Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Proust Questionnaire, with Jenny Downham

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Jenny Downham

Jenny Downham is the author of You Against Me (Doubleday Canada), which follows two families on either side of a terrible crime.

In her answers to the Proust Questionnaire, Jenny tells Open Book about the best place to live, the perfect pairing for an apple and what Mozart and David Bowie have in common.

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?
Sunset. A motorbike. An open road. I’m on my way to a beach party. Everyone I love will be there and the catering and music are taken care of.

What is your idea of misery?
Being trapped in any way — bad relationship, buried alive, broken lift, pot-holing accident, plane crash on an unreachable mountain, etc, etc.

Where would you like to live?
By the sea with all my friends.

What qualities do you admire most in a man?
Good humour. Empathy. Beauty. A generous gaze.

What qualities do you admire most in a woman?
All of the above, with the addition of a wicked sense of mischief.

What is your chief characteristic?
Determination.

What is your principal fault?
I care too much what strangers think of me.

What is your greatest extravagance?
My time. Does that count? I waste it prevaricating.

What faults in others are you most tolerant of?
Untidiness. I find it endearing.

What do you value most about your friends?
That we are bound. That we laugh together, that they tolerate me, that if I should need them, they’d be there.

What characteristic do you dislike most in others?
Lack of empathy. Self-indulgence. Bad time-keeping.

What characteristic do you dislike most in yourself?
I wish I was braver.

What is your favourite virtue?
The ability to ask interested questions and listen well to the answers.

What is your favourite occupation?
Curled up on a sofa talking with someone I love.

What would you like to be?
Male for a while. Just to try it out.

What is your favourite colour?
It changes every day. Today it’s purple.

What is your favourite flower?
Ditto. Today it’s a chocolate cosmos.

What is your favourite bird?
A robin.

What historical figure do you admire the most?
Those who know when to bow their head and when to stand up and fight. Choosing between them is a subtle art.

What character in history do you most dislike?
Hitler was rather dislikeable.

Who are your favourite prose authors?
Barbara Kingsolver. Adam Thorpe. Denis Johnson. Maggie O’Farrell. Ali Smith. Donna Tartt.

Who are your favourite poets?
Raymond Chandler. Selima Hill. Anne Sexton. Stevie Smith. W.H. Auden. R.S. Thomas. T.S. Eliot

Who are your favourite heroes in fiction?
Anyone who steps forward and says, ‘I’ll do it.’

Who are your heroes in real life?
Anyone who is a full-time carer.

Who is your favourite painter?
Wassil Kandinsky. Franz Marc. Frida Kahlo.

Who is your favourite musician?
Mozart. David Bowie. They share a sense of play.

What is your favourite food?
A crisp dessert apple with slices of smoked cheese

What is your favourite drink?
A deep, dark red wine.

What are your favourite names?
Merlin. Chester. Daisy.

What is it you most dislike?
Cruelty.

What natural talent would you most like to possess?
Musicality.

How do you want to die?
Old and loved.

What is your current state of mind?
Rather stressed from wondering if my answers make me look like a total idiot. See — I care too much about what strangers think!

What do you consider your greatest accomplishment?
Writing a novel people wanted to read despite no childcare, no money and someone very close to me telling me to stop.

What is your motto?
Keep breathing.


Jenny Downham was an actress for many years before concentrating on her writing full-time. She lives in London with her two sons. Her book Before I Die was critically acclaimed and was shortlisted for the 2007 Guardian Award and the 2008 Lancashire Children's Book of the Year, nominated for the 2008 Carnegie Medal and the 2008 Booktrust Teenage Prize, and won the 2008 Branford Boase Award.

For more information about You Against Me please visit the Random House Canada website.

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

Check back for more Proust Questionnaires with great Canadian writers.

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Are you a high school student who loves to write? Check out Write Across Ontario, a creative writing contest for Ontario high school students from IFOA Ontario and Open Book: Ontario. You can find the full details at http://www.litontour.com/write-across-ontario.

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