Finishing Etta and Otto and Russell and James left me a state of transcendence; I was confused, hypnotized, my rhythm sedated. Here was a love story told in no ordinary fashion—it lunged back and forth, playing with time; it created gaps and left them unfilled; it painted scenes in extraordinary colors; kept parts of itself concealed, as if in dust. Even so, the chapters coalesced like a symphony. It was only once I discovered that the novel’s author, Emma Hooper, was a musician with a solo project, Waitress for the Bees, in which she plays viola, accordion, saw, electronics, and vocals, that I began to fully understand the structure of the book and the story it told.
—Laura Mae Isaacman
Tweed’s: I wanted to start by asking you a bit about Waitress for the Bees. Your music, like your book, is so transcendental and uplifting. Both have a strong undertow of curiosity, and it is this curiosity which seems to drive your art. Can you talk a little bit about where this comes from and what is driving you?
Emma Hooper: In both my writing and music, I try to include as much light as dark… there’s a lot of hard-realism out there nowadays—misery memoirs, very-sad-songs and the like, and a lot of them are very good (I like that bit of tragic self-indulgence as much as anyone), but that’s not all there is, or should be. Somewhere along the line this idea that all good art is serious art has cropped up, and I don’t think it’s right, or healthy. My music and writing do have serious, sad and dark components for sure, but equally they have moments of real joy, celebration, and even humor… just like life.
Tweed’s: Maybe that’s why your art is so affecting, because it reflects the balance of life—even in tragedy there exists a light, however dim. It feels as though you are trying to get at something beyond yourself—there are hints of ancient worlds, of your ancestry, and of the “dusty bones of home.” Would you say you are driven by the need to understand yourself further? Or to understand something beyond yourself? I am trying to get at why your art feels so transcendental to me, because it does have a quality of otherworldliness.
Emma Hooper: I am driven by the need to understand myself further, for sure. But for me I think this means understanding more fully where I—where we all—sit within the huge, ancient and wonderful intersection of all things. There’s an academic word, Intertextuality, which refers to how an artwork (so any given book or TV show or painting…) stems from a tapestry of other artworks that both inspire its creation and inform its interpretation. I like to think our own existence is like that too, we are who and where we are because of our history and ancestry, and our individuality is dependent on context.
I wanted Etta and Otto and Russell and James to be a balance of very specific specifics and details and timelessness. An example is never actually saying which war Otto’s fighting in or what year it is, but including whole, exact recipes too…
Tweed’s: I can feel that searching and discovery in your work and I connect to it. What of your instrumental background—you play viola, accordion, saw, electronics, and vocals. I’m in awe because I played the viola in the 4th grade and although my teacher said I moved like a swan, I hadn’t memorized half the score and so pretended to play through some of the songs during a concert. I was certain no one noticed, even though the bow was a good inch off the strings. You, on the other hand, have melody in your bones…I’m pulling from your sentence structure, the poetry of your language, the space you leave between words on the page.
Emma Hooper: I love that your teacher said you moved like a swan! And, hey, don’t worry, I air-bowed my way through countless orchestra concerts… still do it from time to time at gigs when I’m lost…
The first instrument I picked up (I think… I don’t really remember…) was a cardboard violin when I was three years old. That’s how old I was when I started Suzuki violin lessons, and my first instrument was just a cardboard-replica with a wooden dowel for a “bow.” I graduated to a real violin soon enough, and then switched over to viola when I was eleven.
Tweed’s: You played violin at age 3?!
Emma Hooper: Ha ha, yes. Although, to be fair, it was only a few weeks before my 4th birthday.
Tweed’s: Why the switch to viola?
Emma Hooper: I was getting frustrated (as all kids learning an instrument will get, at some point) and wanted to quit, and my clever teacher said, “You want to quit? Okay, you can quit violin… so long as you take up viola instead.” I’m so glad she played that trick. Viola is just so much more suited to me, I think. The violin didn’t come too easy, but the viola did. I like the long notes more than the fast ones!
The other instruments came later. One of the things I really like about the Suzuki method is that it teaches you as much how to be a musician as how to play a particular instrument, so that, later, when I was around sixteen and started to collect other instruments I found that I could pick out the basics of music-making on most of them easily enough. That’s not to say at a virtuoso level, though! Far from it… but enough to accompany myself on banjo or French horn or musical saw or accordion etc. in a song or two… (A friend once asked what I had more of in my flat, instruments or forks. We counted, and instruments won.)
Tweed’s: What is the Suzuki method?
Emma Hooper: The Suzuki method encourages the learning of music the way you learn language, so, by immersion. That means having lots of music around the house all the time, something that came naturally to my parents, I think, and starting very early. Like a language, you learn to ‘speak’ (in this case, understand, hear in and out of tune, etc, and play) first, and then to read. My older brother was already taking lessons that I’d been attending as a baby, so I was already soaking it up, the way a baby soaks up language. I’m a big fan of the Suzuki method, and actually made my living as a Suzuki teacher myself for several years. I like how it encourages students to be musicians more than instrumentalists. That is to say, to speak, understand and appreciate music as opposed to just being really good at one instrument.
Tweed’s: You play many instruments in your solo project, Waitress for the Bees, so what is your favorite?
Emma Hooper: I’m definitely best at viola, and it is my favorite, like an old, good friend. However, I have several other close seconds: my accordion, a beautiful old German child’s version, a French horn I can play about three beautiful notes on, and, of course, Mr. Wentworth, the singing saw.
Tweed’s: You also say that you learned to play music before reading it…was it the same with writing? In the past you’ve said that your book reads like, or is to be taken like, a piece of music…where you have left space between the words to serve as a sort of beat. Reading Etta and Otto was very much like listening to a piece of music—those empty spaces on the page forced me to digest the novel in a way that I do not usually do with a book.
Emma Hooper: Writing-wise, the first piece I had ‘published’ was a story I wrote when I was six (or five?) called “Dancer, Santa’s Littlest Reindeer” and submitted it to a competition at the CBC (which is like our NPR, I suppose). Even though it was pretty terrible, it won, and was read aloud on air as a result. That’s the first “serious” writing I can think of… and there was quite a gap between that and my next publication!
As for the writing reflecting the music, there have been times/projects when it’s been a conscious choice. A good example would be a creative non-fiction essay I wrote about playing in a string quartet that mirrored a traditional string quartet structure (including things like Rondo form, a slower “second movement” etc). I do like working with structural confines sometimes, find it to be a good way to get over blank-page syndrome… However, most of the time it’s more subtle and natural than that. I just don’t feel my writing is “good” (or good enough…) if it doesn’t make sense in terms of flow and tempo and pacing. In terms of musicality, I suppose, though I don’t really set about editing or writing with that in mind, I just read a sentence back and think: that’s great! Or, nope, that doesn’t quite work…
Tweed’s: Were there any books in between “Dancer, Santa’s Littlest Reindeer” and Etta and Otto that got scrapped?
Emma Hooper: I started writing Etta and Otto and Russell and James way back in 2010 (it took about two years to finish, and then almost another two years from getting the publishing deals to actual books coming out. Being a novelist is an exercise in all kinds of patience!). And there certainly were many, many books in between “Dancer, Santa’s Littlest Reindeer” and this one. Mainly they were bits of paper stapled together that I made as a kid, things about cats or my cousins or cake. There were also two try-out novels, real, grown-up novels, that I wrote before Etta and Otto, one of which was really just an exercise in learning to write a novel and has been destroyed as it deserved to be (oh, did it ever), and the other, well, I quite liked it, but it didn’t find a home. That one was/is much more in the style of Etta and Otto. Same attention to rhythm and, yep, dreamy feel. It was a rather ambitious project wherein I took the score to Elgar’s Enigma Variations and assigned each instrument to a character, then I structured the book around the score from that. So, for example, if a variation opened with energetic violin and pensive cello, I’d have the action I wrote reflect that. It took ages and I went back and smoothed out some of the trickier bits afterwards, but I’m still really happy with it. One day it will find a home, or maybe not. Either way, I’m glad to have brought it to life.