by Brad Mackay
Sheila MacLeod Arnopoulos is known for a few words of advice she has uttered, mantra-like, to journalism students for years now: "Get published."
For almost 20 years, she has enthusiastically encouraged her students who manage to find a home for their work beyond the classroom. Recently, students, friends and colleagues returned the favour, as they gathered at a downtown bookstore to celebrate her own publishing coup, her first novel, Jackrabbit Moon.
As the throng of well-wishers jammed the aisles of the Paragraphe bookstore, Arnopoulos, an accomplished investigative journalist and author of two non-fiction books, one of which won a Governor-General's Award, reflected on her new venture into fiction.
"The first two books were a piece of cake compared to the novel," she said. "This was much harder, because you have to enter characters and live in their world."
The world she has conjured for Jackrabbit Moon is rife with sleazy strip bars, brutal prison violence, abusive bikers and petty crime.
It's the type of world that she knew from her 12 years as a reporter for the now-defunct Montreal Star, where she investigated the lives of the working poor, particularly labour conditions in sweatshops and the struggles of immigrant women in the rag trade. She won a National Newspaper Award in 1969 for a groundbreaking series in which she worked under cover in a Montreal clothing factory.
She has always yearned to convey the everyday complexities of life for the working poor, who are often harshly judged by both the general public and journalists.
"We tend to live in a very class-oriented society, even though we don't like to think of ourselves that way. We really do," she said. "We segregate ourselves by education and profession, but the types of human connections that people can sometimes make can be across all those kinds of lines, and I wanted to explore that. I mean, we're all human beings."
She set out to research places that most people go to lengths to avoid. She frequented strip clubs, talked with prisoners and prison workers, and even took a wild ride on a biker friend's motorcycle, all to better understand her characters and their motivations.
Jackrabbit Moon weaves these rich threads of experience into a bracing tale of crime and punishment, and how the two can become distorted by the media's glare. An accomplished female reporter and a trouble-plagued street youth strike up an unlikely courtroom alliance that takes dark and astonishing turns.
Writing a novel gave Arnopoulos the opportunity to experiment with her writing. "I wanted a way to make people feel something differently," she said, "I think that journalism is great -- I love it -- but with fiction, you can explore things and create complex characters. That's harder to do in journalism."
The result of her decade of research, rewrites and polishing is now available on bookstore shelves around the city.
Photo: Sheila MacLeod Arnopoulos will read from her novel Jackrabbit Moon at the downtown Chapters Bookstore at 1171 Ste. Catherine Street W., Tuesday, April 25, at 7 p.m.
Copyright 2000 Concordia's Thursday Report.