Anyone who lived in Toronto in 2013 remembers the ice storm of that winter, which brought the city to its knees. It's against this dramatic backdrop that celebrated writer Elizabeth Ruth's new novel Semi-Detached (Cormorant Books) opens, with the book's protagonist, a realtor named Laura, attempting to sell a strange house amidst the chaos as its owner lies comatose.
Navigating stories of home, disaster, and forces we can't control (from weather to fertility to love), Semi-Detached is urgent and deeply human storytelling from a writer whose singular voice transports readers from the first page. As Laura digs into her silent client's past, her investigating takes her back to another historic Toronto storm, that of 1944. As she discovers things not only about the homeowner, a woman who navigated queer love in unforgiving mid-century Toronto and paid a great price, she is forced to face truths about her own life, from the loss of her mother to her crumbling marriage. As all this goes on, a ghost-like character emerges in the form of a mysterious teenage girl with a tiny dog and a desire to enter Laura's life.
Ruth, a decorated novelist and writing instructor, has turned in an atmospheric, intelligent, and moving work in Semi-Detached. We got to speak with Ruth about the heart of the book and how it came to be as part of our interview series for novelists. She told us about the strange beauty of the historic storm and how she was drawn to write about it, how and why she identifies with her characters who are "straddling worlds", and the story behind the poignant Carol Shields epigraph she chose for Semi-Detached.
Do you remember how your first started this novel or the very first bit of writing you did for it?
Yes. In 2013 Toronto experienced an ice storm that literally encased the city. Homes lost power. Roads weren’t safe. Parks were closed. Large trees were split, their branches snapping and dropping to the ground. Despite the hazards, the ice storm was compelling, and I was drawn to be outside. My family and I took our dog to walk at the Evergreen Brickworks. The t path was taped off, signs warning it wasn’t safe. We ignored the warnings. I’ll never forget that walk because every tree and shrub, every surface as far as the eye could see, was glistening. We were the only people there. It was silent, except for the sound of our footsteps crunching snow, and branches and twigs snapping under the weight of ice. There was a magical, storybook feel to the place. It was on that walk that I was overcome with inspiration to write Semi-Detached.
How did you choose the setting of your novel? What connection, if any, did you have to the setting when you began writing?
I don’t think I consciously chose the setting. It would be more accurate to say it chose me. Ice is full of dramatic possibilities. It’s perilous and powerful and seems to freeze time. However, I did consciously choose to stay close to home with this novel, unlike my last one which was set in Spain. I live in the east end of Toronto where the mad pace of downtown and of the west end, isn’t as frenetic or palpable. I walk the same streets described in Semi-Detached. I feel the history of this place beneath my feet. My imagination is fuelled by connecting intimately with characters and inhabiting their worlds as best as I can. In the east end, I’m able to easily access the natural world through our ravines and park system, and by walking to the lake. My love for the city should be evident on every page.
Did you find yourself having a "favourite" amongst your characters? If so, who was it and why?
This is hard to answer because of how I view the novel writing process. For me, writing is about expansion and contraction. There are months of filling myself up with ideas, researching, questions, and then subsequent months of isolation trying to answer those questions. I try to become my characters psychologically, almost like a method actor might. Once I’ve connected with the people internally, I can squeeze out their story. It often feels that I’ve wrung the characters out of every cell of my body. In this way, they’re connected, even as they’re also wholly invented individuals.
Semi-Detached features a girl with a puppy straddling two time periods, trying to find her way home. I identify with her. Then, there’s my real estate agent, Laura. She’s dealing with infertility and grief. I know what that feels like. In the 1944 storyline there’s Eddie, the only woman working in a brick pit. Eddie falls passionately, dangerously in love with someone forbidden, according to class and gender regulations of the time. Like Eddie, I’m queer in a straight world, female in a world where men still hold more power. I grew up feeling “half” Jewish. I was raised by a single mother without money. I know something about straddling worlds. In Semi-Detached there’s also a cast of minor characters who play a major role. I connect with each one psychological or emotionally. Who do I like best? How can I pick?
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If you had to describe your book in one sentence, what would you say?
Semi-Detached is a highly atmospheric novel with a propulsive plot – part love story, part ghost story, part mystery – and a cast of unforgettable characters who lead readers through a meditation on love, life, and the meaning of home.
Did you do any specific research for this novel? Tell us a bit about that process.
In Semi-Detached I created two worlds, in different time periods, in the same neighbourhood. Twice as much research! I dug up information about the brick pits that once lined Greenwood Avenue, researched east end Toronto during the 1940’s. I took a walking tour of Leslieville with historian Joanne Doucette, interviewed realtors so my protagonist could be written with authenticity. I visited the ArQuives, to read about the lives of LGBTQ people in Toronto, 1925-1945. I learned colloquialisms and speech manner from the 40’s so my dialogue would ring true. Online I researched clothing during wartime, what public transit and storefronts looked like? Was there a bowling alley in the east end in 1944? What business operates in that space today? At the City of Toronto Archives, I combed through old photographs of houses. How was antisemitism expressed during the war years? What were early birth control reformers up to? I researched a female ornithologist with ties to the ROM, and the history of the Bain housing co-op, where a character lives, and where I lived for 8 years. I researched both the 2013 ice storm and the 1944 winter blizzard, Toronto’s worst weather events. I consulted a lawyer. In the end, what I left in the final book is a fraction of what I learned. My hope is that enough detail was absorbed by me to fold naturally into the story and create a believable world for readers to enter.
Did you include an epigraph in your book? If so, how did you choose it and how does it relate to the narrative?
I quoted the late, great Carol Shields, from an interview she gave in 2022 in The Guardian. The interview was especially poignant because she was speaking about finality, knowing that she had advanced breast cancer, the disease that would take her life the following year. The epigraph says: “Having one foot in one world, and the other in the real one. For me, endings are never really endings...”
Shields’ novel, Unless (2002) features a girl sitting at the corner of Bathurst and Bloor, and a love that is or isn’t enough to bring her home. I opened Semi-Detached with a different girl (Astrid) on a different corner (Greenwood and Gerrard) in the same city. As I was writing an early draft, I received a diagnosis of breast cancer. It was not lost on me that Unless turned out to be Shields’ last novel. My own novel was going to be written with a heightened awareness of mortality.
Writers work in conversation with other writers, living or dead. I’d long been influenced by Shields’ thoughts on coincidence in fiction. Over the years, she changed her traditional literary view that coincidence in stories was the mark of “bad” writing. Instead, she came to believe, as I do, that coincidence - serendipity, whatever we call it, should be represented in our stories because it exists in life.
Finally, the epigraph I chose for Semi-Detached speaks directly to the novel’s heart and soul. As one of my characters says: “love never dies, it merely changes form, like the weather.”
Elizabeth Ruth’s first novel, Ten Good Seconds of Silence, was a finalist for the Writers Trust of Canada Fiction Prize, the Amazon.ca Best First Novel Award, and the City of Toronto Book Award, and was named a top 10 book of the year by NOW Magazine, the Vancouver Sun, and the London Free Press. Smoke, her second novel, was chosen for the One Book, One Community program and also named a top 10 book of the year by NOW Magazine. She teaches creative writing at the University of Toronto and mentors within the Humber School for Writers Correspondence Program. In 2011, Ruth was appointed Writer In Residence for the Toronto Public Library. She is currently working across Canada, delivering professional development workshops to writers. For more information, visit her website at link: https://www.elizabethruth.com/