Saturday, July 17, 2010

Evelyn Lau

I met Evelyn Lau 15 years ago at a hotel in Toronto to interview her for the profile below, first published in 1995 in Id Magazine. The review I wrote of her then current novel, OTHER WOMEN, was never published. It is also below.

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Sex had always been a measure of power or abuse before we met, a way of hurting myself and, sometimes, my mother.
-- Evelyn Lau, OTHER WOMEN

With a look of concern on her face, Evelyn Lau, the 24-year-old Vancouver-based writer, leans forward to listen to my first question. Random House of Canada has just released her sixth book and first novel, OTHER WOMEN, the tale of a younger woman's romantic obsession for a married older man.

How does she feel, I ask her, about the fact that for many people OTHER WOMEN will be their introduction to her.

The concern disappears as a smile spreads across her face.

"Great," she says, enthusiastically.

A young writer with a troubled past, Lau is eager for a fresh start. Another one. Her first new beginning came ten years ago, when she ran away from home at 14-years-old with $10 in her pocket and a grade nine education. The horrors and eventual triumph of that period became the content of her first book, RUNAWAY: DIARY OF A STREET KID. Published in 1989, the book was later turned into a made-for-TV movie by the CBC starring Sandra Oh.

Three books of poetry and a collection of short stories have followed.

For this interview, we are seated in the lobby of one of Toronto's lakefront hotels. Lau sips from a glass of water and tells me how eager she was to do something different.

"I hope for many people this is the first time they are reading me," she says.

It is obvious that she feels strongly that OTHER WOMEN, which began as a series of short stories, is a separation from her earlier work.

"I wanted to focus more on desire, which I don't think I've ever dealt with," she says. "I've always dealth with sex in such a negative, pain-filled way, and I wanted to explore love."

Lau felt that by not focusing on sex in OTHER WOMEN, there would be more desire, "though not sexual desire; it's a desire for connection, closeness, or love."

This division, however, is a subtle one. Lau insists that the book is not about sex because Fiona and Raymond, OTHER WOMEN's main characters, do not consummate their 18-month affair. The characters are sexual, however. Raymond nibbles on Fiona's breasts, and Fiona administers fellatio. So the distinction, while obviously important to Lau, is one that is bound to be missed by many readers -- and critics.

NOW's Ted Mumford, for example, wrote that Lau "is working to put the hooker-turned-writer label behind her. Problem is, she keeps writing about sex."

It seems as if the confusion over Lau's earlier work has never really ended. In previous interviews, for example, Lau worked hard to clarify the dark sexual metaphors of her writing. And following the publication of her short story collection, FRESH GIRLS, she was dismissive of labelling her work "erotica." Her main theme is power, not sex, she has said. Sex may be the playground of her narratives, but it is not the reason for them. What is important to her is illuminating the destructive power that works in relationships, particularly in the bedroom.

Just as it has been difficult for Lau to escape her notoriety as a "former lady of the night," as NOW so ungraciously called her when it announced her September 12 appearance at the Harbourfront Reading Series, so too will it be hard for her win arguments that OTHER WOMEN is about an emotional process, not a hormonal one.

In the novel, Fiona first meets Raymond at an arts function. Though he is married, lives in a distant city and is only able to see her sporatically, she falls in love with him. The novel opens with their final conversation. Fiona's heart breaks as Raymond closes the door on her for the last time. She spends the rest of the novel replaying their relationship and trying to put back together the fragments of her life.

The book is no pot boiler, but Lau, still uses a typewriter to produce her work, entered life as a poet. It's the strength of her style that carries the reader through troubled waters. Lau's style here is more affiliated with the poetic prose of Elizabeth Smart than anything by, say, Charles Dickens.

When she is on, there are few better at snapping off a string of sharp metaphors. Unfortunately, the emotional intensity needed to sustain a book of so few incidents through so many pages wanes, and the limited plot doesn't help.

"I didn't want a traditional beginning, middle and end," says Lau, adding she's unsure if there's a character growth through the course of the novel.

"Plot is not one of my strengths," she says.

Though she admints that there may be a certain impotency in the book, she stresses that she wanted to slow down time and focus on the characters' feelings. She also didn't want to write a book that would be easily picked up by Hollywood.

"Though the money would be nice," she agrees.

She says the novel is about Fiona's internal process to come to terms with her powerful feelings for Raymond. She learns that it's possible for her to have such feelings.

"Fiona is frantically thinking and feeling, but nothing happens," says Lau.

Fiona is also searching to come to terms with the fact that she'll never know how a relationship with Raymond might have turned out.

"It would have been an explosive relationship, or nothing," says Lau. "But Fiona doesn't know. She's fascinated with why Raymond decides to stay with his wife. It's something she doesn't understand."

Lau says men and women have reacted differently to her new book. Men have been supportive, she says, while women have been hostile.

"Women are impatient with women [like Fiona] who allow themselves to be victimized," she says, "though there are lots of women who are suseptible to the sorts of relationships she finds herself in and who suffer the way that she does.

"Older women were put off by [Fiona's] obsessive listing of older women's appearences," says Lau.

Men, on the other hand, have admitted a feeling of empathy for Fiona. They admit to having felt for another woman as she does for Raymond. Lau says she finds these admissions interesting, and rewarding.

"I was afraid that this was going to be a women's book because it was so emotional and internal," she says.

Lau herself admits "to being half in love with John Updike," to whom she dedicated OTHER WOMEN. She admires Updike as a writer with a clarity of observation.

"He's not afraid to write about anything," says Lau, who no one could argue is a shy writer herself.

"My strength is in my feelings and my ability to instantly identify them," she says. "Sometimes I'm quite driven by my feelings, more so than by my head. My writing is driven by emotion. I envy writers who write more from their intellect, or who have a happy balance."

Lau is the past winner of the Milton Acron Memorial People's Poetry Award and the youngest person ever nominated for the Governor General's Award, Canada's highest literary honour. She says for the first time in a long time her next literary project is undecided.

"I'm waiting to see how people respond to this book before I decide what to write in the future," she says.

Don't listen to the critics, Evelyn. Do it your own way. You always have.

*

Review previously unpublished.

Other Women
by Evelyn Lau
Random House, 1995

A few years ago David Gilmour wrote a book called HOW BOYS SEE GIRLS about a middle-aged man's affair with a younger woman. Now we have Evelyn Lau's new book, which tells the story from the other side of the bed.

The contrast between the books is intriguing, and perhaps suggestive of the reasons men and women enter relationships in the first place. While Gilmour's book is essentially a mastabatory fantasy (older man falls for beautiful young women; she invites him to bed; she kicks him out, invites him back, kicks him out again), Lau's book is a poetic wail of emotional need.

Are the clich├ęs true? Is men's first interest sex? Is women's first interest emotional support?

Fiona meets Raymond at an arts function. Over the course of their 18-month affair, which is never consummated, she falls in love with him, forcing him to choose between her and his wife. The novel opens with their final conversation. Fiona's heart breaks as Raymond closes the door on her for the last time. She spends the rest of the novel replaying their relationship and trying to put back together the fragments of her life.

The book is no pot boiler, but Lau (who has yet to see the far side of 25) entered life as a poet, and it's the strength of her style that carries the reader through troubled waters.

Lau's first novel is more affiliated with the poetic prose of Elizabeth Smart than anything by, say, Charles Dickens. When she is on, there are few better at snapping off a string of sharp metaphors; unfortunately the emotional intensity needed to sustain a book of so few incidents through so many pages often wanes.

Measured against the high water mark of Smart's masterpiece, BY GRAND CENTRAL STATION I SAT DOWN AND WEPT, Lau's wail approaches a low moan. It is a heartfelt moan, however, and one few others could have pulled off. Readers should pay particular attention to images of pain, grief and violence ("edged," "sharp," "sliced," "flick") and note their relationship to desire.

These images continue the metaphorical cycle that Lau began in her short story collection, FRESH GIRLS AND OTHER STORIES, and in her poetry. Images of mirrors and identity also figure prominently. OTHER WOMEN will introduce new readers to Lau's growing stable of work and help carry her away from her unfortunate reputation as "prostitute turned writer."

Lau's first published work was her diary of life as a teenaged runaway on the streets of Vancouver. Three books of poetry have followed; one was nominated for the country's top literary award, making her the youngest writer ever nominated. She continues to be a young writer to watch (and read!), fulfilling every promise that her best work is still ahead of her.

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