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Erika de Vasconcelos

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Death becomes her

Family history and an imagined world meld in Toronto writer Erika de Vasconcelos's passionate tale ..

In the late spring of 1994, Erika de Vasconcelos, homemaker, went to Montreal to attend her 10th anniversary CEGEP reunion. She took the train, leaving her two children, Sarah (six) and Virginia (one), at home with her husband in their three-bedroom converted townhouse in the Pape-Danforth area of Toronto.

Erika de VasconcelosAll weekend, her classmates kept asking: “So where is the book?” “Show us what you have written.” One of the teachers even quoted some lines Erika had written perhaps a dozen years before. Faced with such expectations, Erika had to reply: “Well, I haven’t written anything yet.” Sitting alone on the five-hour train journey back to Toronto, she decided it was time to stop fooling around.

Three years later Erika’s life is radically different. It is as though the reunion triggered a dormant inner switch that jolted her into becoming the person she was meant to be. She is now divorced and a novelist. Her first book, My Darling Dead Ones, will be published this spring in Knopf Canada’s successful New Face of Fiction series, and she is hard at work on a second book that she expects to finish by next summer. Erika is represented by elite literary agent Janet Turnbull Irving and edited by Louise Dennys, publisher of Knopf Canada. Not bad for a 32-year-old who, except for being selected as a finalist in the CBC/Saturday Night story contest, has never published so much as a paragraph in a little magazine.

“I always knew one day I would be a writer and I kind of got distracted by my life – children, marriage, and university,” Erika explains over a cup of tea, late on a winter afternoon. She is a portrait in black – from her curly hair, wire-framed glasses, v-necked cardigan, and flared calf-length skirt down to her stockings and shoes. Her clothing echoes her Portuguese heritage and sets off the creaminess of her skin and the slight flush of her cheeks. There is something ancient and romantic about her. If this is the new face of fiction it is beautiful and poised.

My Darling Dead Ones is an articulate and evocative novel about three generations of fierce, passionate women trying to make the most out of their lives, on their own terms, within their own time and place. The story weaves and shifts from Portugal in the early 20th century to Montreal in the 1960s to Toronto in the 1990s, told through the lives and loves of two sisters, Helena and Magdalena, Helena’s daughter Leninha, and her daughter Fiona.

Erika says she deliberately chose not to tell the story in a linear way. “I wanted to write it in a way that reflects how memory is experienced, in those little flashes that we remember, or the stories that we hear and turn into scenes in our own memory. And I wanted readers to come to a point at the end of the book where they felt they had all these scenes and they could make up the story of what that life was.”

All of us have family stories to tell; some of us don’t have the words, some are too timid, and some can’t transform the bare facts into an imagined world. Erika is as bold as a thief with her family history, snatching anecdotes and love affairs as though they were so many silver candlesticks to be melted down and remoulded. “Ever since I was a little girl of six or seven,” she says, “I can remember spending summers in Portugal visiting my great-aunt and my grandmother, and thinking that these two women were extraordinary and that one day I would tell their story.”

What she didn’t anticipate was that she would be telling their story in conjunction with her own. “As I got older I started to feel that my life was almost a mirror of the lives that they had lived and that certain patterns repeated themselves.” Like a widow’s peak, or a tendency to baldness, you can trace the family traits through the three generations of women in My Darling Dead Ones: the need to write, to escape an unhappy marriage, to risk scandal for a transforming love affair, the intensity of the female bonds.

Most of the material about Helena and Magdalena is based on stories Erika heard about her grandmother and her great-aunt from her own mother. She says it was more difficult to fictionalize the present day story, which is closely modelled on her own life. “I could access the emotions more quickly,” she says, “because I know them intimately, but it is harder to be distanced enough to make a coherent story and not become soppy or sentimental.”

She writes in longhand – sitting in a café, in the park, or at her desk – and only puts it into the computer when she is in the final editing stages. “I can’t be emotional in front of the computer,” she explains. “You get distracted by the ability to rewrite every single line, but when you write longhand you’re not worried about how it looks, you are just getting it out.” She writes three mornings a week when her youngest daughter is at day care and on weekends when both kids are with their father.

Erika was born in Montreal in March 1965. Her parents, who had arrived from Portugal only a couple of years earlier, remained “very European culturally, but they also assimilated into the North American community.” Erika and her sister Paula were educated in French, first at the local elementary school and then at Villa Maria, a private girls’ school in Notre-Dame-de-Grace. She only started studying in English – her third language – when she went to CEGEP at Marianopolis.

She took a degree in art history and English at McGill and then a two-year certificate in interior design. When she was 21 – just before her final year of university – she got married. Two years later she had a baby daughter and two years after that, she and her husband moved to Toronto.

When Erika made her fateful trip back to Montreal to her high school reunion, she had been married for eight years and had two daughters. “It is funny how things tend to happen in waves,” she says looking back. “I almost became another human being. Everything I had been up to that point stopped or ended, except being a mother – and everything I am now started.”

By that autumn, she had written three chapters of her book and had separated from her husband. “I was not only a single parent, but I was dealing with a custody battle,” she says of the 18 months it took her to write My Darling Dead Ones. “It was the worst possible scenario in a city where I have no family.” She thinks that writing the book was a way of keeping sane. “If I hadn’t had to focus on it I might have fallen into a deep depression.”

She took the finished manuscript to Westwood Creative Agency, but was told they weren’t taking on any unpublished writers. She sent it to a few publishers herself, but never heard back. Then she got lucky. Hanging out in the neighbourhood park when she had first come to Toronto – the way parents do with small children – Erika had struck up a casual friendship with Dorothy Benny, who was there with her own daughter. The two women drifted apart as the kids got older and went to school, but they met up again when their second daughters were born. This time they became fast friends.

Dorothy and her husband Paul Quarrington took Erika with them to a PEN fundraiser in September 1995. There she met an editor from Doubleday named Alison Maclean. “We started talking about children,” Erika says, “and we clicked.” Alison asked to see the manuscript. “She loved it,” Erika says, “but she couldn’t convince the people at Doubleday to publish it.” Instead she gave Erika some publishing contacts and said she would recommend the manuscript to some people herself. At the same party, Dorothy and Paul introduced Erika to the novelist Nino Ricci. Some time later he invited her to dinner with Louise Dennys and his agent Janet Turnbull Irving. “We had a lovely dinner,” Erika says. “They asked me what I did and they said, in the way people do, ‘send me your book.’ I never expected anything to come of it.”

Meanwhile, another agent wanted to represent Erika. So she called Janet Irving at her home in Vermont and said: “I don’t mean to be pushy, but I have this other agent who wants to know if she can sell the book.” Luckily, Alison Maclean had already sent the manuscript to Irving and “they had had a conversation, although she didn’t know it was me when we had dinner. So she read the book and loved it and I signed on with her.”

Three weeks later the manuscript had been sold to Louise Dennys at Knopf. “Janet Turnbull Irving called and said she had just finished reading the book and that she absolutely loved it,” Louise Dennys remembers. “She said she hadn’t read a book where the voice had moved her so much and resonated so much, and she wanted to send it up to me right away. So I read it and felt the same way.”

Erika says working with Louise Dennys was fascinating. “She understood the book perfectly. She really had a vision of the book that coincided with mine.” For her part, Dennys says that Erika has a “clear voice” and that she is “going to get better and better.” Dennys says Erika has a certainty about her writing and her life. “She works very hard and she understands the process of rewriting. A lot of writers are very good, but they can’t move beyond that. Erika loved taking it further and going deeper.”

Even Erika herself can’t quite believe the pre-publication success of her first novel. “It is like a fairy tale,” she says. Yes it is, but only if you believe that talent, determination, luck, coincidence, and hard work all play a part in making fairy tales come true.