A Chat with Elisabeth de Mariaffi on the Amazing Year She’s Had

Issue 3 of The Overcast is now on 160 stands around town, and the cover story profiles local musician Steve Maloney for his gorgeous new album and local author Elisabeth de Mariaffi for her recent SIX-FIGURE American book deal,and other elements of the amazing year she’s had. If you don’t live around St. John’s, here is an E-version of issue 3: http://issuu.com/theovercast/docs/april2014. Enjoy the interview below.

Maybe 3% of Canadian authors will ever wake up and see they’re a finalist for the Giller Prize. Give us a lowdown on how that day went.

That’s a heavy statistic! It was a fun day. The longlist was released early by accident this year, so I was at work, planning to tune into Twitter about an hour later to see the list go up when my friend Zoe Whittall suddenly posted on my FB wall – yes yes yes to you on the Giller list! – I remember that, because my immediate response was, What are you talking about? That’s not even out yet!

Then I saw it was true and left the office immediately and drove home and watched the social media and my phone went all crazy and we bought champagne. Our good friends Mark and Andreae Callanan came over at short notice to drink it with us. They are excellent in emergency situations.

Has the Giller nod had a measurable effect on your career as writer?

It does feel that way. All things considered, I felt my first book got a lot of love even before the nomination. For a book of short stories from a small, independent press, How To Get Along With Women got lots of reviews, I was invited to read at some great festivals; I had a lot of cheerleaders. One of the stories in the book had just been shortlisted for a National Magazine Award. I feel very lucky. But there’s no question that the Giller longlist shone a light on the book, and on me, at the right time.

How to Get Along with Women was also up for a CBC Bookie Award. Is reader love nicer than industry love, or are those equally important in their own ways?

Well, I don’t know. The Bookie I was up for was “Most Underrated Book” which is a bit odd, as compliments go. I got a lot of reader love. I was surprised at how many people I knew peripherally sent me really lovely, earnest messages about loving the book. Short stories can be quite hard to sell, and as a publisher, hard to market, so getting those notes was pretty great.

Congrats on the Lawrence Jackson Award. The nature of the award means you’re officially a “local writer of distinction.” How does it feel to be so quickly and warmly embraced by the vibrant writing scene here?

I’ve had the best cross-country relocation ever. Ever. I had very little idea of what to expect when we decided to move here, and I got the warmest welcome you can imagine. I felt at home very immediately, and it just gets better all the time. I can’t imagine living somewhere else.

Safe to say you’ve befriended some NL writers that you used to professionally admire from afar? One or two in particular?

It’s so fun. I get to throw parties and people I only knew from bookstore shelves are in my kitchen, and they are just finest kind. Pretty much everyone I get to be friends with now falls into your above category. (I’ll tell you this for laughs: When I first started publishing poetry in literary magazines, years ago, they’d send me my copy and I noticed all these literary contests – and every time there was a non-fiction contest – every time, I swear – this guy Russell Wangersky would be the winner. Every time. And I’d get the next magazine in the mail and be like, Jesus, Russell Wangersky AGAIN. Who IS that guy? Anyway, I know that guy now.)

And what brought you to Newfoundland, was it really for the love of a ginger-haired, big-hearted poet named George? How’d you meet? Was he worth the trip across the country?

TOTALLY. The story is that I had this very new day job as a flight attendant with Porter, and I was all excited to fly east coast – I’d never been to St. John’s and I was a bit dreamy over it. Those tourism ads are very effective, plus I’d done a course with Michael Winter, so. I told a friend of mine, the poet Jacob McArthur Mooney, about this – Mooney is from Nova Scotia but had spent time studying at MUN – and he immediately told me knew someone who would be a great tour guide for me. I knew of George of course because of Bookninja.com (which I admit had been my homepage before it shut down), and this made me shy of the whole idea. So the first time I came out here I ran up Signal Hill and went and had a couple drinks at the Ship and was my own guide and avoided meeting George completely. True. Luckily a few weeks after that he happened to be in Toronto for the Trillium Awards (a mutual friend of ours was a nominee) and as I’d already had my couple drinks, I introduced myself. And now I live here. The end.

If we don’t tell George you said so, Was living in St. John’s ever part of the draw to move here?

Yes, for sure. My daughter and I had talked about moving east a few months before I met him – I was considering Halifax because of the work I was doing. And I came home from that first flight to St. John’s with a copy of the real estate section from the Telegram and a bunch of photos and she said: Let’s move to St. John’s instead! So I’d say that George and I met at just the right moment.

Professionally, you’re following a path of more and more words per project: from poetry, to short fiction, and now a novel. Which of these mediums proved the most difficult?

I came to fiction from a poetry background and I love the economy of a short story — my guess is that the power in a short story probably emanates from that economy, that line-to-line spareness. I love a good novel, but often find I come to the end and think: Alice Munro could have done that in 30 pages. So what that tells me is that the novel and the short story are really doing different things, and that’s the challenge for the writer — to make sure you’re telling the right story in the best possible form.

So tell us about this new novel’s road to publication. It’s been accepted for publication by what is arguably Canada’s most prestigious line of books: HarperCollins’ Patrick Crean Editions imprint. Was the novel even finished before he accepted it – how did that whole process work? What does “pre-empted by HarperCollins” mean?

I’d actually sent the finished first draft of the novel to my agent about a week before the Giller longlist happened, so the timing was terrific. We did an overhaul on it together before she sent it out, but to be honest, I knew that Crean had loved the short stories and had been asking after the novel for a few months already. He came in with an offer very quickly and then it changed to a pre-empt about a day later. A pre-empt just means that there’s a strict time limit on the offer, and that it is not negotiable or up for auction – it’s a take it or leave it offer.

And tell us about the foreign rights sale, what country picked it up and made you, “Internationally published author, Elisabeth de Mariaffi.”

The novel will be published simultaneously in the US by Touchstone, which is an imprint of Simon & Schuster. [Editorial Note: That was a six-figure book deal! Six!]

Will that be a whole new wave of editing for you with this other house?

Because the book will be released at the same time in both countries, I’m actually working with two editors at once. So far, so good.

Does all this success feel overnight, or a long time coming?

I don’t know. I don’t think anyone has overnight success. I started publishing poetry in literary magazines in 1998. I did my MFA in creative writing between 2007-2009, and I was a pretty tireless literary worker in the Toronto scene for those years and beyond. But every new project is a new learning curve, and it always comes with the same and newer anxiety.

Do you have a clear career highlight or two?

I really loved being part of Woody Point last year. It’s basically a good reason to keep writing books, the hope that they’ll invite me back.

Your new novel, The Devil You Know, is set during the investigation of Paul Bernardo’s murder spree. What drew you to the topic, and tell us a little about the novel.

The novel is set in February 1993, just before and after Bernardo’s arrest both for the murders of Kristin French and Leslie Mahaffy, and also for the Scarborough Rapes. That arrest was a bombshell for the country, but I think particularly for women living in the Toronto area. I’d grown up under the shadow of the Scarborough Rapist – those attacks happened while I was in high school – and French and Mahaffy were roughly my age. I was a bit nervous about picking that time to write about, but I’ve had this enormous number of women approach me already, saying: I’m so glad you’re writing this, I’m so glad we can finally talk about this.

Having said that, the novel is not really about Bernardo. It’s about a young reporter with a sad and scary childhood who happens to get assigned to that story. It’s 1993, so the dawn of the internet as well, so for the first time we have a character with the ability to research her own history. That’s just as important to the story as the Bernardo piece.

When can we get our hands on the novel? Next fall, next spring?

Tentatively January 2015. I’ll keep you posted.

When not writing a book, you’re busy promoting the works of other authors, as a publicist for Breakwater Books. Is there any way this impacts your life as a writer that I can use in this article?

Day jobs are hard to manage. I’ve worked freelance a lot in my life, and I’ve done completely unrelated jobs (like flight attending). The nicest thing about working at Breakwater has been the level of support I get from my employer and the other staff. It’s a fun job – I get to plan a lot of parties – and I recently scaled back to a job share with the very talented Megan Coles. So Megan and I are splitting the endeavour now, which means I get to have way more time for my writing and still work part time at a job I like. I told you: I’m very lucky.

PHOTO CREDIT: Joel Upshall

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