Between Heartbreak & Humour:
Kaye Miller in Conversation with Paul Ruban

Paul Ruban

Volunteer Kaye Miller talks with Paul Ruban, whose story "Stargazer," translated from the French by Neil Smith, appears in our spring issue #222. They discuss his upcoming novel, what a story can gain through translation, and writing from the perspective of a 60s “astrowife.”


Born in Winnipeg, Paul Ruban is a French-language author, screenwriter and literary translator. Crevaison en corbillard, his debut collection of short stories, received the 2020 Trillium Book Award. His French translation of Derek Mascarenhas' Coconut Dreams was a finalist for the 2022 John Glassco Prize. He splits his time between Canada and Germany.
[photo credit: Frank Schinksi] 

“Stargazer” is a wonderful story that balances humor and sentimentality with such deftness, due in large part to the narrator’s charming voice. How did it feel to write from the unique perspective of a 60s “astrowife,” and how did you come upon Louise’s voice?

Louise's character is loosely based on Louise Randall, the first wife of Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell. In his memoir, Mitchell tells of a sort of mystical epiphany he had after walking on the moon in 1971. In the weeks and months following his return to Earth, Mitchell became obsessed with learning about “cosmic consciousness,” parapsychology and Eastern religions. He fell so deep down the rabbit hole, that the husband Louise thought she knew became a total stranger to her. She filed for divorce the same year. This was the emotional entry-point to the story: that of a wife who no longer knows the man she married, even though she still loves him. It only felt natural, then, to tell the story through Louise's eyes.

Before charting the trajectory of Louise and Mitch’s relationship, “Stargazer” opens onto a fantastical dream scenario, which provides a surprising hook into the rest of the story. At what point in the writing process did you come upon this exciting opening? How do openings typically come to you?

I like using odd, striking images to pull the reader into a story. The opening dream sequence of Louise, bouncing on the moon to try to catch up with her spacesuit-clad husband—bouncing too, seemingly within arm's reach yet always elusive—seemed like a good visual metaphor to illustrate how Louise feels Mitch slowly slipping away from her. It also helped set the tone, somewhere between heartbreak and humour.

This story is refreshingly funny, not just in Louise’s witty narration, but also through the charming absurdity of Mitch’s wide-eyed love for space. As both a writer and translator, do you ever worry about how humour translates? What kind of extra challenges do you think it can pose?

I believe that humour is cultural, so I do worry about how it translates. Wordplays are notoriously tricky. Interestingly however, because this is a French story set in an English-speaking context (1960s-70s America), a part of me feels that the humour shines even brighter in its English version, especially in the nuances of suburban banter so wonderfully rendered by translator Neil Smith. It's a telling example of how the alchemy of translation sometimes operates. In her book on literary translation, Un bien nécessaire, Lori Saint-Martin argues that there are instances where an original text is enriched by its translation. I definitely feel this was the case here. Something was gained, and made to feel more authentic.

Though you are a translator yourself, this story is translated by Neil Smith. Do you ever translate your own (French-language) work to English? If so, when do you decide to do so yourself, versus having it translated by someone else?

I'm in sheer, dumbstruck awe of writers who translate their own work, like Nancy Huston or Italo Calvino. I could never do it. I'd pull out my hair and want to change and rewrite everything. I think you need a certain surgical distance to do it right. That, and it was a joy to have such a seasoned and masterful translator as Neil Smith go at it.

Not only are you an award-winning short fiction writer, with your debut short story collection, Crevaison en corbillard, having received the 2020 Trillium Book Award, but you are a screenwriter as well. With your work spanning all these different forms, I’d love to know what you are working on now!

One of the coals in the fire of which I'm particularly fond is Le parfum de la baleine, a novel which will be released in September by Flammarion Québec. It's the story of a blue whale that washes up on the beach of a luxury all-inclusive resort in the Caribbean. The rotting carcass gives off a putrid, god-awful stench that lingers in the air and just won't go away. It's an allegorical, “olfactory” book. That thankfully doesn't come with a scratch and sniff.


Kaye Miller

Kaye Miller

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