At age 14, Emma Hooper, ’03 BA(Hons), worked in a freak show at Edmonton’s International Fringe Theatre Festival. Her first role was Spidora the Spider Woman, and she went on to perform as the Man-Eating Plant, Body Without a Head and Mermaid in a Bottle. Hooper’s parents had put their shy preteen daughter in drama to bring her out of her shell. It worked. Now the intensely creative Hooper is a musician and author of the bestselling novel Etta and Otto and Russell and James, the story of an 83-year-old woman in the early stages of dementia who leaves her home in rural Saskatchewan and walks eastward to the sea. Hooper is also a researcher and lecturer at Bath Spa University in England, where she sat down to share her thoughts about discovering story ideas in unexpected places.
Weird jobs build character — and plots. “I grew up having the freak show as my first job. It skewed me into thinking jobs could be hilarious and weird. I saw actors in theatre — grown-ups with non-traditional career paths — and I realized that was something you could do. And my parents were really supportive of whatever I did. I also think it has led to loads of stuff, like being an author.”
Ask your mother (and your grandmother). “My maternal grandparents, who lived in Saskatchewan and passed away before I wrote the book, were the inspiration for Etta and Otto. There are lots of little details I stole from them. A lot of the research involved talking to my mom.”
There are no coincidences, only metaphors. “From my mom, I discovered that my grandfather’s hair had gone white when he was a young man, after he went to fight in the Second World War. Strangely, I also have a white streak in my hair from when a lamp fell on me when I was seven. I was thinking of our hair turning white as a metaphor for shock and for how the body and mind deal with trauma. I wrote that detail down and put it in a box of story ideas. The book started with that little kernel — the white hair.”
Set out on the landscape. “There’s something about starting with the land. In Etta and Otto, I wrote from Saskatchewan up, and in my new [still untitled] book, which takes place in Newfoundland, I’m writing from the island up.”
The senses can tell a story. “I colour code a novel in my mind. Etta and Otto was orange, yellow and burnt sunset colours. This new book is very much blue, green and turquoise. I also have a soundtrack for each book. For Etta and Otto I listened to a lot of Owen Pallett. His album Heartland became the soundtrack. The new book is largely the Scottish singer King Creosote. Yet my writing style is similar in both books — the magic realism. The whimsy.
Nap time is as good a time as any. “I’m a writer, a musician, a lecturer — and I also have a baby. I often write during nap time. If you want to be a writer it takes time, and not many people are able to quit their job. So we do other things and write when we can. When I need a break, I switch from music to writing. It’s a good way to refresh my head.”