The Edmonton Journal

June 9, 2011

April 14, 1996

Review by Gordon Morash

Joni Mitchell wasn’t the only creative writer ecstatic about her win of two Grammys in March. Mitchell has for years been a role model for Claudia Casper, a Vancouver author whose first novel The Reconstruction (Viking 259 pp $27.99) was recently published amid high media interest. Casper chose the audacious approach of setting up her own literary auction.

“It was so beautiful,” she says of Mitchell’s appearance on the awards show. “I read in the paper the next day that she said she was thinking of giving up music, and now she was happy she hadn’t, and it meant a lot to her.”

In fact, there is a mention of Mitchell’s 1971 album Blue in The Reconstruction. Casper says that Mitchell’s work and status as an artist have shown her a quality of womanliness that is key to her own struggles as a writer.

“There’s an essential side to her. She’s not dogmatic at all, at the same time being compassionate. She gets that perfect balance of not approaching the world as a victim, but being able to acknowledge suffering.”

By now, Casper’s success has been of those oft-told tales. Without using an agent, the 39-year-old—and hitherto unknown—author sent a one-page outline to seven major Canadian publishing houses. Vancouver’s Douglas & McIntyre, Toronto’s Random House, and Penguin Books responded favourably and the auction was on.

In the early days, when readers were hearing only about the novelty of Casper’s approach to publishers, there was a very good chance that The Reconstruction, the novel, would be overwhelmed by The Construction, the art of the literary deal.

“I worried too, about that story so early in the publicity. But I guess that’s the publishing industry.”

In fact, Penguin Books rushed the classily produced Mylar-jacketed book to shops and reviewers and placed an eight-months’ pregnant Casper on the promotion trail.

She had a boy late last month. “He came 10 days early which was considerate of him, and we named him George Solomon after all kings.”

But back to The Reconstruction. When a book is given a strong promotional shove, there are always concerns as to whether the book will match the hoopla.

The Reconstruction is a fine first novel, regardless of the hoopla, and Casper is no overnight sensation. The book has been fives years in the writing and she took the unusual approach out of both pride and what to her seemed common sense. “I thought that it was harder to get an agent than a publisher. By the time I’d had three responses, I hadn’t even looked into agents.”

The Reconstruction tells the story of Margaret Fisher, a newly divorced sculptor skirting the edge of depression and madness as she builds a life-sized model of a 3.2 million-year-old female primate, Australopithecus afarensis, first unearthed in Ethiopia in 1974.

The story has fact as its base via Donald Johanson and Maitland Edey’s Lucy: The Beginnings of Human Kind. Inspired by the story, Casper applied for a Canada Council Explorations grant, failed once, and then won the award on a second go-round.

“I think when I finished reading that book, I had a sense of frustration. I wanted to know more about Lucy and who she was, and I wanted to spend time thinking about what that relationship was between the two, the fact that even after 3 million years, they’re very connected.

“What I discovered along the way was that evolution was a modern creation, in that when you read about evolution, the language will be laden with mythological terms that are really not scientific at all.”

Margaret calls her model Lucy and the book forms one giant metaphor. As she constructs her forebear from clay, she is in fact rebuilding her own life, at times, breathing figurative and literal life into the model.

 “When I reconstruct an arm or a leg, or a part of her face, I feel reverberations in my own body,” Margaret says. “I think about her all the time, wondering what it felt like to be her, how the world looked through her eyes.”

She not only makes the creative leap to breathing, but is certain she can hear the model speak to her within the context of the museum’s diorama in which the model will appear.

The lips were slightly parted and the tips of the reconstruction’s teeth showed. Margaret felt the heat of its breath passing out between them, leaving a thin film of moisture that quickly evaporated in the heat. The breath smelled of fruit being broken down, fermented and rotting molecules, the stink of living made warm and moist in the lungs. She breathed in. Hot dusty air carried the taste of ash into her mouth.”

When confronted with such a plot, many first-time authors seeking maximum impact will take the lead character right over the edge to sublime, total madness. But Casper chose not to do that with Margaret.

“I never wanted to carry her past madness. What I was interested in exploring in the book was the relationship between a modern woman and Lucy. If I had carried it into madness, then it would have been about madness, not about the relationship.”

Coupled with that relationship is a study of the artist at the breaking point, an examination of the elements of depression, obsession and solitude.

“And I think solitude is the crucible. If you spend a lot of time alone, working within your imagination, your relationship to the external world becomes hard. It’s hard to resurface. You’re enclosed in it; part of you wants to go back out into the world and part of you feels very very reluctant.”

There is one scene, however, that goes the existential distance and brings Casper’s Margaret to what seems to be the very edge. After an evening of drinking, and on the street outside the bar, Margaret displays a chimpanzee “pant-hoot” in the presence of a man she tries to impress… just before she vomits what seems to be everything in the universe.

“I’d gone to hear Jane Goodall speak in Vancouver and at the end of her lecture she let out this chimpanzee hoot, and it was electrifying. All the little hairs on the back of your neck were standing up, which is very primate. It just penetrated very deeply.”

What’s not rooted in fact, though, is the image of Casper as Margaret. “I have gone through a divorce, but Margaret is not me.”

The book has been a success almost from the day it was published. It sits among the top five titles in the national best-seller list.

As well, this week she received word that the American edition will appear in January 1997 under the Bob Wyatt Books imprint at New York’s St. Martin’s Press.

“I’m also getting positive response from England about it,” she adds.