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Art as Refuge

October 20th, 2023 by An Interview with Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette

Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette is a screenwriter, director, and novelist. Along with eco-sociologist Laure Waridel, she is also the co-founder of Mères au front, a movement that brings together mothers and grandmothers aimed at protecting the environment and the future of their children. Committed and inspiring, she shares with us the results of her reflection on her creative process and the place of transformative encounters.

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Hello, Anaïs. What can you tell us about the role that stories play in your life?

Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette

“First of all, as a reader, fiction and essays have the effect of expanding me, making me broader. They reveal doors I have inside me, but which I wasn’t aware of until then. Some readings kick down a door or open other doors delicately, depending on the reading and the type of writer. There are pieces of me that had been dormant until then which are revealed by listening to certain voices. I love that. That also happens to me when I meet unique people, in the sense that encountering a work can easily be compared to meeting someone unique. These meetings can be remarkable, influencing the trajectory of my life, if I open myself up to them and allow myself to be porous.

“As an author, obviously, my work is born from a

desire to tell a story. And whatever story I tell, I always choose my subjects carefully, because I know they’ll live inside me in a deep and lasting way. I don’t write a book a week—nor a screenplay, for that matter—so I think about my subjects knowing that we’ll live together for a long time.

“ It’s always special to talk about the state of creation, because it’s so fragile and intimate. This is undoubtedly a very rare disposition, a quality of presence that is—again—very rare, very vulnerable. It requires an openness between yourself and your thoughts, defenseless, which doesn’t often happen in the ordinary world. On a daily basis, we’re rarely so directly connected to our essence. This is what makes writing so precious and special: the state of writing—especially literary—which is unlike almost anything else.”

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What, for you, are the essential elements for achieving this state of writing?

Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette

“It’s not something that can be forced. However, there are naturally favourable conditions. To write a novel… I make the distinction, because there’s something more mathe- matical and much less intimate about writing a screenplay. That doesn’t mean it’s easier to write, but let’s just say I don’t need the same introspection.

“So, to write a novel, normally, I need to isolate myself. I live life surrounded by people, I have three kids, my boyfriend is self-employed, and we don’t have a fixed schedule, so it’s necessary to find little pockets of time. I like to create writing residencies where I extract myself from my usual life, often in the country. I recently got into the habit of going to write near the river, because the St. Lawrence River inspires me, even if that’s not necessarily what I’m writing about. Its presence nourishes me a lot, in many ways.

“When I isolate myself, I don’t absolutely need to be alone; I can be surrounded by other people who have the same desire to create. What matters is silence, really just being alone with your thoughts. There can be ten people in the same house; everyone gets up early and starts creating while preserving their little bubble, then we meet up afterward to discuss.

“Nature is also essential to me, probably because I have a super lively urban life with lots of friends and lots of life around me. I think it’s a story of contrasts.”

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In your novels, you often put forward opposing subjects: death that is part of life, the need to stay or go, the extraordinary in the ordinary. Do you do this deliberately?

Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette

“I like thinking about humanity at its extremes. I get the impression that often (and I’m including myself in this), we take a shortcut and paint ourselves with a single colour, when I think we’re much more complex than that. Our extremes are revealed in relation to what we encounter, so we have to allow ourselves to encounter subjects, languages, and works that shake us up and take us to one extreme or the other. It would be really boring to boil ourselves down to either sweetness or wildness. What’s magnificent about human beings is that we’re inhabited by all these extremes, and often, when we write, we’re pushed to think about all that. If I’m writing Femme forêt or Femme fleuve, I quickly realize that beauty isn’t just soft and soothing; it’s also tragic and violent. What I find extraordinary in early childhood is that it’s not just comforting, but brutal; this little emerging life brings me right back to death. All this makes me take a step back from the human condition, and I find it fascinating to look at it through all these spectrums.”

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Freedom is another subject that dominates your stories. Would you say that among the jobs you do, one makes you feel freer than the others?

Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette

“Writing is the job where I feel freest. It’s peculiar, but I almost have an obligation for freedom in writing. That’s really been part of the fun since the beginning, even if I wrote things that could be difficult, such as in La femme qui fuit. [Note: This novel tells the story of Suzanne Meloche, her grandmother, who abandoned her children when they were very young.] I always try to have real pleasure when writing and real freedom to immerse my hands, yes, in reality, if reality inspires me, but to nourish myself totally and freely from my imagination and what life inspires me with. When you’re writing a book, it’s both the greatest risk, because there’s nothing to cover you and it’s just you and your words, but it’s also the greatest freedom.”

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You started writing novels later on in your career. How did that happen?

Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette

“I’ve been writing since I was very little. I’ve always loved writing, but really just for fun. My main job had always been, until very recently, a filmmaker. Lately, I say that I have two jobs, but I’ve only recently taken the second one up.

“It’s such a huge gift that people read me, that people are grateful for and pick up my words, that they understand me and follow me wherever I feel like taking them. There’s something overwhelming about that, because I need to write, so I would write even if people didn’t read me. But knowing that in addition, these words might resonate and register with readers, that they move certain things in them… The greatest and most moving testimonials I’ve received have been after books more than after films, although I also love my job as a filmmaker. In short, I feel like I’m still emerging as an author, while I’m in a more mature chapter—I would say—in my filmmaking career.”

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How do you see the future?

Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette

“I need to do both, which is pretty magnificent. It wasn’t calculated, but the two feed off each other. After going through the huge storm of a film, which is a a big adventure, galvanizing, and charged, what helps me find myself again and make what I’ve achieved stick (because I think we’re transformed from one creative adventure to the next) is writing. Writing allows me that introspection, to meet myself again each time. It’s super healthy, and I really love that, so I think I’ll never stop either one. It’s an intimate, personal, and even creative balancing act. The walls I encounter in films later serve as lessons for me in writing, and vice versa.”