Q&A with Betsy Warland

August 21, 2016 | Victoria Festival of Authors | Q&A

Betsy Warland has published 12 books of poetry, creative nonfiction, and lyric prose, including her best-selling 2010 book of essays on writing, Breathing the Page—Reading the Act of Writing. Nancy Pearson spoke with Betsy about her latest memoir, Oscar of Between: A Memoir of Identity and Ideas.

NP: There are so many layers to Oscar of Between: A Memoir of Identity and Ideas that could take our conversation in many directions. There are two elements I would like to focus on to give the readers of this blog a sense of what they might experience when they read your memoir.

The first is why you chose to write it in third person. This is unusual for a memoir, and it has the effect for me of bringing two voices into this very intimate narrative: Oscar’s, and yours, as the omniscient narrator. How did you arrive at your decision to write the memoir in this way?

BW: It chose me. I was in the later stages of writing Breathing the Page and it’s been my practice as a writer to begin a new manuscript while I’m in the later stages of finishing one. When flying to London to celebrate my 60th birthday and I decided that I wanted to return to the form I had used in my memoir Bloodroot. Bloodroot is a book-length narrative based on lived experience that’s written in entries that vary in length and sensibilities (storytelling, poetry, dialogue). As I began to sense this new manuscript out, I realized I wanted to introduce one fictive device to make it more challenging and surprising this time. I had no idea what that fictive devise would be.

In London, I was struck by an insight while viewing the Camouflage exhibit [at the Imperial War Museum]. I knew this was the spark for my new manuscript. In tandem, I kept running into the name Oscar months before London and while there, and felt increasingly drawn to it. It’s an old-fashioned name so it was surprising that I kept running into it and decided to accept it as a second given name.

Oscar/she gave voice to another side of me. I’m still gaining deeper understanding about Oscar sharing the narration with Betsy. I now know that I couldn’t have been as honest if I had written it as Betsy in first person. It was imperative that the narrator be transparent given her deep concern about the connection between the military camouflage and its morphing into endless forms of deception that are fuelling an ever increasing fear and violence in civilian life.

Oscar named a significant part of myself (the between) that hadn’t had a name, and allowed that part of myself to come forward and connect with a wide variety of other persons of between. Residing in this narrative position was challenging and remarkable. I’ve come to think it’s misleading to assume that our goal as writers is to master the craft. I’ve come to understand that it’s more about our being mastered by the craft. Trusting it will show us which methods suit each narrative.

[At this point, Betsy turned the tables momentarily to ask me a question and asked me to include my answer here:

BW: Tell me, what was your experience of reading Oscar and the two voices?

NP: I found it fascinating. My mind was on both Oscar’s and Betsy’s stories, and also on the narrative in between, where I tried to bring the two together.]

NP: In this memoir you bring together your internal and external worlds to peel away the camouflage to reveal meaning and understanding. One example that comes to mind is the missing person posters in your neighbourhood and the ways in which these people were described on them. Can you speak a bit about the techniques you use in Oscar?

BW: Again, this is an example of when the writing got hijacked by a strong experience. Part 19 was originally a performance piece. When I’m describing the context of the experience, those are my words. All the other language was taken directly from the MISSING PERSON posters.

Post-Christmas, those poster photos were in such stark contrast to the massive number of photos we take of dear ones during the holidays. All the missing people were young and three out of five were from different racial descent. Noticing these missing young people while my adolescent son was by my side intensified the experience. I was also struck by the vocabulary and the way in which a person’s life can be compressed into banal details. It’s a genre of its own that I found very poignant and very distressing.

I wanted to keep the physicality of the way in which these posters appeared on the poles so I gave each person their own column on the page. And instead of telling it all at once, it kind of happens to you incrementally. It sort of sinks into you gradually. I wanted it to also happen that way for the reader. It starts out kind of innocuous – age, height, etc. But as you read more of the poster, the accumulative impact becomes more powerful.

In a sense, these missing individuals are the double missing. They’re missing from their loved ones, and because we don’t know them and we don’t care about them in our society. It’s both an absence and a not being seen. I wanted to draw the reader close to see if they would take it in; care. From all indications, they have.

NP: The second element of Oscar that is so intriguing is that you developed an online salon as a second Oscar. What role did the Oscar salon – and technology – play in the writing of Oscar of Between?

BW: It’s an interesting question and I’m glad you asked this. (And I’m so glad you asked about the posters as no one in an interview has to date). Previously, I had a very demoralizing experience. It had taken me five years to find a publisher for Breathing the Page. I always had confidence in this manuscript and it did become a bestseller. This was partly to do with an increasing risk-adverse stance in the publishing industry. The editor or publisher would want the book and the marketing side would nix it. So, I decided not to make any assumptions about this manuscript: it may never become a book and that’s okay. Or, maybe I’d publish it myself. I did know I wasn’t going to shop it around. This approach liberated me! I ust wanted to write this narrative and be wide open about how it would or would not get out into the world. More than any other of my books, this one taught me a lot about how to extend my creative relationship.

The salon went up on my website (www.betsywarland.com/) in December 2012 when I was about half way through writing the manuscript. What prompted me to launch the salon was the fact that I was really missing giving readings. I love giving readings but they aren’t as well funded as they used to be. This [online salon] is a way of accessing that experience of being in real time to see how people respond. That appealed to me. It’s also a vital way in which I gain perspective and see where revisions are needed. The monthly salon also features readers’ comments.

There are limitations in both online and in book forms, and I liked gaining new understanding about what they are. I was inviting guest writers, visual artists and composers every month from different parts of the country. It’s been fascinating to see how they bounced off the excerpt I sent them and to get to know their work more. Embodying this broader environment I’m working in and honouring these writers and artists had been inspiring. Putting it up online intensified my revising process of Oscar. It didn’t impact what I was writing so much, but it really buoyed me.

The version of Oscar online is an abridged version of the book suited for online reading. Reading online doesn’t appeal to everyone and an increasing number of people were telling me they wanted it as a book. Once I had a complete draft of the manuscript I read it and realized it was leaning into book form so I posted this observation on Oscar’s Salon, noting that I wanted it to come out in a year (which was lunatic!) while Oscar’s Salon was still having monthly postings.

Caitlin Press’ publicist had been following the salon and mentioned this to Vici Johnstone, the publisher. It turned out that Oscar of Between was a perfect fit for Dagger Editions, a new imprint featuring LGBTQ women writers’ work that Caitlin wanted to launch in 2016. It has been so energizing and fascinating to find another way to go about all of this. So, if you are a writer reading this and something significant isn’t working for you, experiment!

NP: One reviewer stated that she hopes your work is returned to “the vital public conversations about poetry happening today” (Julie R. Enszer, Lambda Literary Review). What role do you see poetry fulfilling in our world today, one that is deeply challenged by conflict?

BW: I agree. As indicated in Oscar of Between, support for and reception of my work has been sparse. But more importantly, on the societal level, your reference to being “deeply challenged by conflict,” is key. Violence kept coming up in Oscar. Again, I did not plan that. It just keep arising and ambushing me at the most unexpected moment. It was hard to keep allowing that violence to bust in, but what I’m investigating in Oscar would have been completely erudite if I hadn’t let it seize that page as it does in real life. I’m very, very concerned about the type of civilian violence that’s happening. There were 374 mass shootings in the U.S. last year. This indicates a profound level of desperation and fear.

In Oscar, when Betsy is having a conversation with her good friend in Toronto about this, she comments that nothing is going to change if women don’t speak up. I really think it has to come from women.

Betsy Warland will participate in a panel discussion – Beyond Genre – on Saturday, September 24.