiction, a children’s novel, two poetry collections, and teaches at the University of Victoria.
Her most recent book is Fontainebleau, set in a fictional and tumultuous city of the same name. The interwoven short stories dip and weave from the real to the fantastical, and follow a cast of characters both familiar and strange.
Madeline Sonik is interviewed by Alli Vail.
Alli Vail (AV): This collection has interconnected timelines and characters. How did you keep it all straight and make sure you picked up overlapping threads or characters as you moved through each story?
Madeline Sonik (MS): It was challenging and kind of like a jigsaw puzzle at times. A couple of the stories I’d written not realizing they were part of this collection until I began seeing the links. Others connected naturally, while others still really had to be crafted in a specific way so that they’d link as well as provide a technically different story type.
AV: I had to change my opinion about several characters while reading this collection. You’ve given the reader time to form an idea of who a character is as they flit in and out of stories. But then, the character’s motivation or history is exposed later and the character is not who we thought. How do you think this echoes our interactions with the real people we meet and the world we live in? (Or: what were you trying to communicate with this approach?)
MS: In part, I was playing with the idea of stereotypes and how we story others, often with extremely limited information. For example, we might know only someone’s profession, or be familiar with their public persona. We might make assumptions based on a single event or something specific that a character says. It’s extremely easy to misjudge the actions of others, especially when we’re unaware of the biases we bring to our judgements. In this collection, it was my hope to use this human, story-making propensity to disrupt the reader’s culminating impressions of characters, not only because they assist the reader in questioning their own expectations, but because such disruptions can work to make characters more interesting.
AV: Fontainebleau is a fictional city on the Detroit River. There’s something troubled about the city, beyond the characters. What inspired this place?
MS: The mythical city of Fontainebleau was inspired by the city of Windsor in Ontario. I lived there only a few years as a child but have always considered it the place I grew up. The name, Fontainebleau, is actually the name of one of the city’s subdivisions. A couple of the stories in the collection are fact based, but most are based on the urban legends engendered in the area. As much as any fictional work reflects the psychic content of its author, I suppose that this work exposes the dark, troubling, imaginative and magical times of my own young life on the banks of the Detroit River.
AV: The characters in Fontainebleau tend to dwell in dark places, emotionally, physically and spiritually. What’s it like to get into that headspace with them?
MS: I’m not sure that I’d agree that the characters tend to dwell in dark places. A recurring proverb in the collection is: “in all bad there is good.” I like this proverb because it speaks directly to the wholeness of experience. There is no darkness without light, nor light without darkness. Much of the misery of Fontainebleau, as is true, I believe, of misery in general, stems from unconsciousness. The characters who suffer the most are those who seem unable to forge paths to awareness. They continue to live the same unproductive and painful patterns unknowingly. Many of the characters, however, have epiphanies that help them evolve, even though evolution is a slow process.
AV: Birds appear often throughout the book: crows, swallowtails, owls. There’s even an ornithopter and a Firebird convertible. What draws you to bird imagery?
MS: Symbolically birds have sometimes been considered intermediaries between heaven and earth. Flights of fancy, with ties to the imaginative realm, is another way to consider birds and aerial voyaging. As I wrote these stories, birds began appearing in them spontaneously, and I had to consider why. I began to see them as a kind of transcendent counterweight to the heavy, earthy, profane quality of mortal existence in Fontainebleau. They attend both life and death and signal transcendental changes. In revision, I decided to further the image by amplifying and extending it, and in one instance, picked up on the birds’ point of view.
AV: I felt I was reading a dark, venomous fairy tale, partially because of animal references and the surreal descriptions of the environment. This sensation was encouraged because you reference some very rare physical conditions: sirenomelia, hyperlexia and autosomal recessive tetra-amelia. The characters with these conditions have otherworldly experiences and hallucinations. Did you know about these conditions in advance, or did you come across them and then decide to weave them into your stories?
MS: I didn’t initially have labels for the physical anomalies. The characters just presented themselves with these disparities and I had to search for the names. It was important to me that as much as the work is fantastic, it should also have a firm grounding in fact and reality. It was my hope that in doing this I’d be able to engage both the literal-minded as well as the metaphoric reader.