“Vivid, hilarious, enormously entertaining” was one reviewer’s response (Andreas Schroeder) to Carla Funk’sfirst, and marvelous, memoir of her Mennonite childhood in Vanderhoof BC: Every Little Scrap and Wonder. She is the author of five books of poetry, the most recent, Gloryland. She was the first Poet Laureate of the City of Victoria, has taught at the University of Victoria Faculty of Fine Arts and in her living room, and is working on her second memoir. One of the chapters in this memoir, Butchering Day, won the Constance Rooke Nonfiction Prize. She lives in Victoria BC, for which we are all grateful.
Carla is interviewd by Barbara Pelman, author of 3 books of poetry, the latest: Narrow Bridge published by Ronsdale Press 2017.
Barbara Pelman: First, I want to tell you how much I loved the book. I laughed, I underlined, I made notes, I couldn’t put it down. You made the people come alive so clearly I could have walked into that hog butchering backyard. Ok, so let’s start. While reading, I notice that you avoid any reference to dates or ages. I assume this is deliberate. What effect does it have on the memoir, to keep it timeless?
Carla Funk :Yes, I chose to leave out specific references ages, primarily as a way of replicating my own childhood experience of time, which was less tuned to dates and more rooted in the passage of seasons and potent sensory impressions. It strikes me that dates and numbers and etchings on a calendar are the way our grown-up brains are trained to chart time, but as kids, our days rise and fall with the sun and moon, are marked by stars and snow and a birch tree’s leaves going to fire.
BP: I love the metaphors you use to thread the memoir together: the patchwork quilt and fabric fragments, the seasons and how they spill into each other, the bonfire, the family members who weave in and out of the story. At what point did the metaphors come to you as a structure?
CF: I remember Jack Hodgins offering me a piece of wisdom when I asked about how to turn my poem-thinking into prose. He suggested that I find a structural metaphor, one that would allow me to see the shape of the narrative and could act as a guide in the writing process. Early on in the drafting stage, I realized that I had several images of sewing, and more than reference to home-stitched blankets and quilts. Because memory is such a patchwork of bits and pieces, it struck me that this was the truest structural metaphor I might find for this collection.
BP: Knowing you today, it’s hard, and wonderful, to see what a rapscrapper you were as a kid! I especially loved the chapter about your brother, how hard you fought, how you regret it now (well, a little). And the ways you unrepentantly disobeyed your parents: the fall from the roof, the ice cream story. I’m really looking forward to the next memoir to see how (and if) these characteristics changed!
CF: You know how folks say that sometimes it has to get worse before it gets better? Count on that for the follow-up memoir!
BP: The chapter “Rules of War” contain a great deal about the war between the sexes, and your youthful attempts to bring an end to that war. Your mother seems also to be caught up in that war, more a hostage than a full member of a regiment. How did you view your mother in her role? And the other mothers? How do you view them now? Did it seem to you that your future was headed in that direction, to the world of Barbies and not hand-made guns?
CF: As a kid, I don’t think I thought very objectively about my mother as a full human. She was “Mom,” and yes, a woman in a realm ruled by the men, but being born in that environment made it ordinary, the way things were. I knew my mother was competent, hard-working, feisty and full of pluck, but the final word rested with my father, as it did in most households in that time and town. Other mothers were sometimes stricter, sometimes softer, sometimes were fancier than mine and wore lipstick and nail polish, and sometimes they cussed and smoked like my dad’s trucker friends. Only in adolescence did I start to sense that my script had been written for me—that I might be expected to echo the domestic pattern set by my mother, and her mother before her. That pattern wasn’t one I ever wanted to repeat, until, of course, I fell in love with a young man. (See the second memoir for more dirt on that.)
BP: It’s always interesting to me how a poet turns to memoir (though of course there is lots of memoir within the poems) and what happens in that process. What did you find in writing a memoir that freed you, different from poetry? What was sacrificed in the change of genre? What did it feel like, to continue beyond the right hand margin? What insights are possible in the different genres? Can you talk a bit about this?
CF: It took quite a long while before the full width of the page felt natural to me. Not thinking about line breaks, about the same density of expression in language, about trochees and alliteration—all those poetic techniques—felt disorienting, as if I were speaking a new dialect. But what I’ve loved is the room to breathe inside the story—and to let the story breathe. I truly believe poetry has taught me all I know about building sentences. In places throughout this memoir, I found myself slipping into a steady iambic cadence, because music inside the writing is vital to me. But prose is training me in literary stamina and long-form attention, two areas in which I absolutely need growth.
BP: Similarly, it’s always such a pleasure to read a poet writing prose. How vivid the verbs, how rhythmic the phrasing. I loved ‘scooching’ and “brisked” and other happy verbs. I’m not sure what it is, but a memoir from a poet is always more alive, I think. You are in the company of “Small Beneath the Sky” and “There is a Season” and “What You Heard is True”, the way that memoir gives us new lives to try on, to see through the eyeholes. What does it feel like to have ‘bared your soul’ so deliciously? Is anyone you wrote about concerned at your characterizations?
CF: Only a few times during the actual writing of this book did I experience a brief jolt of “uh-oh”—a sort of inner questioning about whether or not it was okay for me to put in that bit about so-and-so, or share that particular detail. Writing out of my own life doesn’t feel odd, perhaps because I tend toward transparency, but I have definitely wrestled with how to make sure I don’t shame or dishonour anyone else in the telling. This is why some names and identifying details have been swapped for others. (Unfortunately for my mother, though, I couldn’t find a substitute for the name “Mom.”)
BP: We talked about your tiptoeing and then fantastically shining into memoir, with your first winning essay, Returning. Can you say more about the journey into memoir, why it seemed a necessary and inevitable step, and what is coming next? (Can’t wait!)
CF: I think many writers who begin in poetry wonder at the expansive realm of prose, partly because poems seem to find their way to such a small tribe of readers. But mostly, I had stories thrumming around inside me that didn’t seem to fit inside the tiny house of a poem. Each essay, chapter, and story I write feels like its own poem, but simply with larger square footage. Currently, I’m working on a follow-up memoir collection about coming of age as a female in a male-dominated, blue-collar world.
Thanks so much for talking with me, Carla, and happy memoiring into the second one!
Julie Paul is the author of four books, the latest of which Meteorites has just been released. The Pull of the Moon received both an IPPY award and her hometown Victoria Book Prize, and was a Top 100 Book in The Globe and Mail. The Rules of the Kingdom was a finalist for both the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize and the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award.
Here Julie is interviewed by Yaana Dancer
Yaana Dancer: Did you have a conceptual structure for the short story collection, Meteorites, before you began?
Julie Paul: No, not at all. I don’t work that way. I wait until I have a number of stories or poems and then look at them and say okay well, what’s going on as far as themes and structure go. I’ve tried to write to a theme before and failed, for example, with my first collection of stories, The Jealousy Bone, I didn’t know I was writing about jealousy until I looked at all my stories, and then I thought I might write a couple more with that theme in mind. They were terrible.
YD: At what point did you realize that you had something with this collection?
JP: I had built up a number of stories by the time I approached my publisher. I felt the title story ‘Meteorites’ lent itself to a collection about what a meteorite is. A bomb-like projectile from elsewhere. Completely out of the blue. Potentially dangerous. There’s also a religious overtone or theme to ‘Meteorites’ that speaks to the other stories too; its original title was ‘Sanctify.’ To sanctify. To bless. Make it okay. Make it holy.
YD: There’s also something edgy, some stories more than others, like the story ‘The Expansion.’ That was wickedly edgy.
JP: There’s darkness in there for sure. I like to play with that. In all my story collections, I have one or more stories that are speculative fiction. I like to push those boundaries a little bit. I’d call ‘The Expansion’ speculative fiction, where there’s one element a little off. Sometimes you need to take something in the real world, take it to extremes, to comment on what’s happening now.
YD: What prompted you to write the story, ‘The Expansion’?
JP: Every time I drive through Mt. Doug Park, I think: there’s going to be a GIANT DEER LEAPING IN FRONT OF MY CAR. I took that notion and let my imagination run free.
YD: What’s your favourite story?
JP: It’s hard to choose a favourite, but I gave myself permission to go big with the title story, ‘Meteorites.’ Sometimes you’re concerned about word count for publication in journals. I appreciate this story for needing the time, needing the unraveling. But then ‘Spilling the Bees’ started out as a novel that didn’t work but I was very attached to the characters, so I took one of the plot threads of that novel and turned it into ‘Spilling the Bees.’ Do you have a favourite?
YD: Mine is the story, ‘The Hangman.’ It must be the shortest. I love how it reads as flash fiction. It’s packed. Concise. A jewel of a story.
JP: Thank you! Glad you enjoyed it! That’s a very old story from the mid 2000’s. It’s undergone a lot of revision. This version is the shortest it’s ever been. I was breaking the rules with this one, about how writers are supposed to stay with the same point of view, keep the same tense, within one story. I move from past to present to future within a few pages.
YD: Are there others that have been transformed like that? That started out as something else?
JP: “Trajectory” was also an old story that’s undergone a number of revisions. And “Sleeping With Kittens.” The main character’s a young woman, a Psychology Major. She’s very superior. Fun story to write. It did not start as a letter — a one-sided conversation, really.
YD: What would you advise a writer regarding how to gather together a collection of stories?
JP: I would suggest starting with figuring out which story works best for them as readers. What resonates? Who do you identify with the most? And then, in particular, why? Is it the point of view? The subject matter? Humour? When you have lot of material. Circle images. Focus in. For me, in writing stories, in developing character and plot, I often use ‘what if.’ ‘What if’ this character did this? What is the meteorite that’s going to affect them? With short stories, that’s often the moto: everything seems to be going well and then…
Eve Joseph is the author of Quarrels which won the prestigious 2019 Griffin Poetry Prize and shortlisted for Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize 2019, beautifully show her poetic play in tension with truths unravelling in unlikely images and re-forming insight and being. She also won the Huber Evans Non-Fiction Prize, BC Book Prizes for In The Slender Margin, 2015 and Nine Bouquets for Nine Sailors was shortlisted for Prism International Nonfiction prize, in 2013.
Here is Eve interviewed by Victoria poet Wendy Donawa, author of Thin Air of the Knowable (Brick, 2017) and The Gorge: A Cartography of Sorrows (JackPine, 2015).
Wendy Donawa: Quarrels’ prose poems seem a marked departure from the lyricism of The Secret Signature of Things, of a liminal world and its tensions “casting a net around the dead, pulling them closer”. And yet it seems that moving into a new form, your prose poems also reach back to those creative tensions. Would you say how this shift has informed your process and practice? What is new; what remains?
Eve Joseph: Different forms allow for different kinds of play. I love how “form” can dictate content. One of the biggest challenges of writing prose poetry, for me, is how to create tension without the traditional poetic tools of enjambment, end-rhyme, metrical structure and rhythm. Form opens the door to new thinking, to new ways of working with language. I’m reading James Tate’s last book right now – a collection of prose poetry. On the back cover Matthew Zapruder theorizes that, in these late poems, Tate was stripping away the accepted signifiers of free verse in order to see what remains “when all the things that usually tell us we are reading poetry are gone.” When one writes prose poetry, one must engage with this question. In answer to “what remains?” I would say “everything.” I am still the same writer wrestling with poetry – whether it’s traditional verse or prose.
WD: You are not a traditional “nature poet”, yet many of your poems evoke some aspect of our salty West Coast, its smoke, light, wind, rain, gulls “magi of the rooftops”. How does your openness to the natural world inform your poems’ sense of the life cycle, its variability, its mortality?
EJ: It’s funny, we don’t see what is in our own work. I am not aware of consciously or intentionally writing about the natural world. I try to pay close attention to things, to name the world as best I can and, in this way, the natural world is a part of my work. If by “the life cycle” you mean life and death, beginnings and endings, then I would say these themes occupy me as a writer.
WD: Part One’s narrative “I” implies autobiography, but the reader is delighted and astonished by the poet’s mosaic of brief, intense, mysterious, illogically-linkedperceptions which somehow hang together as a dream does. Not without its moments of hilarity, the exploding pressure cooker propels a capon through the ceiling, frogs rain on the Citroën. Ghosts and angels appear; a magician fills the narrator’s yard with owls. A gentler sense of Yeats’ “quarrel with ourselves” pervades, yet a Holocaust survivor haunts, and “darkness arrives without drawing attention to itself”.
My question is both technical and metaphysical: how on earth did you structure such an eclectic group of poems into such a luminous and satisfying whole?
EJ: I was intentionally looking for the surreal in everyday experience. Many of the poems come out of real events in my life. The washing machine in my childhood home did bark like a baby seal and when a woman showed up with a fish, wrapped in newspaper, for the seal, my mother accepted it. This went on for weeks. The poem started with the strange event and I followed where it wanted to go. It happened to end up with Gandhi swimming in Burrard Inlet. There are “levels” of sense…sometimes things that seem nonsensical are true in other ways. The more I “entered” the poems, the more I wanted to write toward the edge of things.
WD: Part Two’s ekphrastic poems contemplate Diane Arbus’ stark photo-portraits of flawed humanity with tenderness and compassion.
Would you tell us what drew you to Arbus’ work?
EJ: Her deep humanity. Her compassion toward the marginalized. And, I would probably say I was drawn to her gaze in the world. To seeing the world through her eyes.
WD: Although mortality is a given throughout the book, Part Three’s grave and lovely elegies focus on life’s inevitable end; they chart the very specific grief and perceptions of the poet keeping watch over her dying father. In a most perfect final poem, she tells her grief to old horses whose “long heads bow in consolation”.
Your many years in hospice work have given you a more-than-usual familiarity with and knowledge of death in its many guises. Is that knowledge in any way a matrix or consolation in the deep grief for loss of a particular loved one, or the way you would write about that loss?
EJ: I’m not sure I know the full impact working with death for so many years had on me. It has probably allowed me to enter death in a more intimate way than I might have otherwise been able to. Whatever knowledge I may have of death, and the dying process, doesn’t give me any kind of “pass” in regard to feelings of deep grief. When Denise Levertov referred to “the poet being brought to speech” I would probably say that sorrow is one of the things that moves me to write.
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.
Kate Braid is the author of several award-winning poetry books and nonfiction books, ranging from her construction job experiences to Emily Carr to Glenn Gould. She left her carpentry career for what turned into a 23-year career teaching writing. Elemental(February 2018) is her most recent poetry collection. Currently, she divides her time between Victoria, Pender Island and Vancouver. Kate Braid appears in: Forest to Poet — Tree Walk & Being Here. Where? Here! Workshop on Sunday September 30 at the Mary Lake Sanctuary.
Interview by Rhonda Collis
Rhonda Collis: Your book of poetry, Elemental, is divided into common elements in the natural world such as water, fire, earth and sky. Wood is added and this is understandable given its significance in your past occupation as a journeywoman or carpenter. This brings the number of elements (or sections) to five which is the number of elements in the Ayurveda (air being the fifth in that system). Were you conscious of the five elements of the Ayurveda when structuring Elemental?
Kate Braid: No –but a lovely connection, thanks for pointing this out. What I’d thought I was “borrowing”was the Chinese element of Wood. Interesting that the European system of elements we usually use, ignores wood.
By the way, it’s “journeywoman carpenter.” It means a carpenter who’s passed their apprenticeship. Men (and some women) call themselves “journeymen”but it never felt right for me. I’d usually try and get by with “journeyed”so as not to make a point of it.
RC: In the opening section, “Water”, I sense a healthy respect and sometimes a bit of distrust in lines like, “take a deep breath. Trust us.”(from “The Sunlit Sea Supports Nothing”), “Once I dove off the boat and almost couldn’t get back”(from “Tattoo”) and from “Small Boat”:
If I was thrown in the water, how soon
before deathly cold bit?
It doesn’t matter how good a swimmer I am
there is nothing to save me
To be fair, the poem “Swimming in Time”explores a comfortable integration with the element of water. I have been a swimmer all of my life but have a very deep-seated fear of current because of a near drowning as a child. What is your history with water? Are you comfortable around it? Do you fear anything about it?
KB: Like you, I love swimming. I even like kayaking, but am basically terrified of sail boats and not great with motor boats. I haven’t yet been on a bigger boat (except a freighter, across the Atlantic, in a full gale) though I’m game to try. As a kid, there were no boats in my life, but when my husband got interested in sailboats, he wasn’t a very good sailor (I say this kindly, and he knows, so I’m not talking behind his back). Once he tipped the sailboat with him and our son in it and I had to pick them up at the hospital, decked in hypothermia suits tied with pink bows. Since then we’ve had a few terrifying excursions where we were caught in heavy currents so I now refuse to go out unless the water is perfectly calm, which it usually only is, at least in the Gulf Islands, around dusk. So we do a bit of motoring to nearby islands for supper, or to see seals, then straight home. Last time we were out we also ran out of gas. That hasn’t helped my fear any! The good news is that –as Tom Wayman would say –at least I got some poems out of it!
RC: You have written two wonderful collections of poetry that explore artists of other mediums such as painters, Georgia O’Keeffe and Emily Carr (Inward to the Bones: Georgia O’Keeffe’s Journey with Emily Carr) and pianist Glen Gould (A Well Mannered Storm: The Glenn Gould Poems). In Elemental, there are about five ekphrastic poems (inspired by paintings). How do you come by the sources for these poems? Are you an art collector? In your memoir, Journeywoman, you mention visiting the Vancouver Art Gallery. Do you find it beneficial to visit art galleries and write the poems in situ? Do you reference the paintings from books? Has this ever inspired you to create your own visual art? Now that you are no longer working with wood as a carpenter, are you drawn to being a carver?
KB: Good questions! I started writing poems responding to Emily Carr’s art, when I was still on the tools as a carpenter. I was virtually always the only woman on the job and there was a constant hum (spoken or not) implying, “What is shedoing here?” It was very lonely work. Also, for the first two years I was in construction, I lived in a small cabin in deep woods. I don’t paint or draw, but I love other people’s art so one day when I was wandering through the National Art Gallery in Ottawa, one of Emily’s paintings of forest hit me like a sledge hammer. I thought, “She’s got it!” She exactly caught the feeling of deep forest. After that, I read everything she’d written and took enormous strength from the fact that as a Victorian woman, she too had to defy her time and culture by doing what she loved –in her case, painting, in mine, construction. Emily became my (dead but not silent) mentor. After that, I regularly went to the Vancouver and occasionally Victoria Galleries and sat in front of her work. It felt literally like conversation with her, so I just wrote the conversations down, as poems.
I“met”O’Keeffe when I happened to read that Emily met her once, briefly, in 1937, at one of O’Keeffe’s shows. These were my two favourite painters and I was electrified at the thought that they’d actually met. Nothing came of it for them, but by fluke, a few weeks later I spent 3 days in Santa Fe –O’Keeffe country –and loved the landscape. It started a rush of poems. What if they had travelled together? Where would they have gone? Well, first to the two landscapes that inspired them, of course, to New Mexico and BC’s rain forest. By further fluke, I’d just been accepted to UBC’s MFA program so I had two whole years to write this book!
RC:“Earth”(the last section of Elemental),contains many poems about rock and stone and caves, as opposed to sand, or soil. Much respect has been given to miners, and with good cause. Do you think our culture abuses the earth with the large scale removal of trees and ore? During your life, have you ever felt compelled to become involved in environmental issues?
KB: Utterly, we abuse the earth (and thereby ourselves, our air, our environment) by cutting down so many trees, beating up on the earth with damns and fracking, etc.. But what really triggered my awareness of Earth was doing a CBC Ideas program on the Cape Breton men’s coal mining choir, Men of the Deeps. It was fascinating to speak to men (all men) who spent their lives underground. I’d never want to do it, but I was intrigued by their descriptions –and their music. Their respect for the material –in their case, earth –and their camaraderie, were very like what I’d experienced as a carpenter.
However, having said that, as a carpenter I’m also responsible for the cutting down of many, many trees. How do I deal with that? With some difficulty, but in the end I think that yes, we need shelter, and furniture, so it’s inevitable some trees will be cut. I think it’s a question of respect; I honour the materials I build with (including concrete, which is sand and gravel and cement–earth materials). I think if we all lived respectfully –in buildings that were no bigger than what we needed, using as much natural energy as possible, then it would be easier on the earth –and therefore easier on us.
By the way, I was amazed, when I put this book together, pulling in poems that were both recent and others written years ago, that it came out as an “environmental”book. I’d had no idea, as I was writing, this would be the theme.
RC: The “Wood”section of Elementalseems to be charged with a sort of reverence that surprised and delighted me. Having never personally worked with wood (power saws scare me), but loving the fragrance of fresh cut wood more than any perfume and just as much as fresh cut flowers, I loved the intensity you brought to the poems in this section, the respect and love. Trees in these pieces almost become God-like, or take on an intimacy like members of the family. It becomes clear that you are grateful for them being a part of your life.
A couple of poems make mention of a father figure. Written in third person, “Younger Sister”explores a father-daughter relationship during which a daughter takes the place of a disinterested son in the wood shop and creates carvings. What was your inspiration for this poem? In “Lullaby for a Sick Father”the speaker petitions the trees for help. Is this because of her passion for them, or because the father also has a deep connection? Or both?
KB: I wrote “Younger Sister”at UBC, when I was keenly aware of the number of what I felt were “famous male”poems that were being written in my poetry classes by other students. I started wondering –what about the sisters of those men? (Lately, other writers are exploring the famous men’s wives and partners.) It brought me this poem about Jesus’younger sister, and another about Napoleon’s sister, but that one didn’t fit this book.
The poem, “Lullaby for a Sick Father,”came strictly from my passion for trees, the deep sense of life I get from them, that I imagined passing on to my dad who was very ill at the time. It was definitely not that my father had a connection with trees! It was a family joke that Dad was utterly hopeless when it came to building or fixing things. He’d always tell my mum to “Call the man!”if anything broke down. More often than not, it was my mum who plunged toilets, painted walls or flicked breakers.
RC: Thanks so much, Kate, for your generous answers. Before we wrap up, I’m going to sneak one more question in because what interview is complete without asking, what are you reading now? I love this question because the answer is always different from one interview to the next, except for perpetual favourites. For you, I’ve discovered two of these are Rumi and Rilke. So, aside from them, which author (what book) are you currently reading?
KB: I always seem to read several books at once and it’s mostly prose these days, partly because I’ve been (still am) going through the trials of Job in my life over the past year and find enormous support in Buddhist texts. (I’ve had a meditation practice for many years.) Interestingly, the Buddhists don’t seem to write poems, unless you count people like Jane Hirshfield, or the Japanese writers –and I’ve taken a couple of workshops lately in Japanese forms, which I love, including one with Terry Ann Carter. Other than that, I’ve snuck in Lorna Crozier’s What the Soul Doesn’t Wantwhich I found enormously comforting after the recent death of my mother, and Anna Swanson’s The Nights Also, Joe Denham’s Windstormand then there’s Wendell Berry…. and there are those elements again! Perhaps it’s that in times of hardship, I find the most comfort in nature? I don’t know. And perhaps I’m not the only one.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.