With her third novel, Meira Cook has officially cut her literary ties with her native South Africa and declared herself a true Winnipegger.
Her first two novels – The House on Sugarbush Road (2012) and Nightwatching, which was published in 2015 and won the Margaret Laurence Award for fiction – were set in South Africa.
“A writer is supposed to write about what she knows,” Cook points out. “I have been away from South Africa for so long now that the South Africa I knew no longer exists.”
And the place she knows best now – after 25 years in Canada – is Winnipeg, which is the setting for her newlya published third novel, Once More with Feeling. “I found a new home in Winnipeg,” she notes. “Winnipeg is the type of medium-sized city where it seems that everyone is separated by two degrees of separation. You seem to always be running into people you know, or who know you.”
Cook says that her new novel is a little bit of a ghost story with a haunted narrative. The 400-page book initially focuses on a Jewish family with two sons – one of whom is in university and the second who is preparing for his bar mitzvah. (Cook herself is the mother of three teenagers.)
But the story does not unfold in a straightforward way: each chapter takes place over one month in different years and features a different, but interconnected, character. It’s about connections between people and how different people see the world around them. Each chapter also takes place in a different location.
“It is more of an ensemble,” she says of the novel. “In each chapter, the baton is being passed from family, to friend, to family again.
“I try to write with humour. I find that humour is the quickest way to connect with others.”
Cook’s initial forays into writing began in her native Johannesburg as a freelance journalist. “I reviewed theatre, film and books,” she recalls of that period of her life.
She came to Winnipeg 25 years ago as a university student.
“I experienced a degree of culture shock coming to Canada,” she says. “I reasoned that the best way to understand Canada was by reading literature. I read a lot of fiction and poetry. I spent a lot of time in bookstores and libraries. And writing became my way of finding my place in my new society.”
Cook first turned to poetry. She has had five books of poetry published over the years.
She says that she spent three years working on Once More with Feeling. The book was published by Toronto-based House of Anansi, which she describes as Canada’s largest independent publisher.
“House of Anansi is a wonderful publisher to work with,” Cook says, “and my editor, Joni Yoon, has been terrific.”
Once More with Feeling was officially launched on Oct. 2 at McNally Robinson Booksellers in Winnipeg. Cook reports that she also appeared at the Toronto literary festival, Word on the Street, in September. Her most recent reading was on Nov. 19 at Tarbut, the Winnipeg Jewish community’s week-long festival of Jewish culture.
Cook says her new book is available in Indigo bookstores in Toronto and through Amazon.