(at) eleven with carol bruneau: these good hands

Carol Bruneau has done a couple of pretty exceptional things in the of writing These Good Hands,  not the least of which is introducing us to Camille Claudel, a sculptor living and working in Paris during the Belle Époque of the late 19th and early 20th century. Considered a near genius, possibly superior in talent to her mentor and lover, Auguste Rodin, yet in many camps her name remains connected more to the word ‘mistress’ than to ‘artist’ in her own right.

On this side of the ocean anyway.

Until now.97817708642706

Bruneau has been researching Claudel for years, travelling to France several times, visiting places the artist lived and the asylum to which she was committed by her family and where, after thirty years, she died. While in the asylum Claudel wrote to a number of people, but most of them never received her letters because of her sequestration. In Bruneau’s imagined version the letters are written to an unknown recipient, the identity of whom is gradually revealed as her younger self. It’s through these letters that we are privy to Claudel’s life in Paris at the turn of the century, the relationship with Rodin, the passion for her art. Bruneau alternates the letters with journal entries made by the nurse who cares for Claudel and who ultimately comes to understand the (by now) elderly woman in a way that changes her own life.

Bruneau’s obsession with the artist is contagious and it’s impossible, I think, to read this book and not want to see examples of Claudel’s work. Happily, the author suggested a couple of excellent links to appease my need to *see*… the Musée Rodin …and this one, especially wonderful because it focuses entirely on Claudel.

I’m so very grateful to Carol Bruneau for bringing Camille Claudel to North America. And for this opportunity to chat a little about the book… and a few other things too.


1.  What literary character did you want to be as a child?

CB—Lucy Maud Montgomery’s famous Anne, that’s who—I envied her spunk, her dreaminess, her over-the-top poetic sensibility, all quaintly subversive qualities, and I identified intensely with her love of place. This aspect of Anne was most inspiring, and was imitated/usurped/transferred into my earliest attempts at writing stories.

2.   Can you recall one of your earliest pieces? Poem in crayon, a narrated finger-painting?

CB—I vividly remember the magic, at age seven, of stringing words together, first in phrases, then in sentences, and the mind-blowing epiphany: THIS is how you can make a poem or, even more exciting for me then, a story! One of my first pieces was a poem about a hummingbird in rudimentary printing with a crayon drawing of a mutant orange thing with wings. What I remember much more vividly is the ‘novel’ I wrote in Grade Five—a blatant Anne of Green Gables rip-off, only my character was ‘Camilla of the Dingle Woods,’ named for the large park in the neighbourhood where I grew up. I wrote it with a cartridge pen in Schaeffer’s peacock blue ink on loose-leaf meticulously kept in a black binder. I worked on it every day one entire summer. Then it disappeared. I don’t know if someone inadvertently threw it out, or if, suddenly “growing up” in Grade Six, I decided it was embarrassing, and tossed it.

3.  What were you reading at fifteen? And can you recall something you got out of a book at about that time, or a special memory of where you read it… at the beach, under the covers, in the back seat on the way to Cape Breton, in class…

CB—Fifteen? Much of that year I was too busy being a teenager to read much outside of school. (Part of the problem was the Grade ten curriculum, which required us to read Lord of the Flies, Steinbeck’s The Pearl, and Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea—all of which I hated.) But then we read Thomas Raddall’s Hangman’s Beach, and my imagination was captured—sort of a reprise of my Anne of Green Gables-esque fixation on setting—because much of its story took place a five-minute walk from my house. So I vividly recall walking along the shore of Deadman’s Island on Halifax’s Northwest Arm with one of my best friends, while picturing Raddall’s male protagonist doing the same. Deadman’s is the site of hundreds of unmarked graves of soldiers captured during the Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812. It’s spooky and atmospheric enough without a swashbuckling drama playing in your head. Walking there with my friend that day—it was April, Nova Scotia’s cruellest month, grey, cold, bits of rotten ice on the rocks, and a garbage bag that may or may not have contained dead kittens—I felt myself seeing the place through Raddall’s character’s eyes. This was another epiphany for me, the realization that stories people read—and enjoyed—could be set so locally.

4.  These Good Hands is written in alternating letters by Claudel to… we aren’t sure whom (a younger self?)… and diary entries by a nurse at the asylum where she spent the last 30 years of her life. How did you come to choose this (very effective) structure? Was it obvious from the start that it would work this way, or did it evolve?

CB—Great question. The structure definitely took time to evolve. As I worked through numerous drafts I continued to fret over whom exactly Claudel (or Mademoiselle as she’s called in the book) was addressing. For a while I imagined her cornering Nurse as a kind of ‘confessor’ but this quickly became onerous—for Nurse and for me. Subconsciously I was thinking of Mademoiselle’s listener as a muted version of herself, but it wasn’t until my editor/publisher, Marc Côté, pointed out its possibility—the idea of Camille addressing her younger, relatively unscathed self—that I was able to direct and refine her narrative in this way. The technique of using Nurse’s journal entries, on the other hand, came a lot sooner, as the logical extension of her situation and her personality.

5.  Given the years of research, were you ever tempted to write a non-fiction account of Claudel? And what has the novel allowed you to explore that the non-fiction would not have?

CB—Writing non-fiction gives me the willies! Although I have made every effort to be as true as possible to the facts of Claudel’s biography, from the beginning my interest was in exploring her character and predicament in ways that only fiction allows or enables. It sounds arrogant, but I wanted to try and give her a voice, to get inside the character of someone so feisty yet so vulnerable and—in just about every worldly way—defeated. I was interested in writing about her art, but never in a documentary or critical manner. Because her work is heavily autobiographical, I saw it as a wonderful pathway into her psyche as I imagined it, and into her creative process. When I began this project in 2005 there was very little fiction about her published in English, although at least one non-fiction writer had published a biography in English. Ultimately, giving Claudel’s story a fictional treatment allowed me the poetic license to get beyond its tragedy. I never entertained the idea of doing a non-fiction account.

6.  Please tell me you have a background in art, or at least took classes to research the experience such as you’ve captured on p.33 and elsewhere throughout the book… because it’s all so vivid…“…pinching and pummeling a lump of clay, spitting on it as he worked to keep it moist.”

CB—Ha! Any background I have in visual art is strictly the product of research, observation and experience teaching writing at a visual arts school—in other words, flying by the arse of my pants. I have taken beginner’s classes in life drawing, weaving and pottery, but have little to no talent in these areas. But my sister is an artist, and my job at NSCAD surrounds me with artists, and though as a word-nerd I feel on the outside of art looking in, perhaps this has been a useful perspective for absorbing then using the details necessary to ‘sculpt’ Claudel’s story. I’ve been extremely lucky, getting to see artists at work and visiting the odd studio space not all that different from those Claudel would’ve been accustomed to—and I’m continually discovering and delighting in how the creative process itself crosses boundaries of form and media.

7.  To what degree would you say Claudel’s relationship with Rodin was motivated by her passion for her own art?

CB—I would say hugely, enormously—quite possibly completely. More romantic individuals might disagree.

8.  Why do think it is that Claudel’s story has been missed in North America? And how is she perceived in France? And why was it important to you to tell her story?

CB—It remains baffling to me how and why Claudel’s story has been so slow in crossing the pond. She is legendary in France, legendary not only for her tragedy—her mental illness and her sad affair with Rodin—but for her art. Perhaps in French Canada people are more aware of her? I don’t know. The first time I went to France I was—naively—shocked to see her picture posted everywhere, to the point of it appearing on buttons and fridge magnets. When I first heard of Claudel and began reading about her life, my initial impression was that she had been committed and confined to Montdevergues asylum quite unjustly. What I discovered over the course of three research trips to France—and getting a clearer sense of how she is perceived there—is that she was in fact seriously ill and, given the stigmas and mores of the times, her family had little choice but to put her away. More is the tragedy when you see her sculptures first-hand. Her work is brilliant, and I have no doubt that had she been able to continue her practice she would have outstripped Rodin not just in achievement but reputation. It’s galling to me how until recently her work has been under the radar, so profoundly overshadowed by his. Though I was initially drawn to her biography because of its tragedy, seeing and experiencing her artwork soon became the motivation to try and create a more expansive, ‘truer’ version of her story: to show her primarily as a brilliant artist who happened to be Rodin’s student, mistress and model—a fiercely talented, feisty woman who devoted everything to her work.

9.  Camille Claudel is  seated next to you at a dinner party. What single thing do you ask her?

CB—Depending on the party and how early in the evening, it would be why she didn’t ditch Rodin for Debussy. But, no, seriously: There is no suggestion or evidence anywhere that Claudel ever harmed herself or another person. So, depending on how much wine we’d consumed, I’d ask why she didn’t take her own life, or attempt to, as an alternative to those thirty long years in the asylum. I would like to know what enabled her to choose an outwardly hopeless life over death.

10.  It’s a visual book that lends itself to walking tours! I can see people wanting to retrace Claudel’s steps, your steps… (I found myself googling all sorts of things, places… and I loved following your photo threads on FB). If you were asked to recommend only three things to see, to someone travelling to France for the Claudel Tour… what would they be?

CB—I love this question. The first stop has to be 19 Quai de Bourbon on Ile St-Louis in Paris, to stand outside Claudel’s former flat, her final home before she was committed in 1913— to go there at dusk and watch the lights on the Seine and know that this was her view. The second stop is Musée Rodin, to see a couple of her pieces exhibited alongside his. (Or, if you prefer to skirt Rodin, visit Musée d’Orsay to see her mistress-piece, Maturity or L’Age Mur.) The third stop, and most vital, is Musée Ste-Croix in Poitiers, home of the world’s only permanent collection of Claudel’s work—where it’s displayed in its glory with no mention whatsoever of her famous partner’s.

11.  Choices:

Chardonnay or Pinot Noir?   Pinot Noir—unless it’s a hot summer day after a trip to the beach, and then chardonnay is good.

Morning or Evening?   Morning, before the world wakes up and gets noisy.

Brie or Mille Fueille?   Brie, brie and more brie—my favourite treat in the world is cheese.

Mountain or Prairie? (no, you can’t say ‘ocean’)   Mountain. (Flat places make me claustrophobic, unless they’re beaches.)

Urban or Rural?   This is a tough one. I love visiting large foreign cities and I love walking in wilderness, as in rugged, out-of-the-way places near salt water. (Sorry, but lakes just don’t do it for me.) As for day-to-day living, I must confess I’m a bit of a suburbanite, in the sense that I like living close to amenities but need lots of green space and close proximity to woods and seashore for daily dog walks.

Poetry or Song?   I prefer Song, as I’m surrounded by a musical family—but that said, I love lyricism whether words are set to music or not, and a song’s quirky lyrics will hook me as fast as a catchy tune, if not faster.

Dylan (Bob) or Dylan (Thomas)?   Bob—as in my response to your previous question.

Keyboard or Notebook?   A notebook (and pencil rather than pen) is my go-to device for portability and no-fail simplicity. I love the directness of hand-to-paper transcription of ideas.

First or Last Lines?  I struggle with writing both, but find the last lines of novels come more readily than the first lines. It takes a ton of tinkering and tweaking to get them right, either way.

Mittens or Gloves?   Mitts, with gloves inside them if winter is as bad as last year’s.

Baguette or Croissant?   Baguette, unless the croissant is an almond one (I’m thinking specifically of the almond croissants at Patisserie Patrice et Christof in Chartres, France, which are irresistible).


Because I believe food and books go together, I like to offer a tailor made menu for all @eleven books…


For These Good Hands, may I suggest:

Roast Chicken

Pommes a l’Huile

Bread and Cheese

Chocolate Mousse

au moins une bouteille de vin rouge

Bon appetit!

DSC_0139Carol Bruneau is a novelist, essayist and reviewer who lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Her most recent book, These Good Hands (Cormorant Books, 2015), is based on the life of French sculptor Camille Claudel. She teaches writing at NSCAD University.

She can be found at www.carolbruneau.com

passing the cake…


I’m swanning about the place in a tiara today. Also a sash. Just missing a mitre—and, what, an ermine robe is asking too much??  All this thanks to Allyson Latta  who bestowed on me the most wonderful surprise of naming Matilda one of her picks for the (brace yourself) Irresistibly Sweet Blog Award—whose logo is a strawberry shortcake, which makes it probably the best award I’ve ever heard of.

The protocol, I’ve been advised, on receiving the ISBA, is to a) thank the person who nominated you, b) share seven things about yourself, and c) pass along the award to other irresistibly sweet bloggers.

Well, first things first then: thank you so very much, Ms. Allyson, for thinking of my little corner of cyberspace and for the kind things you said about it—the phrase “sometimes wacky” notwithstanding; surely a typo… :D  (me, wacky??)

As for sharing seven things about myself—this should be relatively simple given that there happen to be exactly seven things about myself.

They are these:

1.   My backyard is home to several giant ant hills (by which I mean three or four), none of which I intend to do anything about. One of them has been there fifteen years. We call it the Ant Hotel. When visiting kids were small we had a sign for it. Very reasonable rates and efficient, speedy room service (albeit small portions) were its hallmarks.

2.   I’ve been toying with the idea of trying to like coffee but I keep buying tea.

3.   Corn makes my stomach ache. Annoying because I like polenta and Mexican food and Fritos, not to mention buttery cobs on summer days, which when I was a kid I used to eat like a typewriter. (Link provided for those who just said a what??)

4.   My heroes tend to be animals, children and very old people.

5.   I’m happiest when the fridge is on the empty side. I find this inspires creativity in my cooking. Some wonderful things have been invented under the most spartan conditions. Or maybe I’m happiest when I’m outside, up to my wrists in dirt (pardon me, soil), or on a lounge chair in the company of words. On the other hand, swimming, plunging my nose into laundry fresh from a sunny line, a morning spent walking or writing at the beach…all leave me smiling pretty solidly too. As does rain and snow and the kind of breeze you could fall asleep in and then you do and that feeling when you wake up and the world is just there, waiting for you, making no demands. And you remember there’s just enough ice cream left for a small bowl and because there’s only a bit, it tastes that much better. And then you find a jar of cherries.

6.   I saw Leonard Cohen in concert in 2009. I still haven’t completely recovered.

7.   I would like to learn Spanish and Sign Language. Spanish, so that I can go back to Chile and discuss bread and wine and life. Sign Language for its beauty and elegance.

Finally, a few bloggers to whom I’d like to pass along the shortcake. Not for sweetness but for enhancing the interweb with their wise words, gentle spirits and contagious sense of joy.

Alone on a Boreal Stage—Home of poet and visual artist Brenda Schmidt’s photo/video poems and other bird/nature/book related pleasures.

We Drank Cachaca and Smoked the Green Cheroot—I’ve become addicted to this site because of stolen rhubarb, orange knickers, lady bikes, Jean Talon Market and sentences like this:

“I was not expecting the skies of England to be all painterly, to perform for me as they have apparently done since William and Dorothy Wordsworth pottered about the countryside with their pockets full of mutton pies, but the skies did perform, and I am still thinking about them, because they billowed alive over the built-up bricks and statuary and pomp and palaces that caused the subtitle BYGONE DAYS to float across my mind the whole time I was there.” (From the post: Whence and Whilst and Those Constable Skies, 6/14/11)

Pickle Me This—I’m always happily surprised whenever I check into this site. Kerry Clare has exactly the right mix of book smart and life whimsy.

Carol Bruneau’s Blog—This is where I go to remind myself how to think about writing.

Four Rooms—Exploring the power of words in various forms.

Island Editions—Publishing, books, beachy vistas and occasionally food.


ode to the power and pleasure of ‘retreat’

I’m depressed.

Okay, I’m not depressed, I’m glum. Or do I mean gloomy? Or is it just that I’m pissed off that I can’t go to Charlottetown next month to attend what I believe may be one of the best-kept-secret writing retreats in the whole blinking country (and why am I even telling you this ‘secret’??).

Two years ago I went to the first ever ‘Seawords’ on lovely red-earthed, bucolic, gorgeously peaceful and truly inspiring Prince Edward Island. A province we don’t think nearly enough about, and probably the islanders like it that way.

The retreat that year was held at Shaw’s Hotel on Brackley Beach where my days began with a short walk from hotel to ocean—an ocean which I was the only person visiting at that time of day. I mean, I had a whole ocean to myself. Sort of.

If the waves were big and the surf noisy, I simply sat and stared, took pictures, wrote I-like-it-even-if-no-one-else-ever-will poetry, made notes on the novel, collected flat red stones in geometric shapes.

If the waves were small, or non-existent, I swam and marvelled at the buoyancy of salt water vs the lake brine I’m used to.

After that it was breakfast in a sunny, large-windowed dining room, sometimes with other ‘retreaters’, sometimes alone with a copy of Geist, or TNQ and a large pot of tea.

The workshop facilitators were two writers I didn’t know: Anne Simpson and Carol Bruneau. What an idiot I must have been for not having known them. Anne is a poet who also writes extraordinary fiction and has won or been shortlisted for too many prizes to mention here. Carol (also of the multiple awards) writes extraordinary fiction, as well as a fabulous blog (in the most poetic of ways). Apart from all that, they are lovely lovely people — something you can’t pretend for a whole week in fairly close quarters. That’s the thing about retreats: if you’re not lovely, everyone soon knows it.

Also present was Jackie Kaiser. Yes, that Jackie Kaiser. From Westwood Creative Artists. (It’s like everyone was screened for loveliness and only the genuinely lovely were allowed.) So generous was she with her industry info and her time, whether in a session or when bumping into one another over dinner, readings, on the way back from the beach. Casual conversations, questions, everything simple and easy. No pressure. No scary stuff.

Ann-Marie MacDonald was also there. As was Lynn Henry (at the time, still with Anansi).

It rained once, maybe twice. Who cares? It was perfect. The beach, the hotel, the workshops, the seminars, the one-on-one time with Anne and Carol. The time alone to think and write in my tiny flowery-papered room; my makeshift desk set up in front of a tiny window overlooking the lawns, where I wrote and re-wrote whole chapters I’d been stuck on for ages, and then later, spending time with some terrific people who’d spent their time thinking and writing and re-writing too.

So, yeah. I’m a little cranky that I can’t go this year. Obligations at home prevent hopping a plane or, even better, a car, and heading east for what I know will be one grand week.

I haven’t even mentioned the oysters. 

Fortunately, I do know someone who’ll be attending– so I have at least the vicarious thing to look forward to.

Are you listening, Steve? 

Please take notes.