Friday, September 13, 2013

Spotlight on Sunburst: Martine Desjardins

The Sunburst Award for Excellence in Canadian Literature of the Fantastic is a juried award to recognize stellar writing in two categories: adult and young adult. The awards are presented annually to Canadian writers with a speculative fiction novel or book-length collection of speculative fiction published any time during the previous calendar year. Past winners include Guy Gavriel Kay. Cory Doctorow, Geoff Ryman, Nalo Hopkinson and Margaret Sweatman.
I asked each of my fellow short-listed authors for the 2013 Sunburst Award if they would be kind enough to write a piece for my blog. Here’s this week’s piece, an interview with Martine Desjardins.

(Please note that Martine, regrettably, had to decline to be interviewed right now because of private, personal matters that are taking all her attention. However, I'm reposting an interview Molly Mikolowski  conducted with her some time ago, which I found on the Talonbooks website.)

Martine Desjardins was born in the Town of Mount Royal, Quebec, in 1957. The second child of six, she started writing short stories when she was seventeen.

After receiving a bachelor’s degree in Russian and Italian studies at the University of Montreal, she went on to complete a master’s degree in comparative literature, exploring humour in Dostoevsky’s The Devils.

She worked as an assistant editor-in-chief at ELLE Québec magazine for four years before leaving to devote herself to writing. Presently she works as a freelance rewriter, translator and journalist for L’actualité, an award-winning French-language current affairs magazine in Canada.

Her first novel, Le cercle de Clara, was published by Leméac in 1997, and was nominated for both the Prix littéraires du Québec and the Grand prix des lectrices de ELLE Québec in 1998. Desjardins currently lives in the Town of Mount Royal with her husband. In her free time, she paints miniature models of ruins overgrown with vegetation.

Martine's author page at Talon Books lists the following awards and nominations:

  • Winner of the Prix Jacques Brossard

  • Finalist for the 2010 Governor General’s Literary Award (French Fiction)

  • Finalist for the Prix des libraires du Québec

  • Finalist for the Prix des cinq continents de la Francophonie

  • Finalist for the Prix France–Québec

Contact Martine Desjardins' publisher:

The Sunburst Award jury says: "Rumour and speculation have it that there is hidden, somewhere in the archives of the Archdiocese of Montreal, a book so dangerous that the Church denies its existence. A copy has been found amongst papers of the author’s family, however, and its interlocking stories—originally told under the seal of confession—are here presented. Gorgeous and multilayered, Maleficium is a complex, devious, and vivid novel, in which all the senses, and most of the deadly sins, are invoked to exquisite and diabolical effect. Situated where Maria Monk meets the Arabian Nights, it weaves together elements at a thousand knots per square inch, its darkness of frame and intricacy of structure combining to subvert the pattern by the final chapter."

Interview with Martine Desjardins:

(Reposted from Talon Books website)

Recently, Molly Mikolowski conducted an interview with Martine Desjardins about her novel Maleficium, translated by Fred A. Reed and David Homel.

Q: In Latin, “maleficium” refers to “an evil deed, injury, sorcery,” and you’ve said that that the title of the book was inspired by the Maleus Maleficarum, which was the Inquisition’s infamous treatise on witches. It is a strange title, but like many exotic words in the book, it hints at a number of potential meanings . . . why did you choose it?

A: My stylistic choice to use ornate language, as well as rare and precious words, was meant to disorient the readers, as if they were hearing a foreign language, so that they might feel as if they were in a foreign country. This language is also meant to convey an incantation, to make the readers feel caught in the spinning of the tales, which act here as evil spells—thus the title Maleficium.

Q: How do you balance the lyricism of your writing with the precision of your historical research to create what so many reviewers have referred to as a “feast for the senses?”

A: I am first and foremost a writer of prose. I do not write verse, I never read poetry. In fact I’ve never understood why poets feel the need to constantly start new lines. This means that, unfortunately, I can be quite prosaic when I write. I am totally incapable of creating a metaphor. Clever analogical substitutions rarely pop through my head. I never see a bird when I’m looking at a handkerchief—or vice versa, for that matter.

As I can’t write poetical descriptions of reality, I try to compensate by twisting reality itself, in order to make it more lyrical. Thus, I pack my novels with unconventional and slightly skewered characters, ones that have as many physical as moral flaws, and a whole lot of idiosyncrasies. A young bride who strives to keep her virginity intact, a lady who talks to trees, a nurse who does embroidery on her own skin, a soldier who forages through the trenches of World War I in the hope of finding the Knights Templars’ treasure, a spinster who will eat only salty things at the risk of becoming a salt statue like Lot’s wife.

I set these characters in strange environments: an isolated house full of drying mushrooms, an igloo where light is refracted into a thousand prisms, a sunken crypt with a floor covered with enigmatical carvings, a fantastical funerary monument carved out of salt in an abandoned mine. And I equip them with unusual objects: glass made from boiled cadavers, an antique tapestry where the weaved birds form a rebus, salt cellars in the shape of famous ships.

In Maleficium, the male characters are all tempted by rare and curious objects: a strong-flavored variety of saffron, an insect unknown to science, a vertigo-inducing kind of incense, golden tortoiseshell, the purest of soaps, a Persian carpet made of human hair.

Q: In what ways does Maleficium differ from your earlier novels?

A: My three first novels, however unusual they might be, always remained in the grey zone between the real and the unreal—a zone that could be best described as the “highly unlikely, but still possible” or, to paraphrase Sherlock Holmes, the “however improbable.”

Maleficium is a shift for me, because I have left that realm to venture a little more toward the unreal. Thus the main female character has physical attributes that make her appear foreign, almost monstrous and alien. She has a harelip, but is also described as having a long tail, vulvar stamens, perfumed earwax, thorns growing from her scalp; she is seen carrying a larva in her navel, shedding tortoiseshell tears, extracting iridescent oil from her skin.

This was prompted by my intent to explore the demonization of women through malicious gossip, now that they can no longer be accused of witchcraft. It is also a comment on the way we often demonize foreigners in an increasingly globalized world.

While I was writing this book, my niece became quite famous as a singer, here in Quebec and in France. Malicious gossip about her started appearing on the Internet, and it made me very much aware of the cyber bullying phenomenon. This experience informed the last chapter of the book, which is why Maleficium is dedicated in part to my niece.

Q: To research this novel, you studied many nineteenth-century texts, but were you able to visit any of the locations you describe in Maleficium?

A: Although I have traveled quite easily in the past, I have been, for the past ten years, struck by paralyzing panic attacks every time I leave Montreal. Being incapable to go anywhere is a source of great frustration for me, since I dream of visiting exotic lands like India, Zanzibar, Yemen or Oman. Writing Maleficium was a way for me to travel to these lands, albeit in my mind, to visit interesting sites and to discover new cultures.

Q: Do you envision an ideal reader?

A: My ideal reader is not squirmish and hasn’t lost his sense of wonderment at all the strangeness this world has to offer.

For more information on the Sunburst Awards:



  1. This is as good a place as any to post my congratulations to Martine. Well done!

  2. From me, as well. Congrats, Martine!