Etta and Otto and Russell and James An exclusive Authorlink interview with Emma Hooper

By Ellen Birkett Morris

Etta and Otto and Russell and James
by Emma Hooper

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April 2015

In Emma Hooper’s novel ETTA AND OTTO AND RUSSELL AND JAMES the reader accompanies eighty-three-year-old Etta as she crosses Canada to see the ocean. It is a journey across land, but also time, as Etta struggles with memory loss, and is also visited by vivid recollections of her early years. We witness the transformations of her husband, Otto, and the man who loved her, Russell. Etta is accompanied by a talking coyote named James, who may or may not be a figment of her imagination.

“I had some really super writing instructors along the way.”

AUTHORLINK: Tell me about your apprenticeship as a writer.

HOOPER: I had some really super writing instructors along the way, at all three post-secondary levels, undergraduate (at the University of Alberta), Masters (at Bath Spa University) and PhD (University of East Anglia), where I learned an awful lot about workshopping and learning to take constructive criticism, well, constructively. One of the best lessons I learned from them is that you can’t defend your work once it’s out there on the page. When your piece was being workshopped by the other students you had to stay silent and let them draw their own conclusions about it without further input from you. Of course, that was painful and hard, but that’s what happens in ‘real life’; once you send your book out to be published, you can’t exactly ring up the reviewer from the New York Times and say, ‘oh, you just didn’t get that part… it’s supposed to be about her mom!’ or what have you. You need to prepare your work, and yourself, for that kind of detached delivery.

AUTHORLINK: Where did this story begin for you? character? plot? image? first line?

HOOPER: The thing that comes easiest to me, as a writer, is dialogue (or monologue). I can labor for painful hours over the description of a guinea pig, but people talking? Well, that’s fun and easy for me. When I don’t know what to write, I’ll often find an excuse to let a character talk. The extent of this stretches all the way to my PhD; whenever I was struggling with the dry, academic thesis, I would flip it around and write what I needed to communicate as a dialogue between my supervisor and me. All that is to say that I decided to start with Etta’s letter because, well, beginnings are scary, and writing it in her voice, as her ‘speaking’ to Otto, was the easiest, least scary way for me to start! So, I wrote it to ease my fear of starting, and then surprised myself by actually ending up with something I wanted to keep.


HOOPER: This novel began as a bunch of little ideas of various scraps; I’d one day think, ‘hair all gone white’ or ‘coyote companion’ and write it down on whatever thing was handy. I have a box where I collect these things that I can go through whenever I’m looking for a new writing idea or project. I realized one day that I had an awful lot of scraps relating one way or another to this ‘Grandpa story’ as I was sloppily referring to it, and decided it was probably time to pull them all together and see where that led and it led to Etta and Otto and Russell and James.

“I’ve got quite a fondness for puzzles, for taking a bunch of seemingly disparate pieces and figuring out how to fit them together “

AUTHORLINK: You do interesting things with time in the book. Tell me about why you chose to tell the story in a nonlinear way. To what extent does this mirror Etta’s struggles with memory and knowing who and where she is in time?

HOOPER: I’ve always been fond of narrative that folds in and out of itself, everything from Borges’ Labyriths to Eggers A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. We don’t experience life linearly, we’re always thinking about what happened yesterday, or where we’ll be tomorrow, or both at once, so I was striving for a form that would capture some of that fluidity. That, and I’ve got quite a fondness for puzzles, for taking a bunch of seemingly disparate pieces and figuring out how to fit them together into one beautiful whole. And, yes, I did hope that this would have thematic implications; in crafting Etta’s creeping dementia I strove to blur the lines of perspective and narrative voice, at times hoping to unsettle the reader a little, and subject them to a bit of the confusion Etta herself is experiencing.

AUTHORLINK: Discuss the journeys that are explored in the book. They aren’t all physical.

HOOPER: No, they’re certainly not. Etta’s is the most obvious, and it is physical, walking across Canada to see the ocean, but it’s also internal, as the journey can be seen as an expression of self, an attempt to get back to who she is as an individual, away from dementia and away from the tangled roots of her relationships.

Otto’s journey is in himself, as he scrambles to fill the void that Etta leaves.

Russell’s primary journey is in learning and believing that he’s allowed to have a journey of his own.

And James, well, James’ whole life is a journey, really.

AUTHORLINK: What were the greatest challenges when writing EMMA AND OTTO AND RUSSELL AND JAMES and how did you overcome them?

HOOPER: Socializing! I find it really, really difficult to say no to a friend wanting to do something fun. Also, in the warmer months, any time the sun is out I feel this ridiculously strong urge to go swim outside, which generally means hoping on my bike and riding down to the river. If a friend asks me to go swimming, well, there’s just no hope for my writing that day. Luckily it’s grey and rainy a lot in England.

AUTHORLINK: Tell me about your research for this book.

HOOPER: I asked my mom a lot of questions. Really, I did. She was my go-to person for two reasons: firstly, as the book is loosely based on her parents (who have now both passed away), she was the one with the most accurate information about what prairie life on the farm, what their lives, were like, as she was there for much of it, and had access to stories and photos and records for the earlier parts. The second reason is because my mom’s a librarian. She was head of reference for The University of Alberta’s humanities library, so if there’s one person who knows how to find out the exact make of a bullet in Halifax in 1942, it’s her.

“Most of what I know about writing I learned from violin practice.”

AUTHORLINK: You are a musician. I would love your thoughts on how the creative process in both disciplines is similar or different.

HOOPER: Most of what I know about writing I learned from violin practice. I started violin when I was three (switching to the viola when I was eleven. That’s another story.) and at that point, it’s all just about tiny tiny steps. You practice your bow-hold five hundred times before you even make a sound. Then you practice open strings five thousand times before you play a real song. Writing, especially novel writing, is like that. Tiny steps towards an eventual goal, so many steps away that what you do is forget, most of the time, about the whole, big, goal, and just focus on perfecting the tiny thing. The perfect bow-hold. The perfect sentence. The perfect open string. The perfect rhythm of words. Until, one day, you go to work and realize: you can play a concerto. You have written a novel.

AUTHORLINK: Talk about the process of revision for this novel. Who was your editor and what was it like working with him/her? How many revisions did you do and what was your main focus when making changes? Advice on revision for apprentice writers?

HOOPER: It’s never as painful as you think it will be. It’s like ripping off a band aid, thinking about it is worse than just doing it!

I was lucky enough to have a few different editors in a few different countries for this book (Marysue Rucci at Simon and Schuster was my American editor), and I loved working with all of them. Their job is to take your work and make it as amazing as possibly possible and they’re super good at spotting little ways to do that, whether it’s more of one character, or fewer commas, or what have you. Personally, I tend to under-write, so a lot of my comments were of the “more of” variety, and less of the “cut-this” variety, which I think made it easier for me than some.

AUTHORLINK: Are there particular habits that you would encourage writers to cultivate – habits of the mind or attitude or work habits?

HOOPER: Firstly I’d say, if you haven’t yet: Learn your grammar. Really. No one’s above the basics. And no one will take you seriously until you do.

AUTHORLINK: Who is your agent? How did you connect with your agent? Any tips for selecting the right agent?

HOOPER: I’m with Claudia Ballard at WME (or Cathryn Summerhayes in the UK), and she/they are FANTASTIC. Cathryn and I met through an event at the University of East Anglia, where she came to give a talk. I marched up to her afterwards and asked if I might be so bold as to send her my manuscript. As for choosing the right one, two tips:

Make sure that you get along. You’re going to spend a lot of time with this person, both on the phone and email and in real life, so you want that time to be comfortable and enjoyable for both of you.

It seems obvious, but amazingly lots of people don’t do this: Read over some of her/his list and be sure you actually have aligned literary taste.

“Trust your writing. Trust the things that make it weird and different.”

AUTHORLINK: Advice to new writers on staying encouraged and focused on the right things?

HOOPER: Trust your writing. Trust the things that make it weird and different. That’s the whole point. And let yourself have fun. Those scenes you laugh or love your way through writing? Those are almost always the best ones.

AUTHORLINK: Discuss what you are working on next.

HOOPER: A book set in stormy, lonely, Newfoundland. There are mermaids.

About the Author

Raised in Alberta, Canada, Emma Hooper brought her love of music and literature to the UK, where she received a doctorate in Musico-Literary studies at the University of East-Anglia and currently lectures at Bath Spa University. A musician, Emma performs as the solo artist Waitress for the Bees and plays with a number of bands. She lives in Bath, UK, but goes home to Canada to cross-country ski whenever she can. Etta and Otto and Russell and James is her first novel.

About Regular Contributor
Ellen Birkett Morris
Ellen Birkett Morris is an award-winning journalist whose interviews and reviews have appeared in Authorlink, Prairie Schooner Online, The Louisville Courier-Journal, and reprinted in the reader’s guides to The Receptionist and Clever Girl. Her fiction has appeared in journals including Antioch Review, South Caroline Review and Notre Dame Review. Ellen is a regular contributor to Authorlink.