October 13, 2016
Emily Wight is author of the cookbook, Well Fed Flat Broke, which is the cookbook that taught me what people are talking about when they talk about reading cookbooks for pleasure. She is also the longtime writer behind the blog of the same name, and I really admire her work and her perspective on blogging.
I’d always wondered if my own philosophy of blogging (that blogging should be easy, fit nicely into your life, never be a chore…) was relevant to food blogging. Emily was kind enough to answer my questions about food blogging, and blogging in general, and what it means to be an old school blogger still at it in 2016.
I really admire your blog, your book, and all you do, and it occurs to me that you might the perfect person for something I’ve been wanting to do for a while. I teach a blogging course at UofT and think about blogging a lot, have all kinds of theories about blogs as a radical space, for women in particular. and how blogs have certainly been hijacked by commercial interest. My favourite thing about blogs is there inherent messiness, how they’re works in progress, an exercise in making it up as you go along…
But I also know that this doesn’t quite work for food blogs. A lot of work is required for a food blogger. Whereas I see a blog as a great place to practice the art of imperfection, a food blogger has to get it right or else she’ll be messing up her readers’ dinners. There is also the nature of sponsorship…
Anyway, I would be really interested in reconciling my own ideas about blogging with the realities of food blogging and expanding my understanding of blogging in general. Would you be willing to engage in a back and forth email conversation over a few days to get some of these ideas flowing?
I’d be happy to help! But also food blogs can be messy and alive, it’s just harder to find them now. I really like Poor Man’s Feast and The Yellow House, but to be honest I’ve really moved away from reading a lot of food bloggers. By the time fall comes, I never want to see another recipe for squash soup as long as I live. I think the “why” behind food blogging has shifted from when I started one million years ago in 2007/08, certainly.
Okay, so here is my first question. My whole deal is that blogging should be easy, it shouldn’t be a chore. If blogging is hard and taking up too much time, I preach, then you’re doing it wrong. But with food blogging—I suspect and as I’ve been told—there is recipe testing required, you can’t do typos (or else you can end up with a tablespoon of salt when it should have been a teaspoon). It’s a whole different game. Not to mention staging required for photographs… Has this been your experience? Is food blogging inherently hard? Is there a way to fit food blogging sustainably and easily into one’s life?
I don’t think food blogging is inherently hard—I have a much easier time of it than something like, say, fashion blogging, because I understand food but clothes remain a mystery to me. In most food blogging, food is the creative outlet—it’s a kind of art of its own, and so blogging about food is really just communicating a different form of expression, if that makes sense?
I think that people get satisfaction from different parts of it. I’m not a great photographer, so for me the staging and photographing is an afterthought, because no amount of effort in that regard is going to make my crappy iPhone photos significantly better; I think I’m a decent writer though, so I hope to coast on the quality of the writing and the recipes. For other people who are perhaps better photographers, maybe the writing feels hard.
In terms of accuracy and recipe development, that is a unique challenge but again I’d liken it to its own art form. Like, why would anyone do this if they weren’t either creating or archiving something? For me food blogging made sense—my education is in creative writing, but I am most excited about food, and we have to eat anyway. Food blogging became a way to write every day, or at least fairly often at a time when I might not have known what else to write about.
“Food blogging became a way to write every day, or at least fairly often at a time when I might not have known what else to write about.”
The challenge of sustainability now, I find, has less to do with the form and more to do with my own motivation. There’s a lot of “content” out there. I recognize that this is my own problem—food blogging is very different in 2016 than it was in 2008, and there are so many new voices that it can be hard to wade through and find your people. I won’t read on if I feel like a blogger is writing sponsored content, which is perhaps unfair, but again there is just so much out there now that I get to choose not to be marketed to if I don’t want that. At this stage, I am really looking for writers who make me look at food differently, or who use food as a vehicle for a larger story, whether there’s a recipe at the end or not.
So interesting. I am also really invested in the idea of blogging as a process, and a never-ending one too. An opportunity to learn and grow. That is why I started blogging about books back in 2007ish. Which is definitely at odds with the way that most bloggers these days are urged to position themselves as experts and gurus. I feel like we don’t get to see any of the process anymore, that the process is regarded as mess, something to be swept into the corners.
Did you have any food blogger “credentials” when you started blogging back in the day? Were they even necessary? You talk about motivation for food blogging—do you think people blogging in 2016 are blogging for blogging’s sake, or are they blogging with the intention of a book deal or some other professional opportunity? And I want to know also—what motivates you to keep blogging after all this time?
It’s totally a process! That’s why I don’t delete all my terrible, very bad posts with their clunky writing and hideous photos, because I like the idea that you can follow someone back through their process of growth. I remember when I first discovered The Bloggess in maybe 2009, and she was so funny and wonderful, and I had an evening alone (and no children), so I went all the way back through her archives and marveled at how her voice had strengthened and changed as she worked at it. There’s value in the process, and if nothing else it’s reassuring to be able to go back and see how you’ve evolved.
“I don’t delete all my terrible, very bad posts with their clunky writing and hideous photos, because I like the idea that you can follow someone back through their process of growth.”
I think the difference between then and now is really in how we’ve come to view online writing—the idea of “content” creates this sort of urgency to post regularly, to demonstrate value and expertise and keep people coming back. There has always been talk of “building an audience,” but prior to maybe 2011 the message was “make something valuable and people will come.” I don’t think that’s changed, but social media has really altered how that happens—now you don’t just have to make good blog posts, you also have to market them, and you—that was always kind of the case, but there’s so much more “content” out there now, that you have to put in a lot of effort—on a greater number of platforms—to stand out. If you want to do it well now, you have to think of yourself as a “brand” which honestly just feels so ridiculous. I get it, but I don’t want to do it.
“There has always been talk of ‘building an audience,’ but prior to maybe 2011 the message was ‘make something valuable and people will come.’ I don’t think that’s changed, but social media has really altered how that happens.”
Which is not to say that people who are doing it are doing blogging wrong, it’s just that the culture has changed. It does seem like people spring up fully formed overnight, with these beautiful sites and strong voices, but I wonder if part of that is that these are people who are approaching it with more online experience. When I started, I had had a Facebook account for maybe a year and that’s about it; I think now, for a lot of people, the social and visual aspects of blogging come pretty naturally. The technology is better—everyone has an iPhone now and iPhones take pretty good pictures. Getting to where you can be seen as an expert in whatever you’re doing is not such an investment as it used to be. “Anyone can do it” has turned into “anyone can do it well.”
I didn’t really have much in the way of credentials when I started, short of a writing degree. But is a writing degree any less a credential than professional cooking experience, if the blog’s audience is the home cook? The people who did really well early on had really strong perspectives—people like David Lebovitz, or Luisa Weiss, or Pim Techamuanvivit (who has since quit blogging). They really created the model for what you see a lot of people doing now, and I think created a sense of what you can do if you do well online.
Do people blog just to blog, or do they want something else, like a book deal? I don’t know. I think people sit down and open a WordPress account for the same reason they ever did—a desire to connect, to write, or just to find their people online. But I think there is more of a sense that if this goes well, there are other opportunities in it. People take bloggers more seriously now than they did even a few years ago. You certainly see a lot of blogger cookbooks now, and they are often quite well done (and do very well).
“I think people sit down and open a WordPress account for the same reason they ever did. But I think there is more of a sense that if this goes well, there are other opportunities in it.”
As for me and why I still do it? Well, I certainly do it a lot less than I used to, because now I feel like I only want to write when I have something to say, or a recipe that’s really worth sharing, or to gauge whether what I’m working on is something people want to see more of. With other social media, like Instagram or Facebook, I still feel very connected to my community, so I spend a lot of time on there and other platforms. I treat my site as more of a portfolio—I don’t get paid to write on my blog (I don’t do ads or sponsored posts), but it generates other opportunities. It also allows me to work out my point-of-view a bit, and to figure out what I want to do. I would not have had the opportunity to write the book without the blog; now that I’ve written the book though, the blog is still very important in that it’s a place to dabble and experiment with what I want to do next. It’s a very public way of working shit out for myself. I also get the benefit of feedback—people will make the recipes or comment on the writing, so I know pretty quickly what’s working and what’s not. It’s a hard thing to let go of, especially if you came up in writing workshops and are used to a more collaborative approach to the creative process.
This ended up being a lot of words! In short, I think that blogs are valuable and the evolution and messiness is valuable and we’re in a time of transition, because at this point blogs aren’t going away and also there are always more blogs. But like anything produced en masse, there’s good, meaningful stuff in there and I want to see it, especially if it’s a bit unrefined.
You are my blogging soul sister! That space to grow and evolve is so essential to successful blogging, I think (and I think a lot of bloggers who head into the gig thinking strategy and imagined outcomes are going to trip up on that). I am curious about your ideas about actually reading blogs. In my course, whenever I ask students what blogs they read, they usually shrug their shoulders and admit, “none!” Which is not to say that nobody reads blogs. I think that lots of people read blogs, but we come to them more laterally. I read food blogs all the time, but usually find them by googling whatever happens to be in my fridge and seeing what recipes result. I used to use a blog reader back in the day, but then Google ended it, and my blog reading was kind of rudderless after that—and I missed blogs. So I actively sought out a blog reader (I use protopage.com) which made reading blogs more of a regular habit. Kind of anachronistic, but I like it old school. I have a small but loyal group of readers who seem to feel just the same (and this is not JUST my mom). Anyway, I am interested in your thoughts on reading blogs and also finding readers. As you said, social media is a huge part of this.
Also, regarding the messiness: do you think it’s just too terrifying for some people to show their mess in public? Is that’s what’s driving the push toward tidy blogs? And by tidy, I mean antibacterial robot blogs? Is the blogger who’s willing to show her process taking risks that might be unwise?
Ha! I’m glad we’re on the same page, as I often feel like I am a cranky old man about everything and no one understands 😉
Google Reader did kill blog-reading for me, in a lot of ways—remember when you could follow, like, 50 blogs? 100 blogs?! Haha, no. I don’t read a huge number of bloggers, but I have kept up with the ones who tell good stories, or who make me laugh. I love Afroculinaria, and Eating From the Ground Up, and The Pizzle, food-related blogs that offer more than just content. The thing about “content” is it’s stuff meant to fill space. How much of what we’re putting out there is valuable? How much can any one person care about? I know content when I see it, and there’s a real difference between reading something someone put thought and time into and some junk they threw up just to have a post on Tuesdays as per usual, you know? And so, I am reading fewer and fewer blogs. But the ones I am reading, I’m really invested in. Like, I would be genuinely sad if they went away. But you’re right, I don’t think people “read” blogs in the same way that they used to—I agree, I definitely come to blogs more laterally now, and I don’t often click “follow” on the blog when I find someone I like—I find them on Instagram, or on Twitter or Facebook.
I also get to say all that as someone who has been around long enough to not really have to hustle for readers. Do I need more readers? I am sure in terms of marketing books more readers would be valuable, but I am not unhappy with how I am doing, and the amount of traffic moving through the site on a daily basis, even when I don’t post very often. I recognize that the landscape is different now, and I get to be someone with cobwebs and cat hair and it’s, like, my thing. Maybe it’s not that we’re not hustling, we’ve just earned the ability to not have to? Maybe those newbies with their neat presentations and good cameras and shiny websites look at people like us, who have been around a long ass time and don’t feel obligated to bother with Pinterest, with envy?
“Maybe it’s not that we’re not hustling, we’ve just earned the ability to not have to?”
It might be scarier now to show your mess in public. Mess isn’t marketable, and I think because there are so many blogs out there now, you need to look like you know what you are doing in order to be taken seriously, or at least to be followed by people who don’t care about stuff like messiness and the creative process (which I think is most people). Another aspect of this is that a lot of these blogs are or want to be businesses—and businesses run quite a lot differently than creative projects. I want to say this in a way that doesn’t make me sound like an asshole (because I don’t mean anything offensive by it), but there’s a difference between writers and people who like to write; I think writers, or people who have always written (in the writers-as-artists sense), may value the mess and the show-of-process more than people who like to write but have other ambitions for their blogs. Writers aren’t penalized for having written shitty first drafts (or having evolved through a period of shitty-first-draftyness) because it’s expected, that’s what we do. But bloggers who want to turn blogging into something else, something beyond cookbooks or novels or whatever, maybe they approach it differently, and are more thoughtful about how they present themselves.
Did you see Luvvie Ajayi’s post on having been blogging ten years? She talks a bit about her process, and she had a few points I liked. This one, on evolution: “This blog has evolved with me. And my changed beliefs, my maturity and my growth as a person can be charted through the last ten years. How you start is not going to be how you continue and finish and that is okay. You are human.”
This resonated, because I think this is what’s been so great about blogging. I started out when I was 25 and still really immature in terms of my voice and my world view, and I am happy I can go back even three or four years and see that I have made progress, and that I am maybe a better version of who I was when I started. And maybe that kind of thing won’t matter to most people, but there’s a vulnerability in not being your tidiest, best-branded self and I think that resonates with the kind of readers who will stick with your writing long-term.
May 5, 2015
Everything is a circle. I first learned about Rachel Power’s work through serendipity and (what else?) blogging and talking about books. In 2008, the Australian writer and artist left a comment on my blog about the ambiguous ending to Emily Perkins’ Novel About My Wife, and I discovered her blog and her book, The Divided Heart.
At the time, I was pregnant with my first child and so still very much on the periphery of “the motherhood conversations” of which I’d be privy to in the months to come. And so The Divided Heart was my first hint of these, where I first read about maternal ambivalence, the struggle (emotional and practical) for mothers to assert their creative selves, and the myriad ways women find to make it work. It was a hugely important book for me. I read it before I read Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work!
And because everything is a circle, The Divided Heart is now back in print as Motherhood and Creativity: The Divided Heart, and where Power left a comment on an interview I’d done seven years ago, I’m now interviewing her—about the book, how it’s changed in its new edition, the ways in which the motherhood conversation has changed since 2008, and how motherhood can connect us to our creative selves and to the world.
Kerry: The Divided Heart was one of my foundational texts on motherhood and mothering—I read it while I was pregnant in 2008. Which seems like a lifetime ago now, but I am so pleased that it has found new life as Creativity and Motherhood. The book played a huge role in my own experience of my heart actually not being so divided when it came to motherhood and creativity—you showed examples of how women combine the two, even when the balance is tricky. These women showed me what was possible. So I really like the new title—but how did the title change come about?
Rachel Power: Thank you for those generous comments about the book. It’s very flattering that someone as well-read as you would consider my book any kind of “foundational text”! I know your book has become the same for so many women out there.
With this new edition, called Motherhood & Creativity, the publishers had some radical changes in mind for the title, which I have to admit I largely resisted. I actually pushed pretty hard to keep “The Divided Heart” in there (it became the subtitle), because I still believe it represents the central drama of the experience for many if not most creative people with children: the desire to be in two places at once; the fear that being properly dedicated to one role inevitably risks neglecting the other. For me, those words introduce the initial question the book is trying to address. But as you say, that doesn’t mean it is full of women who are bogged down by those feelings; rather, it’s full of examples of artists who’ve found ways to forge ahead despite, and sometimes because of, those dilemmas.
As for using the word “creativity” instead of “art” (the original subtitle was “Art and Motherhood”), this felt like a necessary recognition that creativity is an important part of many people’s lives, expressed in different ways, but that doesn’t mean they all identify as “capital-A” artists. That’s why I really wanted craft-maker and blogger Pip Lincolne in this new edition: she has such a strong creative drive—and such a creative approach to life!—but I don’t think she would identify as an artist, as such. I knew that many readers would relate to that.
Kerry: It’s a very different book for me now—not just in title. I’m much more experienced in both motherhood and being creative than I was in 2008, and I relate to different parts of the conversations. How has the book changed for you? Was revisiting it a welcome experience?
Rachel: Like you, of course, I’m much further along in my parenting (my kids are 13 and 10 years old now!), but the issues remain very current to me, so I found it easy to slip back into the mothering and art conversation for the new edition. The demands are different, but just as intense, I find. With my son starting high school this year, I feel like I’m going back to school myself—my weekends have been almost completely hijacked by helping him with his homework!
But one of the main realizations for me, as someone who works full time, is that holding down a day job has been a much greater barrier to creativity than mothering. In the first edition, writer Anna Maria Dell’Oso said that when she was at home with small children she felt much closer to “the centre of her integrity” than when she was at the office, and I totally relate to that now. Finding time for art is a big challenge when your kids are small, but the upside is that in some fundamental way, we are already in a very creative space as parents, even though it’s hard to recognize that at the time.
“Finding time for art is a big challenge when your kids are small, but the upside is that in some fundamental way, we are already in a very creative space as parents, even though it’s hard to recognize that at the time.”
Kerry: What about the book’s actual changes? What else is different in this new edition?
Rachel: The new edition contains around half of the interviews from the former book and the same number again of new interviews. Much like the first time around, I approached women I admire, and was lucky enough to interview one of Australia’s best-loved actors Claudia Karvan; visual artists Del Kathryn Barton and Lily Mae Martin; writers Cate Kennedy, Tara June Winch and Lisa Gorton; musicians Holly Throsby and Deline Briscoe; and craft maker and blogger Pip Lincolne.
The other coup this time around was adding a preface from musician Clare Bowditch, who as an old friend and neighbour of mine, not only witnessed the genesis of this book, but also shared in the early years of child-rearing with me. So apart from my own family, there is really no-one closer to this book than Clare, and her preface is affirming and moving and humbling all at once. I’m very grateful for it.
My introduction and conclusions in the first issue are heavily truncated into one opening chapter in the new book. I had done a lot of research before writing the first edition and basically presented my poor editor with a 140,000-word thesis! This was cut back heavily, obviously, but the new publishers felt that it was still a bit too academic in style. So the new intro is a bit less wordy and hopefully more accessible as a result.
Kerry: How did the new edition come to be? What were the signs that the demand for it was out there?
Rachel: The Divided Heart went out of print a while ago, and it was really upsetting me that people couldn’t get their hands on a copy. I was still getting lots of letters and emails from potential readers asking where they could find books, but I only had one copy myself! So it was very exciting to find a new publisher in Affirm Press. Initially, it was just going to be a shortened version of the original. But as we went forward, editor Aviva Tuffield and I decided that it would be good to create a different book, to bring it up to date, and so there was new value for those who already had the original edition.
Kerry: Are you finding the reception different this time around? My sense is that we’re living in a slightly different climate now in regards to talking about motherhood—there is more space for nuance. Though this might be because I’m now in that climate instead of looking on. What do you think?
Rachel: That’s an interesting observation! I think there is definitely more space for nuance in the feminist debate generally, and that we have largely moved on from the dispiriting “mummy-wars” that were dominating the conversation around the time I first published The Divided Heart. Motherhood has definitely taken centre-stage in a way it hadn’t when I had my first child, and so there seems to be less division between the different parts of people’s lives nowadays—and between those who have kids and those who don’t—which can only be a good shift for society, I think. That said, most of the criticisms I’m receiving this time around are the same as last time: chiefly, that this is a bunch of middle-class women indulging their hobbies and complaining about their kids (which is such a tedious misrepresentation of the actual stories it contains).
From the outset, part of what interested me in the subject of artist-mothers was that I saw the unique contribution it could make to the feminist debate, precisely because it is a nuanced issue—both in terms of work/economics and of family/housework. Writer Alice Robinson summed it up beautifully in her recent piece for Overland journal, when she said that “as a stay-at-home parent by day, a writer by night, I am doing what untold numbers of people in each camp, and all those in both, are doing: two challenging but largely unpaid jobs. … each undervalued in the remunerative sense, but fundamental in the cultural.”
“To have a child is to enter into a strange new set of negotiations with society, our partners, our family, ourselves. To also be an artist, it seems to me, is to be dealing with the extreme end of those negotiations.”
To have a child is to enter into a strange new set of negotiations with society, our partners, our family, ourselves. To also be an artist, it seems to me, is to be dealing with the extreme end of those negotiations, because of the self-driven nature of art and the lack of guaranteed compensation. At a personal level, asserting your need to create; to carve out the time and space that art demands; to feel confident in the validity of what you have to say–requires a special kind of drive and determination for anyone. Doubly so for mothers, whose own interests and desires are expected to be sublimated to the needs of others.
So, in my mind, endeavouring to be both artist and mother raises some of the biggest questions about how we choose to live and view the world: self versus society, partnering versus independence, feminism versus masculine, sacrifice versus self-interest, creativity versus economics… In this way, I think the experience of artist-mothers can speak to the feminist debate at a particularly subtle and sensitive level.
Kerry: Motherhood is so incredibly interesting, the ideas around it far-reaching and important. I’m thinking about the book On Immunity by Eula Biss, a vast and important sociological text, and in her acknowledgements, she thanks the mothers in her community who made her realize “how expansive the questions raised by mothering really are…”
I didn’t really understand this when I first read your book, when I first became a mother—the ramifications of the ideas you’re talking about, we’re all talking about. (I certainly had no idea that motherhood would be so interesting that I’d end up editing an anthology about it too years later….)
Another interesting thing is that it’s ever in flux. What are the questions and ideas around motherhood that are preoccupying you these days?
Rachel: As you say, mothers are raising the next generation, so their actions and decisions are far-reaching and important indeed! Mothers have a unique stake in the future, and that’s why they are spearheading so many campaigns and movements around the world. In Motherhood & Creativity, writer Tara June Winch, who herself set up onethousand.org (a charity to promote female empowerment), says, “I’ll argue that most NGOs, globally are run by mothers in one way or another.”
Motherhood is a galvanising force—and one of the best things about writing The Divided Heart was that it connected me to an incredible community of mothers, who think very deeply about the way they parent but also about the world that they have brought their children into. Fathers are there too, of course. But among the families I know, while fathers are very much involved, it’s largely mothers who are still doing much of the logistical work as well as the theoretical thinking behind the parenting—and most of the worrying, sadly!
Personally I have always found mothering hugely confronting; the role presses me to be a stronger, braver, more industrious person than I feel capable of being most days. And we are raising kids in unusually complex times. I’m very conscious of wanting to raise children who feel empowered in a culture that is: 1) largely driven by a consumer-capitalist ethos; and 2) facing potential catastrophe as a result. The big question for me is: how do we raise kids who are critical and creative thinkers, who will make ethical decisions, and who will treat the environment, themselves and other people with respect, when right now all they want is a PlayStation 4 for Christmas?!
I think creativity can play a big role in all of this. I love Pip Lincolne’s comment in the book: “There’s a forgiving, nurturing quality about handmade that should be applied to life. Not everything is perfect, but it was made with good intentions and there were so many little, meaningful decisions along the way. I think that mindful approach is such a good thing and an ace ethos for a family.”
Could there be a better approach to bringing up kids? I reckon Pip has it pretty sorted!
November 26, 2014
I am so pleased with, proud of, and excited by my 49th Shelf interview with the brilliantly talent illustrator, Julie Flett, who is behind the images in a few of our family’s most beloved picture books (including Little You, which I’ve written about before). The post is gorgeous, first because it’s packed with Flett’s beautiful illustrations and book covers, but also because her responses to my questions are so fresh and thoughtful, with so many excellent book recommendations. Plus, we talk about holey socks, wallpaper patterns, big suns, and all the exciting things happening in First Nations Children’s Literature in Canada today. It’s so good.
September 16, 2014
Rachel Wyatt is a prolific and award-winning author of novels, short fiction, stage and radio plays and non-fiction works. Her six novels include The Rosedale Hoax, Foreign Bodies, and Time’s Reach. A half-dozen professional productions have been mounted of her full-length stage plays, including Crackpot and For Love or Money. She has also had over 100 plays produced by CBC and BBC radio, and monologues and scenes from her works have been included in many anthologies, most recently in the Oxford Book of Stories by Canadian Women.
Rachel Wyatt immigrated to Canada with her family in 1957. She was Director of the Writing Program at the Banff Centre for the Arts during the 1990s and has appeared at writer’s conferences across Canada and internationally. She has won the CBC Literary Competition Drama Award and was Awarded the Order of Canada in 2002 and the Queen’s Jubilee Medal in 2003.
Kerry Clare: I discovered your work through Amy Lavender Harris’s Imagining Toronto, in which she wrote about The Rosedale Hoax, which is nearly 40 years old. I read The Rosedale Hoax and was impressed at how contemporary in tone it was, a wonderful depiction of Toronto and its classes and masses. It’s a very funny book.
Rachel Wyatt: After all this time! The book began life with a fanfare. Anansi spent its entire advertising budget on large posters in the Toronto Subway. Then a woman reviewer wrote a really nasty, almost personal, piece about it in the Globe, and that more or less killed the novel at birth. At least a woman who was a realtor in Rosedale used to buy a few copies every year for a competition she ran in the area. I’m delighted that you and Amy Lavender Harris have taken notice of it.
Kerry: What was it like to be writing about Toronto in 1977? How was your vision of the city different from how you’d seen it presented in literature before?
Rachel: Writing, thinking, about Toronto in 1977. Well, my own first impressions in 1957 were reflected in what was being written at that time. It was dull, cold, narrowly Protestant. Strict laughable rules about buying liquor from the store or in bars were enforced. “Men Only” signs here and there. Ladies Entrances in the pubs. By 1977 much of this had changed and I saw the more casual approach to life, as if some tight hold on the city was beginning to relax its grip. And by 1993, it was/is to me the great city I hated to leave.
Kerry: Since then I’ve read your two most recent novels (Suspicion and Letters to Omar) and their narrative approach was so similar to The Rosedale Hoax. I don’t mean to imply that you’ve not grown as a writer in this time, but instead to suggest that your style has long been well-defined. It’s also singular—I can’t think of what I’d compare it to. Do you think you think you were ahead of your time? Or apart from time? How have your preoccupations changed from then to now?
Rachel Wyatt: I’ll answer the last part of your question first as it’s the easiest. If my preoccupations have changed, they have perhaps grown wider in the sense of considering the whole world—depressing as that is. In my first years in Canada (we arrived [from England] in 1957) I was looking around at this new place with wonder, delight and occasional puzzlement, and using what I saw and heard.
Yes, I have been perceived as ahead of my time and that, when it comes to selling one’s work, is not helpful.
I’m not used to considering my own style, narrative habits, structure and so it’s a bit of a mystery to me. I’m only the writer. My editor has said my writing style comes out of the Brit tragi-comedy of manners. Some of my stage plays have been described in that way too. I think it’s a habit of looking at the world a little sideways on, if that makes sense. And that won’t have changed over time and certainly won’t now.
“I think it’s a habit of looking at the world a little sideways on…”
As for the way I tell a story, it’s a matter, perhaps, of beginning in the middle. I’ll keep thinking about it but if I think too much, I might stop writing.
Kerry: You do begin in the middle—in Letters to Omar this is particularly apparent. This approach much be disconcerting for readers who are used to being led through novels with their hands held. You have faith in your readers though to find their way, to figure it out (and I did! It’s all there). Or are you thinking of the readers at all? What makes the middle so compelling? Isn’t it easier to start at the start?
Rachel: Like most writers, I say that I tend not to think of potential readers while I’m writing. But just as I like to be treated as an intelligent person when I read or watch plays, so I assume readers and audiences of my work to be intelligent too. It makes me feel good to grasp something in a novel that isn’t obvious at first, or to get the ‘aha’ moment in a play. It’s part of the pleasure.
Also, starting in the middle makes the “unfolding” or revealing more fun. I keep seeing “reveal” used as a noun now. I don’t like it but I can see its uses.
Kerry: Your latest novel, Suspicion, puts its “reveal” right at the start though, and it’s the rest of the characters in the novel who have to wait to find out the truth about what happened to Candace Wilson. (I loved this book! It’s on my Canadian Gone Girl list). What was the attraction of turning the structure of the suspense novel inside out?
Rachel: Suspicion is about suspicion. Have you read Chekhov’s “In the Ravine”? It’s about gossip and how it affects lives. I wanted to show how this event, Candace’s disappearance, changed the town and the people. Whispers, rumours, “false witness” even, spread around. And when it was all over, Jack, for instance, would always know he’d been suspected of murder and even after she’d been found, of a failed attempt.
I’m very pleased that you loved it and that it’s on your Next-Gone-Girl list. Perhaps someone will make a movie of it. A big perhaps!
Kerry: Oh, the Chekhov reference is helpful here. Your work is such a fascinating puzzle, and this goes a step toward decoding it. Who are your other literary influences? And (which might the same question, or maybe not), what authors and books are most beloved to you?
Rachel: This is a big question. I look at my bookshelves and love all the writers and all their books. Influence is the hard question. I suppose writers take from just about everything they read. When Tennessee Williams was asked which three writers had influenced him most, he said, ”Chekhov, Chekhov and Chekhov.”
Virginia Woolf is a favourite, The Waves in particular. Conrad, Henry James, the ancients—The Aeneid, The Odyssey. The Brit humourists, Evelyn Waugh, P G Wodehouse and now Ian MacEwen, Martin Amis. Canadians: Mavis Gallant who was also a dear friend, unparallelled Alistair MacLeod, and of course Alice. Recently, The Sisters Brothers by Patrick de Witt and Lee Henderson’s The Man Game. In the early seventies, I was given a copy of Adele Wiseman’s Crackpot. When I’d read it, I wanted to jump up and shout, “This is the great Canadian novel”. We became friends and after she died, the CBC commissioned me to adapt Crackpot for radio, which I did. Subsequently, I adapted it for the stage and it’s had productions from coast to coast.
At the moment, I’m reading a dark Japanese mystery by Fuminori Makinara and re-reading after decades Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier. I’ve just finished Margaret MacMillan’s The War that Ended Peace. A brilliant book but disturbing because it’s all happening again.
I won’t start on poetry and plays but I get great pleasure from reading those too.
You shouldn’t have got me started! Influence? I don’t know. But I think my use of language was helped along by going to church with Grandma and hearing the words of the King James Bible. I also eavesdrop all the time.
“I think my use of language was helped along by going to church with Grandma and hearing the words of the King James Bible. I also eavesdrop all the time.”
Kerry: No surprise that you’re an eavesdropper. You have such an ear for dialogue—I loved:
“What is stupid,” Mike went on, “is to go about having illusions about people you never knew in the first place.”
“You’re not likely to have illusions about someone you know,” Dorothy said. “Once you get to know them.”
Where so many authors would use exposition, you tell the story obliquely through characters’ conversations. Is this where your background as a playwright informs your fiction writing? And what do you love about the way people talk?
Rachel: There is poetry in the things people say and the things they don’t say. We speak often in shorthand because friends and family know what we mean to say and will cut in. A short phrase can carry a great deal of weight. Some of my short stories are, in effect, little plays. In writing for radio, everything including the scenery must be in the dialogue but not obviously. Timothy West, the actor, wrote a fine parody of a radio play entitled, “This gun that I have in my right hand is loaded.” A simple “Don’t shoot” from the other person would imply a gun—unless they’re out in the woods with bows and arrows. And so on.
Kerry: The dialogue in Letters to Omar is fascinating in that it’s not actually dialogue—there is so little listening involved in how the characters respond to one another, which results in misunderstandings. But it’s also the way that old friends speak—they know each other so well they feel themselves beyond having to listening. Their conversations are a glorious mess. Your depiction of a lifelong friendship between three women is one of my favourite parts of this book—you show how it informs their lives (and someone else remarks, I think, that it has kept them from maturing, that they’re forever stuck in a time warp of girlhood when they’re together). Women’s friendship is still rare in literature, though common in the world, I think. What was interesting about it for you to approach as a novelist?
Rachel: I’m an opera fan and had been thinking about the fine duets between male friends as in The Pearl Fishers, or between Orestes and Pylades who are prepared to die for each other in Iphigeneia in Tauris. Then there are Achilles and Patroclus—I don’t think anyone’s written an opera about them. And Sidney Carton who does the “far, far better thing” and goes off to the scaffold in his friend’s place.
I can’t think of anything like that between women in opera or literature. I think I mentioned that I was reading Middlemarch. Dorothea, in that small enclosed society, doesn’t have a single true female friend. And her sister isn’t much help. Emma in Emma bestows her “friendship” on poor Harriet whom she wants to improve, with disastrous results. Elizabeth and Jane Bennet are an example of sisters who are also “best” friends.
I think friendship between women is an unseen thing, unheard and, clearly, unsung. We know who our “best” friends are. They’re the very few we trust with our secrets, who will come to our aid in time of need and so on, and for whom we do the same.
“I think friendship between women is an unseen thing, unheard and, clearly, unsung.”
Kate and Elsie and Dorothy have made a kind of web for themselves, a sort of safety net, I suppose. They will be all right as long as they jog along together, holding each other up in a crazy way. Some days they’ll dislike each other but they’ll defend each other against everyone else. Kate’s husband for instance is a villain to them all. I think it was that kind of carry-over from their college days that I liked. All of them sharing a “room” forever.
Kerry: And I’ve heard the good news that you’ll have a new short story collection published by Coteau Books in the spring. Congratulations! What can you tell us about it?
Rachel: Street Symphony will indeed be published in spring—if we can get it together in time. I’m a café addict as I may have mentioned. Six mornings a week I can be found at Café Misto down the road when it opens at 7am. I have coffee and a muffin and read the papers and talk to other regulars. Then I walk home again and talk to the people on this very short street who are setting off to work or getting the kids off to school. So some of the stories reflect all that. Who are these people who turn up for coffee so early? Why are they there? I invented new café denizens for my tales.
Another story began from seeing a grubby-looking aquarium in another café. And so on. I’ve written about the lives of people around town as I think they might be. And I hope people enjoy reading the stories—and buy the book.
February 22, 2014
It almost seems remiss now to admit that I’ve read Middlemarch just once, and not until I was too old for it to become the foundation of my being. Because what a foundation, its purview so large and dense, the force of its moral sweep. Middlemarch is the novel that New Yorker Staff Writer Rebecca Mead has returned to again and again, as she sets out to explain in her new book, My Life in Middlemarch.
Not simply a celebration of George Eliot’s novel, however, Mead’s book is a testament to the strange alchemy of the reread. “A really good book can speak to you at a different stage of your life,” she told me during a recent telephone conversation
“With a book as complex as Middlemarch, literally there are different stories you can appreciate at different times,” she says. And even the same stories and characters are subject to change. While in her early experiences with the novel, Mead identified with Dorothea Brook’s inchoate longing, years later, it would be Casaubon who she’d view with sympathy. “You realize that he was just a very sad, middle-aged man who messed up. You can’t but read him in middle age and see the stripes of that in your experience.”
In Middlemarch, Mead sees stripes of Eliot’s experience as well, My Life in Middlemarch emerging as a curious blend of biography, autobiography and literary analysis. It’s the kind of approach to a novel—particularly a classic one—that university trains out of most of us. (The day after our conversation, Mead tweeted: “recurring question theme from Canadian interviewers: Did you ever think “how dare I write this book?” #thingsAmericansdontask”.)
But it was an approach that came naturally to Mead. “I studied literature at university and became aware that the way that scholars think and talk about books isn’t the way that ordinary readers do.” She wished her book to be an acknowledgement that “a sense of recognition is where a lot of the pleasure of reading begins.”
She continues, “Why do ordinary people read? They read because they feel that the stories they’re learning are enriching their lives somehow or they’re giving them a way to think about their own experience.”
While My Life in Middlemarch is concerned with Mead’s own experiences though (in love, work, parenthood, in relation to her parents, and her native England), her autobiography remains peripheral to the book’s central narrative. “I was happy with balance I struck,” she said. “Some people wanted more and wanted less. The book is very personal, but it’s not confessional. I think I must have been, without consciously thinking about it, channeling this sense of Victorian restraint.”
Ultimately, the richest life story in My Life in Middlemarch turns out to be Eliot’s own, Mead using the novelist’s biography (which was highly unconventional by Victorian standards, and even our own) to draw out the novel’s subtle underpinnings. Few critics have mined Middlemarch for what it has to tell us about motherhood, except perhaps how motherhood can come between two women, as it does for Dorothea and her sister, Celia.
On the basis of her own experience, however, Mead is able to see more deeply into the novel. An uncanny connection (of many) has Mead herself become the stepmother to three boys, just as Eliot was (by her husband, George Henry Lewes). And Mead shows how Eliot’s experiences as a stepmother are echoed within the stories of Middlemarch and its structure, these echoes revealing just how deeply a woman who never had biological children was able to intuit motherhood after all.
“If I could ask George Eliot any question,” remarks Mead, “it would be to ask her about not having children herself, whether she always knew that it was something that she didn’t want. For me, having a child has been most important thing I’ve ever done, for her not to have had that intensity of experience…”
One area in which Eliot did have intensity of experience, however, was in her relationship with Lewes, which Mead depicts as a love story far too perfect to ever work in fiction. “Their relationship was a real inspiration,” she says. “They had their ups and downs, but were intensely compatible. They had this amazing writers’ companionship. Their relationship was especially moving because they met well into middle age. They were both mature and seasoned, had experienced disappointment.”
While Eliot’s biography is indeed central to My Life in Middlemarch, it is the novel itself that structures the book, whose eight chapters are titled for the eight books of Middlemarch. Such a structure came about organically.
“As I was taking notes and figuring it out, it became clear that the titles were so suggestive, perfectly apt for describing aspects of [Eliot’s] life [“Old and Young”, “Waiting for Death”, “Three Love Problems”, etc.], and from that, the book flowed very easily. I haven’t written anything on this scale with such a structural conceit before, and I’m delighted by the aesthetic shape of it, very happy.”
“There were moments,” Mead notes, “writing this book where I was so deep in it everything fitting together, and I felt either I’m really inspired or I’m psychotic; it all meshed.”
It was pointed out to Mead in a recent interview that the connections might go even deeper, that her own book manages to recapitulate the moral story of Middlemarch, the journey from self-centredness into wider empathy. My Life in Middlemarch starts off with Mead’s own story and her connection to the novel, to conclude with a deeper understanding of her parents’ lives and relationship, through the story of Fred and Mary. Mead was thrilled to see this. “What a joyful experience it was to write it,” she says.
The book is a joyful experience to read as well, as attested to by the terrific buzz it has generated. That buzz is all the more remarkable for how much this isn’t the sort of book that any of us these days are meant to be interested in anyway, a celebration of reading a book that’s more that 140-years old, not to mention so much longer than 140 characters.
The response to her book, says Mead, “maybe speaks to a yearning people have to slow down. People are responding to my taking the time to slow down with Middlemarch, to go through it and to read so carefully.”
And not just read it, but reread it. Mead agrees here with my suggestion that there is particular relationship between rereading and the Victorian novel. “That attempt at a whole panorama… There is destiny, ambition, scale and pace that allows one to go back and revisit.”
But what a challenge is rereading with so little time for reading at all.
And here, Mead shares an anecdote about a character she encountered during her Middlemarch research. One of the eight original Middlemarch novellas had come up for auction, and she went to the sale. The book sold for $35,000. Mead told the buyer, “I wish I had that kind of money to spend on a book.”
She says, “And he told me, ‘You do. You just need to rearrange your priorities.’ With rereading, it’s the same.”
- Check out Middlemarch for Book Clubs
May 19, 2013
I was introduced to Samantha Bernstein once at an event at the Toronto Women’s Bookstore not long before her memoir Here We Are Among the Living came into the world. When her book was nominated for the BC National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction, one of just three books written by women on a long-list of ten, I knew I had to read it, and it turned out to be one of my favourite books of 2012.
Yes, this is a memoir written by Irving Layton’s daughter, but Bernstein’s literary lineage was less interesting to me than the Toronto she writes about, and her stories of what it was to come of age at the turn of the millennium. I came away from the book wanting to expand on the questions it posed, and so I was very pleased when Bernstein agreed to engage in an email conversation with me.
The following interview was conducted over the past five months, which seems like a long time, but considering it took place between two pregnant women with rich and busy lives, it’s really a wonder that we pulled it off at all.
KC: Did you always know that your memoir was going to be in epistolary format? Why was it important that it was? And were the emails in your book based on actual correspondence?
SB: Yes, I knew from pretty early on that the book would be in emails. I first started working on it during my undergrad in creative writing at York, and my prose assignments started coming out as emails. The idea of writing a book was like a pair of sunglasses I couldn’t take off, but which I felt quite stupid about wearing—Who am I trying to be? and all that. My world at the time was completely tinted by those damn glasses (which, as my mom would tell you, I was super pissed off about much of the time). That need to transcribe everything got funneled into my correspondence with my friends Eshe and Joe; so writing in emails was at first just a less intimidating way to write, because it was familiar and because they presuppose an interested audience.
In my last year of university I read The Sorrows of Young Werther, Goethe’s epistolary novel that sparked rebellion in the hearts of his contemporaries. Werther’s letters, at first, just seem ridiculously whiny and self-indulgent (as twenty-somethings are apt to sound…), but as we discussed the book, the self-narration began to take on a broader significance. The intensity behind Werther’s writing is fueled by the fears of youth, fears of being turned into something you despise, of betraying ideals, of failing to properly appreciate or capture the beauty you are experiencing. And as I learned more about the epistolary form, I liked its history of social engagement and criticism, its continual probing of moral and ethical questions. I felt like it would make sense for this book to be in that tradition. Especially because, as it appeared the book would have to be a memoir, I thought that the epistolary concern with subjectivity—its political implications, its distortions and narcissism—would at least be a formal recognition of the problem of writing about one’s self.
The book is based on actual correspondence, but the letters are almost entirely made up. Some lines are direct from emails I’d sent to Joe and Eshe, and certainly the correspondence we’d had helped me to remember what was going on at the time, and what we’d been thinking about. Thoughts and images from our emails got reworked into the book. I’d also been gathering moments and things people said in notebooks for years. I’ve been surprised, though, at how many people think I just printed out my hotmail folder. If only! But I’m glad the emails are believable. It was hard, sometimes, to keep my late-twenties self from editing my early-twenties self into a less obnoxiously naive/enraged person than I was.
KC: How does email change the epistolary format? Granted, your emails aren’t so cyberish—no emoticons and LOLs. But I imagine the immediacy makes a difference. Does email offer the epistle a boost or does it reduce it?
SB: Oh, that’s a good question! I think it could do both, depending on the correspondents. It would be an interesting study to compare the language in classic epistolary and in what Michael Helm cleverly called e-pistolary novels. Both email and traditional letters express a captivation with the present moment, a need to communicate it to someone who will understand. When the first epistolary novels were being written, the postal system was the amazing new technology! But the immediacy of email does heighten the sense of youthful urgency so often present in the epistolary form; I wanted to capture the intensity of letting those thoughts spill out, usually late at night, knowing my friend would wake to see them, and that I might have a reply by the next night. An email correspondence can feel more like a conversation, I think, which opens interesting possibilities.
When I was twenty, in 2001, email was still a relatively new thing. I don’t think the word emoticon existed yet. We got our first computer when I was fifteen, and I got my hotmail account when I was about eighteen (the one I still have, whose stupid address can be explained by this fact). I’ve often mused with people my age about being the last generation to remember life before the internet, and it may be that our emails reflect this, and cling to the conventions of letter-writing. I also tend to be kind of stodgy about language —I feel like words, not pictures or acronyms, should be doing the work (although I’m not against a smiley face now and again…) But I’m sure there are people are using txt speak and such in creative and interesting ways that will ultimately help to perpetuate the epistle.
KC: What are the connections between your academic self and your writer self? Do your projects tend to overlap and how do they inform one another?
SB: In some ways I feel that academic and non-academic creativity support each other—for instance, I read the wonderful poet Gwendolyn Brooks for a course, and then wrote a sonnet cycle to her. I really felt this interaction as I was editing the book. My doctoral dissertation deals with the ethics of aestheticizing poverty, which is also a strain of the memoir, and the academic thinking helped to structure my edits and bring that theme out more clearly.
As a middle-class person interested in social justice, it’s important, I think, to be aware of how we approach and express our desires to help. When I was younger, this idea was tied up with a lot of frustration around whether my ideals or my friends’ were in any way useful or if they were simply aesthetic choices. I was especially racked by this question because of being raised in the residue of the Baby Boomers’ youth culture, which was a social revolution largely enacted through identity—now a profoundly commercialized aesthetic of “personal freedom,” “rebellion” etc. That was really the question that spawned Here We Are—what happened to the anti-materialist, egalitarian youth movements of the sixties? Were they ever really that? Or was there something inherent in those movements that resulted in the present culture that sells cars with Jimi Hendrix songs (or more recently, Keith Richards hocking Louis Vuitton)? So I did a Master’s at York that allowed me to research youth subcultures, to see how European and North American youth have historically expressed their dissent, and how these traditions intersect with epistolary and life writing. That program at York was amazing luck—I got grants, and so was able to spend the second year of the Master’s basically just writing. A dream, really.
I do feel sometimes, though, that I should choose between academia and literature. Although there are amazing people like Priscila Uppal who gracefully balance the two worlds (and I owe a lot to her teaching), you often hear that it’s one or the other. There are writers like, for instance, Camilla Gibb, who I heard was accepted into some amazing doctoral program and turned it down to write full-time. I worry there won’t be time to do it all, especially now as Michael and I are expecting our first child in the summer. That said, I know I’m not the big-time academic type. I’m not going to be moving around the country for the next ten years in search of tenure. I love teaching—I really still do (most of the time) believe that if you can incite some curiosity in a couple of students, you’ve done a valuable thing. There are so many good and important jobs that help people, for which I am in no way qualified, and teaching is one of the very few professions in which the skills I have can be put to good use. So I just hope to have the privilege of doing that, and continuing to research stuff— because I really like sitting down with a book and a pen, and underlining sentences, and thinking about what I might say about them. And I’m hoping that sometimes that saying will come out in a literary way.
KC: Speaking of youth cultures, that early-twenties self that you document in your book is actually quite a fashionable figure in our pop-culture at the moment, though what I really appreciate about your book is that the young self is a starting point, something to grow (up) from rather than to fetishize in and of itself. Youth is certainly worth examining (and I remember how profound everything seemed when I was 21, how strong was the urge to record every atom as it fell) but for many women, our early twenties are also ourselves at our worst, our most loopy and unhappy. So much gets figured out in the decade that follows, no matter how confused we remain into our 30s. And so I wonder what kind of a feminist gesture is it that society (I’m thinking books and TV shows lately—primarily the show Girls which I can’t bear to watch, fearing it will strike too close to home, reminding me of a self whose existence wasn’t as profound as she imagined she was…) is so focused on the moments before women finally get it together? Can this really be useful?
SB: This is a super interesting question, Kerry. I think it’s really true and important to point out that one’s twenties, exciting as they can be in many ways, are also this weird half-formed time in which one feels far more mature than a few years earlier (high school feels like elementary school in its contained simplicity) but is still essentially blundering around in a miasma of unexplained desires and fears (like, a thicker miasma than in later life…). I was just talking with Joe about this yesterday: how we didn’t know anything in our twenties—and yet, and yet… thinking of how we knew enough to hold onto this friendship despite geographical distance and all the uncertainty of those years, I said we were starting to know something about what we needed to be what we wanted to be.
And maybe that’s what makes this moment such a rich one to represent: we want to capture the sense of self germinating. We’re developing into some form of ourselves that can actually be carried forward, consciously, into our future lives. We are, in many cases, expressing our beliefs very strongly and at least trying to understand them, which, I think, differentiates this process from what happens in our teens, when we start believing things passionately, or identifying with things passionately, but utterly uncritically. In our twenties we start adhering—sometimes just as absurdly—to a critical framework for our actions. The blunders and insights this generates often make for good art.
There was an article in the January 13 New Yorker by Nathan Heller, which I thought was rather lovely on the topic of the twenty-something. He observes the basic continuity of depictions of this age despite recent studies on how current social and economic factors are determining the ways people experience their twenties. He compares a bit of dialogue from Fitzgerald’s 1920 novel This Side of Paradise with a bit from our present Girls, which amazingly demonstrates the continual concern with one’s own mind, with anxiety and self-doubt and how we navigate these in our relationships. Reading Heller’s article made me both happy and slightly sheepish about my book. Sheepish because I am yet another “[a]ble-bodied, middle-class [North] American” (67) documenting the “thrilling sense of nowness” (71) that characterizes the twenties for so many people in that category. Happy, though, to be in this tradition of youths of the modern world—to have documented coming of age in this particular corner of the world that hasn’t been much documented yet, and is interesting in its specificity and its connection to other times and places. And because I captured the wonder of those years as best I could, and am glad to have those moments stashed away.
So to answer your question… I think all good writing is potentially useful and all bad writing potentially harmful. I think art that depicts women in their twenties as hot messes might contribute to dialogues about everything from mental and sexual health to career choice and motherhood. I think, though, that there is a fascination with the seamy and the broken in this society, and that stories about women in harmful circumstances are perhaps more common than is quite helpful. This fascination is a central aspect of my doctoral work, because there’s an old and very interesting aesthetic tradition to our desire to make degradation and suffering into art. We should, I think, look carefully at this desire, because I do believe that art has moral implications, and if we’re satisfied with only the messed-up twenty-something girls, without signs of their growth (See Nussbaum on “Girls” ) that just indicates that we, as a society, have a lot more growing up to do.
KC: With that “thrilling sense of newness” you document, you were on to something though, and it wasn’t all in your head. Reading your book, I was struck by how you’d documented a really pivotal time in the history of Toronto, a burgeoning sense of urbanism and civic awareness among a certain class/demographic of downtowners who were made to feel as though they had a say (or deserved one) in how the city was being shaped around them. (Edward Keenan documents the same thing through a less personal filter in his new book Some Great Idea: Good Neighbourhoods, Crazy Politics and the Invention of Toronto.) Did you have a sense as you wrote Here We Are Among the Living that you were writing a Toronto book? What role does the city play as a character in your story?
SB: I’m glad that my book brought something out for you about the changes that have been happening in Toronto. From the beginning I wanted to write about this city, which still, in the early years of the millennium, had a kind of stigma around it. It had never been and would never be as cool as Montreal. You couldn’t go hiking or skiing the way you could if you lived in Vancouver, and the weed was more expensive. The sense that Toronto was Hogtown with a sheen of Bay St. lawyers was why, in 2002 when Samba Elegua went marching alongside a spontaneous parade through the Financial District, it felt so incendiary. That youthful feeling of “nowness” that Heller describes—the acute, almost overwhelming awareness of the singular moment being experienced—was intensified by the newness of what we were doing.
As the decade progressed, we also developed a sense of being in a kind of precious time before gentrification entered full swing. I felt a tremendous poignancy about the east end. Ty’s loft on Eastern Ave. was across a waste lot from what is now the Distillery District. It was a ghost town when he moved in, one that we could traipse through and wonder what would become of the beautiful red bricks, the wood shutters and cobblestones. The Canary, on Cherry St., was still a functioning diner where we ate cheap breakfasts, discovering over those smokes-and-eggs that I was fetishising a certain aesthetic that was very indicative of where I came from and the kind of life I desired. So our twenties were largely about learning the city, and what kind of city we wanted—in part by assessing the gentrification rumbling toward Kensington and Leslieville. Knowing that the qualities for which we loved these places would threaten them later. There’s a petition going right now to keep Loblaws out of Kensington. I have nothing against Loblaws, but that would seriously alter the nature of the neighborhood. (On an amazingly happy note, I discovered last night that Casa Acoreana, the iconic coffee shop at the corner of Augusta and Baldwin, is not going to be gentrified out of business. The landlord was going to raise the rent, but the outcry from the neighborhood and in local newspapers was so impassioned that he rethought the increase, and the shop gets to stay. A rare and inspiring bit of beauty, that.)
Michael tried to convince me yesterday that the Starbucks on Logan has been there for ten years. Oh no it hasn’t, I said, and I’ll tell you why I know; when we used to walk to the Tango Palace [a coffee shop at Queen and Jones where we’d do our homework on the weekends] I’d say, there will be a Starbucks in this area within three years. And the year after you moved out [in 2006],
there was one.
I think the city in my story is a kind of muse. Certainly it made me want to write about it all the time. And it generates creativity and joy by bringing people together—Joe, for instance, comes to Toronto from England intending to go on to Vancouver, but changes his mind and stays because he likes it. A desire for the city to be a community inspires Streets Are For People!, the collective which creates Pedestrian Sundays in Kensington. And you’re right, that’s not just about dancing in the streets, or playing giant chess on the asphalt while eating empanadas; it’s about people being involved in the shape this city takes, and feeling like we have a responsibility and a right to advocate for things that will make life good here.
Street festivals like Taste of the Danforth, which has something like a million attendees now, engender a similar spirit, if perhaps in less direct ways. Even though there’s more of a consumerist bent to these bigger festivals, they still promote independent businesses and bring people together—and that’s good for the city as a whole. I love, too, that this discussion is coming to places outside the downtown core. I don’t know as much about this as I’d like to, but I’m really hopeful that street festivals, bike lanes and farmer’s markets aren’t just going to remain the purview of 416-ers.
Keenan’s book is definitely on my summer reading list. The changes in Toronto aren’t entirely great, but we’re getting a lot right and it’s nice that people are paying attention to what those things are, so we can keep ’em coming.
KC: Growing up in Toronto, did you have a sense of its literary landscape, which has been underlined by recent projects such as Amy Lavender Harris’ Imagining Toronto book and Project Bookmark installations? What Toronto books contributed to your own literary landscape?
SB: Honestly, growing up in Toronto I felt like this city wasn’t on any literary map at all. In part, that’s probably because when I started seriously reading, in my late teens and early twenties, I was doing the young person thing of reading about everywhere else. So it was The Famished Road, by Ben Okri, and Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The Beats, of course. And trying to catch up on “the classics”—you know, The Great Gatsby, Dostoyevsky, Balzac…
So all through my early twenties, as I was thinking of writing this book, and scribbling notes for it, I was motivated in part by my love for a city that seemed undocumented. It was something we talked about, my friends, my mom and I—how no work of art had yet made Toronto “cool,” or even interesting. There was no romance about it at all. To some extent I still think that’s the case. Everyone I know was pretty darned excited when the movie Scott Pilgrim vs. The World came out, and we could recognize Bloor St., and there’s that scene where they’re CD shopping in Honest Ed’s.
It wasn’t until I was in the first year of my PhD, and TA’d for Modern Canadian Fiction, that I read a bunch of books set in Toronto: Hugh Garner’s Cabbagetown, which, despite now being unfashionable (its stodgy realism and blatant social agenda) I truly enjoyed. Austin Clarke’s excellent novel The Meeting Point was the first—and remains the only, come to think of it—depiction I’d read of Forest Hill. Barbara Gowdy’s labyrinthine Don Mills streets in Falling Angels were a revelation that Toronto’s suburbs had been made into art (which I hope to see a lot more of).
For me, best of all was Dionne Brand’s What We All Long For. That novel evokes the Toronto that I know and love: the youth of the four main characters capture the city’s restless, growing heart, its striving for beauty. The students loved that book, too. Our outstanding prof, Cheryl Cowdy, introduced us to the idea of psychogeography (now such a buzz word, thanks to Shawn Micallef’s 2011 book), and the concept just took off for students when we studied What We All Long For–I think because it was current, and the city so recognizable. The class got a lot of pleasure from looking at how characters were responding to their environments, and there are so many different Toronto environments depicted in Brand’s book that students were both learning about and identifying with; it made the fictional world very real to them, and I think made the city more real to them at the same time.
I’m excited that so much more art is being made in and about Toronto. I’d love to see more renderings of Toronto in the 1960s, or the 1980s, when I think a lot was changing. I’m working on a story set then; I’m hoping to include something about Operation Soap, the bathhouse raids on Richmond Street in 1981.
KC: So now I’m excited that you’re making more art in and about Toronto. Anything else exciting that you’re working on? And what are you reading right now?
SB: Well, there’s the short stories; the one that’s finished is a very long story called “The Optimists.” I’ve also got a lot of poems—many of which involve Toronto—that I’d like to turn into a book.
I’ve just started The Golden Bowl, by Henry James, who I love because he can make thinking the central action of a novel. I’m also reading a book called Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity by Richard Rorty, which I’m hoping is going to help me make a case for the social utility of liberal guilt and self
October 2, 2012
The Giller shortlist was announced yesterday, the nominees for the Governor General’s Awards announced today. Writers Trust last week too, and in general, I’m not so grumpy anymore. I love that The Juliet Stories is getting props. I don’t love that Malarky still isn’t, but I’m confident that it’s a book that will hold its own. Its enthusiastic readers will do its propping for it. I look forward to reading some of the other nominees.
Last week I read the Giller longlisted My Life Among the Apes by Cary Fagan, which I enjoyed a lot. Also was pleased to interview Fagan on 49thShelf, and I hope you’ll check it out because I’m really proud of this one. I’ve also been inspired to create a list of books with monkeys on their cover–a most worthwhile endeavour, I think.
May 6, 2012
In February 2008, I spent one of the most perfect days of my entire life sitting on the grass in San Francisco’s Dolores Park, reading the journal Hobart in Canada/America, which I’d purchased the day before at the legendary City Lights Bookstore. And it was in that journal that I first encountered the work of Heather Birrell with the short story “My Friend Taisie”. Later on the next year, Heather turned up in the also-legendary “Salon de Refuses” issue of The New Quarterly, and I made a note on my blog that her story “Impossible to Die In Your Dreams” had been my favourite of the collection. (I also attended a panel discussion about the Salon of which Heather was a part. You can go here to see amusing pictures of Stuart and I looking extraordinarily bored).
Heather emailed me after I’d mentioned her work on my blog. At the time she had a newborn daughter, and I was newly pregnant, and of motherhood she advised me: “time does shrivel, but it also expands in marvellous ways.” Which was true, but also a very kind lesson in restraint, I note in retrospect. Heather and I finally met in person in Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer’s kitchen one day about two years ago, and I’ve adored her steadily ever since.
Heather Birrell is the author of the story collections Mad Hope and I know you are but what am I? Her work has been honoured with the Journey Prize for short fiction and the Edna Staebler Award for creative non-fiction, and has been shortlisted for both National and Western Magazine Awards. Birrell’s stories have appeared in many North American journals and anthologies, including Prism International, The New Quarterly, Descant, Matrix and Toronto Noir. She lives in Toronto with her husband and two daughters where she also teaches high school English.
Heather’s new book Mad Hope is mind-blowingly excellent. She very kindly answered my questions via email throughout this past April, beginning on a very sunny Easter weekend when both of us were ill.
I: “Where do you get your ideas” is a profoundly uninteresting question, but I want to come at it from a different angle. As I’m reading Mad Hope, I keep encountering these moments of profound identification where I want to write “Exactly” in the margins and underline it twice. And it’s for really oddly specific details, like the expressionless Iranian midwife, or following up a trip to the abortion clinic with Swiss Chalet. Or Jordan’s gait: “His hip dipped and his arm swung like a creature who had chosen– righteously– to remain less evolved.”
And I know exactly who or what you’re talking about. I’ve probably even seen it, or read it– your stories also reference magazine articles I’ve encountered, email-forwards I was receiving as recently as last summer. Part of it is because so often you’re writing about– and so effectively too– the very city I live in, so of course I find it all familiar. But I’m still intrigued by how you employ the stuff of the world in your fiction, by your command of the material. And am I right to suppose that this very stuff– email forwards, post-abortion dipping sauces– is where you get your ideas from? Can you talk about your process?
HB: Oh, I’m so glad you had the ‘Exactly’ reaction! I love that sensation of somehow being known by the author as I read. I think those descriptions, expressions, shards of ‘true’ story you reference definitely serve as starting points for me but they don’t mean much until I’ve actually got some kind of more amorphous/abstract driving force in mind. Annie Dillard talks about ‘writing your own astonishment’ — I love that. There is such a range of issues, incidents, images that have the power to astonish — and they are different for everyone. I tend to think of my astonishments in the same way I might consider arguments if I were writing an essay — in other words, there’s something I’m trying not to prove but perhaps to convey in the best possible way, but my tools are less logical than metaphorical, narratorial.
In the story ‘Drowning…’ I wanted badly to write about suffocating mother-love, how the weight of mothering can be crushing at times… Then there were other bits and pieces preoccupying me: the time my husband nearly died of an asthma attack; an article I read about sole survivors of terrible catastrophes — that loneliness; what it means to teach kids with backgrounds very different from my own; and the email forward of the title of course! (This all sounds quite autobiographical, doesn’t it? But it isn’t always, and I’m not sure it even is here.)
So all these disparate threads, all these astonishments, somehow came together… How? I’m not being coy when I say I’m not really certain. It really does often feel that once a story is finished or near-finished I wiggle out of it like an old skin and it feels quite separate– an artifact unrelated to me.
I: These stories give the sense that you must read a lot, and widely. I could be wrong, but then I can’t imagine any way but reading for someone to learn, to know, as much about the world as your stories seem to convey you do. You mention elements of the autobiographical, yes, and I also see startling powers of observation at work (in particular in your portrayal of teenagers), but mostly Mad Hope seems to be the work of an author who reads widely. Is that true? What is the connection between your reading and your writing? What do you like to read?
HB: I am a reader, I am a reader, she intones quietly to herself. It has seemed for so long that my reading habits have been patchy and piecemeal. I have two small children; my sleep has been ragged for the last four years, so I suppose I have become more discriminating in some ways, but also hungry for narrative in any form as a means of escape from the more mundane aspects of motherhood. Because I often read in snatches, periodicals have been perfect lately — so I’ve been reading a lot of The New Yorker and The New Quarterly, and recently Brain, Child (which I discovered through your blog) — and big fat page turners that can be picked up, put down, and easily abandoned if need be.
Having said that, there are writers I return to (writers I could never abandon), writers I think of as unofficial mentors. Deborah Eisenberg. I adore her writing– it’s intricate, it’s smart, it’s funny, it’s city, it’s political. And her stories are long, which is more my rhythm when it comes to story reading and making. I tend to gravitate towards stories whose narrators are crouched in close to their characters, whose characters are complex, layered. I like unconventional story shapes too– stories that bulge out of themselves a little bit. Alice Munro, because her stories are masterful and mysterious. Anne Enright is a more recent discovery. I loved The Gathering, a novel that reads like a short story, and The Forgotten Waltz and her fabulous memoir Making Babies: Stumbling into Motherhood. Mary Gaitskill’s most recent collection, Don’t Cry, blew me away. It is so very fierce and wise. I find reading all of these writers incredibly permission-giving — ‘You can do that?’ they make me exclaim. It’s a wonderful and daunting feeling to have as a writer, to have the gauntlet thrown down in that way…
I am also incredibly inspired by the filmmaker Mike Leigh. I love how he manages moments of connection between his characters. His is a kitchen sink realism that recognizes the gritty, grimy, but also the gleaming moments that occur between people. And he does family dynamics — the secrets, the sadness, the omissions, the overwhelming love and sense of duty, the guilt, the fun, the fatigue — so very well. The way he builds to peaks of drama is so subtle and genuine — it’s really impressive. I also find him a very ‘moral’ artist, for want of a better term. He has such integrity, and his convictions are so present in his work but he is very seldom didactic. I think he’s a genius.
I: With what would you recommend your readers follow up Mad Hope? This is not a rhetorical question. In fact, this isn’t even really an interview question. But all I know is that I finished your book last weekend and the two short story collections I’ve read since (Other People We Married by Emma Straub and The Girl in the Flammable Skirt by Aimee Bender) have paled in comparison. Have you ruined reading for me, Heather Birrell? What would you advise me to do? (And I promise, we’re going to get back to talking about your book with the next question. Or that’s the plan, at least.)
HB: You are kind. And too smart and voracious a reader to be stymied by the likes of me. I’m pretty picky with short story collections now. I know what I like and don’t have a lot of patience for what I don’t. Plus I really do like to feel challenged. Jim Shepard’s Like You’d Understand Anyway is pretty great — the man goes to crazy, faraway places in his fiction and creates amazingly authentic worlds. And Amy Bloom’s Where the God of Love Hangs Out is the work of a writer who really understands people and acknowledges their mystery. She’s a taboo buster too, which I like. So I would advise you to have a cup a tea and a scone and keep on truckin’, Ms Kerry Clare.
I: I want to talk about your story ‘No One Else Really Wants to Listen’, which is structured as a series of posts on an online pregnancy forum. And the structure is so interesting because it allows for such a variety of points of view, believable absurdity and for clashes between characters that would happen nowhere else in the actual world. One of your characters writes, “And as for the internet—we have both been busy with it.” Do you think the internet and online forms of communication represent similar opportunity for writers using it in their fiction? What’s its potential?
HB: Short answer: Yes. People talk to each other through e-mail, online forums, texting, tweeting. And writers have always been interested in how we talk to and at each other. Having said that, the story you’re referring to didn’t start out as a ‘pregnancy forum’ story. One of the characters, Wings, arrived pretty fully formed on the page, and I wasn’t really sure what to do with her. She’s kind of obnoxious and over-the-top and I felt she needed someone or something to temper her in some way. At the time, I had been experimenting with using multiple points-of-view in my stories and simultaneously reading a lot of pregnancy/baby forums, so adding these voices seemed like a natural move. But it took me a while — and the nudging of my editor — to figure out that I didn’t have to represent everyone in my story just because everyone showed up in a free-for-all forum. I had to locate the story in the cacophony and then winnow it down a bit. And we decided we didn’t want the story to be too cluttered up by some of the formatting you find online — that in the end, it was the words that were important. But you’re right that the potential of this form is that it brings together people (characters) who might not otherwise meet, and that is terribly exciting.
As for the possibilities of the internet as a story making and delivery system — I think they are myriad. There are opportunities for a loose and nimble kind of creation — pass the story type stuff — online workshopping, and of course more traditional online publishing (Joyland). And there are apps out there right now, I’m thinking of Storyville in particular, that will deliver stories to your device in very readable formats. And I’m sure the possibilities will only increase as the technology changes and people change and grow with it. (I will confess here that my engagement with technology is sometimes reluctant, and I can only create new work using old school pen and paper. I think the world of the internets can be difficult to navigate and there are times I need to completely disengage from it in order to maintain any semblance of personal equilibrium.) (more…)
March 5, 2012
I read Carrie Snyder’s first book Hair Hat in 2010 when it was one of five books selected for Canada Reads Independently, and had started reading her blog Obscure CanLit Mama around the same time. In the two years since, I’ve enjoyed getting to know Carrie through her blog and following her Juliet stories on their path to becoming The Juliet Stories.
I read the book last week and I promise you, it’s one of the best Canadian books you’re going to read this year.
Carrie was generous enough to answer my questions about her book via email from her home in Waterloo. The Juliet Stories was published by House of Anansi Press and is in stores now.
I: Although The Juliet Stories is fiction, it has roots in your own biography. As a reader, I tend to engage very little with these connections because they tend to limit the text rather than broaden it, but I know that most audiences find them interesting. How do you feel about this? Are you comfortable with such an engagement? Do you think your book is richer for these connections to your own story?
CS: First, thank you for opening with the elephant-in-the-room question. Without a doubt, “Is this real?” or “Did this really happen?” are questions asked most often about The Juliet Stories. Complicating my answer is the fact that yes, standing behind the scenes is my own family’s story. I did live as a child in Nicaragua, while the contra war was underway, and my parents were peace activists; further, one of my brothers had cancer as a child.
As a reader, I completely understand the fascination and desire to link the writer’s story to the story the writer has written. I’m reading Mordecai Richler’s biography now, almost through it, and there have been plenty of aha! moments of recognition. Humans like piecing together puzzles — in this case, the puzzle of how a writer takes an image or a moment or a place and weaves it into a story.
And there are so many different ways that the real can be used in fiction. An incident that remains mysterious and will never be answered — that could make an excellent starting place for a story. Personally, I often use settings that are familiar and likely recognizable, mainly because I can’t seem to imagine space/place in the same way that I can imagine plot or character. So a reader who recognizes a place might be fooled into believing the story is real simply because the setting is real. In that case, making biographical connections between me and The Juliet Stories would be entirely unhelpful.
I could pick apart The Juliet Stories crumb by crumb, identifying where various fragments arrived from (and it would no doubt be surprising and probably disappointing and not at all what readers might expect), but the question is: would the exercise get us anywhere very interesting? For purely critical purposes, I doubt the links add depth. After all, the whole point of creating a story is to build a fictional world replete with its own codes and themes and particular beauty and logic. And none of that actually exists in my real life. Which is at the core of why I write (and read): in order to create symmetry and wholeness.
Nevertheless, I wouldn’t dismiss biographical connections altogether. There must be some deeper psychological reason we, as readers, find these links compelling — that’s what interests me. Why do we want it to be real? Why do we want to know what experiences are sleeping under the surface?
I: I suspect readers’ interest is piqued by the rich texture of your narrative—even without the biographical elements, there is so much sleeping beneath the surface here. I’m halfway through the book now and sensing so many gaps—what Juliet doesn’t notice, wasn’t privy to notice or chooses not to notice from her childhood perspective, and also the circumstances of her life as an adult, from which this story is being told. How did you come to this particular point of view, a strange omniscience that straddles then and now? That point-of-view is so important in the spell your book casts for its reader, but I imagine it must have been difficult to navigate as a writer, to finally achieve that balance. Or did it come naturally as you were writing?
CS: The voice seems so natural to me now that I’m struggling to remember its creation. Once the voice arrived, it didn’t feel created, it felt found. That said, this was not a book that got written overnight, and in fact it began life as a novel from the perspective of the mother (whose name has always been Gloria), and then tried to be a memoir (a very short-lived attempt of no more than 10,000 words), and finally, at last, along came Juliet’s telling (her name was Mary in earlier manuscripts). But as soon as it became Juliet’s story, the voice came too. And once the voice came, the technically aspects of the story-telling style flowed naturally.
That said, there was a still a lot of finicky, tedious work to be done, finessing the voice. I completely trusted my editor’s wise and kind eye on the manuscript. I trusted her to tell me when the voice was too authorial. Too writerly. Too self-conscious. With her guidance, I removed many passages that I’d originally loved writing. But the secret to the voice and the point of view is that not much is needed in order for it to work. Those moments when we’re slipping forward in time, or we understand that there is an older Juliet looking over what is happening—those are like salt. Too much would spoil the meal; but just the right amount adds flavour.
As a reader and as a writer, I’m drawn toward the mysterious, toward those gaps you mention. So much of life is unknown to us, unregarded, or misunderstood, or lost in the moment. As you probably know from reading my first book, Hair Hat, I have an ongoing fascination with the individual’s interpretation of a shared experience. I think I’ll always be puzzling out the mystery of memory and perspective, exploring what’s missing, and leaving gaps for the reader to fill in. I don’t think the writer needs to tell the reader what to think. I think the writer needs to leave room for the reader to make her own connections. Here’s my writing philosophy: It changes the reading experience to be part of what’s happening.
I: Do you ever think about the kinds of readers who don’t like those gaps, don’t know what to do with that kind of responsibility? I’m thinking about a comment Lynn Coady made (which I’m paraphrasing because I think I only heard of it via a live-tweet from the Giller Prize gala) about it being the writer’s job to do the work of a book, not the reader’s. How do you respond to that?
CS: Hmmmmm. A long hmmmm. I guess I’ll respond by saying that it’s not my intention to make work for the reader, or to make the reader do the work. Rather, I’d say that I trust the reader. And I hope we’re going somewhere together, and I hope that it’s interesting to both of us. It’s not that I don’t think about that kind of reader, it’s just that I’m not that kind of writer. If I tried to connect all the dots I’d gum the whole thing up, it would look and sound artificial because that’s not my talent or my gift. In writing, as in life, I’ve had to accept what I’m good at, and what I’m not. It’s humbling, frankly. But also quite freeing.
I: There are points in the book where it seems so obvious that Gloria is the place from where these stories spring. It’s subtle, but there is a real attentiveness to Gloria’s point of view which shows us that Juliet has spent years putting herself in her mother’s shoes, imagining her mother’s experience. And I love these tracks in your writing, which have not quite been covered over in the finished book. (more…)
December 11, 2011
When I fell in love with Kristen den Hartog’s novel And Me Among Them last spring, it really felt like a spring, because it was the first novel I’d loved in ages after a long cold winter. The magical elements of her story about a girl who grows to be seven feet tall and is blessed with a strange omniscience were so perfectly countered with a realism that kept the story’s feet on the ground, and the entire effect delighted me, which is remarkable when one notes my aversion to books about freakish sorts (confession: I am of the handful of people who hated Geek Love).
But it’s because den Hartog’s novel is not about freakishness at all that the story so resonated; instead of staring at the giant girl, we’re given the gift of the world through her eyes, and the view is extraordinary. And the novel is so rich that when I finished it, I wanted to know more.
One Thursday morning in mid-November, Kristen den Hartog came over to my house for some conversation, cheese and baked goods. We tried not to be distracted by the toddler in our midst who decimated the cheese plate and sang made-up songs. What follows is an edited version of our talk, the toddler-centric bits edited out completely (and you probably won’t even notice that at one point here, I was in the other room changing a diaper).
Kristen den Hartog is a novelist, memoir writer, mom, sister, wife, daughter and incredible kids’ book blogger. And Me Among Them is due out soon in the U.S. as The Girl Giant. Her previous novels are Water Wings, The Perpetual Ending, and Origin of Haloes. The Occupied Garden: A Family Memoir of War-torn Holland, was written with her sister, Tracy Kasaboski, and they are now at work on another collaboration. She lives in Toronto with her husband, visual artist Jeff Winch, and their daughter.
Kdh: At first it was a short story about parents whose son is a giant and dies of complications from his condition. Much of that early draft focused on their loss and how they tried to get over it. Then I decided I wanted the boy to be a girl, because it presented more complicated body issues. It isn’t easy to be a teenage girl, even with a normal sized body, so I was interested in exploring that, and the more I did it, the more I realized I couldn’t have her die. I didn’t want her to be a victim. I wanted her to be powerful and strong, which is why I told the story as if she was looking down on her life from above, seeing things she couldn’t possibly see. I kept thinking, I know it can’t be that way, but I’m just going to plow through and do it because it feels right. I’m so glad I persisted, because that unusual perspective seems to me the very core of the novel.
KD: I’ve known about that photo for a long time. What I love about it is how ordinary the background is and how ordinary the parents are, but he’s just rising up and changing everything by being there.
The image inspired me because of the sheer size of the boy in relation to his parents. But also I thought, when our daughter Nellie was born, in a way her presence was like that too. She was this massive force. Even though she was a normal-sized child, everything changes when you have a baby.
I: The novel literalizes so many things that I’ve only ever seen in metaphor—I’m thinking of “bird’s eye view”, “head in the clouds”, even the image of a child’s fumbling fingers playing with a dollhouse, sentences like, “After she arrived, the roof of our house came off.” It occupies this strange space between awake and dreaming, between plausible and otherwise, between metaphor and concrete. And it’s kind of a constraint to be writing in a space like that. Or did you think so?
KD: It just came really naturally. It felt like the right way to tell the story. I knew that because I was writing about an actual medical condition, there were things I needed to get right, like how it feels to inhabit a body like that, to hold a pencil, or to walk down stairs when your feet are so huge; and what can be done medically for such a person. But there had to be this playful, magical quality too, so the reader could embrace the idea of Ruth telling the story from above, and watch with her as her life unfolds.
I ended up reading other accounts like that written by people who knew a giant. So that’s how I got to understand what it’s like to be in a body like that, because they’d talk about the size of the hands and the difficulty of walking down stairs.
I: Did you come across any accounts written by giants themselves?
KdH: I came across some interviews with a woman called Sandy Allen who just died recently, actually, and her life story was very useful to me because she was born around the same time as Ruth. But mostly I read accounts by people writing about a brother or an uncle.
I: Which makes sense, actually, considering how much your story is about the family dynamics. Which was part of the reason it reminded me of a Carol Shields book, how you illuminate the ordinary in the same way she does. Your book is rife with allusions to children’s books, and the stories about giants you mentioned, but I wonder if it has any less overt antecedents?
KdH: I tend to stay away from things that feel too familiar to the project I’m working on. So for instance, when I was writing Water Wings, I read a lot about bugs and butterflies, gathering the facts I needed to create my characters’ world. This time it was the fact side of being a giant that I was looking for, and also the details I could mine from fairy-tales. I didn’t want to read novels about close family relationships and the connections between people. Those things needed to come from inside me or be the sparks I notice in my daily life.
But also, books creep in. There’s a book I read with Nellie, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Stieg. It’s about a donkey named Sylvester who has a magic pebble and wishes himself into a rock because a lion is nearby. And he can’t wish his way out again, so he’s gone missing and his donkey parents are terrified and can’t find him anywhere.
It’s a heartbreaking story to read to a child, because every parent has had those terrifying thoughts. So those kinds of books are always in my head, since they explore what I write about as well—family, relationships, and the things that pull us together, as well as the things that threaten to pull us apart.
I: How has reading with your daughter and a focus on children’s books changed you as a reader and as a writer?
KdH: It’s been amazing to either rediscover or find new stories with her. It’s such a moving thing. And blogging about what we read together is wonderful because it means the stories stay with me longer. I have to put my thoughts about them into words, so I appreciate them more. As with a book club. When you sit and discuss a book with others, you get so much more out of it. I: What’s different about reading with kids too is that as an adult, you don’t very often read with people. But as a family, we’ve found ourselves talking about characters in books as a kind of shorthand, connected with ordinary life.
KdH: We’ve just gone through the whole Harry Potter series, which had us all three reading together. We got up in the morning and read at the breakfast table and then as soon as we were all together again, we would read. And in fact, that has stuck with us, because we did it so regularly with those books. The first thing Nellie says when she gets up is, “Don’t forget the book, Mom!”
I: Something else that interests me, because you talk about things creeping into books, is that I found that in your book, the outside world didn’t appear to creep in so often. There were a couple of references to songs on the radio, but we never know the song. The one exception to this is when Iris says that “women have finally had enough and they’re beginning to fight back,” and I guess this is around 1960. But otherwise, we don’t get a sense of the popular culture, and I wondered if that was a deliberate omission and what role did it play?
KdH: I wanted to keep specific reference pulls you out of that, and makes you flip to your own experience.
I: And also makes you measure the plausibility of what’s going on.
KdH: It pulls the reader up off the page, I think. It can be very effective, but in this story, I felt their world needed to be contained, closed off like the parents were as people, and that certain things needed to be blurred.
I: Which is unusual with writers writing about that time because the popular culture is such an easy reference point.
KdH: Yes. But to be honest I’m usually put off by that as a reader.
I: But there was one way the world did creep in. I reread this book around Remembrance Day, and what I noticed that I hadn’t the first time is that it’s such a war novel. It’s a domestic novel, so much about motherhood, but war is always in the background. And one of Elpeth’s aunts makes the point that “the world needs war”. Did your novel need war as well?
KdH: I think so, though that happened organically. Before this book, I had been writing The Occupied Garden with my sister so we were steeped in war research for a long time. It took me ages to move on to a new project because the work on that book had affected me so deeply. And when I finally did, I made Ruth’s mom an English warbride and her father a soldier, because it fit with the era I had chosen. At the time, it wasn’t something I thought about a lot. Then as the story progressed and I began to focus on making Ruth powerful and not a victim, I wanted to underscore the fact that James and Elspeth had brought their own baggage into their relationship from separate places. The problems didn’t all come from Ruth and the difficulty of having a misfit child. The more James and Elspeth fail to talk about their pasts and how the war affected them, the greater the distance grows between them. I love that point in the book where James is trying to decide whether or not to tell Elspeth about his affair with Iris. He absolutely wants to do the right thing, and he decides that his confession needs to be about his experience on the beach at Dieppe that day rather than about his infidelity. His guilt and despair about that day is what’s always been in the way of them growing closer. And Elspeth has her own confession in that sense too.
I: It’s interesting because the way that so many writers deal with the 1950s and 1960s and their focus on popular culture gives the illusion that the war was really far away by that point. I guess that’s what people were trying to do, to get on with things, but it really was so close, and your book shows that.
KdH: The children who were born in that time were born into this new world, and yet their parents had experienced all that tragedy and didn’t know how to talk about it.
I: But even if they didn’t talk about it, it was there.
KdH: And that was something that I went back and refined so that it was mentioned consistently, because I realized how much the war had really become part of the story.
I: But motherhood is also part of the story. You write about it so brilliantly. In fact, the first piece I ever read by you was “Draw Crying” in The New Quarterly.
KdH: Which was written when Nellie was Harriet’s age.
I: And Harriet wasn’t even born. I was pregnant. I remember being so struck by the piece. And then rereading it again later and realizing I didn’t even get it the first time.
KdH: Because you can’t, right? Until you go through it yourself.
I: Which you write about in And Me Among Them. That excerpt from when the baby was born—the feeding, the crying. It’s such a small part of the novel, just a paragraph. And if I hadn’t have experienced it, I might have just skipped over that part and not realized the weight of it.
KdH: I’ve always written about families. I never set out to create a body of work about families and relationships but I can see how that’s become a constant thread that runs through my work. And in the beginning, I was often taking the child’s point of view. It’s a really natural place for me to go. Even though I can’t really remember a lot of my childhood very clearly, I remember the feeling so I can write about that very effectively and I enjoy doing it.
But what’s newer to me, and what started to come after I had Nellie, was writing about the parents’ point of view in contrast to the child’s. And I just love that. I think I began to really get it when I was working on The Occupied Garden. The book is about my dad’s family in Holland in WW2, and there’s a point in the story when a bomb landed in my dad’s backyard. He and his brother were outside playing, and they were both very badly wounded—my dad lost his leg and my uncle lost his arm.
My grandfather at that time was inside the house and had heard the plane coming. He didn’t have time to run out and he called out the window to them to run, but of course it was too late, and I remember collecting the information for the book and asking my dad about that day, which he’d always downplayed as being no big deal. But this time I asked him, “What do you think it would have felt like for you were in Opa’s place? If you were inside the house and you were the father and you were calling to us and there was a plane coming?” And when he wrote back, he said, “I can’t believe this. I’m sitting here with tears running down my face because I’ve never thought of it that way. I always thought about it from my perspective, never my dad’s.”
And hopefully I would have thought of asking him that question even if I’d never had Nellie, because as a good writer you should be able to imagine all kinds of things without having to live through it—
I: Like how you imagined being 7 feet tall.
KdH: Yeah, but it does sort of open things up once you’re actually living it, once you’re actually being a parent.
I: In a way, all the characters in the novel are set apart from one another, and yet, you have so firmly demonstrated that we’re not so far apart in that you’ve imagined what it’s like to Ruth. You’ve allowed us to understand it. There’s such connection there. I mean, at one point, very briefly, you write from the point of view of a strawberry. You show that we really can cross these lines.
KdH: It’s the connections that are really important to me. The connections between people and the natural world around them are more important to me than the story. The connections are the story. And some people love that and totally get that, and some people want something more straightforward. But I can’t do it any other way. I can only do it my way.
I: At some point in the book, you write about giants needing to be seen to be believed. I think it’s in regards to a book that Elspeth was reading about giants. But you managed to show us Ruth without us having to see her. And you make what she sees even more important than how she looks. Was that always the more interesting question to you?
KdH: Yes. I was interested in how she saw her parents, and people like Suzy and Patrick too, and those descriptions of their dusty, sandy, sun-kissed look; when she looks down at Suzy’s part line with the bug bites. When we do see Ruth, it’s because she’s imagining what Suzy sees, and then she decides that she doesn’t want to spoil the moment of her imagining by seeing herself that way, and she puts the cloth over her mirror. It was more important for me to imagine inhabiting her body than to imagine looking at her. If we saw her too much from the outside, there would be too much distance while reading her story. I wanted to get across her sense of compassion, and empathy, and how she’s so set apart from people but able to understand them in a lovely way, even if they can’t return the gesture.
I: She’s a curiously unreliable narrator though. I love it when she talks about how the story is “her truth”, if not the truth.
KdH: Whenever anybody tells a story, it’s their version. That’s one thing my sister and I learned while working on The Occupied Garden, and interviewing my dad and his siblings about their lives. They would often tell contradicting stories. For instance, in the story about my dad and my uncle being outside when the bomb dropped, one version says that my youngest uncle (who was a baby) was asleep in his crib and didn’t wake up until after it was all over, but he remembers walking through the house and crunching over the broken glass, and coming down and seeing what had happened. It’s just a flicker of a memory and he doesn’t know if it’s real or something he created from the facts he got later. That was one of the most gratifying things about writing nonfiction – figuring out how to incorporate the various versions, and still tell a “true” story.
I: As a writer, does fiction or nonfiction feel like the more natural fit for you?
KdH: Fiction still feels more natural, because it’s more familiar; it’s what I’ve done for so long. But I like the constraints of nonfiction. It’s kind of like cooking, when you say, I can’t go out and buy anything, I have to use what’s here, and I have to make something really delicious. That to me is like nonfiction, and fiction is when you can go out and get whatever you want. It’s up to you, it’s a blank slate.
I: But sometimes a blank slate can be as intimidating as a stocked pantry.
KdH: So true.
I: Who are some of your favourite writers?
KdH: I think I answer this question differently every time it’s asked. Today, Toni Morrison, Alice Munro, Carson McCullers come to mind. For children, Roald Dahl and William Steig.
I: What one book would you recommend that your readers read, in addition to your own?
KdH: Do you mean in conjunction with? That would be an interesting question to flip to readers. Two friends told me they read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn after reading my book, and loved the fit. What comes to mind for me is Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. I’m stunned to think she was only 23 when she wrote that book.
I: Who were the writers who made you want to write?
KdH: Hmm. I wanted to write before I could read. Then as an older child, I was as curious about L.M. Montgomery as I was about Anne. I was well into my 20s when I finally figured out what I wanted to write about. I suppose Alice Munro had a hand in that, because she wrote about characters and places that were familiar to me.
I: What are you reading right now?
KdH: Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol.