T he question of nature versus nurture is applicable to a diverse set of disciplines, including literature. Often, the critical debate surrounding a literary work moves beyond author and content toward questions of cultural identity. When classifying your writing in the context of cultural identity, what is more relevant – the community that you were raised in, or the one that inspired your novel?
Former McGill student Elise Moser was born in Brooklyn and raised in rural New Jersey, but moved to Montreal at the age of 17. “I identify as a Canadian writer because I have been here for almost 30 years. I never published anything when I lived [in the U.S.] and I definitely read a lot of Canadian writing and I’m sure that that has helped form my ideas about writing. My writing is set here. It’s about the life that we have here…. It’s hugely important for a place to have writing that reflects the reality of life there.” Her newly-published first novel, Because I Have Loved and Hidden It, is set in Montreal and deals with “love and the way that our capacity to love…gets warped by our past experiences of not being loved or well-loved, and the way that those deformations can communicate themselves generation after generation.”
Moser graduated from McGill with an Honours BA in English Literature, and has worked as a buyer at Paragraphe Bookstore. She currently works as a publisher sales representative. In addition to winning the CBC/Quebec Writers’ Federation Short Story Competition twice, she’s recently been appointed president of the QWF. “It turned out to be just a great resource for me,” Moser explains, crediting her placement to her previous involvement in the QWF. “I took some fiction workshops and poetry workshops and workshops in the business of publishing…and those were incredibly helpful, not just for the content of the workshops but because it just inserted me into the community of writers.”
Moser says her novel is “about a woman…in a love affair with a married man…and she’s working through some issues with that. At the same time …her mother has just died and she gets this document which makes her realize there’s been a secret in her family that affects her and…she needs to figure [that] out.”
The transition from writing short stories to penning a novel didn’t pose much of a challenge for Moser. “Everything I learned writing short stories, I used to write the novel. I don’t know if it’s that different, because you have your bag of tools and you use the ones you need. Short stories are also all different from each other…. [The novel] is the next step.”
As far as the tensions between nature and nurture are concerned, Moser is well aware of her appropriation of the Montreal identity, and how that has informed her creative process. “I applied to McGill because I knew that I wanted to come to Montreal…. I just felt like this was my comfortable place.” Likewise, “the action of the book very consciously is set on specific streets and specific places and…the main character experiences her life in the context of the city and…the languages…here and the mix of people…. It’s very, very much a Montreal novel.”
In any event, the notion that a piece of writing must be ascribed an identity may be to create a feeling of association or point of reference for its readers. “One of the great things about Canada though,” explains Moser, “[is that] that’s part of Canadian identity…that we’re many things and there’s room for all that…. You have a lot of leeway there.”