Pearl Luke on Madame ZeeAuthor Interviews Tuesday, July 20th, 2010
What do you think readers will find most notable about Madame Zee?
The humanizing of Madame Zee, who is elsewhere historicized as a cruel woman, may raise a few eyebrows, as it was important to me to round her out. I wanted to make her more sympathetic, primarily because she is so one dimensional in the non-fictional accounts, while still leaving room for her to be perceived as angry and unlikeable.
Have you acquired any good anecdotes surrounding this book? If so, could you share one?
There is a story about a curse that befalls anyone who writes about the Brother, XII, and his beliefs. He believed in Spiritualism, or at least he convinced others that he had a direct line to the “other side,” so many people have taken the curse seriously. I hadn’t heard about the curse, and of course I felt that I was writing about his mistress, not the Brother, XII, so I would have dismissed the curse as nonsense had I known of it before I began the story. However, my whole seemed to fall apart during the time it took me to write that story. I had more setbacks while writing this book than at any other time in my life. Files went missing, I had financial problems, I was ill and required an operation, one of my siblings died, my computer crashed regularly. Now I can laugh about it and it all feels like so much hooey, again, but at the time, when I was digging around in the library and learned of the curse, I almost believed it was possible!
Did researching and writing this book teach you anything or influence your thinking in any way?
Yes, I learned quite a lot about cult behaviour, and about brainwashing techniques that cause individuals to want to conform. This is how people get so tied up with cults—they are made to question their beliefs about themselves. They are isolated, and punished in one way or another for independent thought. As they are told that they are not who they know themselves to be, they try to prove that they are, in fact, good people, people who can fit in and get along with others, even if this means following the most absurd instructions.
What would you most like readers to tell others about this book?
I’d like them to say that they can understand how Madame Zee might have come to be cruel, if in fact she was. And I’d like them to tell others to read it!
Can you suggest a question readers might find interesting to discuss, concerning you, your writing in general, or this book?
It is rare that any individual would see himself as a cruel and worthless human being, and I am certain that Madame Zee, had she been asked, would have pointed to redeeming aspects of her personality. So, in writing about an historical figure, does an historian have a moral obligation to seek out and find those qualities that will round out and balance an otherwise unfavourable portrait?
How can readers help you promote this book?
By recommending it to others, by Twittering about it, and by sending copies to friends or family members as a spontaneous gift.
Why do you write?
When I read good writing, I feel inspired, and that often causes me to want to write something equally good and inspiring. I feel challenged to create. That’s something innate, similar to smelling food and then wanting to eat.
What is your greatest strength as a writer?
I think I’m good at noticing the inconsistencies inherent in human behaviour, and in creating characters with unexpected and contradictory qualities that make them seem like real people.
What quality do you most value in yourself?
My love of learning seems like a good quality, as there is always so much more to know. I think the desire my desire to “know more” keeps me open to possibilities and opportunities that I’d miss otherwise.
In addition to writing, what else are you passionate about?
I’m passionate about creating, whether I create a stone path, an attractive corner in the garden, a piece of jewelry, a mosaic, or a website. I am happiest when I’m either imagining something new or bringing it into being.
What are you most proud of accomplishing so far in your life?
I suppose I’m most proud of my books. Some people find writing easy, but I don’t. I struggled—I mean I really struggled, to the point of panic—over every essay I wrote in university. And I found writing my books even more difficult, so the fact that I managed to finish them and someone wanted to publish them still amazes me a little.
Is there any new or established author whom you feel deserves more attention, and what is it that strikes you about his or her work?
Paulette Dube is the author of the novel Talon, and of several collections of poetry. A friend sent me her unconventional novel, and I loved it. She has a poet’s gift for language and layers vivid and particular details one on another, so that every paragraph feels like some unexpected and beautiful discovery, and when you turn away from one, you see another just beyond.
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