Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Proust Questionnaire, with Heather Birrell

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Heather Birrell

Journey Prize-winning writer Heather Birrell returns this season with the new and widely-praised short fiction collection Mad Hope (Coach House).

In her answers to the Proust Questionnaire Heather tells Open Book about her husband's culinary speciality, what she hates about shrimp and her secret dance ambitions.

The Proust Questionnaire was not invented by Marcel Proust, but it was a much loved game by the French author and many of his contemporaries. The idea behind the questionnaire is that the answers are supposed to reveal the respondent's "true" nature.

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What is your dream of happiness?
A perfect cup of coffee, a good day’s work, time to reflect on that work, a space to eat good food with and talk to my family, the knowledge that we are safe and healthy and that tomorrow holds much of the same…

What is your idea of misery?
Being unable to comfort my children.

Where would you like to live?
I like living in my house. But Spain would be nice.

What qualities do you admire most in a man?
Loyalty, intelligence, sense of humour, reliability.

What qualities do you admire most in a woman?
Loyalty, intelligence, sense of humour, reliability.

What is your chief characteristic?
Openness, empathy, resourcefulness.

What is your principal fault?
Stubbornness. Messiness. Stubborn messiness. A sometimes unjustified misanthropy.

What is your greatest extravagance?
Books, although they don’t really feel like an extravagance to me. I would like really expensive sheets to be an extravagance in my future — they make me feel richer than I’ve any right to.

What faults in others are you most tolerant of?
Messiness, lateness.

What do you value most about your friends?
Their dependable non-judgmental, easy-going natures, psychological acuity, ability to make me laugh and willingness to help me move and clean out my closet.

What characteristic do you dislike most in others?
Pettiness and envy — they tend to go hand-in-hand.

What characteristic do you dislike most in yourself?
Pettiness and envy.

What is your favourite virtue?
Courage.

What is your favourite occupation?
Writing, reading, swimming, listening to my kids as they learn, teaching (when it doesn’t feel like managing), eating, watching movies with my husband, lying on the couch, walking in the park.

What would you like to be?
Well-rested, patient and fair-minded. Oh, and gorgeous.

What is your favourite colour?
Teal.

What is your favourite flower?
Lily of the valley. Their scent has a cloying, old lady reputation, but for me these flowers are so evocative — they grew in the shade of an evergreen bush at the base of the porch of my childhood home. I associate them with spring and a certain furtive but joyful sense of play — and independence too.

What is your favourite bird?
Scarlet tanager.

What historical figure do you admire the most?
Martin Luther King. I know he’s a kind of go-to guy when it comes to heroes, but I consider him a part of my family’s history and mythology as my parents drove to the US to be part of the March on Washington and were in the crowd when he gave his famous ‘I have a dream’ speech. This thrilled me so much when I was a child — it made me understand that we are all a part of ‘history’.

Similarly, when I was in high school, I got to hear Nelson Mandela speak in the auditorium of Central Tech in Toronto. He had recently been released from prison and there was so much stamping and chanting and absolute love in that room — the man has a combination of charisma and integrity that is irresistible. This memory has gained poignancy for me lately, knowing how frail he has become…

What character in history do you most dislike?
Oh, I don’t think it’s possible to rank them.

Who are your favourite prose authors?
It changes all the time, but I definitely have some enduring inspirations — short storyists Italo Calvino, Deborah Eisenberg, Alice Munro, Mary Gaitskill, Grace Paley, Sherman Alexie; novelists Ann Patchett, David Mitchell, Haruki Murakami, Arundhati Roy, Anne Enright… These will change, you understand, depending on the day, month, year, which side of the bed I woke up on…

Who are your favourite poets?
Octavio Paz is my big favourite. I like reading him in the original Spanish and in English translation; it feels like two for the price of one. I’m also a fan of Karen Solie, Robert Hass and Matthea Harvey. I’m far from a poetry aficionado, but am always looking for new poems/poets.

Who are your favourite heroes in fiction?
Adrian Mole. There are others of course, but Adrian is so consistently and haplessly HIMSELF and comic writing so often gets short shrift that I think he deserves the crown. He’s an absolutely compelling creation and Sue Townsend is a genius.

Who are your heroes in real life?
Stephen Lewis, a man of such gentleness and honour; my grandmother, Joan Firmin, who was imperfect but kind and steely and funny through all manner of personal tragedy.

Who is your favourite painter?
My favourite painting of all time is Goya’s El Perro Semihundido. I don’t really know why and don’t really want to try to explain.

Who is your favourite musician?
Joni Mitchell. And I have a lot of admiration for Martha Wainwright and Erykah Badu.

What is your favourite food?
Home fries cooked by my husband. But really, any food that I eat in the company of friends or family is pretty delicious to me.

What is your favourite drink?
Weirdly, I think it’s water. But I love my teeth-staining beverages too — coffee and red wine.

What are your favourite names?
I don’t have favourite names, I have favourite people.

What is it you most dislike?
Oh, I don’t know. I’m pretty repulsed by shrimp — I think it’s their sly little whiskered faces. And I gave birth to two children drug-free but need calming meds to make it through a dentist appointment.

What natural talent would you most like to possess?
I’d like to be a wicked dancer! Like a So You Think You Can Dance? dancer. Hip hop, ballet, Bollywood, contemporary — the works.

How do you want to die?
I don’t want to die. But since I have to, I’d like it to be on my own terms, with those I love nearby, and access to pain meds and/or a hand on the plug.

What is your current state of mind?
Tired but happy with my lot.

What do you consider your greatest accomplishment?
Being able to support those closest to me when they were most desperate and sad; living through those desperate and sad times myself.

What is your motto?
It’s one that has proven useful with my children and students in frustrating times, but seems to hold true for adults too: When people seem the most unlovable is precisely when they are most in need of love (or a snack or a nap). I’m not naïve enough to suggest love can fix everything (although a snack and a nap might) but I do think it’s useful — and often comforting — to recognize people’s freak-outs are not always fathomable (or fixable) in logical ways.


Heather Birrell is the author of I know you are but what am I? (Coach House, 2004). Her work has been honoured with the Journey Prize for short fiction and the Edna Staebler Award for creative non-fiction, and has been shortlisted for both National and Western Magazine Awards. Birrell's stories have appeared in many North American journals and antholoiges, including Prism International, The New Quarterly, Descant, Matrix and Toronto Noir. She lives in Toronto with her husband and two daughters where she also teaches high school English. For more information, please see her website.

For more information about Mad Hope please visit the Coach House Books website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

Check out all the Proust Questionnaire interviews in our archives.

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