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Interview with Cordelia Strube

Apr 29, 2020

This week, we were thrilled to catch up with Toronto Book Award Winner and local East End author Cordelia Strube to talk about her latest (and 11th) novel Misconduct of the Heart.

Stevie, a recovering alcoholic and kitchen manager of Chappy’s, a small chain restaurant, is frantically trying to prevent the people around her from going supernova: her PTSD-suffering veteran son, her uproariously demented parents, the polyglot eccentrics who work in her kitchen, the blind geriatric dog she inherits, and a damaged 5-yearold who landed on her doorstep and might just be her granddaughter.

In the tight grip of new corporate owners, Stevie battles corporate’s “restructuring” to save her kitchen, while trying to learn to forgive herself and maybe allow some love back into her life. Stevie’s biting, hilarious take on her own and other’s foibles will make you cheer and will have you loving Misconduct of the Heart (in the immortal words of Stevie’s best line cook) “like never tomorrow.”

Cordelia! Congratulations on the release of Misconduct of the Heart. What is it like to release a book at this moment in time?

With no book stores open, and my spring and summer(and, likely, fall) events cancelled, it doesn’t feel like I’m releasing a book.  I write to be read.  Not having the book easily available to readers hurts.  But it’s hard to get mopey about this given the suffering endured by so many during this pandemic.    

This is a timely moment for a book that questions capitalism, corporate greed, and the precarity of food service workers. Why did you want to set the story in a restaurant?

The Chappy’s franchise is a microcosm of our 21st century world where corporate expansion, surveillance capitalism, and self-absorbed, greed-driven destruction have become normalised.  The precariousness of job security is everywhere these days.  Most of us are walking the tightrope without safety nets.   

I chose the restaurant setting because it allowed me to introduce a large crew of singular, and sometimes outrageous, characters in comical situations.  I can’t tackle the sometimes harrowing subject matter in my novels without humour.  Readers wouldn’t put up with me if I didn’t make them laugh as well as cry.

Do you think that the pandemic will have an effect on how and what people read in the long run? In some ways, it’s a wonderful time for reading. (I’m catching up on some classics I previously neglected.)

Yes, it is a wonderful time for reading.  My hope is that people will tire of reality shows on Netflix and rediscover the solace and psychological reparation to be found in reading.  Misconduct of the Heart is an Apple Books Best Book for April, which should find the novel new readers.  E-books sales are up although I, personally, prefer to hold a book in my hands--no battery required.  Many bookstores are offering curb-side pickup.  I’m beginning to hear from readers who’ve had success ordering from independents as well as Indigo.

There’s meme about Shakespeare writing King Lear during the plague. Do you think good fiction is going to come out of this?

I’ve been asking my students to write about their lives in the time of Covid-19, but they’re hesitant.  Maybe it’s too close right now.  I’m in the thick of writing a novel I began long before the pandemic that takes a hard look at the criminal justice system in Canada.  A pandemic doesn’t factor into it, or anyway, hasn’t so far.  Stay tuned.

This is truly an east end book. Even the publisher, ECW Press, is just down the street on Gerrard E. Why was it important to you to set the book in Scarborough?

I wanted Stevie, the protagonist, to be close to a forest in which she finds refuge.  She is in awe of trees, their powers of endurance, their generosity in providing shade and oxygen.  Trees are underrated, mowed down to make room for condos and track housing.  Warden Woods felt right to me as it is close to strip malls, public transit and relatively affordable housing, all of which factor into the novel.  Kitchen managers make little more than minimum wage, which is why Stevie lives in a basement apartment she calls “the dugout.”

When you started writing this book – your 11th ! – was there something different from a writing craft perspective that you wanted to grow, or try? The perspective shift in your last novel blew me away. 

Writing in first person challenges my novelistic skills.  I wrote four novels in 3rd person subjective before daring to attempt 1st person in The Barking Dog.   First person demands that the writer show the world of the novel, and the people in it, through the eyes of the protagonist without choking the prose with exposition.  There is no set up with my first person narratives.  The reader is thrown into the action.  The  front story has to be strong to support the necessary backstory.  

I love the cover. What did you want it to evoke?

A feeling of recognition.  We have all experienced emotionally-charged moments in restaurants, staring at napkin dispensers and Ketchup bottles.  The sparrow represents a life force which, by the end of the novel, Stevie discovers she has.  You can’t keep a sparrow down.

The book covers so many issues, from PTSD to alcoholism, parenting to neglect.  Are there any themes you haven’t explored in your work that you would like to in the future?

My next novel explores the subjectivity, and elusiveness, of the rule of law.  

Obviously, the perfect novel for everyone else to read right now is Misconduct of the Heart. But what are you reading? Do you find yourself going back to old favourites for comfort, or are you diving into new things? 

I’ve discovered that I love reading philosophy, that it is very much alive and applicable to my life.  The lockdown means we have time to reflect on how we’re living our lives and how we might live them better.  Lou Marinoff’s 600 page opus, The Middle Way, takes the reader through rigorous research into Aristotle, Bhudda and Confucius while articulating alternate paths to maintaining sanity.  A helpful read during a pandemic.  

To give you a taste of practical philosophy, here’s Marcus Aurelius from Meditations:

“The art of life is more like the wrestler’s art than the dancer’s, in respect of this, that it should stand ready and firm to meet onsets that are sudden and unexpected.”

As a playwright yourself, do you have any words of wisdom for theatre artists who are struggling with a lack of work? 

Experiment with different forms of narrative.  I turned to novel writing because it gave me absolute freedom to write what I imagined.  Novelists are not dependent on actors, sets, lighting or even funding.  The world of my novels is completely under my control.  In a world out of control, crafting a good sentence boosts the spirit.

A masterful blend of comedy and tragedy . . . The tapestry of humanity that Strube presents is richly detailed and profoundly moving. - Quill & Quire

Cordelia Strube is the author of ten critically acclaimed novels. She has been nominated for the Governor General’s Award, the Trillium Book Award, and long-listed for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. Learn more about Cordelia and her other work on her website.

Misconduct of the Heart is available now. Purchase your copy from Queen Books here.