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.
by James Kendrick
James Kendrick: You work in a lot of different fields. What project(s) are you working on at the moment?
Geoff Berner: I’m writing the next album, a klezmer album with trombone. I’m taking many deep breaths in preparation to write the 3rd book in my Festival Man trilogy. The Fiddler Is a Good Woman is the 2nd. Sometimes 1000s of deep breaths are necessary.
JK: In addition to writing for TV, you also write novels and songs. Do you take a different approach to all three, or do they all mesh together for you?
GB: Writing for TV is different. Someone else is paying for it, so they get to tell you what they want. Sometimes that helps. Mostly it just makes the writing worse, if someone who is “too busy” to write anything themselves tries to “fix” stuff. Most TV network executives are stupid at everything except kissing the asses of people with more power than them. That’s the skill set that brought them where they are. That’s TV, unless one artist is given complete control, which is rare. Even then, the network can still fuck you over by airing your episodes out of sequence. Prose and songs, I do whatever I want. But the pay is lower.
JK: Can you talk a little bit about what you’ll be doing at the festival?
GB: I’m going to read a bit of my book and play a few songs. I will drink whiskey. I will also shout at people.
JK: Why do you think it’s important to have a festival like this?
GB: It’s important that writers, people with often poor social skills and hygiene, people with an aversion to speaking into microphones, have the chance to use their repellent opinions, smells, looks and manners to alienate readers who once fell in love with their books. For instance, it was a key element to the necessary tamping down of the Knausgard craze, a couple of years ago, for people to actually meet Knausgard.
JK: Are there any other writers that you’re a fan of, whom you’re excited to see at the festival?
GB: I’m a huge fan of Zsuzsi Gartner. For me, she is writing on the cutting edge of where we are as a culture. She sees clearly the particular ways in which we are fucked up. I’ve always loved Patrick Lane, since my old creative writing teacher turned us on to him in the 80s. Red Dog, Red Dog is the Canadian novel that everyone should have read. I bought it because the clerk at Shakespeare and Co. in Paris pushed it on me, without knowing I was from Canada. That’s fate, man. It is more powerful than Canadian fiction is usually allowed to be.
Geoff Berner will be appearing Thursday, September 28th at The Literary Twist, 7:30 at the Vancouver Island School of Arts.
Sugar Ride recounts the three-month trek by bicycle through Southeast Asia that Yvonne Blomer and her husband Rupert Gadd made to mark the end of two years living and working in Japan. The story of their adventures unfolds gradually, interspersed with reflections on meaning and memory, and always with the underlying possibility that Yvonne’s diabetes might erupt from its well-managed place in the background to a very urgent foreground, should events take one course rather than another.
by Susan Gillis
Susan Gillis: All through my reading of Sugar Ride, I never lost my sense of breathless wonder at the magnitude of what you and Rupert were doing. Had you ever imagined yourself doing a trip like this? And did you think of it as a ride or as a trip?
Yvonne Blomer: I’m not sure I had. We were influenced by being ex-pats in Japan and the other ex-pats around us who were cyclists and Japanese friends who’d gone on adventures or lived in Europe or North America. But we took our bikes, thinking transportation, and we sure used them in Japan as well. I did a short trip, of about 2 weeks, with a friend in Northeastern Thailand and that really got me hooked, that was in the spring before we did this trip. As far as ride or trip, we were very aware of the idea of tourist vs traveller and that we were riding our way toward home, we were travelling west both physically and culturally, each country from Vietnam to Laos to Thailand to Malaysia had more western imports and was more familiar. A journey, I guess. The long way home.
SG: At one point, you recount a situation that culminates in one of you saying “Where’s your sense of adventure?” and the other countering with “Where’s your sense of survival?” This pair of not-quite-opposite motivators fascinates me. In this example, they’re in conflict, but they aren’t always—at some points in your story, adventure and survival move in the same direction. How did these two impulses shape your day-to-day life and decisions during the trip?
YB: That feels like a big question. There were certain things that we both really liked – going off road, meeting new people, finding out-of-the-way places, visiting unique temples and having new experiences but there were certain challenges too – my diabetes, our bikes as they got worn down, the heat and finding food. Probably we met adventures and challenges every day and some of them we were both up for, and sometimes only one of us was or neither of us was. In Laos when we have the conversation you mention, I was tired of waiting for buses that never came, or came late or didn’t want us on them or wanted to triple or quadruple the price. Laos was different from Vietnam partly because we had no map so had no idea where towns were other than the main ones, and Rupert was worried we couldn’t get to food/accommodation in a day. In a way, we each had our own survival-adventure challenges in that one moment.
SG: Reflections on the current state of the world are intermingled with the narrative of the trip nearly two decades or earlier. When and how did you decide to write about the trip?
YB: I kept a journal during the trip and, for the most part, wrote every evening the facts of where we started, how far we cycled and where we stayed. I also included some short moment. Shortly after returning home, I wrote a few newspaper pieces for the Victoria Times Colonist, one on the anniversary of the Vietnam War and one on bicycles in Japan. I also wrote a few pieces for a journal on Juvenile diabetes. I returned to the University of Victoria about a year after coming home from Japan and Asia and studied Writing with Lynne van Luven, she and I worked together for the first, very rough, draft in a directed studies. Then I left it for years, or dipped in and out. I thought I wanted to write a traditional travel story, like Wild but then poetry crept in and time moved on. That passage of time became part of the story, how did I think about the trip so long after in a world so changed, these thoughts came to me, or explorations, while working on a series of poems about called Bicycle Brand Journey.
SG: The narrative doesn’t follow a chronological or geographical map, and this may be one of the things that contributes to that sense of wonder. How did you decide on the narrative shape?
YB: Interestingly, the chap book I mentioned above is also non-chronological because the poems are on illustrated cards that make up two cribbage hands, so you can rearrange the order. The artist I worked with, Regan Rasmussen, who designed the chapbook, reminded me of this recently. But, more than that tie-in, I wanted to focus on incidents and tie those together. I wanted to be sick and healthy at once. I wanted to fail to ride all the way and then start again. I wanted to keep returning to Vietnam because that was the country I returned to a lot in remembering because we had challenges there. The reasons for those challenges involve it being the beginning so we were still getting the hang of all of it and it was the least westernized of the four countries we travelled through. I guess I went for links that had less to do with time, or because I was reading Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being I was influenced by how time moves forward and back as does memory. We don’t remember in order.
SG: You and Rupert are never physically invisible in the places you visit, and you’re propelling yourselves using sheer muscle power. In addition, there is the lurking, ever-present threat of medical emergency, surely another factor in that sense of wonder I felt as a reader. How did the experiences you had on this trip affect your sense of the body as the vehicle that carries us through the world and our lives?
YB: This is a great question and I wonder how differently Rupert might answer. For him, the heat, above 37 degrees Celsius for much of the trip, paired with his 6’3” frame meant his body was working hard and he was hugely aware of how easily the heat and cycling were throwing off his digestion and interest in food plus the changes in food. My body became the measure for both of us, because I needed lots of little snacks and so he shifted to that as well. Every time we stopped, we ate something. My awareness of my high and low blood sugars is very good so that helped but also meant I was always attuned to its needs. I think the most fascinating part of the body as the machine, the means to get around, is that I really did want to see what mine could do. I wanted to see how that relationship between food, exercise and insulin would work under these conditions. I was, and still am, passionate about cycling and I wanted to push the body. I wanted to be in the body as machine with all its annoying quirks equal to the other machines, our bicycles and as tough and as frail. I wanted to get out of my head and into my body and I certainly did, though I was still often in my head, as you can see.
Yvonne Blomer will be appearing Saturday, September 30th at What the Journey Brings, 1:30 at Intrepid Theatre.
Clea Young’s stories have been included in The Journey Prize Stories three times and anthologized in Coming Attractions 13. Her work has appeared in Event, Grain, The Fiddlehead, The Malahat Review, Prairie Fire and Room. Clea completed an MFA at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver where she lives and works as the Artistic Associate at the Vancouver Writers Fest. Her first collection of stories, Teardown, was published by Freehand Books.
by Barbara Pelman
Barbara Pelman: I’ve known you from junior high school days and have watched your life blossom. Can you talk about your school influences? How did your education help or hinder your writing?
Clea Young: I always loved coming to you class! All it took was a few teachers throughout my high school years, who recognized and responded to my interest in writing, to feel encouraged enough to continue. Once I got to University, some of the teachers I encountered in writing programs were such revelations it was impossible not to want to keep going.
BP: What about your parents? Since they are both writers and teachers, how has that made a difference for you?
CY: My parents have always been my best teachers, readers, editors. But they’ve never pressured me to write. In fact, at some points I think they may have liked to dissuade me from it, nudge me toward a more practical vocation. Though they never did that either. They’ve always remained neutral and supportive.
BP: What is the best thing that writing gives you?
CY: The freedom to explore aspects of human behaviour I don’t understand. To push situations toward outcomes I wouldn’t have expected. Room to play.
BP: What is the most difficult thing about the writing life? The cliffs? The chasms?
CY: When life gets busy it’s sometimes hard to have the discipline, to keep up the practice that maintains those writing muscles. I feel anxious when this happens, but if I can’t bring myself to write, if nothing’s working, I read. I’m always reading and I remind myself that’s part of the practice, too.
BP: How did you move into writing short stories, rather than poetry? Or is that next? Or a novel? What are you working on next?
CY: At UVic I took a survey writing course. When it came to the short story component, I felt like my writing world opened up. Lorna Jackson invited Zsuzsi Gartner to read to the class to read and I remember being wowed by that experience and wanting to write like her. I’m working on more stories (in earnest) and a novel (in theory).
BP: I loved how your characters seemed like ‘ordinary people’ in extraordinary situations. Can you talk a bit about how you find/create your characters?
CY: Thank you for saying so! My stories often start with voice, a line of dialogue that piques my interest and makes me want to learn more about the person uttering those words.
BP: My favorite question when I was interviewed was this one, a total non-sequitor: What’s in your fridge right now?
CY: Ha! Good question. My brother gave me a SCOBY in November of last year and I’ve become a bit of a brewer of kombucha. There are many bottles filled curious liquids in my fridge.
Clea Young will be appearing Saturday, September 30th at Close-Up Magic, 3:30 at Intrepid Theatre.
Gregory Scofield is Red River Metis of Cree, Scottish and European descent, and one of Canada’s most recognized poets. Scofield won the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize in 1994 for his debut collection, The Gathering: Stones for the Medicine Wheel. He’s published seven more volumes of poetry as well as a memoir, Thunder Through My Veins (1999). His latest collection, Witness, I Am, won the Latner Writers’ Trust Poetry Prize this past Fall. It is a powerful collection that uses both English and Cree languages, explores the nature of belonging and identity, and examines the critical issue of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. Every poem offers a deeply personal lens.
by Jennifer Manuel
Jennifer Manuel: Your latest collection of poetry, Witness, I Am, looks at the critical issue of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women through the retelling of atayohkewin, a Cree Sacred Story. Can you speak to how this Sacred Story serves as a lens for viewing this critical issue?
Gregory Scofield: The Cree Sacred Story used in the poem Muskrat Woman is a re-telling or re-imagining of one of our most scared creation stories. The animals in the original story are all presented as male. So in my re-telling, I’ve given Muskrat, who is essentially responsible for remaking the world by getting a piece of the old earth after the flood, a female character. Her main focuses, however, is ensuring the new world will be safe for her sisters, and many of the Missing and Murdered women. The poem employs both Cree spiritual beliefs and Christianity, and how the creation of the world is often told from a male perspective.
JM: There is a poem in this collection called “Dangerous Sound.” The phrase “is it okay” echoes throughout as the poem navigates the in-between space that Metis people have long occupied. Tell me about this phrase, “is it okay.” Where does phrase fit into the idea of belonging?
GS: This particular poem is about my late Aunty’s residential school experience and how, as a Metis woman, she would not have been able to provide her survivor testimony with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Metis people, who attended residential and boarding schools, were often over looked in this process being that they were not considered “Indians”. The term “Is It Okay” in the poem speaks to this exclusion and oversight.
JM: Congratulations on winning the Latner Writers’ Trust Poetry Prize last Fall. I watched the awards streamed live online, and I thought your reading of “She is Spitting a Mouthful of Stars” was powerful and compelling. For some reason, I was reminded of how Maya Angelou read her poetry. A conversational yet not casual cadence punctuated with hints of musicality. How do you perceive the poet’s role in reading to the public and what do you try to bring to a reading?
GS: The poet’s role in reading to the public is to engage the audience, to shake the rattle of poetry, to make it accessible and moving to the listener. The poet is a storyteller and must always remember their very important role.
JM: Speaking of awards, your debut collection, The Gathering: Stories for the Medicine Wheel, won the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize in 1994. What impact have such accolades had on your work, and how do you perceive your own growth as a poet over the past twenty-five years?
GS: My own growth as a poet has been very rewarding. I’ve been fortunate to have been mentored by many wonderful poets and storytellers. Perhaps the greatest gift I’ve been given with poetry is that I found my voice, I found the rope that led me back to the stories and to the Cree language.
JM: You will be teaching a poetry workshop at this year’s festival called Shaking the Rattle of Poetry. What do you hope for participants by the end of that workshop?
GS: My hope is that participants will leave the workshop with a new sense of their own voice and how to make the rattle of poetry sing, how to make it sound.
Gregory Scofield will be appearing Saturday, September 30th at Shaking the Rattle of Poetry | Workshop with Gregory Scofield, 9:30am at GOOD and Saturday, September 30th at Speaking the Unspeakable, 3:30 at the Greater Victoria Public Library.
Jennifer Manuel is the author of The Heaviness of Things That Float (Douglas & McIntyre)
Robert Wiersema is the author of three novels, a novella, a memoir and, most recently, a short story collection. “It’s not that Wiersema wants to tell a good story, it’s that he’s driven to tell a good story” [The Province]. Wiersema is a constant book reviewer for the Toronto Star, Globe and Mail, National Post, Vancouver Sun and other newspapers and magazines. His weekly books column, Beyond the Bestseller, airs on CBC Radio’s All Points West. He is a Professor of Creative Writing at Vancouver Island University and also teaches at Camosun College.
Interview by Andrew Templeton
Andrew Templeton: I’ve just finished reading Seven Crow Stories and have so, so many questions, none of which I can ask here because of the nature of the stories. Each takes the form of a mystery – the reader is not quite sure what is going on until the final resolution. So any direct questions about content would lead to spoilers, so let’s save those questions for the pub.
What I think I can safely say is that each story centres on an encounter between two worlds – what we might call the seen and the unseen – and how these encounters resolve themselves provides both the underlying tension that propels the stories forward but also imbues them with a sense of wonder – if I can use that word – at the power of hidden worlds can hold.
Robert Wiersema: Thanks for using the word wonder. The idea of wonder is important to me on several levels. The first is that very emotional response: I want to elicit wonder. Well, perhaps not elicit. Perhaps remind readers – and myself – of the wonders not only lurking in the shadows but around us, all the time. We lose that, that sense of wonder, I think. We grow out of being amazed, and I find that heartbreaking. Fiction, in whatever form, can remind us of that state of awe, of amazement, and remind us of its loss.
The second level of wonder is the idea of the unanswered question. Questioning is at the heart of the experience of wonder and with these stories I wanted there to be unanswered questions, mysteries that will take root in the mind and keep that experience of wonder alive…
AT: So, I’m curious, how would you categorize these stories? Where should they be shelved?
RW: I’m often asked how I would define my work, what category it would fit into. And it’s not an easy question. It’s sort of fantasy, but not really. It’s kind of magic realism, but only kind of. It’s got elements of horror, but it’s not horror. There’s some weirdness, but it’s not really weird fiction.
In my mind, I write wonder stories, which is a term I’ve nicked from the Germans. In Germany, their version of fairy tales is sometimes referred to as marchen, or wonder tales. I heard that and I was like, yeah, that’s it. That’s what I do. Stories of wonders, just to the side of fairy tales.
There’s something else – something I probably shouldn’t talk about, but what the heck. I’m currently at work on the early stages of a novel that I realized, a few weeks back, was the third book in a trilogy. Not a trilogy with shared plots or shared characters – there’s none of that – but a thematic trilogy. I’ll quote from my workbook here: “WONDER. There it is – that’s the key, right there, the link between the three books: wonder. I’ll likely never refer to them this way in public – or likely ever refer to them as a trilogy at all – but this is how I’m going to refer to them in my mind – The Wonder Trilogy.”
AT: Does that mean that two of your previous novels are part of “The Wonder Trilogy?”
RW: No, these are all works in progress. I’m deep in revisions on a novel called The Fallow Heart, I’ve got a handwritten manuscript for a novel called Cold Roses, and the third one, which I’m actively writing now, the subject of that realization, is called Strayed.
AT: Intriguing. Something to look forward to. I wonder if we can unpack a little about your approach to writing the stories in this collection. They are set in very recognizable realities – worlds that we all know well or are at least familiar with – yet there is another layer, another world at work that is also impacting on the characters.
RW: I start either with a very loose concept (I want to write a ghost story, or, rituals around childbirth, or, running away to join the circus) or with a character (a country singer on the road, or a young man whose brother disappeared when they were children), and whichever one comes first, the other comes almost immediately after, just a fractional delay. Almost simultaneous, but slightly out of phase, which I think works really well.
Premise comes next. “Okay, I want to write a ghost story, I’ve got this character, so where are they?”
Once I’ve got that established, then I start to write, with no real idea where I’m going. Certainly no outline. The story goes, built on that dynamic – as you say, the layering – of the overall thing (the concept, the premise, the type of story) and the characters. It’s crucial to me that the characters are real. Everything comes out of the characters — they decide what to do, they determine what happens next and they’re where the readers’ attention lies. If the main character doesn’t ring true, it doesn’t matter what happens in the story, it’s not going to have any significant effect on the reader.
So, basically, ideally, I make you love a character, then I let terrible things happen to them.
Or fantastic, wonderful things. You never know.
Frankly, I never know, until I hit the end. That’s the joy of it, for me.
AT: For a collection that covers twenty-five years of writing – what changes have you noticed in your craft or approach?
RW: You know, that’s a good question, and it really cuts to the heart of the book itself.
Despite the changes, I think I’m the same writer, and I think that’s what the collection shows. I still approach stories the same way. Typically, if I have an idea for a story, the clock starts ticking. I’ve got about 72 hours to write a first draft, or the flame sputters… So, the expiration date on how long I have with an idea has remained the same.
I like to think that my craft has improved — I’m a better writer now than I was in the early 90s.
I want to say that I’m a lot less… self-involved… now, but the most recent story, “The Last Circus” is one of the most autobiographical things I’ve ever written, and I wrote that last summer… I say autobiographical, but that’s not quite right.
AT: Indeed, anyone whose read “The Last Circus” might be curious to think of it as autobiographical but there really is a sense of lived reality to the piece. And this is true of all the stories. They maybe tales of wonder but the characters are rich in detail. There’s also a great deal of specificity to place.
RW: I think it’s more place than life.
But that’s not entirely true… I always tell my students that one of the worst pieces of advice for writers is to “write what you know” – it’s so limiting, and tends to mire writers in the swamps of thinly disguised memoir. I tend to go more with “write what you fear” and “write FROM what you know”. For me, that’s Victoria and Agassiz (where I grew up and which I have revisioned as a place called Henderson). Not the physical spaces so much, though I like to be as accurate as I can be, but rather the psychic geography of those places. What they mean, to me as a writer, and in those stories.
As for autobiographical content, well, the collection is bookended by two pieces, “Grateful” and “The Last Circus”, one of the oldest stories and definitely the most recent. Both are autobiographical, despite the fact that they bear no resemblance to any actual events in my life whatsoever. Yes, the circus came to Agassiz when I was a kid, but what happens to the main character in that story, when he visits the circus, didn’t happen to me.
Or did it?
That’s always the thing.
Robert Wiersema will be appearing Saturday, September 30th at Close-Up Magic, 3:30 at Intrepid Theatre.
Andrew is a playwright who has had worked produced in Vancouver, Toronto and London, UK. Now based in Victoria he runs the workshop studio space, GOOD with his partner Jill Margo.
by Nancy Pearson
Nancy Pearson: Where I Live Now portrays how the unique solitude of your life on the ranch offered you the opportunity to become a writer. Following Peter’s death and your move to Calgary, I wonder if you are writing from within a different kind of solitude, despite being closer to family and friends and in a large city?
Sharon Butala: Yes, it is a different kind of solitude. It has a purpose that is more in trying to block out the city. And writing Where I Live Now was pretty painful and difficult because I had to go back through things that I didn’t want to think about, and was so glad when it was done. I was so happy to be writing material that didn’t take me through that misery.
NP: Your memoir navigates through the complexities of loss, grief, understanding and “rebuilding.” Of the many elements I admire about Where I Live Now, one stands out in particular — your use of complex sentence structures to reflect movement between your external and internal realms. I wonder if you could elaborate on this technique. An example from page 147:
I believe that once you find yourself – your real self – still there inside that old-woman exterior, and you begin to see yourself as alive and, indeed, as worthy of a life, a real life (instead of living in a steady state only as a person nearing death), that drabness will slowly disappear as the spirit flares up again.
SB: I am so lucky to have an editor that lets me do that. As soon as I began to feel myself to be really a writer, I knew that I loved nothing so much as long sentences. And most editors just don’t let you do it. I think that’s my natural mode, so it’s not as if I spend a lot of time thinking I’m going to write a long sentence; it’s just how my brain works.
NP: In looking at the lengthy list of the fiction and non-fiction books you’ve published, there’s almost an equal number of each, and it appears that you were probably working on more than one at a time. What do you see as being the key differences and similarities between the genres?
SB: More than once I have said and believe that there really isn’t a difference between the two. In nonfiction you use all the fiction writing techniques. When you’re writing in fiction, you are often drawing on real life. The difference for me is in intent and in the contract, the unspoken contract, that you make with your reader when you say: I am writing nonfiction. Your reader has the right to believe that what you write is factually true. The reader of fiction, on the other hand, recognizes when something is true. As Farley Mowat said, “I never let facts get in the way of a good story.”
NP: When writing memoir there can sometimes be a fine balance to maintain in order to preserve and respect another individual’s privacy. Peter was very present for me when I read Where I Live Now through depictions of his actions (such as his kindness towards neighbours in need), his world and his support of your writing – this allowed me to develop my own sense of his character and individuality. What would you recommend to writers who want to tell a very personal story but aren’t certain how much detail to include about others involved?
SB: The more personal you are in what you have to say, the more impersonal your writing needs to be. And then the opposite is true – the more factual, cut and dried, the more you should write in an intimate and personal way.
Sharon Butala will be appearing Saturday, September 30th at What the Journey Brings, 1:30 at Intrepid Theatre and Saturday, September 30th at the Voices Lifted | Where Art Begets Art | Evening Gala, 7:30 at the Metro Theatre and Sunday, October 1st at Writing the Memoir | Workshop with Sharon Butala, 10:00am at GOOD.
by Emily Olsen
Leanne Dunic is a musician, artist, and author of the book To Love the Coming End published by Bookthug/Chin Music Press 2017. Dunic is the singer/guitarist in the band The Deep Cove. Their debut album To Love the Coming End of the World is a companion to the lyric-prose book.
“We’re called The Deep Cove. On the Mainland, people think we’re named after the Deep Cove on the North Shore, and on the Island, people think we’re referencing the Deep Cove in North Saanich, but really, we chose the name as we felt it best represented our sound. I grew up on the Island and have a special connection with its Deep Cove. With the purchase of TLTCE, three songs from the companion album are available for free download. We’re performing on September 28 with an ‘unplugged’ set especially chosen for VFA. We’ll have our official launch of our album TLTCEOTW at The Fox Theatre November 4th, but should have some pre-release copies for VFA.”
Dunic is recognized internationally for her work in the visual arts, she is published in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, has three chapbooks and holds a certificate in Creative Writing from Simon Fraser University. Dunic is the Artistic Director of the Powell Street Festival, winner of the 2015 Alice Munro Short Story Contest, and is an MFA candidate at the University of British Columbia.
I had the privilege of asking Leanne a few questions prior to the Festival.
Emily Olsen: In your book, To Love the Coming End, how was your writing process influenced by the songwriting and music from your companion album(or vice versa)?
Leanne Dunic: I finished the book just before starting to record the album. It was during that session that I wrote the title track (To Love the Coming End of the World). At the time, my book had a different title, but I saw the subconscious cohesion of the themes and eventually changed the title of my book to To Love the Coming End.
EO: What has the completion of this book taught you about your identity as an author?
LD: I’m still learning how to articulate/describe what it is that I do, and feel more comfortable with the more general label of “artist” since I’m a master of none. This book was a discovery of my literary voice, the style intuitive and genre-fluid. I can’t help but think that this is related to my mixed-race identity.
EO: What inspires you, what gets your creative blood pumping?
LD: The unexpected excites me. Music and musicians: Peter Green, Rick Nielsen, Paul McCartney, Adrian Belew (of whom my current writing project is centered on).
EO: Do you have a favorite writing genre, do you naturally slip into one over another?
LD: Music is my favorite genre to write in, and not necessarily the lyric component, but the music itself.
EO: Tell me about superstition.
LD: Growing up half-Chinese and half-Croatian, there was no escaping it! I think everyone has a degree of superstition. Many of my readers identify with the themes around the number 11 featured in TLTCE.
Leanne Dunic will be appearing Thursday, September 28th at The Literary Twist, 7:30 at the Vancouver Island School of Arts.
Emily Olsen is a Victoria writer who’s passion for people and the environment inspires her. She is currently working on her first book of Poetry.
Rose Morris: Your novel Little Sister is about a woman who can leave her body behind and inhabit the body of another person. Is writing a form of leaving your own body for other peoples’?
Barbara Gowdy: I don’t enter other bodies, no. I have to imagine them, of course, especially as most of my characters are physically different from me. But where I tend to go is either into a character’s mind or into the next word.
RM: Little Sister‘s protagonist, Rose, manages a cinema. Do you consider the novel (or Rose herself) to be cinematic in any way?
BG: I do, definitely. When Rose enters the body and mind of Harriet, she is experiencing what we all experience when we watch a good movie: she is being granted intimate access to another person’s emotions and circumstances without that other person’s knowledge or consent. She is closed off from Harriet’s thoughts, however. But that’s also like our connection to a character in a movie, because unless there’s a voice-over, we can’t know what is really going on in the character’s head.
RM: Your work has been described as falling into the genre of ‘Canadian Gothic.’ What does Canadian Gothic mean to you? What differentiates it from American Gothic or the Gothic genre?
BG: It was the critic Philip Marchand who slotted me into the gothic genre. I’ve never understood why. In fact, to answer your question, I Googled ‘Gothic Fiction’ and here’s what came up: The term ‘gothic fiction’ refers to a style of writing that is characterized by elements of fear, horror, death, and gloom, as well as romantic elements, such as nature, individuality, and very high emotion. Does that describe my work? I don’t see it. I don’t consider myself to be a purveyor of gloom, death and horror. When I hear the word ‘gothic,’ I think of castles and vampires. And castle and vampires interest me not at all.
RM: How much has magic realism influenced you? Do you consider your work to be magic realism?
BG: I suppose magic realism has influenced me to a degree, but, again, I don’t think of myself as fitting into any particular category. I would say that my subject matter is influenced more by non-fiction than it is by fiction.
RM: What sort of non-fiction?
BG: For the past decade or so I’ve been reading articles and books about consciousness: what consciousness is, what makes us conscious. The essential question I was wrestling with throughout the writing of Little Sister was, how can you know that you’re you and not me? And then, carrying on from that, I wondered, how you would experience yourself if there weren’t any me, if you were the only person, the only creature, the only thing within your sensory field? Would your sense of self disappear? Or do you harbor a true, absolute self—a singular consciousness—independent of sensory experience?
RM: Did you come up with any answers?
BG: Not even scientists can agree on the answers, but I was operating under the assumption that there is an absolute self, a self so durable that it can steal into another mind and return undamaged. I’m not sure whether or not I believe it, though. It’s a novelist thing, the idea of a true self that the protagonist will get a glimpse of after being pitted against various obstacles, the idea that he or she will “grow” a little, by which we mean become self-aware, despite how, in our own lives, self-awareness is so elusive. We can list our preferences, dislikes, ambitions, regrets, memories—we certainly recognize facets of ourselves—but do we ever know who we are?
RM: Your novel The White Bone is written from the consciousness of elephants. How is writing the voice of an animal different from a human character?
BG: The big difference for me was the amount of research required. I began researching The White Bone in 1995, before you could get much information online. I read physical books, anything I could get my hands on, anything having to do with elephants and Africa, the flora and fauna, the topography, the sounds and smells, the weather. I went to Kenya and did some touristy field research there. Only once I’d really immersed myself in the biology and life of an African elephant did I start writing. At that point it was a matter of keeping my imagination nailed to the facts, to what is known. Everything that the elephants do physically in The White Bone they do in real life. My job was to invest their behavior with motivation. That’s the job of any writer with any character: invest the character with motivation—credible, persuasive motivation. Whether or not you get it right is another matter. I’m sure if African elephants read Canadian fiction, they’d hurl my book across the savannah.
Barbara Gowdy will appear Saturday, September 30 at 7:30 at the Voices Lifted Evening Gala with Gurjinder Basran, Sharon Butala, and Zoey Leigh Peterson at The Metro Theatre and Sunday, October 1 at 2:00 in conversation with Zsuzsi Gartner at the Greater Victoria Pubic Library.
Rose Morris is a writer and editor living in Victoria, BC. She has an MA in literature from the University of Victoria and she does editorial work for Room Magazine and The Malahat Review.
Clea Roberts lives just outside of Whitehorse in the Yukon. Her second collection of poetry, Auguries, was published this spring by Brick Books. Her debut collection, Here is Where We Disembark (Freehand Books) was a finalist for the 2010 League of Canadian Poets’ Gerald Lampert Award and was translated into German. When not writing, Roberts facilitates a workshop on grief through Hospice Yukon and is the Artistic Director of the Kicksled Reading Series.
by Ariel Gordon
Ariel Gordon: What do you want people to know about Auguries?
Clea Roberts: It might be good to start with an explanation of the title, which I’ll admit is kind of obscure.
Auguries is the ancient Roman practice of drawing an imaginary field in the sky, observing the types and behaviours of birds that fly through that field, and then using that information to provide advice to decision makers.
I’m also told that auguries can involve the reading of animal entrails, but that would have required a completely different book cover.
I guess I see the poems in this collection as auguries in their own right—my notes and observations regarding the wild and domestic spheres, based on who or what I encounter and what happens during those encounters. I don’t see myself as a purveyor of advice, but I do believe that, poetry, even if it doesn’t result in the reader making a decision, does prepare us for a decision. As Muriel Rukeyser would say, “a poem invites a total response”. In other words, poetry isn’t action, but it prepares us for action.
AG: Tell me about the difference between a first book and a second book.
CR: The poems in both books came together in much the same way. I have my routines and every poem germinates based on the ecosystem of my lived experience. Perhaps I had a better understanding of my subject and my creative process going into the second book, so it took me a little less time to bring the manuscript to the point where I could see it as a whole.
I’ve recently finished collaborating on a Japanese translation of Here Is Where We Disembark. During the process, the translator often asked me questions regarding my intent in certain poems. I became acutely aware in re-reading the poems that I could answer his questions in one of two ways: as my past self (trying to disengage hindsight), or as my current self (using the years since I’d written the poems as a lens of interpretation). I could answer his questions by trying to return to the headspace I was in 7 years ago when I wrote the poems, or I could answer the question based on what I now see in the poems according to what I know and understand of the world and myself.
So, to answer your question, the difference between the first book and the second book is, fundamentally and surprisingly, me.
AG: Tell me about writing after becoming a parent. Has your writing process changed very much?
CR: My daughter was 2 years-old when my first book, Here Is Where We Disembark, came out with Freehand Books in 2010. Now I have a 6 year-old and a 9 year-old, and another poetry book, Auguries. How did that happen? I feel very fortunate.
I’ve heard a lot of women writers (most recently, Laura Trunkey) say that with motherhood, it becomes easier to be less precious about the time of day and the environment in which writing takes place. On the whole, I think this versatility is a good thing, because it points to our commitment to writing—that it endures despite a lack of personal time and space. And perhaps as time and space shrink around one’s writing practice, it allows the practice to stand out and to be more defined by the life that brings it meaning—like a landscape under snow.
AG: We turn to poetry at our highest and lowest points—ecstasy and mourning are the ends of its continuum. How do you write about the death of a parent and the birth of a child but also daily life?
CR: When my daughter was born, I remember a nurse telling me that it was normal to feel some grief over the loss of my past self. How strange, I thought—what she was saying didn’t align with the rest of what I’d heard about motherhood (that it was All So Wonderful). But sometimes misalignments like these create the crack that lets the light in, so to speak. Becoming a mother is the best thing I’ve ever done in my life. But it altered my identity in a really fundamental way and, particularly at first, that shift didn’t always feel good.
During my mother’s illness and death, despite the sad and frightening circumstances, we laughed a lot and felt a lot of joy together. Knowing I was going to lose her, and that we would no longer be able to communicate, provided a foundation for some very ecstatic and tender moments together. Like when I walked her into the ocean for one last swim, or when I, despite my lack of talent in coiffure, learned how to do her hair and make-up because that was important to her.
My experiences in becoming a parent and losing a parent taught me that our deepest sorrows are often seeded with our greatest joys. And what would our greatest joys be if we couldn’t see the faint, backward letters of our deepest sorrows when we hold up our joy in celebration?
The fact that day-to-day life happens in between and within the moments of ecstasy and mourning is what continues to amaze me. I think those things are worth trying to capture in poetry. I think the poets main job in that sense, is to be present in the small moments—which usually turn out to be much more significant than we think.
AG: What has teaching writing about grief taught you?
CR: First and foremost, I have learned that whether you are a “teacher” or a “student”, it is a great comfort to gather and talk about grief and loss with other people. Perhaps the commonality of suffering makes it more bearable, but I think seeing vulnerability in others leaves me with an incredible sense of awe. Expressing vulnerability requires so much bravery and strength, that I’m completely humbled by the people who sign up for the workshops.
I’ve taught two kinds of workshops for Hospice Yukon on writing and grief—the first focuses on using poetry as a tool to heal from grief, while the second uses journaling for the same purpose. I decided to teach both because I often use journaling as a way to get to poetry. In my writing practice, I often start by getting the details down with journaling and then winnow the poem from there.
Over the years, I’ve noticed that the journaling workshop tends to attract people who are experiencing grief over a very recent loss, and that the poetry workshop tends to attract people who have had some time to process and consider what they are thinking and feeling about a particular loss. It’s my impression that the journaling workshop participants are dealing with grief in a very raw state—they come to unleash the unsayable and to weather the storm just by finding an anchor in words.
Conversely, the poetry workshop participants come to learn the tools that will help them craft a fully-fledged response to their grief. They might have, at least temporarily, entered a clearing in the dark forest of mourning and they are looking to draw a map using words.
At first, this struck me as interesting because poetry is often considered a form of expression that we turn to in times of high, unreserved emotion (political strife or triumph, celebrations of life, life transitions). But then I realized, I don’t write a poem from a chaotic state of mind–the waters have to be calm before I can plumb their depths. Wordsworth said “poetry is emotion recollected in tranquility”. If this is true, then it makes sense to say that journaling is emotion in the midst of the chaos. Both are really important points of practice for me.
What makes poetry so powerful (and what we reach for at our highest and lowest points) is that it refines vulnerability to its essence and makes universal, abstract emotions very personal and accessible. There is nothing impulsive about poetry and the extreme compression afforded by poetic devices (metaphor, onomatopoeia, caesura, alliteration, metre etc) makes every word count.
AG: How does grief write differently than other emotional states?
CR: I like the idea your question suggests very much–that grief may write differently than other emotional states. Grief can have many nuances and is often a lot more complex than just being really, really sad that someone has died. Sometimes grief is shadowed by our own fears of mortality. Sometimes a death of a loved one can bring us unexpected relief and/or guilt. Sometimes we are not grieving the person we lost at all, but the person we wish they had been or the love they never got. Sometimes grief contains another, older grief that must be processed, and once that older grief is opened up we discover yet another grief—like a set of nesting dolls.
The different stages of grief, as articulated by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, encompass so many different emotional states—denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. I’m not sure that we have mapped out other emotional landscapes as clearly as we have mapped out grief. It makes sense, therefore, that the state of grief—whatever the source—should be a wellspring for the most profound writing from our deepest selves.
Clea Roberts will be appearing Friday, September 29 at 3:30-5:00 at the Greater Victoria Pubic Library with Gregory Scofield and Julie Paul.
Ariel Gordon is a Winnipeg writer.