Carol Bruneau’s first nine books have all been critically acclaimed, and why not. Her sentences are meticulous, elegant constructions that pile on seemingly ordinary moments that repeatedly surprise with their profundity. Her seventh novel, Brighten the Corner Where You Are: A Novel Inspired by the Life of Maud Lewis, may be her best yet.
Its subject is extraordinary yet familiar: one of Nova Scotia’s most famous painters, Maud Lewis, whose bright little house stars in perpetuity at the provincial art gallery, and whose work has achieved a level of recognition beyond what she could have imagined in life—though she was famous even then. Despite any familiarity readers may have with the story, Bruneau’s commitment to fully developing an authentic character makes her novel far more than a faithful rehashing of known events.
The author was generous enough to sit down to discuss fictionalizing a Nova Scotia icon whose real life covered a very small space, and lessons Maud might offer 21st-century world.
Atlantic Books Today: Right away I could hear her voice in my head. Was it her real voice, in terms of tone and affectation? I couldn’t say. But the voice on the page was so authentic I could actually hear it. Can you talk a bit about how you went about establishing the fictional voice of a real, and world famous, Nova Scotian?
Carol Bruneau: It had to be in her voice. She was a very shy person. She never told anybody anything, so it was a bit of an arrogant proposition, but we do have the CBC interview of 1965. She talks enough you get her inflections. Her responses to dumb questions are hilarious. I had fun with that.
I tried to go back to the world she inhabited when she was young. Watching silent movies, Mary Pickford on YouTube, imagining this person who was all about colour watching these black & white movies.
I wanted it to be authentic, not condescending, and I didn’t want her to come across as a hick. I wanted authenticity in the way rural Nova Scotians spoke, and with dignity for her as a character.
Same with Everett, which was tricky in terms of language.
ABT: Your Maud Lewis is so well developed and delightfully complex. There is so much to her, and much more than just her disability. But writing a disabled protagonist must have presented certain challenges for you. What did you learn about disability?
CB: You don’t really know what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes. I had Jen Powley, a disability advocate, read a draft, and she was so generous with her time. She was great in pointing out things.
Like Maud’s chin was tilted down, so she never saw things face on like in her paintings. It seems obvious but I needed it pointed out to me.
So in the book, when she’s with tall men, she’s looking at a belt buckle or a badge in the case of a policeman. We all know about her disfigured hands, which stay in your head. And when we able-bodied people think about disabled people we might think, poor them. But that’s an able-bodied bias.
Maud was able to create so tirelessly, which is remarkable. What I quickly came to learn is her art is a product of who she was, which is a disabled person. If she wasn’t disabled, she would have done more representational stuff, and probably never would have developed her singular style that made her famous. We need to remember as able-bodied people that a disabled person’s gifts are just different.
I spoke with Beth Brooks, who has done a lot of research on Maud’s life, and feels Maud may have been on the [autism] spectrum, which gave her a singularity of focus, allowed her to survive all she did. I think it probably enabled her to focus on her work, sit in that little corner of her house and paint in ways others may not have been able.
ABT: And the way society dealt with disability in Maud’s time compared to now?
CB: Back then people who were different, physically or mentally, were shunned. We’ve come past the shunning but still have a bizarre fear of people seen as not normal. Hell, what’s normal? If anything, COVD has turned our ideas of how things should be on their head.
ABT: Maud’s husband Everett Lewis is a fascinating character as well, in some ways a foil to Maud, the cynical to the naïve. You portray a real love, but also a very difficult one for Maud. How do you see Everett?
CB: He wasn’t a nice guy, but he had a terrible life. You have to have empathy for him even though he was awful.
I don’t think their relationship was anything like in the movie Maudie, but their arrangement probably worked for them. It’s not romantic, but there must have been love. How else would she have survived it?
We like to think the world would sympathize with Everett today but probably not. Look how people end up in criminality. Yeah there’s more supports now, but there are still lots and lots of Everetts out there. We have better supports, that’s very true, but still not enough of them.
ABT: Maud quotes her brother as saying, “Unless you have something nice to say, zip your lip.” This seems a common attitude in this part of the world. Is there something to gain by learning to boldly voice our displeasure?
CB: Not everyone is in a position to do so. In my book, Carmelita Twohig is a funny character, kind of a busybody, but her heart is in the right place. And her trying to speak out is rejected by the people who are in that mode of, ‘No, you don’t rock the boat,’ because the boat is uncomfortable but at least it’s afloat.
Speaking out can be difficult in a place like this, where many of us have been here all our lives, and things work for most of us. It can be too easy to turn a blind eye to what’s going on.
But this COVID situation has hit marginalized people particularly hard. Hopefully, it’s taught us to have more empathy for those who are struggling.
ABT: The character of Maud in the novel also, despite everything she experiences, comes across as a naturally positive person.
CB: I didn’t want to write a book that was really depressing. I tried to balance between hardship and optimism.
Like when she’s with the man who fathers her child, it was sort of funny writing that, writing that naïve optimism she had, the faith she had in people. It was challenging to keep that tension, to keep the reader one step ahead of her, keeping that sense of “this isn’t going to turn out well.”
ABT: What do you think Maud would think of our current situation?
CB: I think she knew all about isolation, big time. I think she survived by just being in the moment. That idea of really treasuring the present, taking delight in small things.
And she had an incredible sense of perseverance.
ABT: Can we learn from Maud’s view of animals and nature?
CB: Oh, for sure. We should be celebrating that creative spirit and someone’s joy in making art. And whether they’re trained or not is kind of baloney.
Celebrate that simple joy Maud took in beautiful things, and how good things can be. It’s fleeting; enjoy the moment.
And celebrate the local. Maud’s little life has become very large after death. She’s the ultimate in local. She would be amused and delighted to see her paintings displayed in galleries with Alex Colville and Kent Monkman.
ABT: We get some sense of that in the novel because Maud narrates from the afterlife. It was fun getting her take on what lies beyond.
CB: I needed to trust readers’ willful suspension of disbelief, while also critiquing hallmark ideas about the afterlife and exploring what it might be like, with Maud hoping to find people she knew, knowing they’re there but everything’s a jumbled-up stew.