Sarah Kathryn York was able to stop by the Babble Book Lounge and join the Babble Book Club in discussing her novel The Anatomy of Edouard Beaupre a tale of Saskatchewan's Willow Bunch Giant. Despite a technical hangup or two, the conversation was a raring success, delving into the techniques of the writing, the inspiration for the story and the characters and revealing a few crushes too!
A special thanks again to Sarah Kathryn York for joining us and departing all the answers to the many questions headed her way. Also thanks to those who were able to join us and those who brought their questions and comments and to those who were able to tune in.
For those who were unable to join us or have yet to finish the book (or just want another read of the discussion), please enjoy some of the highlights of the Babble Book Club conversation. Check out the original babble thread for some extra bits as well.
Why did you decide to tackle the story of the Willow Bunch Giant and create a fictionalized biography? What drew you to the story of Edouard Beaupre and presenting him as more than a pathological giant?
I was taken by Edouard's story for a number of reasons, and I really wanted to shake up this constant narrative of him as a giant, as reductive in that way. I wanted to find out who he might have been, to get into his story, to discover what other narratives were out there. I felt very strongly about this, for a number of reasons.
Also, fiction allowed me to engage the humanity of the characters and to fill in the blanks as it were. It started as a biography, changed to creative non-fiction, and landed as fiction. My early readers liked some of the imagined parts best, though it's laden with research and Edouard's own words.
The conceit of storytelling-as-anatomy is interesting especially when explicitly drawing our attention with the 206-bones/206-pages and the chapter headings. Can you explain more about the connection between the body and the story that body tells. Is writing a kind of anatomical detective work?
Regarding the structure, anatomy was a framework as well as a subject. It allowed me to play with questions about embodiment, identity and life experiences, to sort of shake up the public emphasis on Edouard's frame. There are several different ways that "anatomy" works in the book, and works for different characters, and I wanted to create some tension there. It also had to do that narrative layering of stories and points of view, and the structure of the book, so the book is an anatomy as well. One idea was to gather the scattered parts of Edouard -- all the scraps of memories, interviews, facts, different perspectives of him -- and gather them together in a while piece. It's a bit unsatisfying because we feel that it doesn't really produce a 'whole' person. Neither does the reduction of him to a giant, if you see where I'm going. Hope this makes sense!
It's hard to think of a more “embodied” subject than Edouard. Do you work with embodiment in your graduate research? You have talked a bit about the relationship between the critic and author in you -- but I wonder how the actual topic of your research relates to the themes in your novel you just outlined. Are they the same? Close?
My studies involve a lot of intersections between embodiment and narrative, and I have more recently gotten into this with aesthetics and disability studies also. I have a literary and creative writing background across degrees, but I also am very multidisciplinary, like my social, medical history lectures on “Freaks and Porn.” I'm all over the place, but you make a great point! It IS hard to imagine a more embodied subject, and that's one of the points I guess -- how that pushes us into harder questions, and frees us at the same time (I hope)!
Why did you decide to provide the story in two perspectives: the Montreal doctor and Edouard Beaupre? Why is the Doctor's point of view important?
Descending into the story through someone who encountered Edouard's body first -- which toured so long -- seemed natural in a lot of ways, and counterbalanced the more intimate narratives. There was a real article I encountered by J.M. Blais who really radiographed Edouard at UMontreal, and for a while, we tried to use the images. My character is not at all based on him, but is imaginary. It had to do with obsession and that bridge between the legend and the man, and I certainly got a bit obsessed myself, in a different, happier way!
Can you tell us about your research process? How much material did you draw from? How much of the book is fiction/non-fiction?
It was heavy research over about three years. I had to dig up some things even from retired concierges and all that ... it was nuts. There was a great deal of importance to me in getting things right, and most of what is known about him, even in “trusted” forums is mixed, convoluted or misrepresented. Some things are fiction, more having to do with scenes. The dance scene is invented for instance. The smokey palmist.
There are also actual words from Edouard from interviews, thing he did or said, the scenery research, places and times and events, the family history, people he was related to and their histories, the fights, ... it goes on and on. So lots of fact!
It was really a wonderful experience learning all that I did. Everyone around him was also fascinating. I tried to work in the non-fiction as seamlessly as possible, and I hope it worked. In a natural sort of way. The fiction comes in with imagining his feelings, specific scenes that sort of thing. And of course, the narrator.
I will also add that it must be strange for his relatives that I know all sorts of minutia, like where all the graves are, the family tree, minor details, who was with him at the Fair, who baptized him, that his mother named herself “Godmother,” how he slept, and so on.
How did you balance writing about the myth of the Willow Bunch Giant and the reality of Edouard Beaupre?
There is always a rift between the myth and the man! That giant was so constructed, you know. Even that changed. Legends about his rescuing people and changing from “The World's Tallest Indian” to a Quebecois to how heavy the horses were he lifted -- it's interesting that his legend was not just exploitative, it was inspiring to a lot of people. The best of what we can be in some ways. The man of course interested me much more, and I hope the emphasis is there!
Balancing was difficult. I did not want to judge the legend, to maybe peer into it and explore what that was about -- the attraction and repulsion factor -- but I hoped to tip the balance in favour of a much more personal vision, and let the reader imagine his point of view!
The book's size is almost alarming -- especially since it is a book about a giant! How did you hope the tactile and more methodical aspects of the book -- the size, the 206 pages -- would influence the reading experience?
I love the pocket size -- I can thank Coteau Books for that. I highly encourage the book as anti-sacred cow: write in it, carry it around, bang it up, get into it -- sort of philosophy. It was not an ironic statement, but it works for a lot of reasons. Booksellers are divided.
The structure was really self-conscious in some ways, and it was meant to break up the narrative without being too disruptive, I hope. It was experimental in a lot of ways, a convergence of themes with the stories, and what I liked about that was a device -- I don't mean that in a heavy-handed way -- to think about some of those questions raised. I wanted to include a lot more images, also, to counter the text. Empathy is so important, and using a long flowing story form would be a temptation to "solve" Edouard's story, without making room for the reader to think about and feel those interplays between the body and the life.
“Empathy is so important, and using a long flowing story form would be a temptation to 'solve' Edouard's story.” Is this why you decided to go for a historical fictional account rather than a biography, to explore the character more fully and perhaps have the reader empathize with him more?
Exactly. I hope people will go on relating to Edouard in their own ways, and asking questions about why we see some people as “different.” I don't think his story was tragic, as I've said, I think it's beautiful and human. So I hope that's the sort of spirit going forward.