By Nancy Pearson
Bill Gastonis the author of seven novels and seven collections of short fiction, as well as a book of poems and the memoir, Midnight Hockey. His recent memoir, Just Let Me Look at You(2018), has been described as beautiful, thoughtful and evocative. Reviewer Robert Wiersema said, “just when you think you have it figured out, the book sneaks up on you and breaks your goddamn heart.”
Just Let Me Look at Youis a memoir about alcohol, fishing, and all the things fathers and sons won’t say to each other. Sons clash with fathers, sons find reasons to rebel. And, fairly or unfairly, sons judge fathers when they take to drinking. But Bill Gaston and his father could always fish together. Learning family secrets his father took to the grave, Gaston comes to understand his own story anew, realizing that the man his younger self had been so eager to judge was in fact someone both nobler and more vulnerable than he had guessed. (Penguin Random House)
NP: Your memoir navigates the complexities of loss, grief, understanding and “restructuring” your past perceptions of your father through the details you learned after he died. Of the many elements I admire about Just Let Me Look at You, one that stands out in particular is the fragmented structure: that movement between present and past in a fragmented form. At times this is disconcerting and the reader has to realign the information known to that point with the new details. Could you talk about the structure?
BG: A number of things: One is that, I wanted to have a present tense narrative, which is the boat journey. Back to the past haunts. To give it a kind of momentum in the present, which is where I can also talk about what I’m thinking now about the relationship and what I still retain of him in my day-to-day life. Memories and that sort of thing. So it’s nice to have a present narrative with this kind of story, too, this journey. I think I joke about it, calling it Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.So there’s that.
And then, the kind of fragmented set-up really, is because memory works that way anyway. I guess I wanted to make it as much like a novel as I could, to use narrative strategies of drama. So I had to piece things together to give it a bit of narrative drive. In other words, put things in a different order than they actually happened in the past because his life wasn’t like a novel. Nor was mine, and nor was anybody’s. So I had to kind of reposition things. I’m telling the truth, but I’m also trying to tell a good story.
It also reflects how I learned it in my life. I knew some little things about his past, and I kept learning more and more. That’s actually the main structure. How it was revealed to me, what I learned and in what order I learned it too late to forgive him while he was alive. I definitely lay out the information for the reader just in the same order that I received it.
NP: Just Let Me Look at Youis a lot about absence while your father was physically present. He was very present in so many ways for you, yet his alcoholism kept him at a distance. There is another absence that I felt very keenly, though, and that is your brother’s. He’s mentioned only twice in the narrative and then in the acknowledgements. His absence made your struggles and the ways in which you supported your parents all the more poignant. Could you talk a bit, in a broad sense, about what writers need to consider when revealing, say, family truths and who to include or not in that telling.
BG: That’s a big one. That’s why I asked my brother if he wanted to be part of this or not, because he was completely wrapped up in this story. And he chose not to be. It wasn’t a big deal. He said, “Naw, leave me out of it.” So I did.
I’m glad because, in portraying anybody, especially if they’re still alive, if they read it it’s always weird. I think it’s always strange to read about yourself and often kind of painful because it just feels kind of weird to see someone’s version of you. It’s always different than what you expected.
I wrote one memoir earlier called Midnight Hockey, and it was largely more funny than not. Just kind of funny all the time. This one was not so much, and I’m not that adept at it. Or at least I’m not used to it. But I know enough people and I’ve heard enough horror stories about people writing from their own lives and just the reaction they get from families. You get huge fights and you get disowned and you get feuds and you don’t talk to each other for ten years. All sorts of stuff can happen. So I was very aware of this and one reason I felt free to write this is that everybody is dead except for my dad’s sister, and I don’t know that she’ll see the book.
I was just very, very aware. There are a couple of spots where I put him [my brother] in just almost for information sake because it would have left a gap of some sort. If I just didn’t mention him, it would have shone a bad light on my brother. So I was pretty aware of that.
I had a long talk with the writer Evelyn Lau. She famously writes about her life. Her take is that art trumps – you do it for art. You tell the truth, no matter how painful… I respect her for it. I wouldn’t go that route. I don’t agree with it. But I was very aware of that and not wanting to go that route. I did pull a lot of punches. I was also very, very aware of hurting people, so I tried not to do that as much as possible. I left quite a few things out…I gave evidence just to make my point. I did just enough to set the stage.
NP: After writing such an in-depth and intense exploration of your and your father’s lives, does the book feel complete for you, or are you still writing it in your mind, so to speak?
BG: What I set out to do feels complete. I think my task is finished. That task being that he had a big secret, he had a big untold story. I just felt that in the telling of it he would somehow be redeemed because he didn’t do it himself. I thought he had this story that needed telling. So, I told that secret. I gave away a secret. In that sense it does feel finished.
On the other hand, of course, it’s his life, his big, long rich life. And it’s my big, long rich life and those are never over. It sure opened up lots of little doors and I still think about it. I still think about all these things. Lots of things are still percolating. That’s just life. In writing the book it did open up a lot of things, memories and what not that keep going. I’m kind of grateful. I’m glad I did it. If anything, it brought him closer and he’s still closer.
NP: Fiction is your main genre. What do you see as being the key differences and similarities between fiction and nonfiction? Is creative nonfiction a genre you’d like to write more of now?
BG: I would like to do more nonfiction. In one sense I find it easier. Only because it’s already there. You don’t have to make up stuff. You just have to put it in order and tell a story and tell it in the best way you know how to tell it. But you don’t have to make stuff up. So, it’s choiceless in one sense, which is great, because half the work is done. Or, the choices are smaller and you just have to put them in the right order and leave out the stuff that might be boring or inappropriate. It’s easy in that sense. The joy is still the same in trying to come up with a good sentence.
I would like to write more, but I’m not an expert at it. I don’t have any specialized knowledge that might be interesting to people, so I’m not sure what I would write about. I don’t have any history or if my own life is interesting enough for memoir. I don’t know if I will do it, but I’d like to.
NP: You have more birthplaces than any other Canadian author! Do you plan to visit Flin Flon one day to see where you weren’t born? (https://www.macleans.ca/news/canada/meet-the-acclaimed-canadian-author-who-couldnt-stop-lying-about-his-birthplace/)
BG: [laughs] I hope to. I’d love to go up there and I’m planning on it, though I don’t know when. I thought it might be this year because I thought I’d be visiting Winnipeg and I may still. I’d just pop onto a plane if that’s the case.
NP: One last question… Did you meet the man from Flin Flon?
BG: Yeah, he came out and gave me the official paper. The adoption paper, so to speak. I’m an honourary citizen anyway. He came out and we had a nice dinner. It was really fun. They sound like a real fun batch of people there. When this Flin Flon thing came up I learned a lot about Flin Flon. It’s a tiny little place to get to and it’s hard to get to and it’s cold. But other than that, it sounds like a marvelous place. It has this huge artistic, arts culture for such a tiny town. The Canadian National Ballet performed there, for instance.
So, yeah, I’d like to go to see my ‘birthplace.’
NP: Is there anything you’d like to add?
BG: I’d just like to maybe say that I’ve been having a lot of really wonderful feedback about this book. I was kind of nervous about how it might be received. But a lot of people are seeing enough of their own lives in it, which was kind of the reason I went public with this – I thought it was kind of a public story. Or a story that’s pretty familiar to a lot of people and that seems to be the case. I’m really happy about that, that people are seeing their own lives in it and telling me they appreciate it.