Montreal student days sparks themes in novel

There are blue skies over McGill, one of the many campuses offering courses on a host of topics this fall.

Related: October Crisis sets scene in Irena Karafilly’s The House on Selkirk Ave.

Born in the Russian Urals, Irena Karafilly received her post-secondary education at McGill and was a student there in October 1970. Her neighbour was the nationalist singer Pauline Julien.

“I happened to be living on Montreal’s Selkirk Avenue … and I was awakened in the middle of the night when the police arrived to arrest her,” Karafilly wrote in an email.

“Many years later, I chanced to be back on the street with an out-of-town friend and the memory of that distant, tumultuous autumn was unexpectedly stirred up. I shared it with my friend and we ended up discussing the
October Crisis, and then anglophone-francophone relations.

“The story’s premise was simply triggered by the recent gentrification of Selkirk Avenue and the temptation to ring a stranger’s bell in the hope of seeing my old student digs converted into an upscale condo.” Her original plan was to write a short story but the story developed and grew.

“I had no idea, when I started, where it was going. I am, when I write, somewhat like the pilot of a hijacked plane: I am at the controls but someone else tells me where to go.

“I am interested in photography, so I made Kate Thuringer a photographer; I was also, at the time, trying my hand at writing a stage play, so one of the protagonists became an aging Canadian actress.

“What transpired between them was entirely the product of my imagination. Like many people, I am given to nostalgia for my student days but probably spend more time than most dwelling on the past.

“I certainly spend an inordinate amount of time imagining myself in exceptional situations. My fiction is seldom autobiographical, except in the sense that all writing is ultimately autobiographical. “I am dissatisfied with having only one destiny, and fiction writing provides the illusion of correcting this sadly irrefutable fact.” Karafilly says she has always been propelled by a vivid imagination and the need to write about her observations.

“As far back as I can remember, I’ve felt the need to inhabit other people’s skins. Even as a child, encountering a blind person, or an amputee, or just someone with a facial twitch, I would go around trying to imitate the hapless stranger. My mother did her best to beat it out of me. I did not like to be spanked, so I became a writer.”

Karafilly, who divides her time between her home in Montreal and Greece, sold her first short story to Bob Weaver at the CBC while still a student and has gone on to write six books. Her short stories and poems have been broadcast, anthologized, and published in commercial and literary magazines, in Canada and abroad.

Karafilly’s book reviews and other articles have appeared in newspapers including the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune.

To devote herself to her writing and “trying to survive as a single mother,” she has worked as a secretary,
administrator, editor, and in business. She has an M.A. in English from McGill and M.F.A. in Creative Writing from UBC. Karafilly has won several literary prizes including the National Magazine Award and CBC Literary Award. Her published books include The Stranger in the Plumed Hat, a memoir; Ashes and Miracles: A Polish Journey; and The Captive Sun, a bestseller in Greece, set on a Greek island and describing an extraordinary woman’s struggles against
social and political tyranny.

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