Interview with Quebec bookseller Billy Robinson

This belongs to 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. Billy Robinson is a bookseller at La Librairie de Verdun in Montreal. Originally from the Gaspé Peninsula, he is a keen reader of Quebec fiction and an active blogger. His recommendations on Goodreads (and elsewhere) are always worth following.

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What is your relationship to Quebec writing?

I’ve worked in a bookstore for 5 years now. I’ve always read a lot (my dad was a school principal and we always had lots of books at home). But since I started working in a bookstore, I’ve fallen head over heels for Quebec literature. I quickly realized there are hundreds and hundreds of books that come out every month. My job introduced me to these riches and I dived right in. Over the years, my experience of and growing passion for Quebec literature led me to work with Québec Édition, an organization that helps promote Quebec literature at book fairs around the world. I’ve been able to share my discoveries and knowledge of Quebec literature in cities like Brussels and Geneva. It’s been quite the privilege!

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

I don’t like saying a certain literature is like this or like that — clichés are hard to avoid. But what I do love about Quebec literature is that it’s often very close to the world we live in and how we are. Even when events are taking place a world away or in an altogether imaginary world, there is a closeness in the writing, the words that are used, often imbued with a sensitivity and an openness to the other. I also get the impression that we’re often staving off invasion. We feel the need to stand out. It’s in our genes, I think!

What excites you most in a book?

The emotional experience. Feeling moved, being left a little shaken… I like voices that are unlike any other, voices that stand out, that have a style all their own. That’s why I love reading first novels. I enjoy being surprised, making discoveries.

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

I think Quebec literature has dozens and dozens of books that everyone should read! I worked in a campus bookstore and I see lots of these books go by… On the other hand, I find that too few Quebec novels end up on teaching programs. Fortunately, there are teachers who are brave enough to add new titles to their lesson plans and get students reading books from Quebec! It should start in elementary school, if you ask me! When it comes to the most important novels in Quebec literature, I have plenty of catching up to do myself! Of those recommended to me by friends who are booksellers, teachers, and readers, I was blown away by Gaétan Soucy’s La petite fille qui aimait trop les allumettes [The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches, translated by Sheila Fischman] and recently I read Comment devenir un monstre by Jean Barbe. But you should see my list!

What are some of your favourite pieces of Quebec writing?

Many of my favourite Quebec authors are contemporaries and belong or almost belong to my generation. Their writing could easily strike a chord with new readers in another language, because of the original stories they’re telling and because of their themes and styles. I’m a big fan of the writing of Jean-Simon Desrochers, Karoline Georges, Audrée Wilhelmy, and Ariane Gélinas. Their stories are unusual; they shake things up. I’m completely addicted to the talented and prolific Simon Boulerice and the atmospheric novels of François Gilbert. I also really like the exciting, cinematic world of Martin Michaud. And I’d add anything written by Félix Leclerc and the poetry of Alfred Desrochers! I’m not sure how many of them have been translated — although Sous béton by Karoline Georges (Alto) has been — but they all should be!

What is one of your favourite books from Quebec?

My favourite Quebec novel is probably La petite et le vieux by Marie-Renée Lavoie (XYZ)! It’s a touching novel that takes place in the Limoilou neighbourhood in Quebec City in the 1980s. It’s all very simple but full of passages that make you break into a smile or that tug at the heart strings.

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?

Now we’re talking! Without a doubt, I’d suggest L’Avalée des avalés by Réjean Ducharme [The Swallower Swallowed, translated by Barbara Bray] or La fiancée américaine [Songs for the Cold of Heart] by Eric Dupont… Or Le désert mauve by Nicole Brossard [Mauve Desert, translated by Susanne de Lotbinière-Harwood], Kamouraska by Anne Hébert [translated by Norman Shapiro], Nikolski by Nicolas Dickner [translated by Lazer Lederhendler]… And come back and see me once you’re done with that!

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All of is moving to Medium, starting this fall. | Québec Reads brings the best of Québec literature to the English-speaking world.

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