Author Cordelia Strube discusses the “what-iffing of writing”

crop of a section of a book cover for the YFile front page

On Feb. 11, York’s Canadian Writers in Person course and lecture series presented author Cordelia Strube reading from her novel Milosz. Special correspondent Chris Cornish (BA Hons. ’04, MA ’09) sent the following report to YFile.

“What’s that one say?” Milo asks, pointing to the next note.
Aruthy reads: “Trifles make the sum of human things, and half our misery from our foibles springs.”
“Oh, that is so true,” Milo howls. “It’s all so true!” 

            from Milosz
by Cordelia Strube

Cordelia Strube
Cordelia Strube

“Writing is what-iffing,” said Canadian author Cordelia Strube. The main drive behind her writing is wondering what might happen if she throws her characters into precarious, ridiculous or dangerous situations. Consequently, there are no easy moments or resolutions in her work; failures are more frequent than successes. On Feb. 11, Strube read from Milosz, her latest novel, and shared her thoughts with the Canadian Writers in Person series.

Strube is an accomplished reader of her own work, her voice easily sliding in and out of different characters and accents: a Canadian junk removal expert, a New-Age Spanish lothario, an elderly but spry British matron, among others. This is not a surprise since Strube started her career as an actor after graduating from theatre school. Following a successful foray into performing in radio plays, Strube wrote her own (Mortal, 1986) and won the CBC Literary Awards competition. She went on to write several more radio plays for the CBC, developing a keen ear for dialogue along the way.

Over time, Strube became increasingly frustrated with how her work was being produced and decided to try her hand at writing novels, where she could afford to be a “control freak”. Not surprisingly, the immediacy of working with scripts and radio carried forward into her new form, her novels driven by action and dialogue: “one line of dialogue can do what a page of prose can’t.” Not one to engage in lengthy descriptions, she establishes setting through action, her characters moving through sequential “onstage” moments, lending a certain immediacy to every scene.

While none of her characters are based fully on real people, Strube borrows little observations from life and builds characters out of them. A woman who kept saying “obviously” in an overheard café conversation made Strube wonder about the insecurity that would lead a character to talk like that, perhaps an abusive spouse or some other dark secret. A snarky discussion between two extras dissing the film’s star gave her otherwise periphery characters some insight into hostile behaviour. “We’re all screwed up because of insecurities. That’s where aggression comes from.”

Cover of Milosz by Cordelia StrubeSometimes what happens is surprising and even fatal. When asked why she had one of her characters kill somebody, Strube explained that usually something big needs to happen to propel the narrative forward. “When writing, you need to keep your foot on the gas.” This often leads her characters to say and do unlikable things but it is more important to Strube that we understand their motivations, which often ring true to life.  The author admits her inspiration from Chekov who recognized the humanity in “wanting what we can’t have, not seeing what we do have, and how life just goes on.”

In Milosz, Strube uses humour to offset the bleakness of broken families, death, disappearance, disabilities, isolation and modern culture. She satirizes reality TV with a show called “Reality Check”, which is appropriate because her characters’ delusional expectations often collide in disastrous ways with reality and each other.  Rejecting the fairy tale ending and the notion of closure – in life or in fiction – Strube believes, rather, that we continue to be haunted by the people we have loved and lost. As her title character Milosz comments, we can’t close off relationships “as though a life can exist free of the constraints imposed by other lives. As though we’re all planets in our own orbits revolving around one another without ever intersecting.”

The Canadian Writers in Person series of public readings at York, which are free and open to the public, is also part of an introductory course on Canadian literature. It is sponsored in part by the Canada Council for the Arts. See the Sept. 15, 2013 issue of YFile for a full schedule of upcoming writers.