Hilary Cunningham on her new novel, Perdita
Last week, anthropology professor Hilary Cunningham celebrated the release of her new eco-gothic novel, Perdita, with a book launch at Massey College. Under the author name Hilary Scharper, she wrote Perdita over 10 years while also teaching courses, doing research and raising a child. Here, she answers our questions about Perdita, the process and its connection with the University of Toronto.
Tell us about Perdita.
Perdita is a blending of historical fiction, romance, Greek mythology and the supernatural. The story opens with a 40-year-old professor, Garth Hellyer, visiting a home for the elderly as part of his research on the Longevity Project. He interviews an elderly woman named Marged Brice, who claims to be an astonishing 134 years old. Garth is skeptical, especially when Marged mentions that a presence named Perdita is the cause of her longevity, but he agrees to read “her” diaries from the late 1890s. The mystery of who Marged Brice really is – as well as the elusive figure of Perdita – is the central mystery of the novel.
What was the writing process like?
In a word – intense! Many, many people have asked the question: “When did you get time to write a novel?” I’m still baffled that I did it! It was a 10-year-process (from conception to the book launch last week) and done in conjunction with my teaching, research and raising a child. I remember that I began by trying to find novel-writing time after “clearing the decks” of all my other work – i.e., working overtime and then often writing the novel late, late into the wee hours of the morning. But I soon discovered that there’s no such thing as a cleared deck in my life – something always comes up and I have a busy, constant schedule. I discovered that in order to follow a dream and do something that was important to me, I had to write within the weather of my life – all its storms as well as its blue-skies moments of relative calm. This was how Perdita was written.
What is eco-gothic?
I use the term eco-gothic to describe a new and emerging literary genre. It is one that builds on elements of the traditional Gothic, but also has affinities to southern Gothic (e.g., Faulkner and Flannery ‘O’Connor) as well as southern Ontario Gothic (e.g., Timothy Findley, Margaret Atwood and Robertson Davies). The eco-gothic is distinctive, however, in that the natural landscape is not merely a backdrop for plot or character – so this is not principally about a setting for a novel. Rather, the landscape is an active and central player in the narrative. As one reviewer has noted: “In Perdita, the environment is not only background and foreground; it is also between, amidst, enveloping. It is creation with character.”
This is, I think, at the core of the eco-gothic genre. I find the genre exciting because it’s part of a broader intellectual shift taking place in many different disciplines, including literature, i.e., rethinking human-nature relationships in light of global climate change. The eco-gothic helps us to explore more fully our deep and contingent interconnection with the natural world.
How does your writing interact with your teaching and research at U of T?
Most of my teaching and research focuses on cultural approaches to nature, and how these unfold in the context of different histories, landscapes and social conditions. As a result, I use a wide variety of resources in both my teaching and academic scholarship – ranging from film and fiction to social-science and scientific scholarship. The novel explores several intellectual ideas that are also central to my scholarship: namely, notions of wilderness and wild nature. While my academic work explores how these unfold in the context of Canadian conservation politics, the novel looks at wilderness more broadly, i.e., in terms of western worldviews, and it represents a more complex probing of that tradition for its subversive and indeed silenced voices.
What would you say to students who are interested in writing?
As someone relatively new to the world of fiction, I would just say: stick with it, keep writing and keep your spirits up. To be sure, one will have “dark nights of the soul” and at times, get discouraged. A central task is to stay focused on what you are trying to write and getting better at being a writer. This will entail rejections, critical comments and much re-writing. Discerning between a helpful critique and something designed to take the wind out of your sails is key. Unfortunately, they sometimes come in the same package – identifying the difference is critical to sustaining yourself as writer. For me, this is as important as the writing itself.