Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Rosemary Sullivan

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Rosemary Sullivan

Rosemary Sullivan is the author of Molito (Black Moss Press), which is a children's book that she created with Juan Opitz. Rosemary is the author of several books, including Shadow Maker: The Life of Gwendolyn MacEwen, which won her the Governor General's Literary Award.

Open Book talks with Rosemary about dealing with serious subject matter in the form of an allegory, composing a musical soundtrack for a book and a few of her deepest influences.

Open Book:

Tell us about your book, Molito.

Rosemary Sullivan:

Molito is a children’s book about a little mole who lives in the earth and loves to play his drum for his friends in the underground park. One day Carlota the ant tells him about a place called the upperworld. When Carlota tries to describe it, she gets everything mixed up and so Molito decides to go and see the upperworld for himself. After a series of misadventures, including a ride on the subway, Molito crawls out of the earth and discovers the upperworld is a magic place full of lights in the night sky like diamonds in black rock and trees that dance in the wind to the rhythm of his drum. But he’s lost among the people in the city who rush about and never notice him under their feet until he finds a friend, Violeta , in the upperworld park. Violeta takes him to the market to meet her friends who are also musicians. When Molito plays his drum, they tell Molito he plays the sound of the earth’s heart beating.

Discovering that the underworld is simply the inverse of his world, Molito builds a tunnel to connect both worlds. All the creatures from the underground come up to meet the people in the market and play the music of the whole world dancing. Molito’s last song is:

Above and below
In the dark and the light
Upside down and upside right
Below your feet and above your head
There's just one world


What is the thematic connection between this project and Pinochet's Chile?


The story of Molito started as puppet theatre in Chile in 1974 in the dark days of the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. When Juan, a theatre student at the University of Santiago, was not picked up in the first sweep of so-called dissidents, he fled Santiago. To survive, he and a friend travelled as itinerant puppeteers. They invented a puppet called Topito who was a little mole born underground but unique because he had eyes to see. When Topito came up to see what was happening in the world, he had many adventures, including an encounter with a nasty frog whose chest was covered with medals, and a female puppet who carried the scales of justice but whose pockets were filled with garbage. The story was a political allegory, a way to say things that couldn’t be said.

Juan later got a job teaching theatre at the Catholic University of Talca, where he put on a play that was meant to be a history of theatre. Unfortunately for him, he slipped in the figure of Oedipus whose eyes shed tears of blood at the tragedies he saw. The play was warmly received, even by the military officers in the audience, until a reviewer asked, “What was Opitz really trying to say?” At that point Juan went into the real underground, moving from safe house to safe house, until he was arrested for putting on a play “defamatory of the military.” He was jailed for three months and then released. He crossed the border into Peru and went into exile until he made his way to Canada where he became a percussionist and sound engineer.

Juan told me the story of Topito and we decided to resurrect it as Molito. Of course it’s no longer a political allegory. It’s a joyous celebration of music and the creatures of the earth. I think of it, privately, as Juan’s mini autobiography — he’s a percussionist like Molito and this is a story about friendship and safe arrival and celebrating the ground under our feet.


A CD of original music accompanies the book. What was the process like for creating the music?


From the beginning this was always to be a kids' book with a CD of music, since Molito is a drummer and kids have to hear the sound of the underground. Juan has his own recording studio, The HeadRoom Productions, and so producing the CD was not difficult. Juan asked the composer and musician Nano Valverde to compose music for Molito. My role was to watch. Nano came with three themes and Juan chose two. Together they came up with other music, like the sound of the city and the night sky. Then Juan added sound effects: Mr. Worm’s drill; Molito’s footsteps through the underground tunnels; children’s voices. I recorded the sound of the subway at Yonge and Bloor on my digital recorder. Claudio Saldivia recorded the wind instruments — the kena and zampoña. When we had the soundtrack ready, I read the narration onto a separate track. We all had a great deal of fun.


You've successfully navigated so many different genres. How did your experience in other types of writing inform this project?


This is the first kids' book I’ve written, but Juan and I have worked together before. We made a 15min film about my last book Villa Air-Bel: World War II, Escape and a House in Marseille (HarperCollins), so recording the voice track was easy. We also did a book on Cuba together called Cuba: Grace Under Pressure (McArthur Publishers) where most of the humor in the book comes from Juan. I guess what I’ve learned from writing all my books is you have to find the voice (this time for kids) and tell a real story that has integrity and moves people.


Did you have a specific readership in mind when you wrote your book?


I’ve seen little kids at Latin American concerts get up and spontaneously dance to Andean music. I wanted to see kids do that, so I suppose they were my audience. But I was also thinking of parents. How to write a book that is fun and affirmative, and multicultural, and which kids would immediately get.


Who are some people who have deeply influenced (fellow writers or not) your writing life?


This is an impossible question to answer. What I do find is that when I’m writing, the book I need to read always comes into my hands serendipitously. For non-fiction I love W.G. Sebald and Richard Rodriguez; for fiction I’m now reading Russell Banks, Michael Ondaatje, Joan Didion. In my pantheon are Gwendolyn MacEwen, P.K. Page and Elizabeth Smart. But that only scratches the surface.


What are you working on now?


I’m starting one of my research books of narrative non-fiction. But one never talks about those projects until they’re done!

Born in Montreal, Rosemary Sullivan is a poet, biographer, editor and critic. Sullivan received the Gerald Lampert Award for her first collection of poetry, as well as the Governor General’s Award for Shadow Maker: The Life of Gwendolyn MacEwen.

For more information about Molito please visit the Black Moss Press website.

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

1 comment

This is a wonderful allegorical tale and also a real example of artists who never give up the vision. Sometimes, it takes years of faith before the dream eventually comes to fruition. In this day of instant every thing --patience really is a virtue. I am so glad this book is in my house and hands. Rosemary and Juan, congrats! A true collaboration.

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