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Q&A: Maya Gallus, director of literary doc The Mystery of Mazo de la Roche

Severn Thompson stars as Mazo de la Roche (Photo: NFB)

Mazo de la Roche was one of Canada’s most famous and prolific authors, penning 23 novels, 13 plays, and more than 50 short stories. Her 1927 novel, Jalna, about a wealthy Ontario family named Whiteoak, sold over 11 million copies in 93 languages. After its international success, de la Roche spun her Whiteoaks stories into a 16-book series, which has been adapted for film, theatre, and the CBC Television production The Whiteoaks of Jalna.

Quillblog spoke with Maya Gallus “ director of the docudrama The Mystery of Mazo de la Roche, which has its English-language premiere this weekend at the Hot Docs film festival in Toronto “ about why this enigmatic author has become one of Canada’s forgotten literary success stories.

How did you discover Mazo de la Roche?
I had heard of Mazo de la Roche growing up, but in the context of the CBC miniseries. Like most Canadians, I didn’t know anything about her “ I thought she was an old Victorian spinster.

In the early 1990s, I read a biography of her by Joan Givner called Mazo de la Roche: The Hidden Life (Oxford University Press), and was intrigued. I discovered she had lived with her lifelong companion, Caroline Clement, and they were kind of like Canada’s Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas in terms of their partnership. Caroline was involved in every aspect of Mazo’s creative life “ as companion, muse, and even as a transcriber and secretary.

I was also intrigued by how much of a pioneer de la Roche was in terms of women’s writing. She took her place at the table with the men, and surpassed them in success and wealth, which was extraordinary at that time. The only other woman who had that kind of success in the 1920s and ’30s was Lucy Maud Montgomery.

If she was so successful, why isn’t de la Roche well known today?
It was a combination of things. Because she wrote a series, some people dismissed her work as populist. She wasn’t writing the grim realistic style that was popular when CanLit was starting to be studied in school. She was much more about fantasy, and there was a Harlequin romance aspect to her in some ways, although her writing was deeper than that.

There was some jealousy, too, as she was internationally famous and wealthy. One theory is that some people resented her success because she was writing lighter fare. Others felt that she wasn’t really reflecting what Canada was really about. But if you go back and read her books now, they are interesting portraits of that time in Canada.

She was known as a notoriously private person. That must have made writing the documentary difficult.
Even though she was very famous and she knew how to manipulate media, de la Roche had a conflicted relationship with fame. She really understood the construction of a persona, the way that someone today like Madonna or Angelina Jolie or Lady Gaga knows how to manipulate their public persona to make people feel like they know the person when really they don’t.

It was a difficult project for me to tackle because her story was so densely layered and contradictory. There were numerous biographies written about her, and her own autobiography is so elliptical, she doesn’t mention dates. It’s hard to tell if some of what she is telling us is even the truth.

Is that why you chose to present her story as a docudrama?
I went to de la Roche’s fiction and looked at her primary alter ego Finch Whiteoak. I began to understand more of who she was, and I felt that I had permission to explore the nature of biography and the elusive line between fact and fiction because she herself was doing that with her own life.

The film is as much a portrait of an artist as it is about the nature of biography.

Do you know of any contemporary authors who have been influenced by de la Roche’s work?
I don’t see a direct influence on any writers, but I do see that Canadian writers, especially women, owe a debt to her, as she really opened the door for them. In school, we learn about Susanna Moodie and Catherine Parr Traill, and then there is this giant leap to Margaret Atwood and Margaret Laurence, but in between was Mazo de la Roche. She is the whole parentheses that is missing from Canadian literary history.