Saying Prudence Emery has had a unique ride through life would be an understatement. Born in Nanaimo, British Columbia, she left behind her family and their expectations to attend art school in London, England, beginning a journey that would grace her with a treasure trove of incredible stories.
Many of them are included in her new book, Nanaimo Girl (Cormorant Books), a wildly-enjoyable memoir which tracks her family's history and her own fascinating twists-and-turns through the years: a job at Expo 67 in Montreal, rubbing shoulders with political and show-business A-listers while working at London's exclusive Savoy Hotel, and settling into life back in Canada as a respected film publicist.
For those interested in the tales, wisdom, and humour you can only acquire through eight decades on this planet, Nanaimo Girl should be on your to-read list.
We're thrilled to welcome Prudence to Open Book today, where she discusses stealing a lock of hair off an actual baron, why she prefers to write when she's tired, and what she's working on next.
How did your memoir project first start? Why was this the right time to tell your story?
My memoir started over dinner in Victoria at the Oak Bay Beach Hotel with a writer friend in November 2015. Apparently I mentioned that I was writing my memoirs. I do not recall this conversation. But my friend did. He alerted Cormorant Publisher Marc Côté who called me on December 9, 2015 to say he was interested. I could hardly say, “What memoir?” This was absolutely the right time to write my story as I am 83 years old. That means that my memoir is not only timely, but we know the ending.
Did your memoir change significantly from when you first started working on it to the final version? Was there anything that surprised you about the process?
My memoir did change significantly when my editor Barry Jowett pointed out that I wasn’t born until page 47. My initial idea was to write about my ancestors to show from where I evolved. I jettisoned the entire beginning and now I’m born on page 1 and again on page 3. (You can read the history of my ancestors on my website prudenceemery.com). What surprised me about the process was that by the time I’d finished writing, I had more insight into my parents than I ever did when they were alive.
What do you need in order to write – in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?
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In order to write I need a scratch pad on my bed so I can write down those elusive thoughts that go swish in the night. Another scratch pad by my phone and another by my computer. Scratch is the right word as it’s almost impossible to decipher my terrible writing. Then I need a lot of time to find the right scratch pad with the right information. I was going to say that having a clear head is an essential, but I discovered that words flowed more willingly if I was tired when I wrote. The barriers are down. Space was just sitting in front of my desk top computer.
Did you use any materials, documents, interviews, or other research that became part of the writing process?
At 80, no one’s memory is perfect. But I had help. While searching in a trunk for my father’s bugle from World War I, I discovered shoe boxes full of letters – some love letters to my mother from dad written in the 1930s; a couple to my father’s mother from the Western Front (WW1); others from myself to my family during my teens and adulthood. Plus, a collection of letters from my parents to me and some old love letters from boyfriends of yore. In those days, we actually hand-wrote long letters which served as the tree trunk to which I affixed the branches of my many tales. Old friends had kept some of my letters, which added to my archives. In essence I plagiarized myself. So, writing Nanaimo Girl was partly a matter of organizing the letters and interviewing friends. I also found a cache of newspaper clippings featuring interviews with me in The Globe and Mail on a film set in Toronto, and with the Canadian Press on the roof of the Savoy in London (see book cover) among others.
Did you experience any anxiety about making a part of yourself public in this way? If so, how did you or do you cope with the vulnerability of publishing a memoir?
I experienced a slash of guilt when I wrote about cutting a hank of hair from a baron in London at a wild dinner party in my youth. And slight guilt about some episodes of my sex life.
What are you working on now?
I’m making mini-movies on my iPhone such as “Cannabis 101 for Octogenarians”, a music video featuring the songs and voice of Briony Kemp-Griffin, and an illustrated children’s book about a dinosaur called "Bertie and His Best Friend Felix".
Prudence Emery was born in Nanaimo, educated in Vancouver, then lived in London, UK, and Toronto, before moving to Victoria, BC.