On The Occasion of Michelle Butler Hallett’s Spectacular New Novel…
Constant Nobody, March 2, 2021
I’ve been a fan of Michelle Butler Hallett since I read her first novel, Double-blind. She’s wholly original in story, style and form. My snappy one liner to capture her work: an extraordinary blend of Hillary Mantel and Ursula K. Le Guin. I also perceive Michelle as an “elemental” writer, working with power house classical themes. She has a new novel out, Constant Nobody.
Michelle Butler Hallett, Formal Author BIO
Michelle Butler Hallett, she/her, is a history nerd and disabled person who writes fiction about violence, evil, love, and grace. The Toronto Star describes her work as “perfectly paced and gracefully wrought,” while Quill and Quire calls it “complex, lyrical, and with a profound sense of a world long passed.” Her short stories are widely anthologized in Hard Ol’ Spot, The Vagrant Revue of New Fiction, Everything Is So Political, Running the Whale’s Back, and Best American Mystery Stories, and her essay “You’re Not ‘Disabled’ Disabled” appears in Land of Many Shores. Her 2016 novel, This Marlowe, was longlisted for the ReLit Award and the Dublin International Literary Award. Her first novel, Double-blind, was shortlisted for the Sunburst Award. Butler Hallett lives in St. John’s. Constant Nobody is her fifth novel.
For fans of Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light comes an historical espionage novel with a contemporary edge from Michelle Butler Hallett.
The time is 1937. The place: the Basque Country, embroiled in the Spanish Civil War. Polyglot and British intelligence agent Temerity West encounters Kostya Nikto, a Soviet secret police agent. Kostya has been dispatched to assassinate a doctor as part of the suppression of a rogue communist faction. When Kostya finds his victim in the company of Temerity, she expects Kostya to execute her — instead, he spares her. This action dangerously complicates their lives when they meet again in Moscow.
Q & A with Michelle
- Where did Constant Nobody come from? Was it a sudden idea, or one on a slow percolate, or something else entirely that my brain can’t even imagine?
It’s a slow burn, I think. I’ve been interested in Russia and Russian culture since I was a little girl. I was a child in the 1970s and an adolescent in the 1980s, the last two decades of the Cold War. Newfoundland seemed pretty isolated from world events, but then again defectors often started their defections to North America at Gander International Airport. Aeroflot planes stopped at Gander to re-fuel. The Americans still had military bases here, so the Cold War was not very far away.
In 1989, I was ridiculously lucky and privileged. I got to attend Carleton University in Ottawa, where in my first year, I studied two English courses, one of those featuring many works in translation, including several by Russian writers; a film studies course, where I encountered the work of Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein; a Russian history survey course from roughly Aleksandr Yaroslavich Nevsky to the early Stalinist period; and a Russian and Soviet literature in translation course.
Add to that my partner’s interest on the music of Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich, and BAM, my mind opened up like a thirsty flower in heavy rain. So much art. So many perspectives. So many people desperate to communicate. The structures of the Cold War, which had been the political norm my entire life, started to collapse. The Berlin Wall fell in November 1989, and everything seemed to change at once. These changes only sharpened my interest in Russian history and culture.
My maternal grandmother was an English war bride, so I’ve always felt a tug to England. I finally got to visit her hometown with my mother in 2018. It was very moving. The more I studied English history, the more fascinated I became by the 1930s there. George Orwell was a way into that. England before World War Two is so very different from England now, and I find the changes, particularly the decline and fall of the British Empire, fascinating. Even the rapid social changes from the death of Queen Victoria in 1901 to the end of World War Two in 1945 – just 44 years – are dizzying. Andrew Marr in his miniseries The Making of Modern Britain plumbs some of that.
- You said in a gab we had that: “I keep straddling lines — lines I am not convinced even exist — between historical fiction and literary fiction, literary and spec fiction, literary and spec and historical and metafiction” Would you elaborate on your idea of genre, your thoughts on categories for books and how you view your work?
“Literary fiction” is a marketing label. Sometimes we presume that because a work of fiction is labelled “literary” it has inherent merit in aesthetics and theme. Often it does – but not always. Another presumption is that literary fiction doesn’t – even shouldn’t – rely much on plot, instead focusing on characters, ideas, and philosophies. My trouble here is that “literary fiction” is not hovering magically beyond or above genre. It is a genre, as much as speculative fiction, historical fiction, science fiction, espionage fiction, crime fiction, and so on. In Canada, what gets called literary fiction is, or at least was, often written in a stern form of realism. I wonder if we didn’t privilege realism as the only acceptable way to write serious fiction. That’s changing, and not a minute too soon.
Works we hold in the canon, works which have lasted decades, centuries, millennia: they often do have inherent worth in aesthetics and in tackling the human condition. What intrigues me about the works that last, and the works I most admire, is how often they are, by our labelling standards, hybrids.
Christopher Marlowe’s Dr Faustus is a play, based on stories from Germany in the 1580s. For Elizabethan audience members who accepted the existence of Hell, the Devil, and demons, Marlowe’s play was in part historical drama. Marlowe was a Canterbury boy who studied divinity; his Dr Faustus is shot through questions of the soul and one’s relationship to God. Marlowe also weaves in elements of medieval morality tale and a fair bit of comedy, both physical (authorship of those scenes is debated, for interesting reasons, some of them based in snobbery) and intellectual. For us, Dr Faustus shows threads of what we’d call magic realism; the summoning of a demon is framed as an act of pompous, even comedic arrogance on John Faustus’ part, yet the actual summoning, and the existence of Mephostophilis, are not in question.
Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick: is it a sea-story? A psychological drama? A meditation on good and evil? A metafictional conversation on the state of the writer’s country and at the same time the state of each individual character? A nerd’s delight in its collection of way too many details on whales? It’s all at once, of course, and so much more.
Flannery O’Connor’s The Violent Shall Bear It Away: what the hell (not a metaphor) is going on there? Coming of age and collisions with evil? Personal responsibilities? Fate? Free will? Racism? Complicity? Again, it’s all at once and more that I’ve missed with my limited mind.
These three examples now get classified as “literary” works, yet how were they perceived in their time? Moby-Dick ruined Melville’s career as a best-selling novelist. Dr Faustus was a popular play, if one considered dangerous to perform, not least because Marlowe’s posthumous reputation is tainted with scandal. I’m not sure many critics knew what to do with The Violent Shall Bear It Away, and O’Connor never received much recognition for her work in her lifetime. Her one major literary prize was posthumous.
Let’s pop over to the genre of espionage fiction for a moment. Oh, look, there’s Ian Fleming. Ugh. For me, the Bond novels are macho post-Empire wish fulfillment trash. Bond himself is a blank slate, something like Harry Potter, all externals, a character for the reader to insert themselves into and so experience the plot. The sexism is appalling, even for the time, and the plots are so utterly predictable as to be flaccid. Fleming found a formula that worked, stuck with it, and made money. I find that when people say they despise genre fiction, this is often the sort of work they mean. However, they make a serious mistake if they think all so-called genre fiction is like Fleming’s
Oh, here’s John LeCarré, who, like Fleming, started writing fiction during the Cold War. Unlike Fleming, LeCarré tackled questions of good and evil with subtlety, skill, and care, often via nuances of deceit, including self-deceit. His prose is not the most elegant I’ve read, but oh, his unities of character and plot, each driving the other: that’s really well done. His characters live dull and sordid lives, and espionage does not relieve that state, only complicates it. His plots are intricate, and so is his character development. He tackled universals of the human condition in rich settings and thereby hits a sweet spot I love so much in fiction: when the setting is highly specific yet the questions elastic and universal.
That’s a sweet spot I aim for myself in my novels, especially Double-blind, This Marlowe, and Constant Nobody. Whether I’ve succeeded is up for debate. I’m also trying to have metafictional conversations with other novels and other works which ask similar questions. So are This Marlowe and Constant Nobody just historical fiction? Just espionage fiction? What about the hints of magic realism in Constant Nobody, with fairy tales woven into the novel’s deep structure? Is Double-blind just speculative fiction, with its strained narrative realism paralleling the narrator’s strained understanding of his reality? Are my novels just literary fiction?
I want my novels to be hybrids. I want to pack them with questions, and I want them to work on the surface as unified and compelling stories, and then work beyond their surface as metafictional, cross-genre, and cross-cultural conversations.
- Let’s talk research. How much do you do and what kind of research? When do you do the research? I know some historical fiction writers say research, write the story, do the fine research after, and have a specific draft to endure its timeline. Thoughts on that?
I research and outline a general plot at the same time. I like to get a handle on what I call texture, quotidian historical details of everyday life, before I start drafting much. It’s very easy to do too much research and call it writing. At some point I have to leave that blanket fort and confront the story.
- People get your last name wrong. They get my name wrong. It’s always Christy Conlin unless I use the hyphen. I know you have made a public statement about this, and asking people to get it right. Thoughts on why people do this with double given and/or surnames? Is it social media and the “scan eye” versus the “reading eye”?
The scan eye versus the reading eye likely plays a role, but getting someone’s name wrong out of carelessness or a presumption of knowing better after being corrected is just plain rude. I wonder if gender plays a role here, too. Butler was my surname at birth; Hallett is my husband’s surname. Therefore my surname is Butler Hallett, without a hyphen because I dislike hyphens. I have no opinion on other people using hyphens; it’s their name.
As Butler Hallett and not Hallett, I should be filed under B. That goes against an antiquated and arbitrary grammar rule about filing a double unhyphenated surname by the second part of the surname, but I ask if that rule ever considered how a woman might add to, rather than completely change, her surname. When I’m called Hallett instead of Butler Hallett and explain that it’s Butler Hallett, I sometimes get pushback that feels as if I’m getting above myself, as if I should just sit down and accept what other people want to call me. No way. No frigging way.
- Where you still working on this book when the pandemic hit? Did it affect the writing, your writing process, or your final book, creatively?
We were into final edits when the pandemic hit, and I was grateful to have deadlines’ focus. In between rounds of Constant Nobody, I worked on research for my next project. Newfoundland had, until February 2021, enjoyed very low case numbers, so our daily lives weren’t as disrupted as those of many other Canadians. That said, I am immunocompromised and spent 22 weeks last year in preventative isolation, unable to leave my house except for walks and medical appointments. Our low case numbers continued, so I eventually got medical clearance to leave my house, with limits. I could go work at my day job on-site instead of remotely. I’m back in preventative isolation now, and, as anyone would, I find the confinement unpleasant.
We were into final edits when the pandemic hit, and I was grateful to have deadlines’ focus…I don’t think the pandemic affected Constant Nobody, but, as I study people’s emotions and behaviours under these conditions, it may well leave a mark on future project
However, I’ve also got years of living with a severe form of ankylosing spondylitis under my belt – for me, it’s a disabling, painful, and thereby very isolating disease – so I’ve developed some coping mechanisms. One of them is to bury myself in research. So no, I don’t think the pandemic affected Constant Nobody, but, as I study people’s emotions and behaviours under these conditions, it may well leave a mark on future projects. I hope my own experiences of it will help me create empathy for characters under duress, especially those who don’t know how long their strain many last.
- How’s it going on the virtual book tour/promotional world? Tell us about any events you are doing, or a virtual launch.
We’ve got a virtual launch on Thursday March 25, hosted by the Memorial University Department of English. Tyler Enfield, who wrote Like Rum-Drunk Angels, is joining me for readings and conversation. I’m really looking forward to it. I’m reading with the Electric Mermaid series in BC later in April, and with New Brunswick’s Odd Sundays on April 18. I’ll also be a guest of the North American Society for Intelligence History’s book club April 27.
- Who are you favourite writers (dead and alive)?
Here’s a short list: Anna Akhmatova, Isaac Emmanuilovich Babel, Djuna Barnes, Marie-Claire Blais, Anne, Charlotte, and Emily Bronte, Geoffrey Chaucer, Louise Fitzhugh, Homer, Henrik Ibsen, Franz Kafka, John LeCarré, Pat Lowther, Alistair MacLeod, Osip Emilyevich Mandelstam, Christopher Marlowe, Flannery O’Connor, George Orwell, Anthony Powell, Ian Rankin, Jean Rhys, Carlos Ruiz Zafon, Varlam Tikhonovich Shalamov, Vladimir Georgyivich Sorokin, Virginia Woolf, Evgeny Ivanovich Zamyatin, the anonymous poet who wrote Gawain and the Green Knight, and the anonymous poet who wrote Beowulf.
- How did you land in Newfoundland?
I was born here. I left when I was 18 to study at Carleton University, where I had a great time. I love and miss Ottawa friends and the city itself so much. When my husband and I started a family, we decided to come back to St John’s, and we’ve been here since 1999.
- Tell us about your writing space.
I’m lucky enough to have a study. It’s a small bedroom made over. It gets lots of daylight, which is very important to me. Sometimes it’s very cluttered, and sometimes it’s quite spartan. I’ve got posters from various readings, lectures, and book launches on the walls, a print of a DJ Berger painting called Trouble, a few prints of photographs by Kenneth Harvey, and some postcards.
A generous friend bought me a proper ergonomic chair and an adjustable-height desk a few years ago, and those are very helpful. Sometimes with my ankylosing spondylitis I cannot sit for more than a few minutes at a time. Being able to stand and write means I feel less pain and can better concentrate. I collect old typewriters and sometimes use a mid-1950s Remington Quiet-Riter to hammer out ideas. I’ve got a bookshelf full of tea and CDs, a CD player that’s also got a radio tuner – I’m a big fan of CBC Radio 2 – a fancy variable-temp kettle/teamaker, and good external speakers for my laptop. I listen to a lot of music.
How to Order Constant Nobody
Thank you, Michelle. What a pleasure to e-chat with you. You are very inspiring, both your work and you as a writer. I love reading about your everyday, the challenges and delights, how you demystify the writing life and mystify it at the same time. That’s a rare alchemy, my friend.
I can’t wait to read Constant Nobody, now my copy has flown into the house and soon my hands. Darling pals and readers, you can order your own copy of Constant Nobody by clicking here.
ePub: 9781773101583 $19.95
Find the virtual Michelle:
Michelle’s Author Facebook