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French Professor Writes Award-Winning Novel Based In Québec

March 31, 2008

Denyse Delcourt, Gabrielle and the Long Sleep into Mourning (translated by Eugene Vance). Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2007

by Denyse Delcourt, Associate Professor, French and Italian Studies

Denyse Delcourt is an Associate Professor in the Division of French and Italian Studies. She has been teaching at the University of Washington since 1990. Other teaching experiences include Queens (Canada), Emory, Northwestern and Duke universities. Her teaching interests are Old French language and literature, contemporary Québécois literature and French fairy tales.

For someone who is trained to do literary analysis, writing a novel is like “crossing to the other side.” Creative fiction has often been compared to walking through a dark and unfamiliar road using a flashlight. With only a bit of the road illuminated ahead one has to walk slowly, hesitantly and sometimes fearfully. For a scholar, writing fiction can be a very humbling experience.

In preparation for this novel I spent a month doing research at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Montréal. Since my novel is set in Québec during the fifties I needed to get a better sense of the period. What was happening in Québec at the time? What did people listen to on the radio? What did they eat and drink? What did they wear at school, funerals, weddings, etc.? To find answers to these questions, I consulted numerous newspapers and magazines published in Montréal between 1939 and 1955, books on etiquette, and text books used in French-Canadian elementary schools during the forties and fifties. The Bibliothèque Nationale in Montréal has an impressive collection of such materials. It was a pleasure to spend time doing research in this venerable institution.

Before I start writing fiction, I always do an outline. Even though I know by experience that the order I set for the chapters and even the role I am assigning to any given character may change along the way, I find it very useful to organize the materials beforehand.

When I was working on Gabrielle I never told myself that I was writing a “novel.” That would have been too overwhelming. Instead, I followed Anne Lamott’s wonderful advice to fiction writers by taking it “bird by bird.” What I was writing every day was only a “bird;” that is, a small piece of a novel, a fragment or a scene. That kept me going until the accumulation of fragments was ready to be called a novel.

A word about the English translation – Eugene Vance did a remarkable job translating my novel. It is very close to the original, and beautifully done. For those who cannot read French I highly recommend it.