Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Dirty Dozen, with Cordelia Strube

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Cordelia Strube

Cordelia Strube — who has been called "a terrific novelist" and "a bitingly funny writer" — returns this season with her new novel, Milosz (Coach House Books).

Today we hear from Cordelia as part of our Dirty Dozen series, an unconventional interview that allows authors to share twelve unexpected facts about themselves. In this edition, Cordelia tells us about Harvey Keitel and onions, faking a British accent and where she got her 'e'.

  1. Emil Strub, the Swiss engineer who invented the Strub rack and pinion rail system to scale the Oberland Alps, was my great grandfather. I put an ‘e’ on Strub so people would call me ‘Strewb’ instead of ‘Struhb’. According to Wikipedia, Strub’s rack system “used a rolled flat-bottom rail with rack teeth machined into the head approximately 100 mm apart. Safety jaws fitted to the locomotive engaged with the underside of the head to prevent derailments and serve as a brake. The best-known use of the Strub system is on the Jungfraubahn in Switzerland.” The Jungfraujoch is an impossibly steep and treacherous mountain. It’s North Wall, the Eiger, is famous for killing climbers. Emil drove a tunnel through it. He also built the railway that climbs Mount Vesuvius. His rack system is still used today. Red-headed with a handlebar mustache, Emil achieved rock star status for conquering mountains. Unfortunately, it didn’t make him rich.
  2. I taught fitness for 17 years in health clubs through-out Toronto, and personally trained many Forest Hill and Rosedale inhabitants. I learned that money can’t buy you love, intelligence or wit.
  3. I waitressed in a chicken restaurant. All the chicken resto mishaps in my novel Dr. Kalbfleisch and the Chicken Restaurant are true.
  4. I taught self-defense to the editorial and administrative staff at Harlequin. The participants, all women, were timid and disbelieving that they could break a board with their bare hands. By the end of our sessions, they each broke a board.
  5. According to my daughter, I make “the best pies ever.” According to my partner, I make the best quiches.
  6. I worked as a show room model which sounds glam but isn’t. I was a walking mannequin, occasionally stuck by a designer’s pin.
  7. I acted for 7 years. Highlights included playing Viola in Twelfth Night and Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story. Lowlights included acting opposite Robert Reed (Dad on The Brady Bunch) in Blythe Spirit. The age difference was astounding but I was a ghost so nobody cared. Nightly I had to spray my hair silver.
  8. My B-movie and TV career was extensive. I fired guns while appearing with Harvey Keitel in Blindside who ranted steadily about his buxom co-star’s inability to remember her lines or hit her marks. She asked me for advice on how to cry in a scene. I suggested she think of something sad. The mischievous makeup crew urged her to put onions in her purse. A disgruntled Harvey was forced to sit in the back of a car, inhaling onion fumes for take after take. I waited for a real murder to take place. The makeup crew later warned me that Harvey was “hitting on every woman on the set.” I don’t think he hit on me, although my boyfriend told me I never noticed when men came on to me. I liked Harvey, even if he was a letch. He advised me to get out of Canada and go to New York if I was serious about acting.
  9. In Millennium I had a brief exchange with Kris Kristofferson who was shorter and slighter than he looks in movies. This didn’t dull his blue gaze which weakened my knees. He too suggested I go to the States if I was serious about acting. Turns out I wasn’t serious about acting.

  10. While hitch-hiking in Europe I met the daughter of a family friend of Tony Richardson, who directed Tom Jones. I tagged along to the medieval village he’d bought and renovated in the South of France. Dumbfounded by its beauty, I stammered about how extraordinary it was. Tony, sitting languidly by the pool nestled into a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean, shrugged and said, “I could be by the pool here or in L.A. It makes no difference.” Apparently wealth can blind.
  11. I worked with Bread and Puppet theatre in N.Y.C. manipulating eight feet tall marionettes. We were poorly paid and constantly hungry. I learned to savour steamed zucchini, and eggplant roasted over a gas burner.
  12. As a teen I got a gig as a special business extra bandaging Henry Fonda’s arm in a Canadian spinoff of The Towering Inferno. Shelley Winters, by then obese, squeezed into a lawn chair among us extras, holding forth about life and show biz. She told me to stay skinny and smile more. I stayed skinny but couldn’t get the smile thing going.
  13. I sold subscriptions over the phone for the Canadian Opera Company, faking a British accent and calling myself Mary. We were on commission and I did alarmingly well, experiencing a buzz every time I reached “the close” and requested a customer’s credit card number. My supervisor advised me that I had a big future in sales. For the first time in my life I realized I could make steady, decent money in a soul-destroying job. I’d always claimed I’d sell my soul if somebody wanted to buy it. Talk is cheap. I quit telephone sales for a acting job in a CBC series, For the Record, playing the side-kick of a crusty, old-style newspaper reporter.
  14. When I asked the writer why my character never contributed to the narrative and seemed extraneous, hanging around the newsroom making what were intended to be witty comments, he admitted that he’d only written the character after the producers noticed there were no female roles in the script. “You’re the token female,” he explained. The scarcity of good roles for women is what motivated me to start writing good roles for women. It’s my if-you-can’t-beat’em, do-something-else philosophy.

Cordelia Strube has won the CBC Literary Competition for her play Mortal and the Toronto Arts Foundation Protégé Award and she has been shortlisted for the Prix Italia and the Governor General’s Award. Her eight previous novels include Milton’s Elements, Dr. Kalbfleisch and the Chicken Restaurant, Planet Reese and Lemon, which was longlisted for the 2010 Scotiabank Giller Prize and shortlisted for the 2010 Trillium Award.

For more information about Milosz please visit the Coach House website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

Check out all the Dirty Dozen interviews in our archives.

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JF Robitaille: Minor Dedications


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