Sunday, April 01, 2012

Out-of-Town-Authors: Lilian Nattel

The secret lives of multiple personalities

Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
by: Ariel Gordon

Toronto writer Lilian Nattel wrote The River Midnight, a historical novel that became a international bestseller, while working full-time as a chartered accountant. She wrote her second historical novel, 2004's The Singing Fire, while parenting two toddlers.

Her third book, Web of Angels, is a contemporary novel that took eight years and 10 drafts to complete.

Nattel will launch Web of Angels, already a Canadian bestseller, at McNally Robinson on Wednesday.

As a writer (i.e. someone whose artistic practice is predicated on time spent alone) how do you approach performance? What do you get out of it?

A book is a partnership between author and readers. I put the words on the page, but every reader takes those words and turns them into something new. Much of the time we do this at a distance, so I love the opportunity to meet face to face and connect at a talk or reading. It's exciting; you can feel the positive energy it creates. And then there are also those quiet, more intimate moments when readers speak to me while I sign books. I cherish those memories even years later. Of course it's tiring. Nobody can sit alone writing in a room for years on end without a need for, and enjoyment of, solitude. But I wouldn't trade it away if I could.

What do you want people to know about Web of Angels?

Like a lot of people, my idea of multiple personalities was shaped by Sybil. But when I actually met and got to know real men and women who are multiple, they weren't like that at all. They worked, had families and friends, and made it their business to blend and assimilate with "singletons" so their differences wouldn't be noticed. But behind the scenes was another story. The beauty of fiction is that reading it is a lived experience through which readers can find out what it's like to be someone else. By writing a novel, I could take readers into the secret lives of multiples. To do that and do it well, authentically, in a story that turns pages without let-up, and with fine writing, took me eight years.

Will this be your first time in Winnipeg? What have you heard?

I first visited Winnipeg in the mid-1990s. It was a balmy spring by Winnipeg standards, which meant that I was shivering while locals went outside in short-sleeved shirts. I loved walking through Winnipeg streets on my own, and explored The Forks. Standing for a while at the meeting place of two great rivers, I thought about what it was like in an earlier time. I bought a small piece of art, all I could afford then. It still hangs on the wall in my living room.

My oldest friend - we've known each other since I was five years old - is a musician who lived in Winnipeg for a number of years. So when I think of Winnipeg, I picture a vibrant and robust arts community: book lovers, music lovers and art lovers. Now in middle age I'm warmer and hardier than I once was and I can walk around in my shirt sleeves with the best of them!

What are you reading right now? What are you writing right now?

I've got two writing projects in mind: another contemporary novel and a historical novel. From past experience, I know that I can't consider a book viable until there's a complete first draft. It could morph into something entirely different or it might stall because there is something I haven't anticipated that is coming down the pipe and demanding to be written. In the meantime, I've got a huge pile of books on my desk, some for research, some to review, others for pure pleasure. I'm about to start reading The Little Shadows by Marina Endicott and I'm so looking forward to that and sharing a podium with her while we're on tour.

What led you to write about dissociative identity disorder (DID)?

When my children were young, I participated in a chat room for people healing from difficult life experiences. There I encountered many people, in fact more than two dozen, who'd survived early trauma by developing multiple personalities, i.e. DID. In the process, I discovered that someone close to me was multiple, which I hadn't at all suspected because I had pictured DID as Sybil. It drove me crazy that the media images were so far from the reality, and that the quiet heroism of the people I knew was never recognized or acknowledged.

Ariel Gordon is a Winnipeg writer.

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