Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

All Things Consoled: Elizabeth Hay in Conversation with Charlotte Gray


Memoirs, unlike autobiographies, provide writers with the opportunity to focus on specific themes through the lens of time, and thereby convey certain truths. Confronting these truths can be as frightening for the writer as for the reader, particularly when a book focuses on imperfect parents and families, memories, and grief. It takes courage to contemplate the lives of those closest to one’s heart with humour and candour, and only a courageous writer can evoke the tender grace of those lives nearing their end. When host Charlotte Gray asked Elizabeth Hay whether her parents would have liked the book, she replied without a moment’s thought “well, they’d be glad they’re dead.”


Hay opened the event by reading an excerpt about her parents as they neared the end of their long lives. However shrunken her elderly parents might have appeared to others, they were forever vivid giants in their daughter’s mind. Hay described her habitual walk to her ailing parents’ retirement home and contemplated the ways their arrival in Ottawa seemed to have changed its landscape. The city had collected layers of memories of her respectively bitter and befuddled parents: the dip in the sidewalk where her mother had stumbled, the boulder where they’d huddled together to rest, the trees whose names they tried to recall. Her words conveyed the peculiarity of those walks and the disorder of time—as she folded into her past, she simultaneously floated towards her future.


Hay is best known for fiction, including the best-selling Alone in the Classroom, the Scotiabank Giller Prize-winning novel Late Nights On Air, and three other award-winning titles: A Student of Weather, Garbo Laughs, and Small Change. When Gray, a biographer and historian, asked Elizabeth whether All Things Consoled was the most difficult book she’d ever written, Hay, without hesitation and likely to the surprise of many, said it was the easiest. Fiction is not real, Hay explained, so it feels as if nothing matters. Hay commented on the beauty of imagining the world from other people's points of view, and the lure of leaving oneself behind. In All Things Consoled, however, her parents are the main characters. In order to make the transition from daughter to author, Hay had to balance the raw emotion and pure affection of a child with writerly objectivity. Hay noted that she’d made several earlier attempts to write about her father, while he was still alive. When she discovered the material some years later, she found it narrow—she’d been angry and too self-absorbed. In order to revisit the material, she’d done her best to cut herself out of the book and step away from her pain.


Hay said that in our imaginations, we soothe ourselves. Yet she was unflinching—almost brutal—in her honesty around her new book. She didn’t hesitate to describe her relationship with her siblings, or her father’s temper, his melancholy, or the ways in which he instilled in her a tremendous fear. Hay’s portrayal of her mother was somewhat gentler: her mother had been a frugal person who studied nursing but wanted to paint, and eventually achieved her goal. While her mother lost some lucidity towards the end of her life, she was never unable to recognize Elizabeth, and always strove to make others happy.


The audience fell under Hay’s spell as she reminisced. Most were aware that Hay, in Gray’s words, “belongs to Ottawa” and were undoubtedly familiar with her tremendous body of work. At one point, Hay explained that her mother had said “I’ve had a good life, all things consoled.” Hay thought her mother had meant to say “all things considered,” but also thought she meant exactly what she had said. After this, questions from the audience didn’t touch on Hay’s writing routine or her sources of inspiration. The brave people who approached the microphone described their own struggles with unwell parents or sibling dynamics, and seemed to seek reassurance that they are not alone with their tribulations. The evening provided insight, solace and perhaps even consolation for difficult process of accompanying loved ones through the last days of life.