Wisdom of the Ages: 10 Questions with Author Katherine Ashenburg

Katherine Ashenburg

Photo: Joy von Tiedemann.

Katherine Ashenburg, 73, says her attention spans lasts about 10 years. She spent a decade as an academic, specializing in Dickens before becoming a CBC Radio producer for another decade, producing documentaries. After that, she was the Globe and Mail’s arts and books editor. Ashenburg has written five books including Going to Town, The Mourner’s Dance: What We Do When People Die and The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History, a history of personal hygiene.

Set in Sweden, Sofie & Cecilia is Ashenburg’s first novel and was chosen as Knopf Canada’s New Face of Fiction (making her the oldest debut author in their line-up). The novel is a story about a lifelong women’s friendship and is loosely based on the lives of artists Cal Larsson and Anders Zorn and their wives, the namesakes of the title, who were artists in their own right. “The third and final part of the novel is called ‘Red,’” explains the author. “That’s because I wanted to celebrate the way my two heroines blossom in old age.

Red stands for passion in work and love, the fulfilment of a slow-growing intimate friendship and glorious sunsets — in their last years, Sofie and Cecilia have them all.” Adds Ashenburg, “And I’m hoping for at least 10 years in my newest career as a novelist.”

What advice do you wish you’d given your 25-year-old self?
Ask more questions.

What advice would you give your 80-year-old self?
Enjoy all the adventures possible in this “if-not-now-then-when?” period.

What do you know for sure?
What the poet John Keats called “the holiness of the heart’s affections.”

What have you learned?
That every life, no matter how quiet it looks on the surface, is full of stories.

What will you never learn?
How to do more than half-a-dozen things on my cellphone.

Best piece of advice?
Always ask for more money. People don’t value what they get cheaply. (From
my practical, realist mother.)

Did it work?

What inspires you?
Reading great writers. And the looks on my grandchildren’s faces when I read to them.

The moment that changed everything?
When I learned that Sofie & Cecilia, my first novel, was going to be published.

Happiness is …
See above. Also, drinking my one-and-only cup of strong coffee early in the morning in my verdant garden.