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A Sexy Aging Actress Takes Refuge in ‘Snow Road Station’ and Reconnects With a Childhood Friend

In a Q&A, Canadian author Elizabeth Hay talks about Samuel Beckett's play 'Happy Days,' female friendships and the sensual nature of trees / BY Kisha Ferguson / April 13th, 2023

In Snow Road Station, life imitates art for middle-aged actress Lulu Blake. The story starts after she takes on the role of Winnie in Samuel Beckett’s play Happy Days, about a woman who is buried up to her neck in sand. Not long into the play’s run, Lulu comes apart at the seams and forget her lines. Seeking the “welcome salvation of the sugar bush,” Lulu flees to her brother’s farm in northeast Ontario’s Lanark Highlands, where she spent time as a child, and where she rekindles her relationship with her childhood friend, Nan, whom she hasn’t seen in 25 years.


Elizabeth Hay


Throughout the novel, old flames reappear and old wounds reopen, with Elizabeth Hay setting the drama in the vortex of a family saga she introduced to readers in her 2015 novel, His Whole Life. While that book focused on the unbreakable bond between Nan and her son, Snow Road Station hones in on the lifelong friendship between Nan and Lulu. In the novel, families blend and break, are at times fruitful and at others dead and dry, like the forests of maple trees that are such a crucial part of the book’s narrative.

In a phone interview from her home in Ottawa, Hay explained why she chose the role of Winnie for her main character, the freedom to be gained by letting go of some  and why trees are sometimes a metaphor for life.

Kisha Ferguson: Thank you very much for taking the time to speak to me about your new book. I absolutely loved it.

Elizabeth Hay: Oh, did you? Why?

KF: Why do you sound surprised?

EH: It’s welcome news, you know, a new book. There’s an element of dread about how it’s going to be received. So, it’s great to hear that you enjoyed it.

KF: Your earlier books have been well received. Was there a reason why you were worried about this one? Or is it just a general author dread?

EH: That’s general author dread. You work on something, finally it gets published and there you are exposed. You don’t know what’s coming around the corner. Some of it’s good, some of it’s not. So, I have to say it doesn’t actually get easier.

KF: I was going to ask you if it got easier.

EH: It’s not that you don’t have fears when you’re young, but the old nerves are just a bit more tender, I think.

KF: We were introduced to these characters in His Whole Life. Why did you bring them back to life?

EH: When I finish a book, I’m more than happy to say goodbye, and the idea of having to revisit the book and find a new form for the characters seems inordinately hard. At the same time, over the years as I’ve written novels, I’ve been always hungering to bring some of the characters back, to find out where they are now, even just a cameo appearance in the next novel. And I’ve never managed to do it. I’ve tried, but it’s never worked. It’s always been too artificial. In this case, my British publisher said to me, after His Whole Life was published, “You know, I love Lulu and I’d like to have more of her.” And, I just thought, oh, God, not more work. But then we were talking, and I mentioned Snow Road Station, and he said, “Now that’s a great title.” So I got off the phone with him, and I thought I’d rather slit my throat than have to embark on another novel with these same characters, even though I love Lulu, too. Sometimes when you say, “Absolutely no, I can’t do this,” some little window opens, and I thought, he’s right. So I’ve got the title, I have the main character, Lulu, and things suddenly seem possible instead of impossible.

KF: How did your personal relationship to the characters change between the two books. 

EH: Initially, I thought since His Whole Life focuses on a mother and son — on Nan and Jim — this book will focus on Lulu and her relationship with the estranged son, Blake. It took a lot of thinking, reworking and help from my terrific editor to realize that no, in fact, the real relationship here is the friendship between Lulu and Nan, between the two older women.

KF: Why did you put their relationship to such a hard test?

EH: That’s what you want in a novel. You want a source of tension and something that’s unresolved, something the characters need to work through — either successfully or unsuccessfully. The friendship between these two women means a great deal to them, and they don’t want to lose it. They’re kind of stunned and marvelling that they found each other again after this gap of 25 years, because they were so important to each other when they were girls. But nothing is simple and any long friendship will have difficult terrain to navigate. I think sometimes in friendships we’re close to each other. The friendship is intimate. That doesn’t mean that you don’t have doubts about each other or don’t say things about each other that you wouldn’t say to [their] face. And then, if one of those wounding things comes back and you hear it third hand, it’s unsettling. How do you get beyond and see things in a larger way so that the actual friendship can endure?

KF: One of the things I found really fascinating was how Lulu is haunted off stage by the play. She sees the ghost of Beckett everywhere. Why did you pick the role of Winnie in Happy Days for her?

EH: It’s the kind of role an actor can’t say no to. So, in saying yes to this massive role, for which she has too little time to prepare, she discovers just how complicated it is to get what you want. Because, again, then what? You’ve got it, now can you actually do it? Can you pull it off? The character of Winnie in Happy Days is being buried alive. I keep thinking about how hard, funny, bleak and prescient [Beckett was] in his writing, because he puts Winnie in this extreme situation. But in trying to embody her and perform her, so is Lulu in this extreme situation. And it’s what happens when things unravel on you? How do you keep going? At the heart of Beckett, failure was sort of his main subject matter. And there’s Lulu enacting a woman who’s losing her memory and loses faith in herself on stage. And so you’ve got this double unraveling — a story within a story — that’s happening. Just as Winnie has to carry that play on her back, because it’s essentially a one-woman show, so Lulu actually carries this book on her back.

KF: Lulu describes herself as an aging actor looking for love. Do you think there’s a stigma around seeking love later in life, and even more so when it comes to older people and sex?

EH: When you’re young and you look at older people who continue to seek love, I think you find them pathetic.

KF: I don’t, I think it’s lovely …

EH: I’m all for it! I love the fact that Lulu hasn’t given up on that, and she’s a very physical creature. That’s one of the things that makes her a good actor. She’s in her body and she’s not afraid of physical love. In fact, she’s hungry for it. There’s a lot of opportunity there for drama when you’ve got what I think of as a sexy, older woman who’s vulnerable, and somewhat reckless and confident in her physical needs. When you’ve got a character like that, you’ve got the opportunity for drama and trouble.

KF: One of the things I noticed in the book is a slightly erotic quality to the trees. There are references to pregnant maples and flowing sap. Do you see the wilderness in general as an erotic space?

EH: Absolutely. There’s certainly a physical and a sensual aspect. The first time this thought occurred to me, about the sap flowing in trees and what that really meant as they come back to life, was years ago when a friend used the expression that “in the spring, the trees are excited.” Something that’s gone dormant over the winter suddenly flows again with life. When we go out into nature, we’re part of the flowing life and we come alive. So I very much wanted that sensuous — erotic if you like — colouring to be in the book.

KF: There was one paragraph that really struck me. “Then the further thought sank in that everything around her had been swung at or chopped down at one time or another. And that living in the woods helped you get used to things being over because you were closer to the living truth that soon they would be gone.” My first reaction to that was it’s a bit doom and gloom. But then I went back and reread it, and I found there was something really refreshing in looking at things that way.

EH: To me it’s just realism. You may have trees around you, but they replace the trees that were cut down before. And you’re part of life coming and going, and you’re going, too.

KF: Another passage I fell in love with was: “Older women, especially fall in love with rivers, gardens, houses, cottages, cabins, legs, shedding their leafy unlovely earlier lives. A place that must have had bigger plans for itself in the beginning, now seemed happy in its modesty of a field flower.” Is that how you see aging — as becoming content with the way things are as opposed to the way we think they should be?

EH: If you can take that on as a kind of wider acceptance of where you are now in your life, it’s relaxing. In the book, Lulu doesn’t want to give up. She’s never given up. But then she arrives at a place where she can see that, in not giving up, there’s room for giving up a certain number of things. What happens then is that the world opens up a bit for her. She’s not so fixated on what she’s always been doing, which is acting, looking for roles and seeing herself only in that way. I think there can be expansiveness in a certain amount of giving up, even as you keep going.

KF: Do you think you’ll give these characters a third act?

EH: Well, have you got a title for me? It’s tremendously helpful to have a title. When I’ve written books in the past, I’ve either had a title right away or it’s taken me forever to find one. If you have a title right away, it’s like an anchor and you’re not so adrift in this ocean of not knowing what you’re doing. But I’m glad you would like to hear more.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.


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