Darrel J. McLeod is the author of Mamaskatch. A Cree Coming of Age. It has been described as “A heartbreakingly candid memoir of A Cree boy’s resilience and grace in the face of chaos and inter-generational tragedy.” Mamaskatch is a Cree word used as a response to dreams shared. This is Darrel’s debut and his memoir brings to Canada a stunning new voice.
Interview by Jennifer Manuel
Jennifer Manuel: Ben Yagoda said that in regards to the idea of writers finding their voice, “it’s an odd use of the common metaphor—a speaking voice is there for us all along and doesn’t require a search party—but it’s undoubtedly accurate.” You spent six years working on this memoir, it’s your first book, and it seems so fitting that, as you worked on the manuscript, you were also developing your voice as a jazz singer. How would you describe your search for your voice—intimate and magical—in this book?
Darrel J. McLeod: That’s a fascinating question Jen, and one I hadn’t really considered. My mother had an amazing voice – a lovely alto when singing, a full lyrical voice for storytelling, and a convincing authoritative voice for scolding and cajoling. My most precious memories are of Mother chording on the guitar and singing to us kids in Cree or English. She told me stories in the wee hours when we were both in another zone – her, drunk from alcohol, and me dazed from sleep deprivation.
But Mother lost her voice in her late thirties. As a result, I grew up very cognizant of my voice, that it was a gift – one that shouldn’t take for granted or abuse. Instinctively, I knew I should develop and nurture it, use it to sing and tell stories. School teachers and excellent private instructors helped me to do this over the years – I didn’t do it on my own.
Finding and developing my written voice followed a similar trajectory. In grade school the teachers would often ask me to read aloud the simple pieces I had written in response to their prompts, and my writing didn’t seem to leave anyone indifferent.
I always knew I’d perform as a singer, and in my third year of university, in a Canadian lit course I took as an elective, I knew I’d be a writer. The day I began to read The Diviners, by Margaret Laurence, I knew I wanted to write like her – to tell my story directly or indirectly somehow, but I had to get it out there. Years later, when I read Half-Breedby Maria Campbell andIn Search of April Raintree by Beatrice Culleton, I became even more determined.
JM: You take some risks in this book, narratively speaking, that really pay off. In “Hail Mary, Full of Grace,” you tell a part of your mother’s past in residential school which, since you weren’t there at the time, paints a grey area between non-fiction and fiction. How did you navigate this grey area?
DJM: I concluded the story “Hail Mary Full of Grace” at a week-long workshop with Shaena Lambert in the summer of 2014 – you were there Jen, and you were so incredibly helpful. I was thrilled with the final version of the story, and submitted it to Douglas Glover for publication in Numéro Cinq. After helping me to find a better ending, he published it, but I knew I wanted to include it in my memoir as well. I wasn’t sure if this would be ethical or fair, because it wasn’t my story per se, so I consulted a couple of academic friends who have studied the effects of genocide and the concept of genetic memory. They shared an article by Tori Rodriguez in Scientific American. This piece led me to believe that my ancestors’ experiences have affected the composition of my DNA, determining the person I would become. My mother’s story is an integral part of my story.
“A person’s experience as a child or teenager can have a profound impact on their future children’s lives, new work is showing. Rachel Yehuda, a researcher in the growing field of epigenetics and the intergenerational effects of trauma, and her colleagues have long studied mass trauma survivors and their offspring. Their latest results reveal that descendants of people who survived the Holocaust have different stress hormone profiles than their peers, perhaps predisposing them to anxiety disorders.”
JM: You are a writer who is often expressing publicly your deep appreciation for the writing mentors in your life. What does the writing community mean to you, particularly in terms your development over the past six years?
DJM: Simply put – developing my skills as a writer has brought a new family into my life. The relationship is that intimate and full. Writers are a certain breed, which I won’t even attempt to describe here, because and I wouldn’t do it justice in just a few words, and I’m still early into my writing career. I know that Mamaskatchwouldn’t be the book that it is without the mentorship of Betsy Warland and Shaena Lambert, and the wonderful collaboration I had with you Jen. In addition to Betsy and Shaena’s incredible input, you simply gave me permission to do things that I really really wanted to do, but hadn’t seen done anywhere in modern literature. Like shifting PoV in rapid succession between fleeting characters, and having the Three Sisters Mountains as characters. They say it takes a community to raise a child, and I would say something similar applies to grooming a successful writer. Each year my writing family expands.
JM: One of the many things that must be daunting about publishing a memoir is your accountability to those real people depicted in the book. However, after mentioning that most of your family members in this book have passed away, you claimed that this in fact brings an additional accountability—to the spirit world. How do you honour this accountability? Does your Mosom, your great-grandfather and spiritual guide, play a role in this?
DJM: Three of my seven siblings are still alive – my three younger sisters. Fortunately, so are many of my cousins, some of whom appear as characters in my memoir. I have begun to hear from cousins who are reading Mamaskatch, and the feedback is rich – they seem incredibly grateful that I have documented some aspects of our family’s transition. Within just two or three generations, we went from living a traditional Cree lifestyle (off of the land) and speaking our language fluently, to being meshed, by force, into society, forcefully deprived of our language and much of our culture.
At one point when I was revising an early version of Mamaskatch, with Shaena Lambert’s guidance, she said to me, “Darrel, you’ve conjured all of your loved ones who are gone, and brought them together in one place,” and while I didn’t deliberately set out to do this, it’s true, Mamaskatchtruly does accomplish this, at least for me – the title is so apt. And, while I’ve exposed the weaknesses and short-comings of a few family members and friends, what many would call “sins” of my family, I’ve revealed my own flaws and mistakes even more. I confessed to the world, and in doing so, sought absolution. I hope that the overarching message that comes across in Mamaskatchis one of compassion, hope, healing and reconciliation. I’m fiercely proud of every one of my family members and how they struggle(d) to survive.
As for my great-grandfather, Joseph Powder, he was our saviour, literally and figuratively. He lived until I was eight or nine years old. He was a spiritual presence then, and still is. He guides me in almost everything I do, and lives on through me. He is a wise, gentle, caring, and forgiving spirit.
Interview by Sharleen Jonsson
Sarah Weinman is the author ofThe Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel that Scandalized the World (September 2018). Sheis editor of Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s and ’50s and Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives. She covers book publishing for Publishers Marketplace, and has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major American and Canadian media. Native of Ottawa and graduate of McGill University and of John Jay College of Criminal Justice’s forensic science graduate program, Weinman lives in Brooklyn, New York.
SJ:The Real Lolitadraws connections between Vladimir Nabokov’s novel,Lolita,and the real-life abduction of Sally Horner. At what point did you realize you cared enough about Sally to commit to telling her story? Did anything in your initial research lead you to imagine one particular scene that grew to haunt you?
SW:The Real Lolitabegan life as an article for Hazlitt, so my realization dated back to late 2013 or thereabouts, when I stumbled across a 2005 essay by the Nabokov scholar Alexander Dolinin connecting the dots between Lolitaand Sally’s kidnapping. Because the literary essay, excellent as it was, didn’t answer a central question: who was Sally? How had her story been reported? Was anyone alive to remember her? And so those were the questions I had in mind as I began to research and report things out, first for the piece (published in November 2014) and then for the book, which took, in stop-and-start form, another two or so years to research and write. I always knew Sally’s story was bigger than a mere article. The connections to Lolitawere so rich and nuanced and I wanted to expand on that in book form.
SJ:Your story of Sally is heartbreaking and riveting. We get to know many people involved in her short life, and we also get a strong sense of Camden, New Jersey, and of American culture in the late 1940s. You weave a lot of threads together into a story that never sags. Can you talk about how you structured this book? What were the challenges?
SW: Sally’s kidnapping and the road trip aspect – going from Camden to Atlantic City to Baltimore to Dallas to San Jose, where she was rescued after 21 months in captivity – was always going to be the spine of the book, and that the Nabokov sections would be attached, spoke-like, with other shorter chapters on Camden’s history, other pivotal characters, and Lolita‘s weird cultural afterlife, slotting in somehow. But it was certainly challenging to make the book of my vision match the final product. Nabokov’s a daunting figure and it took a long time to have the confidence to step into his aura and wrestle with it while respecting his genius (it helped that I finished The Real Lolitain a state of additional admiration and love for Lolita, which remains at present.) And I always wanted the book to be paced like a thriller because what happened to Sally is a suspense story, with many twists and turns. So, too, is Lolita, and getting the Nabokov sections to complement was tough; many pages of outright lit-crit had to be cut to keep the pacing consistent.
My editors, Anne Collins at Knopf Canada and Zack Wagman at Ecco, really pushed me to dig deeper, go further, and write better over a period of about five months of revision, and that The Real Lolitadoesn’t sag is a testament to all that hard work, in such a collaborative, positive manner.
SJ: What would you say to Sally if you were (magically) able to communicate with her?
SW: I fear this would be akin to a rip in the time-space continuum to think about this! But my answer, I think, is the answer I give to people as to why I wanted to write about her: that she matters, and deserves our full attention. And I suppose, more directly, that her family and friends loved her and still love her, and that she remains a tremendous influence upon them.
SJ:You provide a detailed description of problems Nabokov had getting Lolitainto the hands of American readers. In 2018, the story of a middle-aged man having a sexual relationship with a 12-year-old girl might be even more difficult to bring to the public. Can you say anything about how the industry currently reacts to “difficult” books? If the entertainment industry is afraid to be politically incorrect, what, if anything, do we lose?
SW: I’ve written about this a little in an essay for Vanity Fair, as it is part of a larger issue of appropriation, who gets to write what types of stories, diversity, and the like. And ultimately, I’ve come to believe that any writer is free and should write whatever and however they want, but the degree of difficulty, and the entry barrier, must also be extraordinarily high. Debut novels have always needed to be exceptional, and as editors are more inclusive in the kinds of books they buy, the range of exceptionality must change, which I think is ultimately for the betterment of literature.
The question I ask writers (as well as myself) constantly is: why are youthe person to write this particular story? Listen, do the work, come in with humility and generosity, and the stories will be there.KEEP READING
Poet and short fiction writer Dina Del Bucchia is the author of three collections of poetry, a recent book of short fiction, Don’t Tell Me What to Do, co-host of the Can’t Lit podcast, and a UBC Creative Writing instructor.She is also a senior editor of Poetry Is Dead magazine and the Artistic Director of the Real Vancouver Writers’ Series.
Interview by Sue Fast.
Sue Fast: What intrigues you about, to steal wording from your book jacket, “things that might seem ridiculous”? Why do these make great stories — as they do in Don’t Tell Me What to Do?
Dina Del Bucchia: I think in our regular lives ridiculous things happen regularly. Or things we might perceive as normal are ridiculous to others. I’m interested in the way people interact with the world when something unexpected happens or when a person makes a decision that has ridiculous consequences. When we take risks, or allow ourselves to do something outside of what’s comfortable, there is always a story in that.
SF: You have an ability to balance humour with sadness in a way that makes readers feel for and relate to your characters. How do you achieve this balance?
DDB: I think this question stems from the previous one. The ridiculous brings both despair and hilarity, depending on the situation and how it plays out. Sometimes it’s both at once. The surprise of something can be funny or sad. Or thinking about juxtaposition, like when you consider the structure of a joke. Sometimes the premise of a joke might seem odd, and then the punchline is funny because it’s devastating.
SF: Your stories in Don’t Tell Me What to Do are often poetic. Do you have a favourite genre? If so, which one? And will you tackle any others?
DDB: I love them both! The way you can explore ideas and use tone in each is what draws me to writing short stories and poetry. And like everyone else I am trying to write a novel, but I do not love it. Haha. I have tried to write non-fiction, but so far I don’t have a lot of confidence and think it’s pretty bad. I’d love to write a picture book, a weird TV show, a musical. I am pretty greedy.
SF: In your acknowledgments you credit—among others—your writing partner in Rom Com, Daniel Zomparelli, as a “creative companion for life”. How does writing with someone compare to writing solo?
DDB: You have to do so much less. Just kidding. Mostly. We are working on another project now and it’s early days, but I already feel an excitement. There’s an energy you feel when you’re riffing with someone else, a thrill to see what they’ve come up with and how you can make it work. Writing alone is kind of lonely, especially for an extrovert like me. Having another person to discuss ideas with, and also work out problems, whether they be structural or thematic or whatever is so much better when you have a writing partner that you trust. And a different perspective is great. Sure, you can leave something for months at a time to get perspective, or you can sit down in a Google doc, or over a glass of wine, and hash it out. You can always send your work to someone you trust for notes. When you are collaborating with someone you trust, you feel like the support is there the whole time.
SF: You’ve said you don’t write every day and that you don’t disconnect (electronically) when you write. What does your writing schedule/process look like?
DDB: I think it can be useful for writers to know what other writers are doing, to get ideas, to try things out and see if they work. I also think when we try to model ourselves after someone else it can lead to disappointment if we aren’t as productive or perceive that it’s not “working.”
The process of writing is every-changing for me. I used to write in the mornings a lot, but lately life has been exhausting so I have only been able to really connect with work on my days off — which are two on a good week. I do well when I can make a schedule, but also don’t always have that ability. And different stages of writing call for different types of things. In an early draft I can write for a while and just let myself go off. If I’m a few drafts deep I need very focused time, and if I am revising something for submission or publication, I have to create a schedule for myself and an idea of how much work is ahead of me in order to be able to get it done. When it’s crunch time, I might tell myself I can’t go online for an hour, and then after that I’ll get back on and look at Instagram for otter photos to motivate me to revise for another hour.
I also don’t isolate well. Sometimes I connect through social media, but usually I like to have plans to see people in order to be able to feel motivated to continue. Social interaction fuels the times I need to focus — and not constantly living in a sweaty writer mess of laptop and papers and chips is better for my brain in general.
SF: Why are short stories cool?
DDB: Are they cool? If anything I feel they are less popular than novels or non-fiction, and often less popular things are seen as cool. So maybe they are cool by this definition. But also I do think they are disliked by a lot of people. Ask a group of people if they like short stories and I bet half will say they don’t read them. I love them because they are so varied in what they can do in a shorter format. I think you can really distil an idea, and provide clarity and sustain a more poetic tone. Also, you can leave people wanting more which is also good advice for literary readings. Don’t go over your time, kids!KEEP READING
Interview by Barbara Black
The 2018 Victoria Festival of Authors once again offers an event that draws the written word out of its solitary context and, this year, into a joint artistic exploration of movement, music, and poetry. Victoria’s popular Palabra Flamenco brings their unique literary flamenco collaboration to the festival stage with “La Palabra en el Tiempo.” Prior to the festival, I asked artistic director and dancer Denise Yeo and poet Garth Martens about their project and this unique and lasting art form.
Barbara Black: What are the roots of “La Palabra en el Tiempo”? How did it come into being as a collaborative venture combining spoken word, dance, and music and how unique is this concept to flamenco?
Denise Yeo: Garth and I first explored, in conversation, how English poetry and flamenco might come together a couple years ago. In early 2017, we experimented with existing text from Garth and traditional music from my husband, flamenco guitarist Gareth Owen. My role was diplomatic, finding language both poet and flamenco musician understood. From those early attempts I fashioned an entire show involving four of us: dancer, singer, guitarist, and poet.
Poetry spoken alongside flamenco music is not unique in Spanish, but an old practice that arguably pre-dates singing in flamenco. Poetry, in flamenco’s origins, is an oral tradition. The “text” was not traditionally crafted to stand alone on the page. Layering of written English poetry and flamenco is unique. Both English poetry and flamenco are musical; however, they do not share a common musical root and therefore don’t always like to reside in the same space together.
Garth Martens: I’ve been a student of Alma de España for nine years. For twenty-six years, the school has promoted on Vancouver Island the study of flamenco not as a cul-de-sac within modern or ballet programming, but as an end in itself, deserving and capacious enough for life-long study. This accounts for Alma de España’s integration of the study of dance, guitar, song, and palmas (clapping), informed by what’s happening in Jerez de la Frontera, Spain, where instructors and students periodically study.
My commitment to flamenco isn’t about trying to bag a poem out of it. I was only ready to try this literary flamenco collaboration after I performed as a dance soloist on stage for more than a year, which is no claim to any expertise beyond that I’d given this art form enough respect to feel in partnership with it. Thankfully Denise, Gareth, and Veronica ensure this experiment is in relationship with tradition. It is important to us that the art forms have their stature, that neither flamenco nor the poetry is diminished.
BB: Where there’s flamenco there is the notion and practise of duende. Christopher Maurer, the editor of “In Search of Duende,” sees four elements at work in poet Federico García Lorca’s vision of duende: irrationality, earthiness, a heightened awareness of death, and “a dash of the diabolical.”
Denise, who are you when you dance flamenco? What moves and speaks through your body? How is duendepresent?
DY: I don’t know how duendeis present. I don’t think I intentionally ask for it to show up. Instead I think I can talk about how it is when dancing feels like it’s in service to something a little difficult to talk about. The “good dancing” is when something larger than, more dimensional, deeper, and more foundational is being served. Someone has called it “what is.” In performance the “what is” encompasses myself, the other musicians, the audience, the room, the air, the ground underneath, the rocks: the history and future of these beings. Categories of flamenco music and dance are called palos, each with its structural and connotative associations. In my experience, the archetypal energy of the palowe invite into the space evokes a reverberation and acknowledgement from every being present. The good dancing requires a kind of deep listening and almost mind-less response on my part.
When the good dancing happens I typically have decided to throw away my plan and surrender and respond to what is going on right in that moment. I don’t think about the lines my body makes, or what expressions show on my face. From training and practice, my body moves through different rhythms and forms, but at the mercy of the moment. Usually simple patterns robust and earthy enough to contain heightened energy are what emit from my body. Nothing clever or terribly sophisticated is at hand material-wise when the good dancing happens. Clever and sophisticated are for other times when the performance goal is different.
BB: Garth, Tracy K. Smith on poets.org writes “…the duendesleeps deep within the poet… asks to be awakened and wrestled…. We write poems in order to engage in the perilous yet necessary struggle to inhabit ourselves—our real selves, the ones we barely recognize—more completely.” How is your poetry or that of other poets woven into “La Palabra en el Tiempo”? Is duendepresent there, too?
GM: These encounters can’t be guaranteed. At best, we create rooms or clearings where a meeting might occur. I don’t want to claim more than that. There is no exercise that predetermines it. We can look where we don’t want to, but need to. Get close to what’s grotesque or in descent, and if the instant is seared, that’s it.
I like what Smith writes, and I add there is more than the self in duende. In Jan Zwicky’sAuden as Philosopher, she separates inarticulate, obliged response to a Sacred Presence or Event from an attempt to communicate this experience so others know it. There is a tension between testimony and technique. It’s possible duendeemerges when an artist, capable of baroque majesty, works crudely to reveal a truth. Of responses to Sacred Presence or Event, among examples from Zwicky’s essay, duendeis nearer Auden’s “panic dread”.
I wrote the poems when visiting a friend in New Mexico. Denise and I combed through the work, chose whole poems, or a section of one, or fragments, and identified each of these with one of flamenco’s traditional palos, categories of traditional flamenco music and dance, such as fandangos, tarantos,bulerías, and soleá, each with their own structure and emotional associations. How are these woven into La Palabra en el Tiempo? I perform poems in context of the palo, in place of or alongside flamenco song (cante). I speak in relationship to others on stage and what they’re up to, with resolves for the guitarist or dancer. Apart from mine, we include in the show an untitled poem by Andalusian poet Antonio Machado, translated by Robert Bly.
BB: For people who are not familiar with flamenco, what are the greatest misconceptions (or the greatest surprises) about this art form?
DY: I think that flamenco can bypass cultural norms and other similar learned structures in the brain. Like other musical forms, it can tug directly at emotions and evoke feelings to do with parts of ourselves that we might have forgotten. People are surprised when they see flamenco because it sounds and looks unusual to those steeped in dominant western culture. It’s unusual and foreign to them, and yet they feel a response to it.
GM: Flamenco is often associated with the words ‘passion’ and ‘fiery’, and it is those, but one of the art form’s surprises is the breadth of personhood it allows. Faces we’re not meant to show, we’re told are inappropriate, rule the moment.
BB: As one of the collaborators in this piece, tell me about the beats, the rhythms, the words, the emotion, the voice of flamenco, how they affect you personally in performance, in the heat of the moment.
DY: In performance the rhythm, words, emotion, and cante(song) serve to remind me what we’re trying to achieve. They set off a frequency that points to the archetypal energy invoked. My thinking and feeling is shaped and responds in kind.
GM: Every so often, I’ve had to scrap-heap my understanding of what happens, rhythmically speaking, in flamenco. I’m grateful to Denise and Gareth for their patience and time in helping me recalibrate my palmas. I’m learning not only where movement begins, through shoulders, wrists, and hands, but how rhythm might, if I practice, pool in my consciousness so that my thinking informs my movement and ultimately the groove. If I admire the dancer’s footwork rather than heed it, or over-think what I’m hearing, I wobble. Ideally I’m at ease, in relationship, listening, physically ready but relaxed. If everyone, guitarist, singer, dancer, and palmero, is at their best, monuments happen — surprises that satisfy because they seem destined — etched in commotion on stage. Where lightning was. You can’t legislate that. You can only round your corners.
The emotion, when it enters, is unpredictable. Today in rehearsal, Denise and Veronica introduced something for soleáfor only the two of them, and in their circling there was trust and grief and inheritance. I saw vulnerability on Denise’s face, frustration, and a welling up. I was very moved. At another re-worked section of soleá, when speaking my poem to Veronica with greater sensitivity, responsive to her movements and inches from her face, I again felt unusually emotional. With every performance, in rehearsal or on stage, the weight shifts. We’re very close. In rehearsal, there’s laughter when we screw up or goof around. Sometimes there are arguments.
BB: Will there be more exciting projects in your future combining the spoken word and flamenco?
DY: I think so. The experiment to bring English poetry and flamenco together has been even more successful than I thought it would be. We’ve learned so much. It has opened horizons I hadn’t considered when we first collaborated.
GM: Yeah, we have more to do.
BB: Here’s a Bonus Question: what is the sound of flamenco without an audience?
DY: There’s always an audience. Sometimes the audience isn’t people.
Palabra Flamenco is the ensemble: artistic director and dancer Denise Yeo, poet Garth Martens, singer Veronica Maguire, and guitarist Gareth Owen. “La Palabra en el Tiempo” will be performed at 7:30 p.m. on September 26 at Metro Studio Theatre (1411 Quadra Street). Purchase tickets here.KEEP READING
Sarah Selecky’s new novel, Radiant Shimmering Light(2018), proves again, Barbara Gowdy says, that Selecky, “is a writer perfectly attuned to the music of the present moment.”
Interview by Margaret Laxton
ML: There are a number of powerful sayings in your novel such as:
“Do no more than three things a day.“
“Create before you consume.”
“Courage is action in the face of fear.”
“Let yourself want what you want.”
Do these sayings apply to your own writing practice and life? Are there any which
you wouldn’t adopt?
Sarah Selecky: These are all excellent mantras! Can you imagine how great it would be if we could live them all every day? They’re also excellent reminders for anyone who’s writing a novel: “Create before you consume” (write before checking email); “Dance about it” (when you don’t know what to write next, moving your body can be extremely helpful); “Courage is action in the face of fear” (feel the fear and write it anyway).
ML: The juxtaposition of auras, light, and colour is dominant throughout the novel, especially at the end when Lilian comes into her full powers.
Is it possible that artists and writers do have heightened sensual experiences that they can incorporate into their creative processes?
SS: Day to day living can distract all of us from the richness that’s available in each moment. I like to take my writing students through exercises that bring them into a state of deep noticing, so they can write great scenes with real sensory details. I don’t know if artists have a greater capacity for sensual experiences than anyone else. Perhaps because of the nature of their work, they give more time in their day to slow down and clear distractions so they can take in those details.
An interesting note: people with synesthesia are eight times as likely to work in a creative field. Pharrell Williams, Tori Amos, and Vladimir Nabokov are all artists who share this trait (they can see words as colour, or hear sound as light). So maybe there’s something special happening there.
ML: The charismatic and creative women that we meet throughout the novel all have a strong media presence. Is it possible in today’s world to be a successful writer or artist, as in Lilian’s case, without that online audience?
SS: I was at a conference this year and writers on panels were all saying, “If you’re a writer, you must be on Twitter.” I’m not on Twitter. I don’t like crowded parties, either — too many people talking at once.
The way I see it is: if you like being on Instagram, then your presence on Instagram will help you find your audience. If you don’t like being on Instagram, then being on it isn’t going to help you with anything, except feeling resentful about the time you spend there.
I tell my students, be a charged particle in your atmosphere.
Make your creative work your priority — being connected to your work is what makes you sparkle. For writers, stop worrying about publication, or your Twitter following, and start reading more books, going to festivals, readings and panel discussions. Attend workshops and apply to retreats. Be generous: post comments on writing websites and blogs; write thank you notes to authors; read your stories at open mics; have discussions with writers you admire. Feel in love with your connection to your work, wherever you go — be it online or off.
ML: In some ways your novel seems to mock the growing trend, especially amongst women, to slavishly follow lifestyle gurus and bloggers. Characters like Eleven and Jonathan make no pretense of being successful entrepreneurs.There is something rather pathetic about the actions of their followers who are willing to spend enormous amounts of money to attend their lifestyle seminars and to buy their online products.
Has self-esteem and self-reliance waned to the extent that identifying with lifestyle leaders and their brands is needed to attain a fully realized life?
SS: Is there anything more human than longing for connection? It’s not pathetic to want to belong, to feel happy, creative and connected.
A feeling of real, in-person community right now is extremely valuable, because we are starved for connection. In times of crisis or anxiety, self-reliance only goes so far. Human beings come together because we feel better when we aren’t alone. I think there are compassionate lifestyle gurus and spiritual leaders out there who have started to sense this deep need, and they’re trying to help. It’s no wonder that so many people are responding to their offers.
The more interesting question is, what happens to intimacy, self-actualization and spirituality when it becomes commodified? Can we imagine alternative ways, perhaps somewhere between capitalism and socialism, to help people feel connected and fulfilled?
ML: On your website, wwwsarahselecky.com, you advise emerging writers to
“Write What You Want to Read.”
What writers have influenced your practice? Are there any that you consciously or unconsciously emulate?
SS: I wanted this book to be filled with wonder and light, and to do that, I needed to access awe and mystery in my own process. I found myself drawn to books that went beyond realism and into the magic realm. Ruth Ozeki’s Tale for the Time Being was an influence. In an interview, Ozeki described how challenged she was when writing the magical parts of that story — it felt like there was a wall separating her from it. She said that she was advised by Karen Joy Fowler to just write through the wall. This advice helped me, too.
Karen Joy Fowler’s writing has always been an inspiration to me. I love that she writes whatever she wants, in whatever genre she wants, and doesn’t box herself in by external expectations. She writes what she wants to read! Other writers I went to for sustenance while writing this novel: Neil Gaiman, George Saunders, and Francesca Lia Block. I re-read The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe a few times, too, to experience the feeling of wonder I felt as a young reader.KEEP READING
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.KEEP READING
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.KEEP READING
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.KEEP READING
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)