Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Proust Questionnaire, with Dorothy Ellen Palmer

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The Proust Questionnaire, with Dorothy Ellen Palmer

Like Jordan in her debut novel When Fenelon Falls (published this fall by Coach House Books), Dorothy Ellen Palmer was likely conceived during Hurricane Hazel and adopted at age three. She grew up in and near Toronto and spent summers in Ontario’s cottage country, just north of Fenelon Falls. In her 23 years as a drama/English teacher, Dorothy taught in a Mennonite colony, a four-room schoolhouse in rural Alberta and an adult learning centre attached to a prison. She coaches for the Canadian Improv Games.

Dorothy launched When Fenelon Falls last week at Coach House's 2010 Fall Launch Party. Click here for photos of the event. She will be reading at Pivot Readings at the Press Club in Toronto on Wednesday, Nov. 3. Visit our Events page for more details.

In her answers to the Proust Questionnaire, Dorothy tells us her greatest accomplishment, her motto, her idea of misery and more.

The Proust Questionnaire was not invented by Marcel Proust, but it was a much loved game by the French author and many of his contemporaries. The idea behind the questionnaire is that the answers are supposed to reveal the respondent's "true" nature.


What is your dream of happiness?
Waking up one morning and discovering I really am Sherlock Holmes. Mrs. Hudson has my breakfast ready, Watson reads aloud from the Times and with the last bite of egg and crumpet, 221B Baker Street gets a frantic knock at the door.

What is your idea of misery?
Listening to anyone who takes Sarah Palin seriously.

Where would you like to live?
I’d like to move Canada to the equator, put Victorian London and modern New York next door and enjoy Canadian Manhattan Victorian cottage country year round.

What qualities do you admire most in a man?
Honesty. Empathy. Kindness. The ability to learn from being sorry.

What qualities do you admire most in a woman?
Courage. The willingness to take risks and break the rules.

What is your chief characteristic?
A pathologically stubborn belief in right and wrong.

What is your principal fault?
Please see above.

What is your greatest extravagance?
My dream car — a VW Beetle convertible.

What faults in others are you most tolerant of?
Terrible fashion sense. Being stuck in the past.

What do you value most about your friends?
They ask the hard questions. They never give up.

What characteristics do you dislike most in others?
Deceitfulness. Cruelty. Bigotry. Self-absorption.

What characteristics do you dislike most in yourself?
Procrastination and a tendency to dwell in sadness.

What is your favourite virtue?
The courage to be joyful.

What is your favourite occupation?
Lacemaker and Milliner. I wish they were still around.

What would you like to be?
I’d like to be a member of a Singing Improvisational Comedy Troupe that travelled the world doing some seriously funny left-leaning theatre. Sigh.

What is your favourite colour?

What is your favourite flower?
The iris and the orange day lily. One is formal and the other frolics.

What is your favourite bird?
The turkey buzzard, because no one else will ever pick them.

What historical figure do you admire the most?
Bet I can’t pick just one — Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Nellie McClung, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Tommy Douglas.

What character in history do you most dislike?
Hitler and Harris, as in Adolph and his cousin Mike.

Who are your favourite prose authors?
I’m deplorably fickle — I like whatever I’m reading at the moment. Like my taste in music, I find I like individual books or songs rather than everything by an artist or author. I also read rather indiscriminately beyond literature, believing a book shouldn’t be judged only by extrinsic literary criteria but also by the more intrinsic standard of what the author set out to do and if she or he did it well. So off the top of my head in no particular order, some authors I really enjoy and appreciate for various reasons are: Thomas Wolfe, Charles Dickens, Anne-Marie MacDonald, Elizabeth Kostova, Lionel Shriver, Selden Edwards, Michael Cox, J.K. Rowling, John Irving, Iain Pears, Wally Lamb, Diana Gabaldon, Margaret Atwood, Laurie R. King, Alice Munroe, Alice Walker, Audrey Niffenegger, Ian Brown and Diane Setterfield.

Who are your favourite poets?
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Leonard Cohen, e. e. cummings.

Who are your favourite heroes in fiction?
Anne Shirley, Sherlock Holmes, Trixie Belden, Nancy Drew, Rapunzel, Robin Hood, Harry Potter, Dr. Peabody (who invented the WABAC machine on Rocky and Bullwinkle), Merlin, Mordred, Eponine in Les Miserables, Jo in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, Pip, David Copperfield, Owen Meany, Garp and Lisbeth Salander.

Who are your heroes in real life?
Teachers. There is no way to properly thank teachers for their daily devotion to other people’s children. In Canada, they give their entire adult lives, often with little fanfare or thanks, to the daily staring down of intolerance and ignorance, be it from pupils, school boards, bullies or the abuses of public opinion. They do what real heroes do: they make a lifelong contribution to hope.

Who is your favourite painter?
Amedeo Modigliani. He shouldn’t be. There was nothing admirable about him as a person. He was arrogantly crazy and he threw women out like garbage. His pregnant mistress, Jeanne Heburturne, threw herself off a roof when he threw her out. But there is something in his melancholy that calls my name.

Who is your favourite musician?
Neil Young and my son, Conor Nelson.

What is your favourite food?
Fresh baked bread, closely followed by Moose Tracks Kawartha Dairy ice cream.

What is your favourite drink?

What are your favourite names?
Severn, Conor, David, Bethany, Euphemia, Eustache, and Hezekiah.

What is it you most dislike?
Right-wing self-congratulatory ignorance. Homophobia and racism masquerading as patriotism or Christianity. And Brussels sprouts.

What natural talent would you most like to possess?
The ability to sing like Susan Boyle with a gift no one expected.

How do you want to die?
I don’t.

What is your current state of mind?
Curious and anticipatory.

What do you consider your greatest accomplishment?
Moving past loss and betrayal. And never giving up on my novel, When Fenelon Falls, published this year by Coach House when I was 55 years young.

What is your motto?
Go big and then go home.


For more information about When Fenelon Falls, please visit the Coach House Books website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

Check back for more Proust Questionnaires with Canada's literati in this latest series of interviews on Open Book.

Related item from our archives

JF Robitaille: Minor Dedications


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