November 12, 2008
Author Interview @ Pickle Me This: Tricia Dower
Silent Girl, the debut short story collection by Tricia Dower, doesn’t so much address issues as raise questions and open up dialogues. The book’s structure is remarkable– each story inspired by a woman from one of Shakespeare’s plays, and addressing various modern day women’s issues. I came away from Silent Girl intrigued, and bursting with a variety of urgent questions, and so I am pleased that Tricia Dower took the time to answer them for me. She was in touch via email from her home in Victoria, BC.
I: Though the stories in Silent Girl show such a broad range of styles, narrative voices and subject matter, their focus on women’s experiences and common origins from Shakespeare’s plays suggest they were always intended to be collected together. Was this the case? What came first, the book or the stories?
TD: The stories came first — a creative exercise to see how many contemporary counterparts to Shakespeare characters I could find. It was a feminist exercise, as well: how far had we come or not since Shakespeare’s day? After the fourth story, I started to think I might have a book.
I: From your “Afterward”, I understand that you started your stories with the Shakespearean reference, then sought a modern-day counterpart. Was this step in-between difficult? How hard was it to go from The Taming of the Shrew‘s Katherina, for example, to your Kyal in “Kesh Kumay” (who is a young woman in Kyrgyzstan who is kidnapped and forced into marriage)? Did you have false starts? In order to determine if the story had legs, did you find actual writing or research was more important?
TD: The step in between was relatively easy for the stories in which I found a theme common to the plays and a modern-day situation. Marriage is a financial transaction in both The Taming of the Shrew and “Kesh Kumay,” social isolation influences events in both Othello and “Nobody; I Myself,” illusion plays a role in both The Winter’s Tale and “Deep Dark Waves,” and the boundaries of gender are fluid in both Twelfth Night and “Cocktails with Charles.” For other stories, questions I had about Shakespeare’s characters led me to contemporary scenarios. Take Hamlet’s Gertrude, for example. I had always been curious about what was behind her hasty marriage to her husband’s brother. Another is Marina in Pericles: if you’re kidnapped by pirates and sold to a brothel, would you really be able to talk yourself out of sex? Or, why might Hermione, in The Winter’s Tale, want to reconcile with a husband who had abused her and left their daughter to die?
I had a significant false start with the last story, “The Snow People.” Intrigued by the atypical mothering of Volumnia in Coriolanus, I had planned to write a story about gangs in Los Angeles. My story’s mother would by atypical in that she’d rejoice in her son’s gang leadership rather than be afraid for him. I read first hand accounts of gang life by members of the Crips and the Bloods, two of the largest LA gangs, and immersed myself in other aspects of gang culture. What I learned was so discouraging I could not bring myself to fashion a story around it. Before drug trafficking and automatic weapons took over, the gangs might have had noble goals but, today, they seem doomed to commit self-genocide. So I abandoned my original idea and imagined a fictitious oppressed people struggling for self-determination in an environmentally damaged future.
Research was equally as important as writing for several stories. Especially so for the title story, because I knew very little about sex trafficking and not as much as I needed to about the tsunami of 2004 and Hurricane Katrina. Without research I couldn’t have written “Kesh Kumay,” since I’ve never been to Kyrgyzstan. Although “The Snow People” is set in the future, research into ancient arctic cultures, including the Ainu of Japan, helped me create a history and culture for my imaginary Snows. I must admit I like research as much as or more than writing. I love learning something new. If a story doesn’t get published, I don’t feel that I’ve failed or wasted my time if I’ve learned something.
I: What were your research methods in writing Silent Girl? Which, usually, would be sort of a boring question, but the diversity of your themes is quite remarkable, as is the extensiveness of your details, so I would like to know.
TD: I used books and articles in the library and on the Internet, films and photos, discussions with people, and first hand experience to research the stories. I read up on mad cow disease and visited a ranch for “Passing Through.” For “Nobody; I Myself,” I read books written in the ‘60s, so I could remind myself of the attitudes and language we used back then in reference to civil rights. For “Kesh Kumay,” I read everything I could about the country, especially personal accounts of everyday experiences so readers could believe in my setting and my characters. I also watched a documentary and read government and NGO reports about bride kidnapping. I read Kyrgyz fiction, including large sections of the epic poem, The Manas. My research took so many months, friends would say, “Are you still working on that story?”
I: It is a credit to your skill, I think, that nearly every story in Silent Girl might read as though it was written by a different writer. You use such a broad range of voices, of styles. Whereas so many writers will discover their niche and stay there. Do you aspire to be the kind of writer who doesn’t? In what kinds of stories do you find you’re most comfortable? Are there any narrative situations you’ve found you’d rather avoid?
TD: I’m so pleased you observed those differences in style and voice. I don’t know that I aspire to write that way over any other way. I just find it interesting to get into the heads of my characters and describe their worlds as they would — with varying pacing, word choice, attitude, setting, and so forth.
I seem to gravitate to stories about people struggling with something BIG. I can write the occasionally amusing line, but I can’t see myself authoring a comic novel. I don’t do funny well. I envy people who do.
I: Along those lines, characters in your stories employ a variety of dialects, dialect being an ambitious task for a writer to take on. What was your experience of writing it?
TD: I need to “hear” characters before I can portray them fully. Understand their language before I can reflect their thoughts and beliefs, history and culture. Charles’s stuttering in “Cocktails with Charles” and Maw-Maw’s Cajun accent in “Silent Girl” were the most challenging. I wanted to be respectful toward the way they speak and present the flavour of that speech without exhausting readers. I grew up listening to black radio in New Jersey and it was relatively easy for me to hear both Joe and Brother D (and the differences in the way they sp
oke) in “Nobody; I Myself.” Listening to my Alberta farm-born husband over the twenty years we’ve been together gave me Jack’s voice in “Passing Through.”
I: You started writing later in your life– what in your earlier experiences made you the writer you are today? What might have led you to write a singular collection such as Silent Girl?
TD: Living all these years as a woman, I suppose, through courtship and marriage, childbirth and divorce, having a paying job and not having one. Experiencing the many ways women have been socialized to think of themselves as inferior men. I think I felt compelled to explore, through this collection, the effect of patriarchal values on society as a way to help free myself from those values and move on. There was something cathartic in using my decades-old textbook as reference and finally noticing that the female characters are listed following the male characters before each play, no matter how big a role they play. Even Cleopatra comes after her male attendants.
I: In the story “Deep Dark Waves”, you write of a woman who is complicit in the violence committed against her by her husband. What are the implications of her complicity? How does your story complicate how we’ve come to understand domestic violence, and why do you think this complication is important?
TD: I intended to write about the more typical domestic abuse situation in which the man is the sole aggressor. But in my research I came across less common cases of women who are attracted to and often sexually addicted to violence. Because female violence doesn’t fit the typical profile, there are few services available to violence-prone women and their families. And it isn’t politically correct in some circles to even admit that women can be violent. I found the less typical situation to be more interesting to write about.
I: Your stories do challenge roles women have traditionally played in stories, one of them “Nobody; I Myself” beginning with the line, “I am not a victim. You’re not to feel sorry for me.” Why was this distinction important for you to address?
TD: Those lines uniquely characterize the narrator in that story — my Desdemona. She sees herself as an activist, breaking new ground in the fight against racial discrimination by marrying a black man and trying to help him succeed, according to her definition of success. She doesn’t want to be pitied, wants to be remembered as having consciously martyred herself for her husband. It was important for me to acknowledge that some people we view as victims don’t see themselves that way.
I: As much as some stories do challenge women’s roles, however, others such as “Not Meant to Know” and “Passing Through” demonstrate the limitations of women’s experiences. In the former story, each female character plays a subordinate role to the men in her life, and Trudy in the latter story faces a lack of acknowledgment from the men all around her. Are these characters victims? Are we to feel sorry for them?
TD: In “Not Meant to Know,” the girls are victims because they are children. However, through Tereza’s defiance and Linda’s assertion of her independence at the end of the story, I’m suggesting they could grow up to be women who take responsibility for their happiness. You might feel sorry for their mothers who seem to be powerless, but you don’t have to admire their acceptance of that powerlessness, considering its effect on their daughters.
In “Passing Through,” I wanted to show how a woman’s desire for self-actualization can have negative consequences for her relationships with the men in her life. To avoid becoming a victim, she may have tough choices to make. The last line of the story hints at the struggle it will be for Trudy to choose the role she wants for herself over the role her son would like her to play.
I: You write, “It became apparent to me… that things haven’t changed for women since Shakespeare’s time… We need different kinds of stories– a new mythology perhaps– to free us.” If that new mythology is necessary then, why start with Shakespeare at all? Are your stories the past or the future, or a step in between?
TD: What a great question! It didn’t occur to me that we needed a new mythology until I’d finished writing the stories and had the chance to look at what they said in their entirety. In rediscovering Shakespeare for this collection, it struck me that many of his female characters have the symbolic force of the qualities they represent, qualities that were thought to be either particularly desirable in a woman back then or particularly odious. Marina: chastity. Desdemona and Hermione: stand-by-your-man-even-if-he-abuses-you love. Kate: defiance. The fact that they are presented through such a lens was strangely liberating for me. My imagination could enter their world knowing that Shakespeare had left much of their nature unexplored. They could be transformed from what they might have represented in Shakespeare’s time into what they might represent today. For example, is my Desdemona a model of selfless love or of unhealthy self-denial? By bringing her and others forward hundreds of years, I was able to take a fresh look at their so-called virtues and vices in the light of contemporary thinking. Thus, their symbolic force is in motion, not static.
I: What reactions to your book have surprised you? What have you learned about it since you let it out into the world?
TD: I’ve been pleasantly surprised that each story has been named a “favourite” by at least one reader who has given me feedback and that readers get emotionally involved in the stories to the extent that they ask me how a character’s “fate” could be changed or what will happen to this character or that after the story is over.
I’ve been humbled by the realization that my book is but one of many thousands people can choose to read. And Victoria, where I live, supposedly has more writers per capita than any other Canadian city. I attended a literary event where someone said, “You can’t go outside without spitting on a writer.” Among the better known you could spit on: Bill Gaston, Patrick Lane, Susan Stenson, Lorna Crozier, Patricia Young, Lynne Van Luven, Linda Rogers, Susan Musgrave, Lorna Jackson, and John Gould. Local media and bookstores are not the least bit impressed by me.
I: You quit a corporate job to become a writer. You’ve noted that for two years you “turned out stuff that nobody wanted”– but what changed? And what did you learn during those two years?
TD: I got better! I took courses and workshops and joined Zoetrope.com, an online workshop sponsored by Francis Ford Coppola. I learned (and am still learning) much about the craft and received constructive criticism that I was able to translate into publishable work. I will forever be grateful to The New Quarterly for giving me my first acceptance and the confidence to keep writing and submitting.
I: What was your ultimate motivation to change your life and devote yourself to writing?
TD: Survival. As a senior executive, I became increasingly dispirited by the single-minded goal of delivering shareholder profit and the often soul destroying (for me) actions it required. Stress and long hours were making me unhealthy, as well. I began to think I wouldn’t live much longer and, with a sense of urgency, started writing my memoirs for my son and daughter. Before long, more of my heart was in that writing exercise than it was in business. The pull was too strong to ignore.
I: Who are the authors who have inspired you most as a writer? What writers excite you at the moment?
TD: Alice Munro is my hero for depth of characterization and her ability to make the ordinary extraordinary. Others who’ve inspired me for a variety of reasons are Jeanette Winterson, Margaret Atwood, Carol Windley,
Jane Smiley, Timothy Findley, and Michael Ondaatje. At the moment, I’m into Kathy Page whose 2004 GG-nominated Alphabet is brilliant. And, Cormac McCarthy, wow! I’m also into him.
I: What are you reading right now?
TD: I just finished Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees, which did not live up to its hype for me. On my list to tackle next are: Mary Swan’s The Boys in the Trees, Steven Galloway’s The Cellist of Sarajevo and David Wroblewsky’s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. Reading more novels than short story collections is unusual for me, so I will no doubt go looking for Anthony De Sa’s Giller-nominated Barnacle Love.