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Claire Cameron: ‘I’d want to try eating mammoth’

Claire Cameron is the author of the best-selling novel The Bear.

Claire Cameron is the author of two previous novels including The Bear, which was a national bestseller and was long-listed for the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction. Cameron, who lives in Toronto, has also written for The New York Times, Salon and The Millions, where she is a staff writer. Her third novel, The Last Neanderthal, was just published by Doubleday Canada.

Why did you write your new book?

In 2010, a team mapped the first draft of the Neanderthal genome. They learned that many people of European and Asian descent have between 1- and 4-per-cent Neanderthal DNA. Not only were Neanderthals much closer to us than we previously thought, but also we interbred with them. That got me interested: How did Neanderthals and modern humans make contact? I started reading the research for answers, but juicy details were missing. This was for good reason. The artifacts and DNA only tell us so much. A scientist can't speculate too far beyond the available evidence. A novelist, on the other hand, is the right person to take the risk of allowing her imagination to wander.

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Which historical period do you wish you'd lived through?

It may sound obvious, but I would want to be alive in the time of the Neanderthals. Specifically, I would camp near a family of Neanderthals to hear if they speak. I wrote a glossary of words for my Neanderthals to help me build an understanding of their world, but living in that time would allow me to test my theories. If they could talk, I would try to sidle up and learn their language. That is the best way to understand how a different culture frames their world view. Also, I'd want to try eating mammoth.

Whose sentences are your favourite?

There is a generation of writers around my age who owe so much to Barbara Gowdy. Among us there's a kind of reverence for her work because she opened a new range of possibilities. The first book I read of hers was We So Seldom Look on Love in 1992. Take a sentence like, "I've seen cadavers shining like stars." It brims with possibility and she conveys an extraordinary point of view, all in six crisp words. I wrote four drafts of my Neanderthal novel before I nearly gave up. I couldn't find the voice, meaning I couldn't take the leap of empathy required to bring them to life. My mom suggested that I reread The White Bone, Gowdy's novel about the inner life of elephants. It starts with the line: "If they live long enough they forget everything." When I read it, I understood that she captured an entire life outlook in one sentence. It's brilliant. I finished her novel and immediately sat down to write what became the first line of The Last Neanderthal: "They didn't think as much about what was different." I couldn't have done it without Gowdy's prompt.

What's the best death scene in literature?

It's in a novel called Stoner by John Williams. It was written in 1965 and Stoner is the last name of the main character, rather than anyone at the vanguard of legalizing anything. It's the story of an ordinary boy who is born on a farm in Missouri. He becomes a middling academic, gets married, has an affair with a student, does a few other things and then dies. I promise I did not just spoil the plot, the first page tells you this much. Over the next 200-odd pages, Williams slowly builds a picture of a life that feels like everything and nothing at once. The last 50 pages are the closest I've ever come to what it might feel like to die.

Is there a book you consider a guilty pleasure?

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I love The Dirt by Mötley Crüe. A different member of the band writes each chapter in turn. As the story progresses, a few start reading each other's chapters and angrily refuting each point of view. I'm not even sure if it's a guilty pleasure, because it is a great use of form to illustrate the thesis of the book, that they are all "completely compelling and utterly revolting." Maybe it's a kind of masterpiece.

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