LORI LANSENS reading with E.L. Doctorow at the Church of the Holy Trinity (beside the Eaton Centre), Tuesday (September 27), 7:30 pm. $5. 416-777-2665. Rating: NNNNN
Warning: If you're a woman with two toddlers and you can't get any work done, you're about to feel a small jolt of jealousy. Lori Lansens wrote her stunning second novel while she was nursing not one, but two kids.
"And I wrote my first novel when I was pregnant with my first baby."
Don't you just hate her? Well, stop it, because out of all those extreme experiences of attachment both literal and figurative bursts The Girls, the year's best book to come out of Canada, possibly the world.
Toothpick-thin and intense, Lansens is bouncing in her chair, criss-crossing her legs as she nervously shifts her weight. We're in the back garden of her home in the suddenly hot Queen and Shaw neighbourhood, and she's trying to explain the connection between breastfeeding and the achingly beautiful story of Rose and Ruby, conjoined twins attached at the head, with no chance of surgical separation.
I'm disbelieving at first. There's no way Lansens's level of detail Rose knows Ruby is smiling, for example, because she can feel the skin tightening around her own eyes could come from being a mother. You'd need something else to guide you to the feelings of connection and the complex negotiations two smart, wilful women would have to go through if they could never, ever go anywhere without the other.
But Lansens is insistent.
"That feeling of intimacy that you get with nursing," she says, eyes flashing fiercely and play-acting as if she's holding a small baby, " they were attached, and I was attached to them. I was nursing, co-sleeping. I was never for a second alone."
Surely she got some space when she hit the road to promote her smash debut novel, 2002's Rush Home Road.
"Oh, no," she says. "I just took them with me."
She admits even now to being in a somewhat altered state. Her two toddlers are at school, and it's the first time ever that both of them have been away from her with anyone other than a single caregiver. I start to worry she won't be able to focus on the interview.
I remind her that she wasn't supposed to write this book. She was working on a novel about a man living with multiple wives as a follow-up to Rush Home Road, the lush and occasionally soapy story of the descendants of the underground railroad living in Chatham, Ontario.
Then she saw a documentary on the Chappelle sisters, conjoined twins who were thriving in the U.S., and something grabbed her. She started picking up tidbits and seeking out research material.
Rush Home Road made big noise worldwide, and Lansens's agent, Denise Bukowski, was starting to get impatient for the follow-up. Lansens dutifully handed the over 100 pages she'd written about the polygamous family, only to hear the dreaded words, "I don't think so. What else ya got?"
Luckily, she wasn't devastated by the feedback. "It wasn't working for me either" she says.
The phone rings. I'm waiting for her to run for it she's supposed to be suffering from separation anxiety but she's not moving. I'm thinking maybe she's not as attached as she let on. Or maybe she's as attached to this book as she is to the kids.
"Then one night, my four-year-old son was sitting beside me at the table and he put his cheek right next to mine. We were side by side, cheek to cheek, facing the same direction. And he said, "Sometimes, Mummy, I wish we could be glued together like this.'
"He couldn't have had any idea what I was reading and what I'd been thinking about. Then he said, "But that way I would never be able to see your eyes. See?'" Lansens puts herself back in that moment, shifting her eyes to show how the two of them could never make eye contact.
"And then I knew what I was going to be writing about next."
She also got the first line for her book: "I have never looked into my sisters eyes."
It's not the first time Lansens has evoked the thoughts and feelings of someone whose experience is quite different from her own. Rush Home Road's main character was Addy, an 80-year-old black woman, the product of American slavery.
She credits her acting experience for teaching her how to inhabit a character, her experience writing screenplays for teaching her editing skills and discipline "You really do have to finish or you don't get paid" and a grade three teacher for encouraging her to be a writer. (She let Lansens read aloud in class the next day the story the budding writer wrote every night.)
"That stopped when I read my story about waking up terrified from a nightmare. I came into my parents' room and my dad sent me away and kept looking around for his pyjamas. The story was about my outrage at being turned away; I didn't get my own subtext. But I still remember the look on my teacher's face as I was reading and realizing she wasn't horrified by the same thing that horrified me."
She becomes the actor again turning into an eight-year-old who's been ousted from her parents' bedroom. "I was having a nightmare," she wails, and then laughs.
But where sexual references may not fit into a grade three classroom, sexuality had to be a factor in The Girls. People are just, well, curious.
"No question, every time I told people what I was writing about, they were really intrigued."
Maybe puriently so, but that was a problem that Lansens had to solve. And she does in a thought-provoking, profoundly heartbreaking scene depicting Ruby's and Rose's sexual encounter with a young teen.
It took some work. Her husband, Milan Cheylov, also a writer and producer and her most reliable shit detector had a look at the section first. He wanted more.
"I knew that Rose had a sex drive. She always said she wanted to be kissed. But I was a little bit too careful at first. I didn't want to overwrite. I could feel my caution, as I chose the words so carefully. It was kind of like I wanted to get it over with."
But she went back to the sequence and expanded it, and it became a pivotal moment. Ruby and Rose are fundamentally attached but have completely different experiences of the same event.
As we're wrapping up our conversation, I head into the house to gather my things. When I return to the garden, I goad Lansens a bit: "You mean you're not checking your messages?"
"No," she says. "If something's happening with the kids they'll call my husband."
Ah, separation achieved. Hope Lansens doesn't get too comfortable. We wouldn't want equilibrium to get in the way of her art.
THE GIRLS by Lori Lansens (Random House), 457 pages. $34.95 cloth. Rating: NNNNN
From the first line of this gut-grabbing novel, we're inside the heart and head of Rose, a conjoined-at-the-head twin writing her memoir. As the chapters unfold, she grudgingly agrees that her twin can get a few words in, so occasional chapters are provided by Ruby, another personality altogether. Together, they create a staggeringly beautiful, often wildly funny work about being different and proud of it. It's also a wholly unique love story. In her follow-up to Rush Home Road, Lori Lansens demonstrates empathy that borders on telepathy to get inside their experiences. Rose can walk, but Ruby, the beauty, can't, so she basically rides Roses's hip to get from place to place. In simple, elegant sequences -- from Ruby's refusal to help Rose get her doll at the other end of the room to their grappling with the awkwardness of Rose's sexual longing -- the girls learn the meaning of compromise and an unusual love.
And so do we, which is what makes this book such an amazing experience. Lansens turns a story about people historically thought of as freaks into a story about us.
Ruby and Rose get help from some terrific characters in the small town of Leaford, near Chatham, where the book is set, especially blustery, baseball-loving Uncle Stash and his wife, Aunt Lovey, the emotionally gifted nurse at the twins' birth, who brings them home when their mother checks out of the hospital.
There's deep craft at work here. The Girls communicates astute insights into the art of the memoir and tackles plot developments that would sink most other writers. Lansens navigates them effortlessly.