An Interview with Mary Soderstrom

Mary Soderstrom’s The Walkable City: From Haussmann’s Boulevards to Jane Jacobs’ Streets and Beyond asks what makes a city “walkable” – and hence, liveable – and in an attempt to solve this riddle, takes the contrasting theories of two of the modern world’s greatest thinkers on the city and puts them to the practical test. An original idea, gracefully executed, The Walkable City compels us to think harder about our own neighbourhoods and what we expect and hope from them. I talked with Mary by email about this book and her latest projects.

Q: I loved the central conceit of The Walkable City: The great urban reconstructor, Baron Haussmann, and the independent urban thinker, Jane Jacobs, joined in a sort of ambulatory conversation with author and readers about what makes a city walkable – and, by extension, liveable. How did you hit on this idea?

A: Well, I guess I like mixed-media. What I mean by that is I write non-fiction using narrative techniques, and fiction with a strong dose of concrete observation. My two other non-fiction books (Recreating Eden: A Natural History of Botanical Gardens and Green City: People, Nature and Urban Places, both from Véhicule Press) use the device of taking the reader various places to consider aspects of the places in order to talk about history, science, philosophy, urban affairs and so on.

But been-there-done that: this time I didn’t want to do the same thing, and when I discovered that Haussmann had written extensive memoirs and that Jane Jacobs from early childhood held imaginary conversations with figures of the past, I began to wonder if I could take their own words and imagine what they might say to each other.

I’m glad you liked the idea, because I do too. But of all the aspects of the book, it is the one that has prompted the most criticism. Apparently you either love the conceit or you loathe it.

Q: The trope of the walk is a common one in the personal essay – as is the imaginary conversation with a respected (or despised) figure from the past. In that sense, The Walkable City is an extended essay, or an essayistic book. Thoughts?

A: That kind of categorizing doesn’t really interest me. The book is what I consider simply creative non-fiction. And that’s a very useful concept.

Q: The Walkable City is also an unusual sort of travel book, showing us sides of glamorous destinations, such as Paris, that we might not have known, and illuminating corners of our own front and back yards. How many kilometres do you think you walked, in researching the book?

A: Lots. I know that on my last trip to Paris where my cousin Cathy Retterer joined my husband and me for two weeks, one morning she said: “Okay, that’s enough. Do you think we could not walk four hours today?”

Q: How does this book build on or expand from your previous work?

A: The book is the direct outgrowth of my previous work. A lot of the traveling was undertaken for my other books. I went to Singapore and Paris originally for Recreating Eden, to East Africa for my novel The Violets of Usambara (Cormorant Book, 2008) and São Paulo, Brazil for Green City. Each of these projects led me deeper into reflection about the relation between humans and their surroundings, both natural and constructed. The Walkable City was the next step in trying to make sense of how we live, and how we ought to live.

Q: What was your biggest challenge in writing the book?

A: I think coming up with a narrative device that would carry the weight of my reflection. This is a book (like all my books) that is designed to entertain an intelligent reader while encouraging him or her to consider some pretty tough questions. A lot of research lies behind it, but I wanted to make it fun to read, so that ordinary folk—not just urban planning wonks – would find it interesting.

Q: What was the biggest joy?

A: Oh dear, oh dear! There were so many! Probably the realization that what I’d been living in Montreal and liking about some other cities all my life had a cause: their organization on a human scale based on what is called these days “active transportation.”

Q: What are you reading now?

A: La Traversée de la ville by Michel Tremblay (part three of his trilogy about his mother), The Mystery of Samba by Hermano Vianna (see below) and The Best American Short Stories of 2009 (not the best year, to my mind, which reflects more on the choice of the editor than the stories available for selection. Alice Sebold is the editor this time around, and her taste is not mine.)

Q: What’s your next project?

A: Well, there are two. One is a novel I’ve just sent to a possible publisher. It’s called River Music, and is about three generations of women: the grandmother is a pianist, the daughter is an engineer and the granddaughter is a harpsichordist. The time runs from 1935 to Dec. 6, 2009, and I hope in addition to a good story, the novel says something about North American women over the last 75 years.

The second, called Making Waves: The Portuguese Adventure, is a direct outgrowth of my three non-fiction projects, although it doesn’t seem so at first glance. During the travel I did for them and for Violets, I kept running into the footprints they left—in Brazil, of course, but also in East Africa, the West coast of India, and Singapore as well as other places. Then I began thinking about the Portuguese kids I grew up with in San Diego, whose families had come from the Azores and Madeira to fish tuna off California, the Portuguese sailing ship we saw in 1972 in St. John’s Newfoundland (one of the last of white fleet cod fishers) and the 40,000 people of Portuguese descent in Montreal. In short, I was bowled over by the worldwide legacy of this small nation on the edge of Europe.

A great deal of research and some more travel followed, and I’m now revising a manuscript for Véhicule Press which is scheduled to publish the book next fall. Although I picked up enough Portuguese on my own to be able to read newspapers, magazine articles and history, I ran into a wall, trying to speak it, so this winter I’ve been taking an intensive course at the Université de Montréal. So I’ll sign off, and get back to the oral presentation on Brazilian singer/songwriter/novelist/dissident Chico Buarque that’s due for Monday.

Mary Soderstrom is a Montreal-based writer of fiction and non-fiction. She is the author of three works of non-fiction, two short story collections, five novels and one children’s book. In addition over the years she has done a wide variety of reporting on science, urbanism, politics and writing.

Her most recent non-fiction book The Walkable City: From Haussmann’s Boulevards to Jane Jacobs’ Streets and Beyond is a follow-up to Green City:   People, Nature and Urban Places (both from Véhicule Press) which was named one of The Globe and Mail’s Best 100 Books of 2007. Her most recent novel, The Violets of Usambara, which takes place in Burundi and Montreal, was published in Spring 2008 by Cormorant Books. Here’s her blog.

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