by Geoff Hancock
The following interviews took place over three mornings at my place in Stratford, Ontario. From May until October during the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, Gay Allison and I operate a bed and breakfast. Sharon arrived for some theatre and fine dining. But we managed to find some focus and clarity for some morning chats.
July 27, 2010
Do you like to do interviews?
Generally I do. But I hate the little short ones from newspaper columnists who only do sports or weather, have never read one of your books, and are generally unhappy with what they are doing using the persona they use with sports figures. But every now and then I get a chance to do an interview with a person who is seriously interested in literature and seriously interested in my work so I do find that interesting. I often learn a lot and I often make leaps I would not have if I were thinking on my own.
You are very prolific. How do you manage to get so much work done?
It does surprise me. All the writers I ever met say they work so hard and all the time, yet I was prolific, doing the same thing they were doing. I couldn’t figure it out until I lost my husband and wound up living in Calgary and found out about the distractions of urban living. The phone keeps ringing, things to do all the time, lunches and dinners as part of the urban culture, not the rural culture. So your time is taken up even if you hardly know anybody. The reason I was called prolific in the old days was all I did was work all day. Well, that’s an exaggeration . . . All day to the extent I was constitutionally able to work for years. And without interruption, pretty much.
When you start your writing day, do you do free-form rambling or do you have five projects on the go, and jump from one to the other, or are you focused on whatever you happen to be working on?
I think it would be wonderful if I had the kind of mind that could work on two or three projects. I would never go beyond two or three. However I can’t even do that. I have to say okay, I’m putting the novel away for three days or the whole week because this essay has to get written and I can’t do both. So I work on the essay for a week. If I run into trouble I might go back to the novel. I would rather never work on more than one project at a time. I really look askance at those who work on more than one project and wonder if they are not dissipating their best thoughts and dissipating their creative energy. Not being effective and efficient but ruining their own talent.
At one point you wrote that your day was fairly structured, you would read for a certain amount of time, write for a certain amount of time, revise for a certain amount of time, then tramp your fields to get your thoughts in line. So obviously you have a good work ethic. Do you still have the same work ethic now that your circumstances have changed?
It’s nothing like it used to be, that’s for sure! The thing that has really gone down the tubes is the really intense reading program I was engaged in. It’s partly because I’m trying to get my footing again so I don’t know what it is I want to read about. That intensity with which I once read. I just came back from a month in Tasmania. I was at the big fleamarket by the water. It was raining. The first book I picked up was a biography of George Sand and that led me to a biography of Emily Dickinson and that led me to a book about Dickinson’s family. Not about her but her situation. And that led me to a book by Susan Cheever and that led me to a book about Gertrude and Alice by Janet Flanner, which led me to another book about Emily Dickinson and her editor Thomas Wentworth Higgenson. I realized in the midst of this – George Sand, Emily Dickinson, Gertrude Stein – what I was voracious for during this period was the lives of significant women writers. Right now if I don’t fall over something like that I don’t know what to read.
While I’m working on my novel, I try to avoid novels that are too contemporary, that have a style we all know about. Who we read for style. If you ever run across Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn – well, you know it’s not about Brooklyn – I realized I had found a place I was struggling for in my novel. So I read that. If I could find another book with the same degree of spaciousness, I would read that gladly! I used to like to read James Salter, but he was too Hemingway-ish for me.
A number of questions are starting to present themselves here. You seem to be clearly in a new phase (if we can say writers and artists have phases). As someone said, ‘if your life is a book, what chapter are you in now?’ Are you trying to find a style, content, or tone appropriate to this chapter in your life?
I don’t think of it as a ‘chapter’ but a ‘part.’ I’m in Part three. Depending on how you break down a human life, I might be in Part four! In any case, I’m in the last phase of my life. I’ll be 70 years old in August. I said to myself when Peter died, ‘you have twenty years left. What are you going to do with your twenty years?’ I’m still looking for the answer to that. I think about this all the time. Now I’ve got seventeen years left.
I realize this is why I like doing this type of interview. I notice for the first time in talking to you that I never felt I had a style that I could be proud of. I’ve always looked enviously at practically every other writer on the face of the earth and wished I could write like that! (laughs) But I can’t. I just don’t have it in me. If I do, my editor Phyllis Bruce laughs at it as not authentic. I’ve learned over the years not to do this or that and this is how you get power in your sentences and this is how you get clarity. I’ve worked really hard for years and I think where I am now is where I was always going and didn’t know it.
I never thought of writing anything more than a very good 19th-century novel. I mean with 20th-century subjects and peoples but 19th-century in terms of what the novel is like. I’m thinking of the great novels like Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, in translation of course, and dozens of other brilliant works. When I read the mostly young men, now middle-aged men, who are writing the sophisticated, best-quality, best-selling contemporary literary fiction, I just think this is really entertaining, awe inspiring, etcetera, but forget it! This is a masculine thing, I can’t write like this, these guys can’t be my models!
So I’m beginning to see I’m working more and more towards a stripped-down prose. Not just stripped down in the sense of dropping out all the things the 19th-century novel was best at, so wonderful at. Think of the scene where Madame Bovary dies of a particular and specific poison, her great suffering, and how wonderfully Flaubert creates that moment, or in Dostoevksy’s Crime and Punishment where the innocent young girl Sophie goes out to sell herself, otherwise her family will starve to death and she comes back to confess to her brother, or priest. One of the great scenes in literature. I can’t imagine anyone writing that scene today, or so touchingly.
Those are the things the 19th-century novel does best. The dialogue, the settings, the descriptive passages, descriptions of emotions and so on. I tried to do that, I tried for years and I got to a stage where certain aspects came so easily. I got to a stage in this novel where I had no interest in doing this. It was boring me to death and I had no feeling my novel was worth writing much less worth reading. I didn’t know what to do.
But I am very tenacious. I’ve almost never abandoned anything permanently. Unless I’ve made terrible mistakes. I’m thinking then, no, what I want to write about, as I find out as I go along, remains what I want to write about. I just don’t want to do it that way anymore. So I’m dropping off all the stuff I’ve been good at.
Talking about the 19th century makes me think you have a unique sense of the past, the literary past, your personal past, the cultural past, the past of the place where you happen to be or living on, the historical past – a dubious term in the sense of how we understand history – and a re-visioning or clarification of the past, which we misunderstood in the first place. So the question is, what does the past mean to you? What is your sense of the understanding of ‘the past’?
I didn’t study history at university. My sense was that it was a remote time, when people were different from us, they lived differently, understood the world differently. They were different human beings. But that was my young infant thinking. Over the years I’ve lived, and through my reading, I’m beginning to think how they were people just like us. Although there are historians who deny this vehemently. I see this in print all the time. Just like us? How could you think such a thing! My novel opens late 19th century, 1887, goes back to 1884. When I got started on it, I couldn’t find a voice. So I set out to find one. I went through all the published memoirs, and books by women written about the time in which they were living, one of them being Janey Canuck, written about the time I was writing. What a voice! One of the Famous Five. I could have used Nellie McClung. I found a couple of other women who came from England, lived on cattle ranches or farms. Some were educated, some not.
What I found was this vigorous, strong, intelligent voice which was of the type of that woman today. Hey, I don’t have to create a new voice – the voice is already there. I’m freed. I do create a voice, but it’s one more like my own being in that situation. It works just fine, as far as I’m concerned.
What’s your sense of the past?
One thing we have learned about the past is the tremendous injustices. Historical crimes – not just the theft of the land from aboriginal peoples, but the theft of their culture so that they would be like us. Only inferior, because of their skin colour. That’s one great way in which we have injured our history and their historical life on their land.
As others have written, women did not have a history. One of the groups of women in particular who were never looked at except by other women, mothers or grandmothers, is the history of women and their roles in settling western Canada.
In your novels you look at how your characters understand the past, you explore the past in your non-fiction, and then there’s your amazing discoveries as you walk around your fields and realize nobody has written about it! How do you feel that your writing about ‘the middle of nowhere’ suddenly became the ‘middle of somewhere everybody wanted to be’?
That’s very surprising to me. And also gratifying. If people pay attention to a place, then the government pays attention, and that usually means things start looking up. Things I had nothing to do with have altered the place. Say the price of land. Young people were going away to get a better education. This is a very closed little society. Closed and insular. Some local people thought I was insane and did not look at the books. Some didn’t have a good word to say. And some actually understood what I was talking about and were pleased to see it in print.
People are now asking me how does it feel to have people saying the things you were first saying twenty years ago. Part of me is surprised again. How about that! And another part of me is mad in a way. Give me credit! I got there ahead of you.
There’s a lot to be said for being a visionary or a prophet or simply seeing something nobody else saw. We’ve been talking in recent days about writers who choose the exotic, Tibet, or Far East, as far away as you can get from Canada. Maybe where you live is exotic if seen in the right perspective. I meet many young people in the local high school who think London, Toronto, or New York is more interesting than boring little Stratford. What kind of advice do you give to writing students?
That’s not a question my writing students ever ask because most of my students are women, fifty-plus, who’ve wanted to write or always loved literature so they know those answers. As part of the second wave of feminism, these women know what they have to say matters. Not just to themselves, but to other women. So they are turning inwards to tell their own stories. They write about their homes, their families, and the place they grew up in.
Life-writing, diaries, memoirs, the history of women, is a relatively new development in scholarly studies. Why do you think women were left out?
I can’t explicate this better than has already been done, but women were left out because it was a man’s world. The work feminist scholars have done to find women who wrote, and painted, and created music over the last thousand years is evidence of how women were considered to have no purpose other than to be wives and mothers. Any woman who tried to be to be other than wife or mother met with a stone wall trying to stop her. Feminist scholars doing this research do remarkably important work.
Women telling me about their lives, whether it’s their intention or not, are helping women get back their self-esteem. The self-esteem that says women have an equal place in society. That they can’t be stopped. Maybe they will gain some power in the world.
What I really dislike though about the feminist scholars is the intensity of their insistence about being right about everything. Everyone else is not just wrong, but to be scorned, to be abused, to be laughed at. If you are a scholar with the right pedigree, you can make your case. Other people may make a different case, and that’s okay. That infuriates me. I don’t even want to know what they have to say! If I’m not allowed to have an opinion.
My opinion is what is called ‘essentialist’ and it is out of favour. Well, I’m not going to change it because it is out of favour. It comes out of my experience of the world. Of being a women. Of being raised in a family that was all girls. There was the five of us, my mother, my aunts, thirteen grandchildren on my mother’s side. This is the family I was closest to. There was one boy! I barely remember him. I lived in a world of women. I think I know something about what it is to be a woman.
I don’t like it when an academic tells me I’m wrong.
The key aspect of your originality, as I read it, is you married into a ranching life and out of your own sense of place and isolation you started to explore your own particular feelings. Then widened your vision to include the concept of rancher’s wives, the unwritten history of those who were there before ranches, before there was a written history. As you strolled your beautiful landscape – before it was dug up, mined, drilled, destroyed – you took a female approach to land as a sacred place, unlike a masculine sense of a place to be mined for profit. Would I be correct?
Though I didn’t begin thinking like that, I suppose those ideas are important to what I write about. For one book, I received a $12,000 Canada Council grant. I was thrilled at getting this ‘B’ grant. I was thrilled, not just because I didn’t have to worry about selling suitcases and bringing in a little income, but it also said to my ears ‘I can do it.’ They think I can do it, I must be able to do it. That was so important. I sat down and wrote all the stories in Fever. I decided to give myself permission to write only about what mattered to me. To drop the farm women, ranch women, landscape themes unless they happened to be what mattered most to me. To just write about my own understanding of life as a woman in a particular time and place.
What happened to me when I was working on Fever, when I was searching to be able to express exactly how I felt about how an imaginary character would feel in a certain situation, I had this transcendental experience, or whatever the right word is for it. I was sitting at the typewriter with my hands on the keys, and I had a very powerful sense that in order to find the right words I had to empty myself. I had to be empty and let the words come through me. I had this powerful experience that I was not making the words up, that the words were coming from somewhere back here, flowing through me, and coming out my fingers as I sat at the keys.
Margaret Atwood had spoken in an interview in a literary magazine in Nebraska about the writer ‘wrestling with an angel’ ‘except thou bless me.’ I thought no no, it’s not like that at all. For me it’s quite the opposite process. To be sitting quiet enough and empty enough. That words will blossom inside me and I can write them down. I don’t know if that’s still true or not.
Now I’m working in a more intellectual way.
How does that manifest itself?
I think about Chekhov and certain lines in Shakespeare. I try to convey my meaning through the silences. That’s a technical thing. I used to say why would anybody want to be a writer who didn’t want to say anything? Guess what! I’m getting to that stage where I want to convey the meaning through the silences. Through the spaces, rather than through the minute and careful descriptions of emotions and things conveyed by the senses.
You mentioned you were reading a biography of Gabriel García Márquez. He writes exuberantly. He sometimes disguises his material, since he comes from a country where disguise is necessary. His was a unique way of finding the world, which seems to be an apt description of your work. What are you doing about finding the world or are you letting it come to you?
I have always felt the important thing to do was to hold still and be quiet. Let it develop in you. So I suppose I’ll continue in that way. It’s the only way I know. But I also do it through writing. Practising, trying to learn.
My jaw just drops when I read biographies of writers like García Márquez. Where does this outpouring of language come from? Even if this is what I was trying to do, it’s just not part of my nature to be that profuse with the language.
I just don’t see the world that way. I guess to me it’s more sparse than that, I’m searching for words. Florid, exuberant, abundant. When you think of García Márquez, the superabundance of imagination and the insane world in which he lived. For me it was just the opposite. To be calm, waiting it out, enduring, and not expecting anything.
July 28, 2010
Are titles important to you? As a way to frame a project? Do you start with titles or do they come later?
All of the above apply at one time or another. I have always known that the right title comes out of a deep place and shoots up to the top one day. Ideas floating around in my head suddenly appear as words. Like Queen of the Headaches. For days I tried out ‘majesty,’ ‘realm,’ ‘kingdom.’ I didn’t know what exactly. Then one day I was sweeping the kitchen floor and it seemed to rise up like a line of poetry. Queen of the headaches. I dropped the broom and ran for a piece of paper. The same was true with Perfection of the Morning. I knew what I was trying to say, but I hadn’t found the words for it so it hadn’t really consolidated. It was a very cold morning, at least minus thirty, and Peter had asked me to go down to the corrals and open some gates for him as he went in and out on the tractor feeding cattle and calves, even though it was too cold for me to be standing there. I went down there just thinking about what that title should be, to find just the right words, and that’s when I got The Perfection of the Morning.
The apprenticeship stuff was not as hard. I could probably tell you the same about other titles. Like Gates of the Sun, I already knew that title before I began the book. I was shocked to find out later it exists in archeology. The Girl in Saskatoon I did not name, nor did I name Fever. The publishing company (this was pre–Phyllis Bruce & HarperCollins) phoned me and said they’d like to name it after a different short story.
You’re finally getting a scholarly interest in your work, including Prairie Fire’s anthology of scholars and writers. Are you getting a different sense of your audience now? Or maybe I should rephrase this – do you have an ideal reader?
Yes, that’s true. Also men are starting to pay attention now. I know when I began there was this funny sense that there was this country girl, living out in nowhere, who did she think she was, thinking she could write a book. The main criticism, and the one that stings the most because I recognize the truth in it, is that my novels are earnest. I want to bop people on the nose who say that about them. But I know where that comes from, my earnest desire to be truthful. Not to sentimentalize or phony up anything, but to be as truthful as possible.
Of course, to get beyond the stage that is earnest, you have to grow as a human being. There is no separating craft from content in my view. I’ve thought about this for many years. That’s my conclusion and Emily Dickinson thought so too!
Yes, my readership is changing. A couple of the people that are only mildly amused at my incompetence are men and that interests me. I do wish to change my readership, not that I want to lose anyone, but I would like to broaden it. The only way I can broaden it is if I start writing for a wider audience instead of my mother and my sisters and women friends and myself in mind as potential readers. I have a sense that I’m writing for posterity, I guess. I’m always saying, ‘somebody should write a book about that.’ Who should be the writer? Then I say, wait a minute, you’re a writer. Why don’t you write the book about that? Can I do it? I’m finally beginning to feel that I have a right to write books.
As Rilke said, if you get rid of your demons, you get rid of your angels too. There’s this subtext in your work of uncertainty and doubt, what next, where am I, why am I doing this? Do you think uncertainty and doubt are a pilot light that fuels your work?
Connected to this is a primeval anger that no one else has to doubt themselves – but I do. Why do I have to doubt myself? Because of the circumstances in which I was raised, the family situation, I was raised to not believe in myself. That’s been part of the process over the years. That’s why I had to find that authentic self I struggled so hard for all those years on the prairie. I couldn’t go anywhere until I believed I existed. I had a right to exist. Having come through that phase to the extent somebody like me can, I’m getting over my anger as I believe more and more in my ability.
Would you find anger accompanied by grief?
That’s very true, but I have worked very hard not to allow myself to feel that grief. I’m not speaking of the grief at losing a husband. I’m speaking of the wider grief, the sadness of the world, the sadness of feeling unloved as a child, to having my first husband dump me, oh, I suppose my own sense of inadequacy, and even bigger than my personal sense, of anybody’s inadequacy to meet the exigencies of the human condition. You try not to feel the grief because it becomes self-pity so fast. Self-pity is often welcome, and a person has a right to it. I prefer anger to grief.
When you were beginning to write in southwest Saskatchewan, I presume there was no support, perhaps some fledgling writers’ groups. How did you find support in those days?
I relied more on Caroline Heath than anyone. We had a small writers’ group in our community; one or two of us were serious writers. The others thought they were serious but they clearly weren’t. They might have been writers, but their time was past. They wouldn’t put the effort into it. Caroline Heath came up to me after one of the first workshops we ever attended. She had been brought down to Eastend to give this workshop. Perhaps Terry Heath gave half the workshop, can’t recall. Afterwards she took me aside and said, listen. I’ve always said there are only three short story writers in Saskatchewan, Terrence Heath was the first one, James Misdfeldt was the second, still active writing plays, and you are the third. That was what I needed. Something like that. In that small group in Eastend were people who were quite capable, but didn’t have the drive I had.
When I learned from Caroline about the Writers’ Guild, I found there was a place I could go to, learn things, meet other writers, to have that community. But I also found something else I felt so strongly. I came out of a university community and an urban environment. I saw myself still as that person. But when I moved from a cattle ranch into the city to attend a Writers’ Guild conference, I found myself fighting this idea that rural people are stupid, they don’t know what they are doing, and they don’t have the entitlement that urban people have. So that’s one of the things I’ve been emphasizing in my books for years.
It’s true, really true! I found it was so unfair and alienating. Though there were people in that group who would be as fair and supporting of me as I would let them be. Anne Szumigalski was one of them. Caroline, well, by the time she died I was fed up with her and she with me. So there was that friction.
Would you say now there is a shift in Canadian letters that every part of the country is as interesting as any other?
I certainly do think every part of the country is interesting. But I do think people don’t know what is interesting and often get it wrong. Or are so fantastically in love with where they are they keep saying, oh look at us. Aren’t we picturesque, aren’t we cute. It’s not so much they are wrong – they aren’t – but the approach is wrong. Bores you to death if you want authenticity, you can’t focus on how cute and wonderful you are. You have to focus on the truth.
I think about that large portion of southwest Ontario that is full of artistic people and beauty of all kinds and stunning landscape. But it seems to me there is a shortage of writers who have found what matters about the place. Alice Munro is the most wonderful of all. How do people live in southwestern Ontario when they are not in Toronto? Kingston? Hamilton? How do they live? What are their lives like? I don’t see much writing about that.
When I went to southwestern Saskatchewan and eventually began writing, two years in – and I have a degree in English lit – I said to myself, you may not want to write about this place, but nobody else is, and every writer who counts for anything has found a place. This is your place.
Interesting though that southwest Ontario is often perceived as ‘southern Gothic,’ with Alice Munro and others often compared to writers of the American southern states. The dark side, the dangerous side, the quirky side. Having said that, who do you think your contemporaries are?
That’s a hard question, who are my contemporaries now. So many young writers whose names don’t evoke anything for me. So many books out there, all these classics I still haven’t read! And the people of my generation and the ones just behind me I’m still struggling to read. I don’t have time for people with first books. Ten to fifteen years ago having read, as you have and others I know, rooms full of books from all over the world – an unending stream – I started to say after buying all the new books everyone was raving about, I do not have time to read writers who have nothing to say that I don’t already know. So I stopped. Mostly no matter how brilliant these young writers are, they haven’t made the big leap yet which is why we wait around for the second or the third book. So I feel out of the loop.
My contemporaries? Most people my age stop writing. Or write so little you don’t think of them so much as you used to. Hmm, I’ve always had this problem because I look young, and act young apparently, and spend most of my time with people younger than I am, even if they are in their sixties, I’ll be seventy in a couple of weeks, so they aren’t really my contemporaries.
So we were talking about perception of place. Your colleague Guy Vanderhaeghe writes of exactly the same part of southwest Saskatchewan as you do but from an entirely different perspective. He looks at the masculine role of the land, men working the land, the traditional historical view of men and the land, riding, roping, shooting, digging, drilling, and so on. But you look at the land as a place of stillness, of quiet, and leave it alone. As you write in Wild Stone Heart, just walk around and pay attention. Could you comment on these two polar opposite approaches to the same place?
I would add with Guy Vanderhaeghe there is Fred Stenson’s work. His wonderful book The Trade won all the prizes. About an explorer, a Hudson’s Bay Company guy who lived way back before anyone was in the west except the First Nations peoples. Both of them have tended to glamorize the west, as I said to both of them once, and I don’t think either one of them has talked to me since. (laughs) I said they were wrong; the west is about work. It wasn’t thrills and excitement and racing around on horseback shooting things. The romantic notion of male adventure. When white people came here, it was ninety-nine percent work, trying to establish a home in what they perceived as wilderness. Rudy Wiebe has done a lot of this too, although he corrected his trajectory when his critics caught on to him about not understanding women.
It’s not that they are wrong. There’s an element of truth in everything they do, except it’s looking at the world through rose-coloured glasses. Which of course they would deny utterly. But it’s always about male courage and male strength and male daring. But the real down-to-earth truth about the same stuff is craziness and alcoholism and cruelty to animals and disregard for anyone else. It ain’t a pretty sight.
I have chosen to write about women because I come out of a world of women and I know how they thought about the world. While they were making the homestead in the wilderness in the log cabins, they were also seen as the persons who solve problems. They would find the food, make the meal out of nothing, stop the bleeding, nurse the sick, and all the rest. So they were the missing people – not fifty percent, but sixty-five percent – from those other versions. I really really wanted to tell those stories because I felt they were far more truthful.
My mother used to say angrily, ‘Men are the romantics. Women get blamed for being romantics but it’s men who are the romantics. Women are realists,’ she would always say. My vision was skewed in that direction from early childhood.
Another aspect about looking at the land was partly my own impotence in that male world when I married a rancher. It was a man’s world; the land belonged to men. The animals belonged to men; the machinery was run by men. They owned it and you were seen as useful if somebody was needed to drive a truck or chase a few cows or to hold while they chased or cut. I had been an actor while at the university. I held a position and I taught. Explained things to people. I had responsibilities. I had run my own household. I had a child to raise.
I used to say – and people thought it was a joke, but it wasn’t – about the hierarchy of importance in a ranching household: the husband came first, either the good cattle dog or the hired man came next, and way down at the bottom of the list as you went through it, was ‘the wife.’ Anything mattered more than she did.
I felt utterly impotent. I hadn’t married this guy when we were both eighteen years old or established this ranch with the two of us together, or I would have fought for rights. I didn’t do that because there wasn’t much I could do. So I turned to the prairie. His mother had done that before me. In fact I came upon her one day as I was walking down this dirt road, she was driving from town to the ranch and she said to me after, ‘It’s been a long time since a woman walked the land around here.’ That’s what we could do. So we got to know the plants and the wild animals (though men are very good with wild animals and birds).
Though I’m not the type to get a book and say I must learn the name of every plant on this prairie; that’s not my style.
I’ve noticed in recent scholarship that what was once called ‘prairie writing’ is now called ‘Great Plains writing,’ that is, the east-west association we consider with ‘prairie literature’ is now part of Great Plains literature, which connects north-south in a trans-border America and connects Saskatchewan to Texas and the Mexican Gulf. All manner of interesting critical questions emerge, including a sense of how our literature is to be approached. Are you at the radical forefront of how we conceive of place?
It happened so gradually I hardly noticed. But I do recall having the difference in the terms explained to me by some academic in my living room. Academics have to define everything, then set up boundaries so they can argue with each other. (laughs) I didn’t know; I used the terms ‘prairies’ and ‘Great Plains’ interchangeably. But Professor Fran Kaye at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln became interested in my work. She told me I was the ‘new Margaret Laurence.’ She put me in touch with the writing of Kansas, Oklahoma, and Nebraska. I inadvertently became familiarized with the work that was coming out of the US and Canada.
The major difference for me, as a woman chiefly concerned with writing about the lives of women and their place in western history, was we established in 1872 the Dominion Lands Act. The Americans established the Homestead Act in 1862, ten years earlier.
But the American Act meant women could obtain land on exactly the same terms as men. However, Canadian women had no rights to free land. The rules were very strict on where women could get free land. These rules were stringently followed. So there was a basic difference in these two areas and the culture that emerged. Academics agree with me on this basic difference between the American west and the Canadian west.
So in American movies, when you see an old woman or a young beautiful Jane Fonda with a rifle in her hand standing in front of her log cabin, or clay and wattle cabin, and she says to these cowboys, ‘git offen my land,’ that really happened. It never happened in Canada and couldn’t happen.
The other concern was land and water management. We didn’t have to beat down the settlers, we didn’t have the range wars, though it was close for a period. But the government acted. I hear that in the States they have range wars to this day.
To return to the prairies and Great Plains question, for me there is the difference of that border. The east-west border. The Spanish influence was greater in the US, virtually non-existent on the Canadian side. The climate, soils, typography are very similar except for the extremes of each end. Cultural and historical events are different. For example, the Americans evolved a system where a rich family would own a gigantic ranch they never set foot on. Families would live on that place for years as if they were the owners, run it, do all the work, live in the ranch house, when the father died the son would take over, and then the grandson. We never had absentee landlords in Canada. Except maybe the Duke of Windsor and the ET Ranch.
I love this subject. I’ve never made a real study of it, but I could go on and on.
That’s your next book: it started right here, at this exact moment. – Slight shift of topic here to apocalyptic fiction. Recently Cormac McCarthy’s The Road has garnered much attention and a movie. There’s your The Fourth Archangel – so you should have an Oprah book club arrangement and a million bucks. But here’s the question: You are at one end of the Great Plains and Mr McCarthy at the other – could you comment on doom and apocalypse? Would you write a screenplay?
I had that experience, and no, only if I had a six-gun and permission to shoot anybody who annoyed me! (laughs)
When I sat down to write The Fourth Archangel, the year 2000 was coming, and that’s what triggered the notion. That was probably the most fun I ever had writing a book. Just go with all these great ideas about this, that and the other. People in Eastend, those who were friendly to me, would laugh about how I had predicted the future. I invented this young pretty Polish girl who was abused at home and becomes the town – well, not a prostitute, she doesn’t take money. This was something I heard had happened. Though I made my girl into a beauty because you need beauty in this world of celebrity to get anywhere if you’re not an academic.
I wanted to write a book about prophecy. I was thinking about prophets, the false prophets, and the real prophets who get beaten up and disbelieved and locked in insane asylums while the false prophets are everywhere making millions of dollars. (laughs) Somewhere in my mind, I made up this girl, Melody. I thought maybe a Marilyn Monroe image. I see it now. What can overwhelm this town? Because southwest Saskatchewan has a tremendous religiosity, something like sixty to ninety percent Christian fundamentalist, seven Catholics and four Anglicans. I think that is so nuts! But fascinatingly nuts. In a little town called Frontier were three branches, three little sects, with a hundred members each, some charismatic Christian Protestant thing. That’s why a lot of this had to be religious.
I gave this girl the stigmata. I was raised Catholic, what else could I do! (laughs) Because she’s very pretty she gets whisked away to be a rich prophetess. Maybe hug thousands in huge arenas. All these people overwhelm the town. They have heard about this girl. And there’s visionary things like footprints of two thousand head of cattle around the waterhole. Nobody’s got two thousand head in that part of the world. And nobody actually saw the cattle. What’s going on? So people come to see this girl with the stigmata.
People said to me in the town, oh, you predicted this when the Tyrannosaurus Rex bones were found. The town was overwhelmed with tourists from all over the world. I was giggling to myself. But when it comes to the book . . . I was sitting with William Kurelek, whose artwork is on the cover – I love this man’s work – the fact is this is one of my poorer-selling books. Lynne Van Luven, who is head of the non-fiction program of the creative writing department at the University of Victoria, reviewed the book in a literary magazine and said if there is any justice in CanLit this book will become a Canadian classic. Are you kidding me? I don’t know when. Maybe fifty years from now.
Maybe when the movie comes out?
Oh yeah, right, the movie!
Melody as you described her has strange echoes of The Girl in Saskatoon. Which leads us to our final question this morning. Your range of writing is wide – long fiction, short fiction, non-fiction, and we haven’t touched the drama yet. And you’re probably a closet poet . . .
. . . but why don’t we end with those echoes of Melody and The Girl in Saskatoon.
First thing I have to say is it never occurred to me. Though I knew another girl in high school I might have based this character on, again without realizing it. She wound up as Home Ec Queen – I’d love to write about that! She was a tragic figure in my view though I’m sure she would resent that greatly. Mother of many children. I don’t see it. Perhaps you could explain it.
Alex had this purity to her, which was true in high school, though I don’t know about after. No one will tell me. I deliberately made Melody a loose woman, the town go-fer girl. This was out of the misery of her home life. Looking for love somewhere and exploiting what she was, a beautiful young woman.
July 29, 2010
Your circumstances have changed entirely in the last three years. Those decades on the ranch and what that experience meant to you and your creative works. Now your life is entirely different. Could you talk about your life now that you are living in Calgary?
I’m trying hard to find a place for myself now that makes some kind of sense. A way of being in the world for what I think of as my last twenty or twenty-five years. I originally went to Calgary to escape another winter. I went there to be near my only child, my son, and my grandchildren, daughter-in-law, and I’m still there. Still in the same apartment, still wondering where I’m supposed to be. I kept thinking of Holley Rubinsky’s collection of short stories that did so well called At First I Hope for Rescue. (laughs) Where’d she get that? It sure sounds like a quote. But I can’t get it out of my head. I spent three years hoping for rescue.
Now realizing there will be no rescue, no anvil dropping out of the sky, now you will do such and such. There will be no third marriage. If I even wanted one. I would like to have a relationship, but not another marriage, thanks very much.
But I had to work my way through The Great Adventure syndrome. And it is a Great Adventure to wake up one day and know you no longer have a marriage, a significant other, a companion. You’re alone in the world. You don’t have the home you lived in for over thirty years. You don’t have that community, whether it was good, bad, or indifferent. It was your community; it’s gone too. You haven’t got anything left, you’re alone in the world. Which is why I clutch onto my grandchildren. Something that mattered, that was left to me.
So I had to work my way through that mythical state. Alive and alert to the world and believe it’s yours for the taking. Like young people do, in a sense. Even if common sense says it isn’t yours for the taking. I began telling people, I know two things. One, don’t look back. I’m beginning to understand Lot’s wife story. If you look back, you’ll turn to a pillar of salt. Don’t dwell on the past. Two, for me, and I’m quoting myself, for me the life of the householder is over.
Having said those two things, that’s why I’m still in a rented apartment. I’m afraid to buy a place, though part of me wants to. I’m afraid, because to buy a place closes off all doors. I believe it’s possible to live unencumbered, or less encumbered.
An academic might describe you as being in an ‘urban space’ and the sheer difference in social interaction might add a different texture to your prose or drama or poetry or whatever directions you might be taking. Could you comment on that?
I certainly feel it ought to do that. But the big thing that’s happening to me in terms of my own personal struggle to find meaning is this sudden desire to drop off so much. Cut out so much. Even as I’m saying this I’m seeing it in psychological or psychotherapeutic terms because I’ve cut off all my limbs. The home, the farmland, the ranchland, the community. Then I moved into a strange place. Suddenly all the things I’ve done best in writing bore me to death. I don’t want to write that way anymore. I want to write in a new way, but it’s a cutting-off way. I want to do without page-long descriptions, endless dialogue, nuances in which I explain in detail. I’m cutting all that out. I’m not prepared to define the process precisely, but only to recognize it as a parallel.
Do you still keep up with your journalling process?
I had a perfectly terrible experience. My last journal, at least five years’ worth, right through my husband’s illness, his death, and aftermath for me, the leaving of the farm – the last page is pretty much the last thirteen days on the place, I made a note every day, as well as important personal things that came out of his illness and death. I felt something about this journal I had never felt about any work of art. I knew there was art in it. The journal was stolen.
When I realized it was gone, probably for good, I felt like a fish being gutted. I was devastated. I was walking around in my apartment clutching myself and holding my head and going oh oh oh. I couldn’t believe it and it made me not want to journal anymore. I’ll never put my trust in a journal again except to make notes of something I don’t want to forget.
You’ve been described as a psychic archaeologist, both in the way you look at your work and your sense of place. Do you find in an urban environment you can get the same kind of stillness to approach ‘invisible realities’ of the real space and the creative space you are in now?
So far the answer has to be no. I moved into an apartment building because I wanted people around me after so many years of nobody around and then fourteen months on a hay farm with completely nobody around and man, I didn’t want to be alone after that. I like the constant noises of coming and going, voices around me, doors opening and closing, voices on the lawn. Fire trucks. When I thought I was going to buy a cottage on a lake, and I nearly did this summer, I did an interior dive and I was suddenly back where I had forgotten how to be just for an instant. Which means I don’t have it. I think you have to be one of those urban recluses to have it in the city.
Much as I am sure I want it for the quality of work which comes out of it, I’m not entirely sure I want to be that person anymore. It’s very hard, very lonely, and very sad. It is also amazing and wonderful but I feel I’ve been there, done that.
Let me find something new.
When we first discussed this project ages ago, I talked about Miles Davis and his tone, how a single note is identifiable as his. Likewise I said I was always struck by your tone or as you might say finding the right voice. Do you still have your unique voice?
The musical example is very useful because these things are vague and metaphysical and hard to talk about. I can hear that Miles Davis tone right now in my head.
I have no idea what my tone is. Although I think when I started out I was trying to hit a certain note which I don’t try to hit any more.
Do you still do as much walking as you used to do? I learned a phrase by David Chilton Pierce called ‘checking the trapline,’ the daily routine, even for city dwellers.
I’m developing one, I guess. There’s a certain number of places where I can walk. If I walk strictly for fitness I’m not so fussy. One of the things I hate about urban living is if you don’t have a house with a back yard you’re inside all the time. It’s so hard for me. I’m close to the reservoir in Calgary, where to the west you have to watch out for bears! So I head out towards the west. I find paths where I’m unlikely to run into anyone and it’s like being a kid again. Or I can clamber down several layers of terraces to the water’s edge of the reservoir where there are birds and animals. If I stay out a couple of hours I come back refreshed.
But Calgary weather is so bizarre. I came back once two kilometres in a deluge, fearful it would turn to hail. And there was no shelter.
You began your career as an artist, the plastic arts, by which I mean paint and canvas and sculpture. Calgary of course has the urban distractions of museums and galleries and a university with lectures and readings, and there’s TV and movies and theatres. Stuff to do! Which of these many distractions appeal to you?
I discovered early on I am not impressed by Calgary theatre. It’s of the ‘bums in seats’ variety. Brilliant in terms of staging and costumes and yet plays that are ridiculously forgettable. Where the props take the place of the play. (laughs) I’m so disappointed. That’s one of the reasons I’m here in Stratford, to see some real theatre! Sorry, people in Calgary, that’s what I think!
I do have season tickets to the opera. And the Pro Musica chamber music society is one of the best in the world. So cheap, and I can drive my own car and park it without killing myself or anyone else. My best times in Calgary, aside from my grandchildren and family, have been at the Pro Musica concerts.
When David Alexander’s curator asked me for a contributor’s essay, it forced me back to a world I’d completely forgotten about. Or didn’t think I could get near again because of the drastic way the visual arts have changed in the forty years since I was a fine arts major.
I’m now quite involved in looking at fine art again. I’m going to galleries and lectures at the university. The annual Nobel lecture. My gosh! There’s only about twenty-five people there but you get the finest lectures about the recent winners. But there must have been about a thousand people for historian Margaret McMillan.
I’m like a teenager. Members of my book club raced down to the public library to hear (Liberal leader, historian, and novelist) Michael Ignatieff talk about nothing in particular. It’s so much fun to be part of all that world again. How many prime ministers did we go through that I never saw once in flesh and blood? The last one I saw was Pierre Trudeau in Halifax in 1968. (laughs)
I feel like I’m part of the world again and that is very exciting!
Even though the impression you give is of someone who never left the stoop or your parcel of land, in the last three years, you are the most travelled writer, with trips to Europe and northern Canada, Australia, and Tasmania, central Europe and Ireland, all this just in recent months and weeks. Are travels important to you now, have they always been?
I love the freedom of not having a husband, yet at the same time I miss him terribly. I miss all the things men and women in a relationship do for each other. He carries the luggage, now I have to carry my own luggage! (laughs) With him, people always stepped aside to let us pass. Now I have to beat my way through.
I like to be able to make my own choices, go where I want to go, set my own limits. Not have someone say, don’t be silly, that traditional wife-y thing. I was in a traditional marriage. Now I get to choose what I want. I don’t have to negotiate whether I can or can’t. I can spend the money where I choose to spend it. Those decisions were entirely Peter’s in the past. I didn’t fight it because I didn’t figure it was worth the trouble. You pick your battles.
So I set my limits. I tend to stay out of countries where I don’t speak the language, though I recently went to the Czech Republic. I’ve never desired to raft the Mekong like my son and his wife did. No thanks! I can only take so much altitude, so I won’t be climbing Mount Everest any time soon.
The battle a woman my age fights – and I have many friends long divorced or who got dumped fairly recently or are widowed – is we’re all fighting the same battle of trying to make ourselves real in a universe where we used to be someone and are not that person anymore. So who the hell are we?
We’re all fighting this battle and that means always fighting depression. It’s a well-known fact widowhood also might bring a breakdown. We’re all fighting that breakdown. For some people it’s a lot closer than others. I could see it in the distance, but I was never going to let it get that far.
However, knowing these things are endemic to your situation, you have to get a grip. You have to make a decision not to allow your mind to take you to the places that lead to a clinical depression or a breakdown. It’s all about coping strategies. I realized the importance of travel. I couldn’t bear winters anymore. Travel is one of the ways I keep from getting depressed. If I have a three-week stretch and I can’t bear it, then I think, in three weeks I’m going to Victoria to do such and such, so I fix on that and that gets me through it. All the women I know say it’s all about coping strategies, and not doing anything that depresses you.
And working away. After three years I’m at the stage of realizing what’s left for me is struggling to be a better writer. To say different things. Not to pass up opportunities to travel with my writing. I need to keep on the move. Not to think about the successes or the fame that other writers have. Will I ever achieve Margaret Atwood’s fame? I’ve learned not to think about that, but to just write.