Interview with bookseller Marie-Hélène Vaugeois

This is the third in a series of interviews with people who are closely involved with Quebec literature on a daily basis. In the future, we hope to talk to more publishers, readers, bookstore owners, and translators to get a feel for today’s publishing scene in Quebec.

Born in 1968, Marie-Hélène Vaugeois has been closely involved with the world of books from an early age: her father is historian and publisher Denis Vaugeois, and her mother opened Librairie Vaugeois on Avenue Maguire in Quebec City in 1974. In other words, the bookstore was Marie-Hélène’s playground before becoming her workplace. She has been a bookseller for a number of years now, and also plays an active role on the book scene: She was a member of the selection committee for the Prix des libraires for six years. She was on the board of the Association des libraires du Québec for seven years, three of them as chair. And on May 12, 2014, she was given the ALQ’s Award of Excellence for her hands-on role as a bookseller.

What is your relationship to Quebec writing?

I have been a bookseller for close to thirty years, and I’ve had the opportunity to see Quebec literature evolve over all these years. At the start, people would turn their noses up at it a little, apart from a handful of very well-known authors, but now I’ve seen it back up where it belongs in the past few years. In my role as intermediary, today I can advise readers on a literature that I find to be rich and diverse.

What, if anything, would you say defines Quebec literature?

In the past few years, it has become more modern. After retreating into itself for a long time, today it’s more outward-looking. It still talks about Quebec and Quebecers, of course, but there’s nothing stopping the stories from being set anywhere around the world.

What excites you most in a book?

I like being carried off somewhere completely different, to places I’m less familiar with. I also like to learn everything by reading, which is why I like reading novels with a basis in reality.

What are some of the most important novels and books to come out of Quebec, in your view?

Anne Hébert’s work, Jacques Poulin’s, too. Two authors who lived in Paris and were long published by European publishers. In both cases, their work is profound, their writing impeccable. Michel Tremblay taught us to accept joual as a language. Gabrielle Roy, a real missed opportunity for me. One of my high-school teachers held her in such high esteem that he managed to rob me of any desire to read her. I hope I’ll be able to get over it one day. And not forgetting Philippe Aubert de Gaspé, one of the first Quebec novelists.

What are some of your favourite pieces of Quebec writing?

Le cœur de la baleine bleue by Jacques Poulin. I don’t know if it has been translated [it has: The Heart of the Blue Whale by Sheila Fischman] but many of Jacques Poulin’s novels have been translated and he himself is a translator. Un ange cornu avec des ailes de tôle by Michel Tremblay. That’s been translated [Birth of a Bookworm, by Sheila Fischman]. The 1984 trilogy by Éric Plamondon. That hasn’t been translated yet, but it shouldn’t be long. [Now available in Dimitri Nasrallah’s translation from Esplanade Books.] Interesting fact: the first pages of Volume 1, Hongrie-Hollywood Express, were written in English before being rewritten in French.

What is one of your favourite books from Quebec?

I’m going to cheat and talk about an Acadian book, Pour sûr by France Daigle [For Sure, translated by Robert Majzels]. It’s a very rich novel that can be read on so many levels. Basically it’s the story of a family living in Moncton. It’s also a treatise on Chiac. And most of all it’s all the digressions on all kinds of things that make it such a fascinating book. A real pleasure to read.

If you were to recommend that someone who has never read anything from Quebec pick up a book and start reading it today, which book would it be?

Ostende by François Gravel [translated by Sheila Fischman]. The novel tells the history of Quebec — and its footnotes — through the character’s life, as well as being the story of a man who becomes a bookseller. Doubly symbolic for me. Otherwise, of course, start with Volkswagen Blues by Jacques Poulin [translated by Sheila Fischman] or Le premier jardin by Anne Hébert [The First Garden, translated by You Know Who], an excellent way to discover Quebec City.

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