Inspired by Story

Photo credit: Frank Nagy

In my continuing series on womxn writers, I had the great pleasure of interviewing Darlene Madott this summer. Darlene Madott is a Toronto lawyer and award-winning writer.  Author of seven books, her short fiction has garnered literary awards, including the title story of her 7th book, Making Olives and Other Family Secrets (Ripasso), which won the Bressani Literary Award in 2008, and also included “Touching Calabria,” a winner in an Accenti Magazine  competition.  Her collection of linked short-stories, Stations of the Heart (Exile Editions, 2013) again won the Bressani Literary Award in 2014.  That collection includes  “Vivi’s Florentine Scarf”, winner of the Paolucci Prize of the Italian American Writer’s Association (2002) and “Waiting”, short-listed for the Gloria Vanderbilt sponsored Carter V. Cooper Exile Competition 2011-12 in the established writer category. She was again short-listed in 2017, for her short-story “Winners and Losers”, part of a pending collection growing out of her legal background, and shortlisted a third time for the Carter V. Cooper in 2020 for “Newton’s Law,” a comedic exploration of escalating wars between separating spouses. In 2021, Exile will be publishing Dying Times, a fictional exploration of the last journey. You can find her at: www.darlenemadott.com.

The interview was conducted on August 18th, 2020, and this is the first part of a two-part blog on my interview with Darlene:

RS: Your writing tends to focus on women and their experiences in a way that is both personal and universal, and so I’d like to start the conversation by asking you how you position yourself, how you see yourself, as a writer, and by that I mean to ask how and if you identify yourself on the basis of gender, ethnicity, citizenship and so on. For instance, is defining yourself as a woman and of Italian heritage concurrent with your identity as a writer?

DM: Defining myself as a woman and as Italian was less complicated than defining myself as a lawyer and as a writer. For years, I felt like a fraud as both. Was I a lawyer who really wanted to write, or was I a writer in disguise? This came home painfully during the first attack on one of my pleadings. A pleading is a statement of claim or an application that starts a legal process. My pleading was attacked by a very senior lawyer as being “prolix” and “vexatious”. There is an actual rule of civil procedure where a pleading can be attacked for offending the laws of pleading – usually used as a stall tactic by Defendants to prevent a lawsuit from getting off the ground. I remember standing in court defending my pleading before the judicial master, when this lawyer said, “Is she writing a novel or is she writing a pleading?” I thought, does he know? So I always felt as a lawyer that I was flying beneath the radar as a writer-in-disguise; and as a writer, it was vice versa. 

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This didn’t come home to me until Terry Favro (an Italian Canadian writer of many books) actually laid down the gauntlet and said to me, “Why don’t you write directly out of your legal background?” And I said, “Whoa, well there are a couple of problems.” Number one, I didn’t want to be a lawyer when I was writing, and after thirty-five years in practice, part of me really didn’t ever want to go there again. And then, I started to mine my legal background. And a whole different writer emerged. A very comic writer, in a dark way. Someone who was more distant. Less personal, for sure. Barry Callaghan, who is a wonderful writer and editor, and he’s been a personal mentor, said to me, “Darlene, if you ever want to be an accomplished writer, you have to learn not to write like a lawyer. You have to get rid of the legalese. Whatever is that language and those complicated sentences you structure, you’ve got to lose that!”

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    But coming back to the issue of the woman and the Italian theme, and also, what is extremely important as part of my identity: I am a woman, and I can’t and don’t want to escape the biology of being a woman. Some of my most profound writing has come out of my experience of being a mother, giving birth. And also, family is so integral to my themes, what I’m writing about. Take, for example, Making Olives and Other Family Secrets, which became a family scandal. I suppose because I was drawing upon the black sheep. You know, every family has black sheep. And black sheep are of course the most interesting characters in any family. So, the book was not strictly biographical, but I was drawing upon composites. Where there might have been warring brothers, they became warring sisters, and where there might have been six brothers, they became two sisters. But the odd thing was that when the book was published, everyone in the family seemed to recognize themselves and they weren’t really recognizing themselves in the right characters. For example, my older sister phoned my mother and raged about a story called “Bottled Roses” and said, “She’s writing about my daughter!” And my mother said, “You don’t have children.” And my sister said, “But she’s writing about the daughter I would have had.” I don’t know how that happened. It’s a very uncomfortable thing to be related to a writer. Honestly, everything is up for grabs. Where do we research? As writers, our first experiences are within the family. And what goes on in that family goes on in the world. The Cain and Abel story exists in every family.

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I think being a woman complicates all of that because we’re supposed to be “nice”. And I don’t hold any punches. As a lawyer, I was known as the “Mad Dot” as a litigator. I was a pit-bull. A dog with a bone. And as a writer, I have an obligation to the truth. My truth. Christ in the apocryphal gospel of Thomas is reported to have said, “If you bring forth that which is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth that which is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” Well I think a writer has an obligation, a twofold obligation. One is to bring forth the truth that is within, and the other is to bear witness in this world. And hopefully to try to create art while you’re doing that. I don’t embark upon every short story or every extended piece of writing with the mandate to create art. I think the art is in the shaping of the story. These pearls come ready made like little miracles. Shakespeare got his Romeo and Juliet out of the news of the day, from Verona, but out of that little miracle of a story, he built his great play. So, I think we have to shape what we find, or what finds us – what compels us. 

Now the interesting thing is that the worlds of the writer and the lawyer have coalesced at times throughout my working life. When I contemplated the verb, to advocate, which comes from advocare, to speak for, to give voice, to those who cannot tell their own story, I realize that that is what I did in front of a court 35 years of my legal career. More recently, there’s a story that I’ve written that’s called “Newton’s Law”. For every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction, and it is a hilarious story. It’s the War of the Roses. This warring couple, they just auger down. For every action, the other reacts, and they get more and more toxic until the whole thing explodes. It has an undercurrent of tremendous violence. And also love. As great as the love had been, there is violence in the heart of that story. But I went to the source, the woman who was the actual model for this story, and I requested her collaboration. We sat down, and I taped it, and I asked her: “How did you remember it?” and she had such a vibrant voice. You know, you couldn’t create this voice. But what I did after the series of interviews was I sort of started in affidavit form, “I, Irina…. Make oath and say as follows”. But the structure of the story is that it starts off in the 3rd person omniscient, but it’s the legal construct I’m playing with in that story, in affidavit form. And when the whole thing was done and edited down to its bare bones, it was actually shortlisted for the Carter B. Cooper Award sponsored by Gloria Vanderbilt for Exile Editions, and it will be published in November as part of an Exile anthology. I’m extremely proud of that story. 

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Now, one pleading that I was very proud of, was a case I’ll never forget. There was a four-year old boy who may have been on the autism spectrum. He was terrified of his father, we suspected abuse. The mother was terrified and we had to approach going to court extremely carefully, because if we didn’t get the child-protective Order that was needed, the repercussions could be terrible for that child. So I wrote mother’s story, with the child’s voice coming through her. This pleading was again prolix and embarrassing, about 100 pages long. I arranged an in camera meeting with the other lawyer and our clients. At the end of that court attendance, the judge said, you know, you have to edit it down. But after the clients left the courtroom, it was myself, the other lawyer and the judge in the room, and the judge, she said to me, “Ms. Madott, I read every word. And I felt your client’s pain.” At that moment, I recognized not only the power of words but what it means to be an advocate and to be able to tell a story. 

RS: What inspires you?

DM: Story. I love stories. I have never lost my love of a good story. And I love people, as awful as they can sometimes be. I find human nature so very interesting. The one thing that kept me practising law was that every person who walked into my office, every person was a new story. And I never lost interest in that. I hope I never get to that point where I’m no longer interested in other people. I’ve always been interested. In fact, that’s what COVID killed for me. Not to be able to engage with people, to have them come into my office, to feel their pain, to laugh with them, and cry with them – in person. I can’t imagine a world where physical distancing continues indefinitely. But it’s stories, and wanting their stories to survive, and wanting my own family’s story to survive. I didn’t want all those stories, all those names just to be a name on a gravestone. That may be very pretentious to think that those stories could survive in another form, but I wanted their stories to live, not just be reduced to a name in a stone. 

RS: You talked about that earlier, that writing bears witness.

DM: I hope. I think to have one good reader, and to know that we have that one good reader, I’d be thrilled with that. To engage with that one reader. And we have to remember we were readers before we were ever writers. And when I write a story, I ask myself, what would I most want to read? As a reader, am I engaged with this material? What’s the story I want to read? And when I’m done, what’s the story I want to be writing. If this were the last day of my life, what would I want to be writing?

And you know, I began writing that story, “If This Were the Last Day”, and it became a letter to my son. I haven’t continued it, as yet, because I have to write some funny stuff. But I have the rough draft. And I have managed to say to him some of the things I had drafted in my letter, and the message that was vitally important for me to deliver was and is: “You were conceived in love and you are loved.” It is the most important message a parent can deliver to a child. “You are loved.”

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