This was the question posed to me this week by the lovely writer Erin Thomas. Today on her blog, she’s posting an interview with Marthe Jocelyn about Marthe’s new book Scribbling Women, and as a lead-up, Erin wanted to include a few blurbs from authors she knew about the scribbling women who had inspired us. Immediately, I thought of Miss Hurka.
Miss Hurka was a boarder who lived in the attic apartment of my grandmother’s house. She had lived there before I was born and was still living there when I went away to university. Every few years she’d announce that she wasn’t paying us enough and raise her own rent. My grandmother, who wasn’t afraid of anyone, was a little afraid of her.
Miss Hurka had been a dietician during WWII and, after that, the private secretary to a famous poet. Now she was retired and writing a novel. I would hear her old typewriter late at night as I was going to sleep.
In High School, a girl on my block told me that she and her siblings had thought Miss Hurka was a witch for most of their childhoods. This was probably because Miss Hurka always wore black and took long walks while scowling. Writers will suspect what those long, scowling walks were really about. I do it myself now. I think she was unraveling novel problems.
As a child, I found Miss Hurka fascinating. Although my grandmother was always telling me not to bother her, about once a week I would call up the stairs and ask if I could come up for a visit. Miss Hurka was always more than happy to feed me dry cookies and tell me highly age-inappropriate stories.
And what wonderful stories she told: stories about growing up in Cedar Rapids Iowa, stories about the famous poet and how drunk he could get (very), and stories about the many ghosts that had appeared to her over the years. (One, which she saw while visiting Czech Republic, had identified himself as “The Knight of the Lemons.”)
But the story she told over and over again, the story which was, I believe, the topic of her novel, was the grand passion she’d had during the war with a married man. It had all the elements of epic melodrama. He could never divorce his wife because she was “an invalid.” The affair lasted many years, during which time they would meet in a hotel in New York City. But Miss Hurka finally ended it when the married man took Richard Nixon’s side during Watergate.
(I did not make that up.)
As far as I know, Miss Hurka never published her novel, but the portrait in my mind of what it means to be a writer will always be a little coloured by her.
From her I learned that writers should be unconventional, take long walks, have grand passions, and, most importantly, that they should talk to children as if they were equals, because those children’s will grow up to thank them heartily for it.
And now I throw Erin’s question back to you:
Is there anyone whose books you loved? Anyone whose diary prompted you to pick up a pen? Anyone in your family, maybe, or someone you knew growing up, who loved books and encouraged you to write?