August 15, 2008
Author Interviews@ Pickle Me This: Sharon Butala
Sharon Butala’s latest book is The Girl in Saskatoon, a memoir about the unsolved 1962 murder of Alexandra Wiwcharuk. Butala lives near Eastend Saskatchewan, and is the author of fifteen other books, which include novels, short story collections and other works of non-fiction. She is a recipient of the Marian Engel Award, has twice been nominated for a Governor General’s Award, and her book Lilac Moon won the 2005 Saskatchewan Book Award for Nonfiction. I was entranced by The Girl in Saskatoon when I first encountered it in April, and I am so pleased that Sharon Butala was kind enough to answer my questions via email.
I: In your memoir The Perfection of the Morning, you write of your discovery of nature that “I think too often the effort to find the answers only distracts us from what is really to be found there.” Can you explain how this might be analogous to your experience in writing your new book The Girl in Saskatoon?
Sharon Butala: Umm. I don’t think so. (Joke) Actually, I knew I couldn’t solve the murder. I didn’t ever try, although lots of people thought that that was what I was trying to do. I wanted to know what happened to Alex. I wanted to know how what happened to Alex had to do with who we were then – how it could happen to a decent young woman who was also ambitious and romantic and all the things girls and young women were in those days as a result of the constrictions on us and the influences that were so idiotic – malevolent, I wanted to say. The Doris Day movies, for example. Our deep and unspoken anger at how we were expected to behave. The unfairness of it. Trying to solve the murder is entertaining, but in one sense at least, not very important. What is the meaning of her death, if it has a meaning? Why did her death become a part of the city’s lore, and why can we not forget it? Those questions and the ruminations on the possible answers have more meaning than the question of who killed Alex Wiwcharuk.
I: You write of your mild reaction upon learning of Alexandra Wiwcharuk’s death, that by age 23 you had “constructed a thick barrier between words and their meanings” that prevented you from feeling and knowing “the world as it really is.” So I would like know first, as you mention words and meanings, how has such a barrier affected your experience as a writer? And also, is coming to know “the world as it is” the product of the wisdom of age, or do you think it could have been possible before now?
SB: I could not become a writer until I had torn down that barrier. I could not see the world until I had shed myself of a million unacknowledged even unknown illusions. I think that coming to know the world could have been possible long before it happened if we had been taught how the world really is rather than how the church said it is or our schools or whatever our parents thought it was important for us to believe it was.
I’ve often ruminated on this (as a former special educator), why do we lie to our children about the world? To save them pain? By lying we create more pain. Or is it because we love them so much we want to believe ourselves out of that love that the world can be stopped from hurting them. “Let them find out themselves in good time,” we say to ourselves, hoping for them to have a few happy years before the world gets them in its claws. And children are helpless and spend most of their childhoods struggling with the differences between what they see and experience and what they are told they’ve seen and experienced (or haven’t).
I: “I knew her. I knew her,” was your reaction to Alex’s death, you seeming to be as affected by this fact than by the murder itself. But your relationship to Alex was not so straightforward–you had been classmates, but you hadn’t been good friends. In your book, how difficult or surprising was the negotiation of your proximity to her, and did you always intend to have this negotiation be such an important part of the story?
SB: When I began writing it was my hope that people would tell me enough things about her that I would come to know her in a more personal way, would know her little idiosyncrasies and her foibles as well as the moments when she revealed what was really going on in her heart. But this simply didn’t happen: I couldn’t find people she was close to; I found them but they wouldn’t talk to me; or they simply didn’t remember much. So I never got close to her in the way a novelist is close to her main character.
But still, as time went on, I began to see her as me in a lot of ways – I tried hard to maintain an appropriate distance and I tried not to take her over completely – but oh those years from the late teens into the early twenties are years of such poignancy, such pain and such yearning as well as a certain amount of sheer joy. I was sure it had to be the same for her as for me, except that she must have begun to feel entitled, while I never did. I’m not sure I intended that the negotiation of proximity in the way I think you mean was meant to be a part of the story, but in a larger sense it certainly was. And I was surprised to be able to say that I had come to love her, but she had become very very dear to me. And she always will be. I hope that is not sentimental.
I: You write that you first considered writing the story of Alexandra Wiwcharuk’s murder as part of a novel, but because it was “so odd, so out of the normal flow of things”, you found that you couldn’t. In your work, how do you normally determine what form best suits a story? Further, what have you found nonfiction can do that fiction can’t, and vice-versa?
SB: Most ideas come to me in the form in which they want to be written and I rarely try to change that. But I also decide that I want to write a book about … and then I try to figure out if it would work better in fiction or nonfiction, if I could handle it better in the one or the other. Also, in fiction I do research, but not nearly as much as in nonfiction and I can obfuscate a point in fiction that I don’t feel I can manage in nonfiction without the reader picking up on my laziness right away.
Nonfiction seems to me to get a better grip on a story – well, I’m not sure I mean that. I used to think that I went to a different place in my brain to write one than to write the other, and other people say you make a different pact with the reader when you write one or the other, but I have been thinking, since The Girl in Saskatoon, that I would like to keep trying to write a nonfiction book that no one could tell from a work of fiction. I just read in Brno, Czech Republic, and the people said to me that they had had trouble at times, thinking I’d written a work of fiction but that they’d been told it was nonfiction and they were puzzled. Well, I like that puzzlement. Maybe (since In Cold Blood) we really are working toward sim
ply writing a book.
I: A lot of the The Girl in Saskatoon is based on your own speculation, based on the many facts and details you assemble in your research. You’re putting stories together, which of course is what writers do, but in particular, you imagine the details of Alex’s attack and her murder. How difficult was this experience for you? Was it different than it might have been if it was purely fiction?
SB: It took me a very long time and many drafts to write that murder scene (which I know is probably not accurate). I just felt the moment had come when I could no longer avoid imagining it and so I wrote a version that will have to stand for now. There were moments when it was terribly hard, but I have become both toughened and more compassionate over the years and the deaths and the horror of life in general, and I can do that without too much pain. I kept telling myself, you have to witness this, for Alex’s sake.
I: You write that as you delved into the brutal details of what happened to Alex, you began to see a contradiction between accepting the presence, the “banality” of evil, and then honouring Alexandra’s death. How do interpret these as opposites?
SB: I can’t say that I ever thought that through once I’d posed the question. But maybe the answer is implicit in the question. Evil is banal, yes, but we must honour every single death, or we are less human.
I: As you put together the pieces of Alex’s story, you found that they didn’t add up. So much is missing, stays missing, and your reader’s experience of the book is not so dissimilar in this way. You do allude to frightening incidents as you started “asking questions”– of strange phone calls, odd characters, your telephone being tapped. These details help create the suspense that drives the narrative, but why did you choose to remain so vague about them?
SB: I wrote one version where there is an entire chapter dealing with all those things, but my editor, Phyllis Bruce, thought I was on the wrong tack entirely and that somehow it didn’t belong in a book about Alex. So I re-wrote the whole book and subsumed that stuff to a couple of lines. Not too many readers have commented on that as a problem, to my surprise. I surely wanted to tell it.
I: In The Girl in Saskatoon, you come to find that instead of writing about a single girl, you’re writing about a time and a place, that the stories you’re gathering are “full of the humanity of the city”. You write that you come to see Saskatoon as “a living breathing entity”, and I wonder if this perspective is at all similar to the way you’ve come to understand and have written about natural spaces in your other work. Apart from the obvious, how is the city’s “living breathing entity-ness” different from nature’s?
SB: I imagine a huge difference. The city is a beehive (to coin a phrase) and it never sleeps. Nature is not so heavily inhabited and each inhabitant (spiritual, I’m talking about) has lots of room and power and is worthy of serious respect. There is time and room to find all of this in Nature, but in a city? Never. I also think of the city’s entity-ness as kind of lumbering and sweaty and heavy-footed while Nature’s is more distant always, and airier.
I: The root of your book, of yours and Alex’s stories, is the story of the pioneers on the prairies, of immigrants forced to make do with very little means, and you write, “It makes me furious to think of it; it makes me furious to think of our claim of Canada as a classless society.” Similar fury being evident throughout your other works as you write about aboriginals, other immigrants, women– people at the “periphery”. And “fury” strikes me a strong and courageous stance to take– it’s not polite, it doesn’t compromise. Is this feeling a driving force in your writing? Do you write your books with a sense of mission?
SB: Yes, I used to and probably still write my books with a sense of mission. The fury has abated however, as I’ve written it out, for the most part. Yet I always have things I want to say, that I need to say, that need to be said. My books are all political, I tell people. I am writing about the world, not about an imaginary world – I hope.
I: How do you as a writer address the kind of criticism you note in your memoir Lilac Moon that “…there now exists a national stereotype of the Western literary arts, which I occasionally see or hear being criticized by (usually young) Central Canadian critics and writers. In it we are seen as writing sentimentally only about the farm, about the past, about our legendary hard life and our endurance of it. This has become so much the stereotype that any Western writer approaching that world in an attempt to say something new and interesting about it runs the risk of being dismissed without a reading.”
SB: I wrote many of my books knowing that my readers would be urban people, not rural and I wanted to explain rural life to them in a way that would catch their interest as they have all the power in the country. The only way you can avoid being dismissed is to write so well that you can’t be dismissed, or so I’ve been telling myself for the last thirty years, only to be proven wrong for the most part. Or you can reinforce the stereotypes and write only about male heroism and the romance of the early West, and become successful that way. But I must say that women have responded to my work and Luna for example (which started lower than a snake’s belly) is now being taught here and there in women’s studies programs mostly. (Most English lit profs prefer Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres because – why? – they are all idiots? She is famous and I am not? The book had power, but it was Shakespeare’s power, not hers.)
I: You began your artistic life as a painter, and I would be interested to know whether your concerns and subjects then were similar to what they are now in your writing life.
SB: All those years I was a painter I was a mere babe in the woods. I had no idea what painting was, just as when I began writing I had no idea what writing is. I did still lifes, back lanes and garbage cans, potted plants and kitchen cupboards with the doors open and the sun shining on the teacups. I thought it was all about picture, just as I thought writing was all about putting words together in a pleasing way. I suppose my desire to paint domestic life (all I had to paint as I was not a world traveller and had a job and a child and a difficult husband) has shown up in my writing in that women are mostly my subjects.
I: What writers influenced you as you were beginning to write, and are there other writers you go to for inspiration now? What are you currently reading?
SB: I’ll start with now: I decided one day that I was not going to waste anymore time on writers who had nothing to say that I didn’t already know. Which rules out about 80% of the books out there and the ones that hit the bestseller lists and the ones the press makes a huge fuss over. I read the best, or what I think is the best, but I do read MSs for publishers to give a cover blurb and occasionally help beginning writers with their manuscripts. So I still read material that I don’t find very interesting and sometimes not very worthy.
I have always been a big reader, but I liked Doris Lessing, Alice Munro in particular, Mavis Gallant, of course although I was always puzzled by her work. I never liked Robertson Davies and I think Timothy Findlay became an incredibly bad, silly writer – when he was at his most famous. I didn’t much like M. Ondaatje for years despite being blown away by his gift, but now I see what he is up to and I admire his work very very much.
I used to love the Americans, but they are truly into navel-gazing these days and I am getting a bit bored. I admire Frances Itani’s work. I have never been able to read a Barbara Gowdy – i
s that a sign of stupidity? To go for inspiration I read all the good books from Blindness to Divisidaro and Runaway and Rick Moody’s The Diviners and so on. I am currently reading Bill Bryson’s book on Shakespeare (delightful, just as the critics say) and a really bad thriller I picked up for $6 in the remainder bin which is a pain in the butt and I probably won’t finish it.
Also, Riding to the Rescue a scholarly work about the RCMP from 1910 to 1939 or something, Jay McInerney’s novel about 9/11 – not bad in places – and Faludi and Christopher Hitchens are waiting as are a ton of other books. You know how that is.
I fixate on a subject – beauty and its meaning, for example – and spend a couple of years reading everything I can find on it, and when the current book I’m writing is finished, I put those books away and start in on something new.