New York-based author Sarah Weinman, who grew up in Kanata and graduated from Hillel Academy (now the Ottawa Jewish Community School) in 1993, returned to her hometown during a North American tour launching her latest book, The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel That Scandalized the World.
Weinman sat down with Carleton University English professor Dana Dragunoiu, an expert on Vladimir Nabokov and his 1955 novel Lolita, at the Sunnyside branch of the Ottawa Public Library on September 20. Weinman discussed her book – as well as Nabokov’s – took questions from Dragunoiu and from the audience, and signed copies of her book.
The Real Lolita focuses on the 1948 abduction of 11-year-old Sally Horner by a pedophile, who took her from New Jersey to California. Horner’s story inspired Nabokov’s Lolita, which is about a middle-aged literature professor who becomes sexually active with a 12-year-old girl, named Dolores Haze, after becoming her stepfather.
Weinman said she first started researching Horner’s story in 2013. The Real Lolita grew out of a 2016 article she wrote for the Canadian literary website Hazlitt, but, “I knew I wasn’t done and I had so much more to say than I could in 8,000 words.”
In her book, Weinman argues that the fate of Horner acts as a “master source” for Lolita, and Weinman told the audience that Horner is “stitched into the fabric of the novel, and not just as a parenthesis or afterthought.”
“Knowing about Sally Horner does not diminish Lolita’s brilliance or Nabokov’s audacious inventiveness, but it does augment the horror the novel captures,” she said. “What I was trying to get at was how these real and fictional narratives intertwined, and what can we see from the ways in which they connect to some larger purpose.”
Weinman’s book is also meant to support the charge that Nabokov “pilfered” from the Horner tragedy by “strip mining” her story to serve his creative purposes.
“If you fictionalize someone’s pain or take a real-life crime and turn it into fiction, the degree of difficulty in writing is so outstandingly high that you often see the fault lines in the transformation from life to art,” she said.
What attracted Weinman to writing crime stories was “trying to understand what people are capable of at their most extreme level,” she said in response to a question from the audience. “It’s like an abyss you can peer down into. It peers back up at you and you hope it doesn’t swallow you up,” she said.
Weinman was asked about her memories of Hillel Academy when she spoke with the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin after the event.
“What I mostly remember about Hillel was having so many great teachers; one of them is actually here tonight,” she said. “It was such a good grounding for what I eventually did, but as is often the case, you don’t realize what you learned in elementary school is a foundation for what you do later.”
Weinman said the overall message she is trying to get across in her book is that Sally Horner mattered and was a real person.
“There are so many girls and women just like her, and her story is almost like the enormity of the kind of trauma and abuse so many people endure,” she said. “We can’t fathom it in full, so to look at Sally’s story is a way to look at other people’s stories.”
As for the next story Weinman will be working on, she said she knows, “what my next project is – which I can’t reveal – but it is another true crime novel.”