“I actually think we revere, or at least highly romanticize the life of artists, but the scientists are the ones we hear so little about, even in an era where the earth is in such danger — they should really be the celebrities of our time!”
When an artist in her 90’s receives a letter that she has a granddaughter she knew nothing about, Ivory is forced to reflect on her past despite the pain that lives there. Emotionally charged with powerful prose, The Dictionary of Animal Languages by Heidi Sopinka is a novel about grief, memory, love, and loss. Older women in their 90’s are not often profiled in modern stories, which if you think about it is strange considering the amount of wisdom and knowledge the older generations can give to the young. Sopinka addresses this within her story full of deep wisdom, as her character navigates through the world of art and science, of lives once lived and heartbreak.
I’m excited to share my interview with Heidi as she talks of unexpressed female rebellion, the nature of memory, her unique visit with surrealist artist, Leonora Carrington that inspired her novel and how often art can be romanticized, while science ignored.
In your novel, The Dictionary of Animal Languages, Ivory makes a switch from pursuing art to a career in the world of science. In our society, it seems as though certain careers are looked upon as more serious than those who pursue their art. Although much of what we consume on a regular basis, like TV, movies, or video games, are made by creatives. Was this something you sought to explore in your work? Have you found this notion to be true in your own life as a writer and designer?
I wanted to look at how when something traumatic happens in someone’s life, it’s almost impossible to continue being the same person and still exist. For Ivory, art was a device for survival, it was the way she coped with the isolation of her childhood. After a devastating event, she is unable to continue to do it, in the way that when you experience horror up close, nothing you know or do makes any sense anymore. And so she moves toward something with clear ideas, the way science can offer order to things, and the optimism of knowledge and possible answers to questions being put out to the universe. I wanted to look at someone who carried both of those selves.
I actually think we revere, or at least highly romanticize the life of artists, but the scientists are the ones we hear so little about, even in an era where the earth is in such danger — they should really be the celebrities of our time! I’ve read a lot about how we have traditionally held a completely mechanistic view of science and the limits of cause and effect, and the notion that holistic beauty can offer a more nuanced interpretation of certain aspects of science. I don’t see art and science as two polarities, but more like two narratives snaking around each other.
In your novel, there is a quote I particularly loved: "I think all women carry something of a rebellion inside them that often goes unexpressed." Can you talk about this a bit more? Why do you think this rebellion within women doesn’t get explored?
Women have always been underestimated and one thing that it has allowed is for us to make things relatively undisturbed, to be left alone. To make things without an audience is extraordinarily difficult, but it can also be freeing. That’s not to belittle the struggle. The women in surrealism in 1930s Paris whom I fictionalize in the novel, were so artistically and theoretically radical, but still stuck in a time where conventional attitudes toward gender and sexuality prevailed. To explore this friction means you have to really look at it and grapple with it. And you have to ask questions, like do you want to upset the apple cart? Is that what you want to spend your time doing? Some would rather not. But that dissonance, I think, creates a kind of aliveness, an electricity, a kind of inner rebellion. Unexpressed, it lives like a secret. It is with you and no one can take it away from you. It’s a question of how to live with it and what to do with it. Sometimes it burns so hot it can make you dark, other times it can be the thing that illuminates you.
Memory places a huge role in The Dictionary of Animal Languages. What did you learn about memory while researching and writing this novel?
Death is such an obvious and hackneyed subject, but I became fixated on the ridiculously simple notion that when someone dies, they cannot be replaced. They are a witness to their time. I was interested in writing from the fragmented viewpoint that living a long time affords. But I also wanted to look at the power and imperfection of memory. (Like a Russian saying I came across: “He lies like an eyewitness.”) I wanted to write a novel that went moment-to-moment and eventually had to trust that these moments could be put together to make a story — one that flashes back and sideways. Organizing memories sequentially takes away their power, memory doesn’t really work that way. It felt impossible to move Ivory’s story forward without returning to her past. I wanted to be truthful to the fact that memories come flooding in at the most inappropriate or unexpected moments. They are so slippery, in the way that language is too. It often misses the mark. There is a sort of loneliness at the heart of it, but still, it’s all we have.
Your novel is based on the life of artist of Leonora Carrington, a British surrealist. As a writer, what were some of the challenges you faced when basing a story on someone’s real life? What kind of research did you have to do?
At a stalled point in an early draft, I’d come across a novel by Leonora Carrington narrated by a 92-year-old heroine, which got my attention because my heroine was also 92 and almost no one writes about women of advanced age. When I looked up Carrington, one of the oldest living surrealists at the time, and realized she herself was alive and 92, the coincidence felt too big to ignore. I flew to Mexico City with two friends armed only with a telephone number (which turned out to be for a hair salon) and through a series of uncanny events, wound up in her living room smoking Marlbroroghs with her and discussing what a jerk Picasso was and how she narrowly escaped being sent to a mental asylum by her family.
It felt impossible, that my lifetime could even overlap with hers, someone born in 1917 who knew Frida Kahlo and debated fiercely with Duchamp. I went home and tore up my draft and she became a huge inspiration for the main character, for the tone of her. I am glad I found Leonora after I’d written a draft because it allowed elements of her to be there without it being the driving thing. Like the rest of the book with all the animal information, after meeting and interviewing her, I did a lot of research about Carrington (looking at archives, reading her radical body of work) and that period of Surrealism in Paris because I wanted to be truthful to it and to her, and then at a certain point I just walled it off and allowed the book to be its own thing.
You are the co-creator of the clothing brand Horses Atelier with fellow writer Claudia Dey. Can you speak of how working with another writer on a non-writing endeavor has influenced you creatively? Do you think it’s important for writers to have other writers in their lives?
Designing is such visual and collaborative work which is such a relief after being isolated in a very private conversation with yourself the way that writing tends to be. With Horses, I am lucky to have a psychic shorthand that comes from 25 years of close friendship, that began with us cooking in a tiny trailer together for 80 people in a treeplanting camp in northern Ontario. It is so helpful to have the deep empathy and trust with another writer who understands the process and is willing to read and give feedback on drafts, and also the relationships with other writers I know, who help with everything from instructing me to pack a clothes steamer while on tour, to offering up places away from the city where I could write. But in the end, writing itself is such an intensely solitary pursuit. You shut the door and it is you alone in a room for long periods of time. Ultimately, you must go it alone.
How long did it take you to write The Dictionary of Animal Languages? Do you keep a specific writing routine? Are you working on anything now?
When I started scrawling lines illegibly into a notebook, I had my first child strapped to me while I psychotically walked the streets of Paris, where I lived at the time. Those writings eventually formed what became The Dictionary of Animal Languages. After that, I wrote on and off for a few more years, had two more children, and wound up starting a design house. There was a very long period where the manuscript sat in a drawer, maybe three years. And then suddenly one day it was like a switch went on (or off?). I felt such an urgency to get the manuscript into the world that if I didn’t, it would just die or lose resonance, even to me. (To give a sense of the time frame, that baby in Paris was twelve at my book launch.)
The early writing felt like inspired transcription. I would take a pot of coffee to my writing studio up on the third floor and write for hours, barely moving, not noticing time or weather. The amazing thing I learned about writing a novel is that there is no mystery to it. Writing is a discipline. It is about having an idea that you find compelling and sitting at a desk for hours with it every day. Things come, things don’t come. You have to be loose but repetitive, and eventually, you get where you want to go. I am, right now, finishing the first draft of my next novel set in a drought in the 1970s. There are more artists, the desert, an unexplained death, and right now, a ghost I can’t seem to get rid of.
Heidi Sopinka has worked as a bush cook in the Yukon, a travel writer in Southeast Asia, a helicopter pilot, a magazine editor, and is co-designer at Horses Atelier. She has written for The Paris Review, The Believer, Brick and Lenny Letter. She is widely published as a journalist in Canada, where she won a national magazine award and was The Globe and Mail's environment columnist. The Dictionary of Animal Languages, her début novel, was chosen by AnOther magazine as “one of the six novels set to conquer 2018,” was a semi-finalist for The Morning News Tournament of Books Best Novels from 2018, was long-listed for the Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize, and has been translated into Polish and Dutch.