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Amy LeBlanc is a recipient of the Lieutenant Governor of Alberta Emerging Artist Award and author of the poetry collection, I Know Something You Don’t Know. Her most recent book, Unlocking (University of Calgary Press 2021), is a novella set in rural Alberta, taking place over one long winter.
In the book, Louise Till, mother of two, has inherited her father’s hardware store after her parents’ unexpected deaths. She begins to cut copies of her customers’ keys for herself, each one a talisman against grief and the terrible guilt she feels at not having realized that her parents were desperately unhappy. Louise could use the keys, but she doesn’t. Not until her life is overturned, again, when her marriage falls apart. Lou gives in to temptation, letting herself into Euphemia Rosenbaum’s home. What follows is a tale of blackmail, break-ins, an unsolved mystery, and more secrets than Lou ever wanted to know.
Uche spoke with Amy about Unlocking, a fascinating gem of a book that glistens in myriad ways: finely chiselled characters whose ordinariness reveals their vulnerabilities, well-modulated plots peppered with delicious morsels of suspense and mystery, and a distinctively wrought ending that leaves the reader satiated yet craving more. Amy LeBlanc shows her mastery of narrative in this story of small-town residents struggling to connect and accept the loss of love and family and what remains in their community.
Unlocking deals with vulnerability, grief, courage, acceptance, and community—the secrets we keep and our eccentricities. How hard was it for you to write about grief? What did you learn about grief in the process of writing this book?
I didn’t initially set out to write a book about grief, but the further I got into writing and drafting, the more I realized that the experience of grief was the thread that twisted through the entirety of Unlocking. Lou is grieving the loss of her parents and her nuclear family unit. Euphemia is grieving the loss of Isabella. Neighbours are living through all kinds of experiences no one could have guessed. Through their combined grief, I found that I could write layers into these characters that I hadn’t expected.
I’ve always been taught that strong characters are ones who talk back to you when you write them—they tell you off when you try to make them do something they don’t want to do. I found myself fighting with both Lou and Euphemia at times and I think their grief is what really helped me flesh them out as characters. It’s always hard to write about grief because I can’t tackle it head on without associating my own experiences of grief with my characters’ grief. But the beauty of fiction is that we get to fabricate scenarios, characters, and circumstances beyond our own where we can explore those emotions without feeling them completely. Fiction functions as an amazing sounding board for me.
I like how Unlocking unfolds at a leisurely and teasing pace as if you were rationing out its tension and suspense while drawing your reader into the heartbeat of the story. How did you approach pacing in this book?
The pacing of this book came about through many, many drafts with different timelines, seasons, and calendars. In some drafts, the book opened with Thanksgiving and then proceeded chronologically, but it always felt a little too slow to me. The final draft allowed me to create some suspense in the opening passages by alluding to what had already happened in the world of the book, even though the reader hadn’t been let in on that secret just yet. Novellas are a strange breed because each scene needs to build upon and contribute to something due to space constraints. There isn’t much room for exposition or context because that space needs to be moving the story forward. The space constraints are one of the biggest challenges with novellas, but it’s also what I love about them—there’s no room for fluff or filler.
Place is central to the plot in Unlocking, and you captured in an exciting but nuanced way how small towns could sometimes be close-minded. Would the story have read differently had you set it in a city, say, Edmonton or Calgary?
I think the story would have been completely different if it were set in a city like Edmonton or Calgary. So much of the book is about trying to keep our secret selves from others and the size of a community has a direct impact on how easy or difficult that is to accomplish. There are absolutely pockets in big cities and communities where everyone knows everyone else’s secrets, but Snowton was the only place where I could fully picture this story happening. By creating my own town instead of fitting my story and characters into an existing one, I was able to build the place from the ground up and invent histories, locations, climates, and landscapes which ultimately led to a more compelling fictional place.
This lovely, haunting imagery strikes me: “grief took the shape of a yellow clay pot that sat in her body just behind her stomach.” What inspired it? Why yellow and not some other colour?
This image in particular is one of those moments I would call ‘author intrusion’ since this is how I picture my own emotions sometimes! Yellow is a colour that I frequently associate with sadness even though it’s usually considered an optimistic colour. It just seemed like a perfect image for Lou (especially with her knowledge of paint chips and colour schemes) to take something that others might find positive and to have a different view on it. She’s often the character that’s in the background watching others, observing how they interact before deciding whether or not she wants to take part or engage. I wanted that moment of introspection to have a vivid, colourful image that could help readers get a sense of Lou’s imagination and coping mechanisms early in the book.
Lou and Euphemia cope with grief in contrasting ways, yet they bond through criminality. While Lou is a collector of keys, Euphemia is a collector of secrets. Could you share something about the inspiration for Euphemia’s character?
Euphemia is probably my favourite character I have ever written. She encompasses elements of powerful and inspirational women I have known and have had in my family and traits I would like to embody (without the criminal tendencies). Euphemia became such a feisty character so quickly that I found I almost had to follow her lead instead of trying to make her follow mine. But she was also the product of some of my favourite characters in books from Margaret Lawrence, Sheila Watson, Ethel Wilson, Suzette Mayr, Aritha van Herk, Shirley Jackson, Flannery O’Connor, Marian Engel, Helen Oyeyemi, Heather O’Neill, Carol Shields, Alice Munro, Mona Awad, and so many others.
I notice how you treated your characters with such tenderness. I’m wondering, what’s your sense of community?
My community is incredibly important to me. I don’t live in a small town, but I belong to a number of different communities which all impact who I am, how I write, and how I engage with the world around me. I have been so fortunate to be part of the Calgary writing community first through NōD Magazine and then through filling Station, Loft 112, the Writers Guild of Alberta, and at the University of Calgary in the Department of English. To me, community is about responsibility and care, checking in with people, contributing to a collective, and contributing time as much as capacity will allow. I always try to encourage new writers to work with literary organizations because some of the most important writing and life lessons I have learned came from these communities. I wouldn’t be the person I am today without the influence of these communities.
Uche Peter Umezurike holds a PhD in English from the University of Alberta, Canada. An alumnus of the International Writing Program (USA), Umezurike is a co-editor of Wreaths for Wayfarers, an anthology of poems. His books Wish Maker (a children’s book) and Double Wahala, Double Trouble (a short story collection) are forthcoming from Masobe Books, Nigeria and Griots Lounge Publishing, Canada, respectively, in fall 2021.