BOOkS

WEISS, NOT RICHLER

A writer cautions that her fictional family is fictional

Brian Bethune March 21 2005
BOOkS

WEISS, NOT RICHLER

A writer cautions that her fictional family is fictional

Brian Bethune March 21 2005

WEISS, NOT RICHLER

A writer cautions that her fictional family is fictional

BOOkS

BRIAN BETHUNE

“ALL YOU HAVE as a writer is your experiences and your imagination,” says Emma Richler, “so that’s what you do—you borrow the easy things, the colour of hair, the eyes.” The author of the short-story collection Sister Crazy (2001) and now a first novel, Feed My Dear Dogs, has a mobile, extraordinarily expressive face, and at the moment it’s oscillating between exasperation and resignation. She knows now, if she didn’t before her first Canadian tour, that if you’re the daughter of CanLit icon Mordecai Richler and his wife, Florence, sister to three prominent Richler brothers (and one under-theradar sister), and you write two books about the fictional Weiss family (mother Frances, father Yaakov, five children), people will ask questions about art imitating life.

And that’s especially true with a narrator like Jem Weiss, middle child and oldest girl, just like—no surprise here—Emma Richler. The adult Jem mostly immerses herself in kaleidoscopically vivid, tangent-rich and often funny childhood memories. But at times she abruptly surfaces in the present, scattering brief, cryptic references to sessions with her analyst, and the cuts Jem has slashed in her own wrist. Some critics complained that the seven linked stories of Sister Crazy didn’t spell out why sister went crazy. While Richler shrugs that off—“I knew the book was oblique, but I thought it had the right amount of information”—it’s fair to note that Feed My Dear Dogs, which is twice as long as Sister, does have a conclusion that is at once brutal, clear and beautifully written.

However elephant-in-the-room obvious it may be, the Jem/Emma question is distressing for a “deeply private” woman. “My brother Noah once said to me, ‘You know, I don’t know anything about what you do,’

and he’s my closest brother—Noah and I can communicate across a room with a look.” (Journalist Noah Richler, for those keeping track, is Jude Weiss in the books.) The identity issue is also perplexing for an author who believes writing is akin to alchemy. “Surely people know it’s fiction? I think the most interesting and mysterious part of me is already out there on the page. I remember thinking when I started Sister, ‘Christ I can’t do this—it’s the same as my family,’ but when I finished it, I knew there was still a powerful, more novelistic story to come out about them. I had no choice in the matter. In the end, who knows what you’ll write?” Besides, adds the writer, “in many ways, l feel much more like Harriet,”

Jem’s younger sister (Emma’s is Martha | *

Richler). Harriet, 'f

after all, is an actress, t as her creator once was. Born in 1961, the daughter of a Protestant mother

Feed My Dear Dogs; Emma Richler; Knopf Canada; $35.95

and a Jewish father, neither of them observant, Emma went to Catholic convent schools in London and, after the family moved to Canada in 1972, Montreal. Unlike her brothers, though, Emma never took to Canada, the land she calls “my father’s country.” Except for snow, she adds with a smile, referring to one of Jem’s comforts. “I did fall in love with the snow.”

At 17, she left for university in France. After a stay in New York and a brief return to Canada, Richler moved permanently to London in 1989. She did well as an actor there, mostly on the stage, although she made one film, as Polly Barker in 1994’s Black Beauty. But she knew it wasn’t her true vocation. “I’d felt since I was a child I’d be a writer, but I never said anything. So in 1997,1 quit acting. In theatre, if you’re doing well and you quit, people think you’re crazy or you’re having a child, which amounts to the same thing in that business. But I had a compulsion, and I had to give in to it.”

The compulsion isn’t gone, but the Weiss family is, finally, says Richler. Jem, eventually undone by her own obsessive love for the clan, sees everything through the prism of the Weisses. For two books and six years, so too did Emma Richler. In that, if nothing else, writer and character were one. [HI