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A Shapeshifter - Eva Tihanyi speaks with Lynn Crosbie
by Eva Tihanyi

Lynn Crosbie, born in Montreal in 1963, holds a Ph.D. from the University of Toronto (her dissertation was on the American poet Anne Sexton). She is a teacher, editor, poet, cultural journalist, and now, with the publication of Paul's Case (Insomniac), her controversial work of fiction about the convicted murderer Paul Bernardo, a novelist.
Her poetry books are Miss Pamela's Mercy (Coach House, 1992), VillainElle (Coach House, 1994), and Pearl (House of Anansi, 1996), which won the League of Canadian Poets' Lowther Award. She has also published The Girl Wants To (Macfarlane Walter & Ross, 1993), a compilation of female erotica, and Click (Macfarlane Walter & Ross, 1997), a collection of feminist essays.
Currently, Crosbie is working on a second novel, Dorothy L'Amour, based on the life of the murdered Playboy centrefold Dorothy Stratten, and collaborating on a screenplay with Noel Baker (Hard Core Logo). I spoke with her at a College Street pub in Toronto, not far from where she lives with the writer Michael Holmes.

ET: Let's start with a question I'm sure many people would want to ask you if they were here: Why did you write Paul's Case?

LC: When I started I had just finished with Pearl, and Pearl pretty well did it for me with poetry. It was very elegiac. It was a very emotional, personal book, and my mind was travelling more around the idea of writing essays. Also, I'd got this idea in my head that a lot of my poems were mini-essays-especially in VillainElle-tiny essays on female sexuality. I wanted to find a genre of writing that wasn't one thing or another, that wasn't poetry, that wasn't an essay exactly. A genre that was a melting pot for everything I'd learned as a journalist, as a poet, etc. I had been thinking about the Bernardo trial a lot and had followed it quite intently. I was originally going to write a short piece about it, and then I thought maybe this is my subject because all the ideas became too unwieldy for an essay. So I ended up writing Paul's Case. I wrote it in that notorious James Joyce way: silence, exile, and cunning. I didn't apply for art grants, I didn't show it to anyone. I didn't have a lot of input to frighten me off writing it.

ET: Did you write it chapter by chapter-fifty-two chapters in fifty-two weeks sort of thing?

LC: Actually, it did work out almost exactly that way. I can't say that one week was one chapter, but it was completed in a one-year time-frame. I lost a lot of chapters, though, because I revised that book endlessly. I had two documents: one which was the book and one which was the scrap pile. And the scrap pile's almost as long as the book.

ET: What was it like to be in the fictional company of Bernardo for a year? Emotionally, it must have been draining.

LC: I had been reading about him for so long prior to that that I was already in his company. Reading all the background, the accounts of the trial-I found that much more painful. Having all these responses and not knowing what to do with them, how to requite them. So when I took Bernardo on as a subject, I at least felt that I was finally addressing him and the issues around him in some way. However, now I don't want to read any more about him. It's over.

ET: What do you want readers to get from Paul's Case?
LC: I think I raise some provocative critical points about, for example, female sexuality in the case of Karla Homolka, flaws in the whole treatment of the case by the law, by Bernardo's own lawyers as a matter of fact. I don't know what I want the reader to get out of this other than to begin to construct a different way of looking not only at Paul Bernardo's case but at this kind of person. I don't offer an understanding of him, but I do offer an alternative to journalism, a different way of apprehending this kind of phenomenon. What I'd like is just for people to think. In my teaching and my writing, I hope to inspire thought. And sometimes it's just pissed-off thought, but what can I do?

ET: Your interest in Bernardo would probably not come as a surprise to people who have read your previous work. You have always tended to gravitate toward celebrities, pop icons, killers. What attracts you?

LC: There's a two-pronged answer. The one thing in all the shit-storm about Paul's Case that really got occluded was that I've also shown a very determined interest in resurrection of a kind, especially in Miss Pamela's Mercy. I would read these terrible stories in newspapers. For example, there was one about a woman who'd been chained in a shack by her father for seven years in Mexico and who emerged literally speechless and I thought: What would her voice be if she could speak? And so this idea-it's very Browning-inspired-to take an extant narrative, especially of someone who's powerless, and give it a revisionary retelling, to give someone like this woman a voice, that's what I was trying to do. I try to do the same thing with Bernardo's victims in Paul's Case-not see them only as victims but to give them a voice.
The attraction to criminals, on the other hand-if you want to call it an attraction-began as my trying to explore that voice that is so "other" to me. And then it became something else. By the time I wrote VillainElle, I thought: Wouldn't it be a radical way to talk about crime if instead of always positioning these people as so "other" I found one thing that's similar to us. It would be an easier way to understand them.

ET: You were already writing about Bernardo in Pearl, in the poem "Paul Teale, Mon Amour". What's the story behind that piece?

LC: I wrote that during the press ban. A friend of mine told me that there was this crazy woman who had dyed her hair blonde to look like Homolka and was madly in love with Bernardo. I'm intrigued by why women fall in love with these kinds of men. I don't understand it. And instead of listening to all the usual arguments-like the ones on talk TV-that somehow these women are just delusional and have nurturing complexes, I thought: no, there's something even more sinister at play than that. And I'm explicit about it in "Paul Teale, Mon Amour"-that maybe if you think this guy loves you, if you're safe from him, then somehow you have a level of superiority to his victims. I think there's a lot of ego involved with that, a lot of ego identification with the monster.
As feminists we don't want to believe women are evil. We tend to not want to believe it even though it contradicts everything we've ever known about women. That's a point of feminist interrogation for me.

ET: Is there any relationship between Willa Cather's well-known short story "Paul's Case" and your novel?

LC: I've always loved the story "Paul's Case", and it lent its title to me very well, obviously. But when I re-read it, I realized just how much on one level the central character resembled Paul Bernardo, with the furtiveness and the twitching lips, for example. I thought there was something interesting in his absolutely doomed delusions of grandeur. The Paul in Cather's story is nothing like Bernardo. However, he is fighting against who he is, and quite tragically so. I saw that in the early life of Paul Bernardo, someone who is direly ashamed of the way he lives.

ET: How do you answer charges that you're exploiting the case, indulging in sensationalism? In a sense elevating Bernardo and Homolka to "mythic" status by making them the focus of your fiction?

LC: I degrade Bernardo and Homolka so completely in the book that neither of them emerge in any way unscathed. They're very much reduced, I think, rather than made mythic.

ET: Of course, people have to actually read the book to see this.

LC: Yes. And if I have to respond to the claim of sensationalism, then so do the authors of the three existing books about Bernardo, as do all the journalists who made quite a livelihood writing about him.

ET: I understand the court case has been dropped.

LC: Yes. Christie Blatchford [a Toronto Sun columnist] had an objection to the chapter about her but has since dropped any legal action.
ET: Why did you use her as a character in the novel?

LC: Most of my information about the trial came from reading journalism. I read Blatchford's work on Bernardo day after day after day in the summer of '95. And I think her criticism and observations are fair game for me as a critic to discuss as text. I don't think it's an ad feminam attack in the slightest. What I wanted to discuss was literally what she wrote. And when she began to say things like, "I wonder what hand he masturbates with," I thought: That's a very strange thing to say. I also found a wonderful quotation, published in the Globe and Mail a couple of years before the trial, that Christie Blatchford is the journalist Paul Bernardo hates the most. It seems that by no volition of her own, they have a bizarre relationship.

ET: There is a decidedly dual element in your work in terms of the academic and the popular. Although you frequently make pop figures your subjects, your work is also very allusive. Why all the allusions?

LC: It's just the way my mind works. T. S. Eliot is someone I absolutely love. What Eliot says in his essay about the metaphysical poets is that a poet who is equipped for his-he says "his"-work understands that everything is germane. Everything from the smell of cooking to the sound of your typewriter to the Spinoza you read that morning. Everything flows together. There are no distinctions for me. One thing triggers a memory of another.

ET: Your work has often been called "postmodern". What does the term mean to you?

LC: "Postmodern" is not the way I construct my writing or the way I think. Theory means nothing to me. I like to pick through theory like a vulture. I take what I want from it and throw the rest away. I will say though that postmodernism is the RuPaul of intellectualism. [laughter] It's on its way out.

ET: Your most recent work, Click, continues your interest in feminism. You mention in the introduction that your mother had an urn labelled BRA ASHES above her fireplace.

LC: [laughter] There were no actual ashes in it though!

ET: Would you say you grew up in a "feminist-friendly" environment?

LC: Yes, but neither of my parents are academics. They read a lot but not in a focused, intent way. So "feminist-friendly" in the sense that I never had the sense that they wanted me to get married, to have children. I felt there was nothing I couldn't do. And that starts with my playing hockey with my father. My father didn't sexualize women in a creepy way. He wasn't the kind of father who had nine hundred Playboys sitting in the closet. To me, that's very feminist-friendly.

ET: How would you describe your evolution as a feminist?

LC: It began with my reading of The Female Eunuch, an eye-popping experience. That was my first radicalization. But I had this sense that feminism was a club you had to join, and I didn't get it. I remember starting university and meeting a woman who said she was a feminist. And I said: Well, where do I go? Where are the meetings? What are the dues? What's the secret handshake? She looked a bit embarrassed for me. [laughter] And then I went through what is probably a typical stage of feminist evolution: burn all the Playboys, be offended by almost every movie I ever saw, yell at men constantly. Then more study, more research. Moving into the third wave [of feminism] and deciding that on some level there are no rules. That's what I love about third way feminism: that there are so many ways of articulating yourself as being political, as being female. There's no knowable party line any more.

ET: What do you consider "pornographic"?

LC: This is a really hard question for me to answer because I like pornography. But I think pornography is very literal while erotica is more elliptical. That would be a basic distinction. I appreciate pornography because it's explicit. It's basically designed to make you have an orgasm whereas erotica-a lot of it-really bores the hell out of me. Pornography that I don't like involves a lack of consent and pleasure. So that entails, obviously, kiddie porn, snuff films, etc.

ET: Pearl is a marked departure from your two previous collections, both stylistically and in terms of content. Where are you going next with your poetry?

LC: I'm not going to write poems for a while. I'm doing a New and Selected for Anansi next fall, and I want to write a sequence about Frank Sinatra, definitely. But I'm into the Dorothy Stratten novel right now, guaranteed to offend everyone once more because I'm playing fast and loose with the details of her life.

ET: So who is Lynn Crosbie, the writer?

LC: I'm an intellectual renegade, a fugitive actually, who's always on the run from ideas I had in the past. I stick fast to them, but I want to keep moving, keep thinking, keep developing.
R. M. Vaughan wrote a review of Pearl for Books in Canada. It was called "Our Friendly Ghost". I really like that. I do what I do out of love, and even though I've acquired a not lovely reputation, I'm illusive, I keep changing. So the term "ghost" is appealing to me because a ghost can shift shape at any time.


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