Aislinn Hunter worked on her sophomore novel for two years before a crucial inspiration arrived. During a residency at Lancaster University in England, she was “on a bus and reading this Faber book of letters—and there was a letter from the poet Tennyson to the governor of an insane asylum saying, ‘Hey, two of your patients came to visit me. Could you keep them from coming?’
“When I found that letter,” she says now, a decade later, “I literally could see the whole first chapter. It changed a lot of what the book was about and sent me in a new direction.”
At UBC’s Beaty Biodiversity Museum, where she will be writer in residence this November, Hunter met the Straight to discuss that recently released second novel, The World Before Us, and the details of her writing life.
A Gerald Lampert Memorial Award–winning poet, Hunter teaches creative writing at Kwantlen Polytechnic University and is the author of five previous volumes of poetry and prose. Anthropology and absence—emotional and physical—are unifying motifs in her material, and “by looking at the fact of loss,” she says, “it’s sort of trying to be a little bit braver about the fact that that is inevitable.”
Moving between Victorian and contemporary England, The World Before Us focuses on Jane Standen, a 34-year-old archivist at the soon-to-close Chester Museum, and “a group of disembodied dead people” who are attempting to recall their former identities.
“This is why we’re here: because Jane thinks about us almost as much as she thinks about herself,” they observe, “because the distance between her life and ours is not as great as with others and because we are lost and Jane is the closest thing we’ve got to a map.”
Unaware of the ghosts around her, Jane is nevertheless haunted by the memory of Lily Eliot, a child who vanished nearly 20 years earlier while under her care. This tragedy fosters her interest in the instance of an anonymous young woman who strayed in 1877 from the Whitmore Hospital for Convalescent Lunatics.
Wanting to explore how people navigate sorrow, Hunter considers the novel “a meditation on when things go wrong. On accidents and grief. And recovery and memory.”
Research involved visits to London’s Natural History Museum and Bethlem Royal Hospital’s archives and museum. “One of the most profound things,” she says, “was finding real-life case histories. In a way, you’re meeting this version of people who really did walk and talk and move around this planet. And built the world that we’re living in—in their own sort of way. Finding those personal stories was astounding because they’re just kind of lost.”
Initially, the plot contained scenes in India and Russia, “and in the last four years I started paring back.”
“I wanted to sense I was a better writer than I had been before,” Hunter says. “I think part of the reason it took so long was just trying to grow while doing it.”
Hunter’s 2002 novel Stay, a portrait of the intimate distance separating a Canadian woman and an Irish man, was critically acclaimed and made into a film last year that starred Taylor Schilling and Aidan Quinn. (“I love the movie,” she says. “It’s extraordinarily flattering when someone takes a line of dialogue that you invented and then they reproduce it in celluloid.”) Driving to work this spring, Hunter was listening to “There Is a Light”, a recording by Great Lake Swimmers included on the soundtrack, when the idea emerged to contact Vancouver singer-songwriter Veda Hille about composing a single based on The World Before Us.
The result, available for free on Hille’s website, is “Romance of the Field”, a twinkling piece for piano and voice that echoes the novel’s mood and chorus of stories. “Listening to it the first time, my eyes were just welling up,” Hunter says. “Working in an interdisciplinary fashion and seeing what comes out is just incredible.”
After a confrontation with Lily’s father, Jane flees London to the woods where Lily disappeared, the same woods that house the shuttered Whitmore. Embroidering the narrative with secondary threads—which chronicle the 19th-century exploits of the Whitmore’s patients, and the men and women of leisure linked to the surrounding property and Chester Museum—Hunter frames the novel’s views on reclamation and place, time and discovery, and inspects the ways that past and present coexist both in the mind and in mementos.
“When you put all of yourself into something—like 12 years to write a novel—every meaningful thought I’ve practically had somehow is in that book,” she says. “I didn’t keep anything for later.”
Taking a break from fiction, she intends to concentrate on verse for her month-long post at the Beaty. “I’ll be sitting in for four days a week, writing all day, and looking at the collections,” she says. “I’ll run a couple of school tours and maybe give a talk. And do some research on the actual objects and maybe be able to leave a bit of information with the Beaty about some of the collectors.”
Hunter is completing a PhD in English literature from the University of Edinburgh, and notes that before her writing career “there were a lot of failed endeavours in creative arts.
“I thought I would maybe have other jobs, but that I would still write,” she continues. “The fact that it worked in a way that I can write and teach writing—it’s extraordinary.”
Aislinn Hunter will discuss The World Before Us during three appearances—on October 23 and 26—at this year’s Vancouver Writers Fest. See the Vancouver Writers Festival website for details.