Category Archives: Lynne Van Luven

Thomas brings colonial mystery to life

Audrey Thomas’s latest novel is in the running for the City of Victoria Butler Prize. Thomas, who lives in Victoria and on Galiano Island, recently talked with Lynne Van Luven about Local Customs (published by Dundurn), which is based on four historical figures: Letitia Landon, George Maclean, Brodie Cruikshank and Thomas Birch Freeman.

The author describes the research that went into this new novel as  “exciting, but also dangerous, unless you exercise some self control.  It’s a bit like sitting next to a big bowl of peanuts; can you limit yourself to one or two?” Although Thomas first learned about Landon in the 1960s, she says, “it took me almost 40 years to get back to her.” Proof that no fact or experience is ever wasted on a writer.

It’s fair to say that no aspect of colonialism in Ghana goes unremarked in Local Customs, so I am guessing your family’s residence there in the mid-1960s left an indelible mark on your memory.  Was there a particular catalyst that impelled you to take up this terrain again, so many years later?

I do think those two years in Ghana had a profound effect on all of us, and once I saw Letty’s grave, in the courtyard of Cape Coast Castle, I knew that someday I would write about her.  In the end, she became part of what I like to think of as a trilogy: Isobel Gunn, Tattycoram and now Local Customs.  I would like to get the rights back to all three and present them as a set: Three Women.

It’s interesting, to me, that Virago Press turned this novel down; I think it would have done well in Britain.  All that Colonial stuff, plus Scotland, women writers etc.

Another interesting thing: I was on what I hoped would be my final draft, when there was an article in The London Review of Books about a young scholar who had discovered Letitia did have a child by her publisher; there had been rumours about this, but nothing had ever been proven.  This woman found the birth certificate.  This was too good to pass up, so back I went to the drawing board.

I have read Local Customs twice and I have a confession to make:  I did not entirely like Letitia Landon Maclean as a character. I admired her feisty nature, and her ability to support herself and her family, but I also reacted to something closed and smug in her nature. (I am actually rather disappointed in myself; after all, she is a feminist of her era.) Can you talk a little about the challenge of recreating characters from history?

First of all, you are not meant to like Letitia Landon. I think you can admire her, without liking her. Like many of her class, she is a snob, and her attitude to Mr. Freeman isn’t at all nice. I don’t think of Letitia as a feminist, rather as an eccentric, with a modicum of talent. She knew what her public, mostly women, wanted and she gave it to them. Her letters, on the other hand, are brilliant.

I love the ending of your novel, the way the “mystery” of  Letitia’s demise is left cloudy. Did you have to fight an urge to “solve” the story or was the uncertainty more interesting to you as a writer?

I think I left Letty’s death as a mystery, so that the reader could ponder it. I have my own theory, but I’ve never tried to articulate it to anyone else. She DID take drops, but George insisted she was always very careful to measure them out exactly into a glass of water. It’s interesting that in one of her novels, Ethel Churchill, the heroine poisons herself. And I think it was with Prussic acid. (My notes on that book are over on Galiano, so I can’t say for sure). I can say that I am interested in fear, in what makes people afraid. One reviewer of the novel suggested that Letty might have had yellow fever, which she said can cause hallucinations. I don’t think she had yellow fever; there is no mention anywhere of her looking as though she had it. It is curious that both her own physician and the chemist who made up her medicine chest insisted they had never prescribed Prussic acid or made up a suspension of Prussic acid, yet that was the official verdict, that she accidentally took an overdose of her drops, which were Prussic acid. There was no autopsy, just a hastily assembled inquest.  Her death will always remain a mystery.

The Methodist preacher, Mr. Freeman, seems a particular thorn in Letty’s side once she arrives at Cape Coast Castle. In theory, he sounds like an admirable character: a free black man whose father was a slave, made something of himself and set his son on an educated path.  Why does Letty so heartily dislike him?

I’m surprised you like Freeman. As a character in this novel, he sets himself above the people he has come to “save,” and sees no real connection between himself and the natives of Cape Coast. Letitia is quite right to call him on his Noah and Mrs. Noah figures; in a way, they represent how he feels about himself, a metaphor? The real Thomas Birch Freeman was no doubt all the things you say, but not the Freeman in my book. The real one did get George in a lot of trouble when he sent his monthly newsletter after Letty’s death, saying she had seemed perfectly well the night before at the dinner party. His papers are in the archives at the University of London, and the correspondence between him and George Maclean is there. (Freeman’s remarks led to the rumours in London that George had poisoned Letty.)

Overall, you set yourself a task, I think:  to write Local Customs within the strictures of 1836-38, and that means avoiding anachronisms, maintaining the diction and attitudes of the era. Was that particularly difficult?

I did not think it was difficult to maintain the diction of the times. I had a book called Maclean of the Gold Coast, plus Brodie Cruickshank’s Eighteen Years on the Gold Coast, plus the Freeman archives. Plus Letitia’s letters. And I have lived in both England and Scotland. I had lots of stuff to look at.

I had lots of fun with Mrs. Bailey and wondered exactly who was the original for her, not the real woman who accompanied Letitia  — there wasn’t enough to go on  — and then it came to me. In my early twenties I taught school in Birmingham, England, in what would now be called an “inner city” school. There were a couple of women teachers there, and one in particular was a lot like Mrs. Bailey, except for the knitting! She was very forthright and could handle the children a lot better than I could. I think that’s who Mrs. B. is modelled on, along with other intrepid Englishwomen I have met. (Women who could “cope.”)

The Butler awards will be presented Oct. 15 at the Union Club. Other books nominated are Michael Layland’  book of non-fiction, The Land of Heart’s Delight, Catherine Greenwood’s book of poetry,  The Lost Letters, and fiction by Dede Crane (Every Happy Family) and M.A.C. Farrant (The World Afloat). Nominees for the Children’s Book Prize are Day of the Cyclone by Penny Draper, Petrosaur Trouble by Daniel Loxton and W.W. Smith and Whatever by Ann Walsh.

Memoir melds crime with domestic reality

Victoria resident Alicia Priest’s new memoir, A Rock Fell on the Moon: Dad and the Great Yukon Silver Ore Heist (Harbour Publishing, 251 Pages, $32.95) is both exciting and informative. She will be launching the book on Wednesday, Sept. 17 at 7:30 p.m. at the Bard and Banker, 1022 Government Street. Priest recently talked to Lynne Van Luven about the research that went into her move from short-form journalism to the book format.   Most readers will have seen Priest’s frequent byline in publications such as The Globe and Mail, The Georgia Strait and Vancouver Magazine, but she’s risen to the challenge of a book with her usual professionalism.

You have so much experience as a newspaper, radio and magazine reporter — over 25 years — and the gratification that comes with constant publication.  Was it difficult to “settle down” and focus on one topic for a book?  

At first it was, not the topic so much as the organization and stamina. But once I’d completed the first three or four chapters, the book had me by the throat. I was possessed and couldn’t stop writing. The chapters just flowed. But, as always, writing is re-writing. I was grateful for the extended time.

Alicia, I found your memoir really engrossing, and I am glad you were able to tell this family story.  In the process of doing so, how did your emotional connection to or assessment of your father change?

If anything, it confirmed my suspicions that my dad was a deeply troubled man well before the silver heist. He likely was an unhappy boy. What I saw as a child was his affectionate, playful and clever nature, which was part of him too. He suffered as well but the wounds were self-inflicted and made at our expense. I always loved him.

Memoir requires the interplay of both research and memory.  Can you talk a little about how that worked for A Rock Fell on the Moon?

A lot of research went into the book, both delving into historical, forensic and legal archives and research through interviews.  I had more than 900 pages of the official RCMP file to go through, about a third of it redacted. As well, I had more than 300 personal letters to read. And several books and articles. My plan was to do all the research first and then concentrate on weaving my memories in and out with the documented facts. I took creative license in relating certain scenes that I knew about but for which I was not present. For the most part ,that is how the book came together but not completely, do check here and read the whole case. Not surprisingly, there were hiccups, stalls, and last minute discoveries. For instance, well into the writing I learned that the lawyer who represented my father at the 1963 preliminary hearing was living in Vancouver and recollected him and the event clearly. Of course, he had to be interviewed.

I have to confess that as I read your memoir, I found my sympathies shifting between your parents, but in the end, I felt your mother put up with a lot and that your father was one of those dangerous charismatic men whose constitution might not be suited to domesticity.  Is it unduly intrusive to ask how you ended up feeling about the marriage, once you had the book finished?

They never should have married. They were inherently mismatched. But I understand why they did. For my mother, it was a form of rebellion against her Mennonite upbringing and for my father, well, she was a dream come true. And, hell, they were infatuated with each other, which we know is a form of temporary insanity.   My dad put out many red flags  – his brooding, anti-social nature, his antipathy for cities, the fact that not one of his friends or relatives attended their wedding – which my mother ignored. She had a naïve belief that her love would bring out his better qualities and suppress his bad. Many women did during that era. And they did not know each other well – only six months through correspondence and four months in person.

I learned a great deal about Keno Hill, the Yukon Territory and silver mining from your memoir. So few Canadians have the background you have.   Looking back, how do you think your northern childhood shaped you as a person?

My childhood gave me so much: a passion for the natural world, for animals, for reading and writing, for music, for stillness, and the ability to amuse myself without TV, radio or telephone. I was and am never bored.

Marjorie Simmins’ coastal life

Former West Coast freelance journalist Marjorie Simmins now lives on the East Coast of Canada, in Halifax, and has become a teacher and writer of memoir. Coastal Spectator Editor Lynne Van Luven recently emailed Simmins some questions about her latest book, Coastal Lives: A Memoir.  The book is now available in bookstores, and to order directly from the publisher:

Marjorie, this is such a down-to-earth and heart-warming memoir; it talks about mature people living real lives.  Can you talk about the process of creating Coastal Lives?

Sometimes it seems as though we live in a world where the tough realities people live, with great courage and dignity, are not a part of the larger conversation. Mature or otherwise, most of us don’t have Hallmark Card lives. There are hard times and good times – and extraordinary, funny and delightful times, too. I like to think I cover a wide emotional spectrum in the book – with an undercurrent of optimism, because that is who I am. If you show up for your life with verve and energy, sooner or later, good things happen.

The process of creating Coastal Lives was a surprisingly natural one, which came from a lifetime of daily writing. I can actually pinpoint the day I started on the path of becoming a writer. It was — here’s a surprise! — a dark and rainy day in Vancouver. I was around eight years old, and my mother suggested I write a letter to my grandmother, who we called “Minnie.” I was bored and cranky – and not quite willing to give that up. “What do I write about?” I petulantly asked my mother. “Oh,” she mused, looking around the room for inspiration, and, seeing the family cat asleep on a cushion, suggested, “why don’t you write about George? Your grandmother likes cats.” And down went the pen to paper, starting a lifetime of letters between myself and all my family members. I continue to write a letter almost every day of my life.

Part II of the equation is journals. When I was 15, my father bought me my first hard-bound journal, from a lovely arts store on Robson Street. That gift initiated 20 years of journal keeping.

Part III of the equation is my journalism career. By age 30, I had started writing as a freelance journalist. One of the first articles I had published was what I have always called a “personal essay.” I graduated from UBC in 1984, and my first job after that was slinging beer at Jerry’s Cove Pub, on Alma and 4th Avenue. I wasn’t thrilled with the job, but I was doing all right until my manager told me that part of my “side duties” included cleaning the women’s and men’s bathrooms. “Don’t forget to pick out the cigarette butts from the urinals,” she announced brightly, handing me a mop, bucket and rubber gloves. I walked in the men’s bathroom, dressed in a pretty summer dress, my hair pulled up into a jaunty pony tail, looked at the urine-soaked butts in the urinals – and cried my eyes out for half an hour. “Post BA Blues” was published in the then-UBC Alumni Magazine, now called TREK. My career publishing life essays had begun.

As you know, there are 22 previously published essays in Coastal Lives. I use them almost as photographs along the storyline. And so, the writer in the book is a letter writer, a journal writer, a journalist and an essayist. That’s where the voice – voices, really – come from.

The first iteration of the book was in my Master’s thesis, which was a research degree, focusing on memoir studies, from Mount Saint Vincent University, here in Halifax. I called the thesis “Memoir: An Examination of a Renegade Memoir From the Inside Out.” Essentially, I studied memoirs past and present, and then wrote my own, as part of the thesis. The book is substantially different from the thesis, primarily because of the brilliant editor at Pottersfield Press, Julia Swan, who asked for more of the previously published essays to be included, and more detail to the memoir storyline, because she sensed I’d left some large bits out . . . . I hasten to say that I also use humour to describe this process! (I keep waiting for a reviewer to say that he/she laughed when they read some of the essays – they were sold as a humour pieces, first time round, in newspapers!)

Not many Canadians can truly claim “bi-coastal lives.” Is that how you think of yourself now?

Mostly, yes. I know darn well I don’t have the full understanding of the West Coast that I once had – and that distresses me to think about at times. I go to my hometown as a visitor now – and that also distresses me. I couldn’t even afford to live in Vancouver any more – and that distresses me beyond measure . . . When I go to Vancouver, I may well be a visitor, but I am blessed to stay with various great family members on both sides of our families, and in their homes I am welcomed and feted. They ask me, What would you like to eat? And I answer, Salmon, every kind and every meal. They spoil me with this, and with other treats like spot prawns and halibut. (On the East Coast, it’s all about lobster, scallops and haddock.) I also do all sorts of funny rituals that make me feel re-connected to the West Coast world. For example, I can’t get to the banks of the Fraser River fast enough. The Pacific Ocean, too, but it is the Fraser I was raised closest to, and that I love with all my heart. Near the Fraser is Southlands, where I rode for over 20 years. When I go to Vancouver now, I have the huge pleasure of taking my great-niece Leila for pony rides, as I used to take her mother, Jocelyn, my niece. And best of all, this is at the same barn, and with the same barn owner! I am comfortable and happy on both coasts – and grateful for this.

Many of my former journalistic colleagues still seem to have an inborn resistance to the memoir; a few of them, I am certain, even think of it as an inferior form of nonfiction – not as muscular perhaps as first-person reportage that strips out the self. What would you say to such a colleague?

I find this stance — by journalists, academics or even the general reading public — quaint and outdated. I would also suggest people with that view simply haven’t kept up to date with memoir. Some of the finest writers in the world are memoirists – always have been, always will be. Joan Didion, Vladamir Nabokov, Ernest Hemingway, Maya Angelou, George Orwell and Mary Karr. Canadian memoirists are equally dazzling: Farley Mowat, Evelyn Lau, David Adams Richards and Wayson Choy. Other recent and stunning Canadian memoirs include Bog Tender by George Santos, Confessions of a Fairy’s Daughter by Alison Wearing, How Linda Died by Frank Davy, The Danger Tree by David MacFarlane and Notes from the Hyena’s Belly by Nega Mezlekia . . .

Of course there are badly written memoirs. There are badly written novels, and books of poetry and non-fiction . . .  Somehow memoir is held to a higher standard – and so must, on occasion, fall the farthest and most cripplingly . . . There are literary memoirs and trash memoirs. There are beautiful, hybrid memoirs, which include maps, photos, recipes — whatever best illustrates a life. . .  Anyone bored or lofty about memoir needs to go back to the bookstore and look a little longer.

You have a master’s degree in arts research specializing in Memoir Studies and you now teach memoir-writing courses around the Maritimes. Do you find a hunger for telling personal stories among your students?

The hunger is huge. Young, middle-aged and older — the lives people lead are astonishing. I adore learning about other people’s lives, especially when I am taken to worlds I’d never gain access to ordinarily. Fascinating details aside, the job is to craft a story, and the prettiest, most dynamic one you can. I have no problem whatsoever teaching memoirists who simply want a self-published life story to hand down to children or grandchildren. I believe this is laudable. That said, I get as excited as any other writer and teacher when I read a memoir-in-progress that is of high literary quality and may well find a traditional publisher once it’s done. The most uneventful lives can still be led by those who can write like angels. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true. I just do my best to give the people who come to my seminars whatever it is they want and need, to start and finish a memoir — and perhaps, to understand better the scope of their choice regarding content and structure. After that, they’re on their own.

You and author Silver Donald Cameron (whom you call simply Don) now have two dogs.  Muriel Spark once said that owning a cat is conducive to a writer’s concentration. What do canines bring to the writing world, besides the chance to go walkies when your work is not going well?

Don and I walk the dogs every day, whether our work goes well or not. We spend endless hours at our desks – seven days a week, mostly – and the chance to get outside and breathe fresh air and see what the rest of the world is up to, is so necessary to our well-being. Seeing the world through a dog’s eyes is also a revitalizing experience. Let’s get excited about wind! Birds overhead! Sailboats on the North West Arm! A rotten fish on the shore! Eliminating like mad! Other dogs!! Dogs spread happiness and excitement all around them, even on the end of a leash. The pleasure we take in our dogs’ company is immense. For me, the presence of animals in my life — dogs and horses particularly — is non-negotiable: I simply must have them around me to live my best and happiest life.

Poet illuminates fragmented life

Poet Chris Hutchinson’s new book, Jonas in Frames: An Epic (Goose Lane), is brilliant, funny, challenging, a hybrid form for our times.  Born in Montreal in 1972, Hutchinson has published three books of poetry: Unfamiliar Weather, Other Peoples’ Lives and A Brief History of the Short Lived. He has a BFA from the University of Victoria and an MFA from Arizona State University. He recently answered Lynne Van Luven’s questions about his life and work.

 Chris, I found myself both chuckling and laughing out loud in Jonas in Frames, mainly because of all the usual suspects that you skewer so skillfully. Can you talk a bit about the origins of this book within your writing practice as a poet?

Firstly, I’m glad you chuckled and laughed as you read. Even though many of the raw materials I excavated for the book came from a younger, more cynical version of myself—someone more prone to rages and depression who took himself much too seriously—I hoped to transform these materials into something else, worthy of a reader’s attention. In many ways Jonas is the artsy book about suffering I wanted to write when I was in my early twenties, but I had to wait until I was in my early forties before I could make any attempt that didn’t indulge in explicit autobiography or morbid confession. It’s hard to write black humour when the darkness surrounds you. Fortunately, time allows for new perspectives, and maybe even room for some levity and light.

Also, my so-called practice as a poet you mention—which has included the whole gamut of trials and errors, from subsisting as a self-styled poète maudit, to publishing flarf under various pseudonyms, to studying Old English and translating Beowulf in academia—this poetry habit, this “craft so long to learne,” along with its requisite discipline, has gradually taught me not only how to think more cautiously, critically and even technically about my own experiences, feelings and ideas, but also how to then move beyond them in order to make (the word “poet” coming to us from the Greek, poiētḗs, or “maker”) something I might refer to (while suffering a relapse of grandiosity) as art. I’m also much better read in poetry than in other genres, and so this might have something to do with how I conceived of Jonas in Frames as a epic poem (tongue planted firmly in cheek) disguised as a (picaresque?) novel.

Some readers may characterize Jonas as anti-social, but I found him to be wonderfully observant. In the segment called “The Good Life,” Jonas visits “long-lost friends” and observes that “Now all of them have babies.” His descriptions of the infants as “pink-headed babies with slobbery jowls,” “toothless sponge-cake-faced babies with sea anemones for hands,” struck me as terrific images.  In fact, that whole segment reminded me of Barbara Ehrenreich’s recent comment that parents today regard their children as “artisanal projects.” Did Chris the Author worry that Jonas the Observer was going to cost him a lot of sensitive friends when this book was published?

Artisanal projects! I wish I had thought of that. But neither Chris the Author nor his creation, Jonas the Observer, holds anything against young well-to-do parents or the products of their adventures in procreation. God bless anyone who can provide a safe home for their children. And Chris the Author has enough sensitive friends that he can afford to lose a few if their sensitivity overwhelms their ability to discern between literary fiction and so-called real life.

My sense is that Jonas isn’t as much anti-social as he is socially incapable and embarrassed—a subtle but significant difference, I think. Most of us can probably recall something like this from childhood, or we can be reminded visiting a busy playground: some kid who gets left out is still hovering around the edge of the circle, desperately wanting to join in, but for some reason he can’t. Maybe he’s shy, afraid, or he doesn’t understand the correct playground protocols. Or maybe there’s some nameless thing about the child, some slight difference or sensitivity, which the other kids sniff out and feel gives them permission to be cruel. This dilemma can extend into adult life where social estrangement might broaden to include cultural, political, and economic estrangement.

So it is with Jonas, who isn’t necessarily repulsed by these bourgeois parents or their babies; rather he’s flummoxed, fascinated, somewhat envious, and hurt by a larger and more general feeling of exclusion. As a hovering outsider Jonas is in a sort of double bind. He can enjoy a remarkable independence of consciousness and a unique perspective from which to observe, yet his enjoyment is short-lived as time and time again he runs up against a failure of communication. Put another way, he can watch but he can’t participate; consequently his vision turns inward and involutes. I think this is also one of the tragic letdowns of Romanticism: when our language becomes too private, too subjectively saturated, it ultimately betrays us.

Another idea I’ll float out there is that this predicament, this feeling of being isolated or “left out,” might be a generational soul-sickness born as the wave of prosperity of the baby-boomers crashed amidst their children’s expectations for upward mobility, success, or even riches and fame. In this light, Jonas can be seen as having been barred from participating in a certain cozy vision of the future based on the hippie fallacy that each of us is somehow inherently ‘special’ and thereby entitled to certain first-world privileges.

A colleague of mine recently observed that we live in discontinuous times because we are so often being assailed by floating “hits” of information and image.  It seems to me Jonas’s take on the world reflects that somewhat.  Has the electronic invasion of our lives affected you as a writer?

I recently joined Twitter. I am now a part of the problem. Although it seems to me that the latest tool for the dissemination of information is nothing new under the sun, and that we’ve been living in a “discontinuous” state for a while now. The world, as always, is too much with us. I have no doubt that I am a product of my specific historical moment in more ways than I can ever consciously know—even as I’m left wondering whether Twitter and Facebook are just the most recent symptoms of the kind of mind-body dualism that goes back beyond Postmodernism and Modernism to at least the 17th century of René Descartes…

At any rate, yes, Jonas’s world is jumbled and fragmentary, and his experience of reality is one where “it appears that something or someone is removing segments from (his life) and now only frames—isolate, disjointed—remain” (JIF). And while the world of Jonas in Frames doesn’t deal directly with online culture (an oxymoron?) per se, it’s true that many of Jonas’s identity issues and relationship crises seem to stem from his fear that he is trapped inside an existence where his thoughts and actions are being monitored and controlled by a power beyond his ability to perceive or comprehend.

Maybe his fear is unfounded, irrational. Maybe it’s not. We might ask: what does it mean that we voluntarily modify our identities so that they fit snugly into little boxes to be stored inside some digital database whose contents now belong to the highest bidder on the open market? What does it portend when we do this so cheerfully? These are the kinds of questions that might drive Jonas mad, although his head never stops buzzing long enough for him to be able to ask them coherently.

Content without form is meaningless, and alas, Jonas’s thoughts are all sprawling content, tangents without origins, signs without stable referents, broken links, broken mirror shards of self-reflection. Therefore Jonas doesn’t have much of a “take on the world” as he is himself taken by the world: its forms are imposed on him and so he is like Jonah swallowed down by the whale. As such, I’m not sure he’s so very different from the rest of us.

You and Jonas share a certain kind of peripatetic rootlessness.  I see from your bio that you’ve lived in six or seven wildly different cities — Montreal, Victoria, Vancouver, Dawson City, New York City, Houston, not to mention Kelowna — so I am wondering, is a writer truly the sum of all the places he has resided?

Don’t forget Nelson, Gibsons, Toronto, and Phoenix! If nothing else, moving and living around in North America has given me the chance to survey certain recurring features of the socio-economic landscape, so to speak. Issues of gentrification, for example, are not unique to any one particular city. What’s happened in Williamsburg, NY, has also happened or is happening to every other blue-collar neighbourhood I’ve tried to live in: working class families and whole communities with historical ties to specific regions are being forced to move. Artists (like Jonas) are getting priced out of urban centres. None of this is news (and it’s not as shocking as factory workers beating their CEO to death, which happened recently in West Bengal), but witnessing and to some degree participating in these reiterating first-world class-tremors gives you a sense of the scope of what is certainly a burgeoning North American crisis. Perhaps writing Jonas into being was, in part at least, my attempt to illustrate, via the pathos of tragicomedy, some of the spiritual fallout of all this.

Again I’d like to note that I wasn’t as interested in documenting my own mazy meanderings and personal catastrophes (like regrets, I’ve had a few) as I was in embodying certain aspects of our collective psychosis (what else to call it?). Jonas might be my shadow-persona, but he’s also a parodic, down-on-his-luck everyman. Whereas I have roots in the Pacific Northwest and I’m lucky enough to have been somewhat stabilized by my colleagues and loved-ones, and the occasional teaching gig, Jonas is dangerously adrift, somewhere between Scylla and Charybdis. His parents are dead, he is next to unemployable, and he is quite possibly incapable of sustaining a meaningful relationship with another human being. Travel may have broadened my horizons and extended my parameters, but Jonas is diminished by travel, driven as he is by a desire to flee and to hide himself away. Perhaps he is the sum of all the places he’s been, but to me this is a recipe for mental illness. I’d say it is folly to believe, as Jonas wants to believe, that “enough information, once gathered and incorporated, might one day crystallize into wisdom” (JIF).

What has the audience response been as you tour with your book? Do readers “get” Jonas?  Do they “get” you?

The book is still very new, but already there have been a few positive echoes, including a brilliant spinoff comic called Born Stumbling by Sunshine Coast artist, Alex Cieslik, and a Jonas-inspired spoken word/sound piece by Joel T. Springsteen of the London, UK-based band, Giant Burger. I can’t think of better responses than these. But, as one reviewer has already plainly stated about the book, “By no means is it for everybody.”

A whole book from a glass of water

Michelle Mulder’s new book Every Last Drop: Bringing Clean Water Home, was recently published by Orca Books of Victoria, which creates a variety of top-notch books for young readers.  Mulder grew up in Port Moody, B.C.,  and can be seen pedalling her bicycle around Victoria, where she now lives with her husband and child. She’s a lifelong reader and a world traveller. She and Coastal Spectator editor Lynne Van Luven  had an e-mail chat about her work and publications.

Michelle, Every Last Drop is your third book in the Orca Footprints series.  Can you talk a bit about the first book in the series, Pedal It!, and how you got involved writing these sorts  of educational non-fiction books with this Victoria publisher?

I never imagined becoming a non-fiction writer. My passion has always been novels, both as a reader and a writer.

Another one of my passions is bicycles. I ride my bike every day, and whenever I travel, I notice other people’s bikes. One time, I was sitting in my inlaws’ living room in Buenos Aires, Argentina, when I heard a strange sound outside. I went to the window to investigate and saw a man pedaling slowly down the street, blowing into a whistle. Suddenly, across the street, a door flung open, and a woman came charging at him with a knife in her hand … and a big smile on her face. The man stopped his bike, propped it up on a kickstand, took the knife, jumped back on the bike and started pedaling, setting in motion a sharpening stone set on the handlebars.

All at once I realized that I’d underestimated the humble bicycle. I began researching bicycles and their uses around the world, and the more I researched, the more excited I got. But three years passed before I worked up the courage to approach Orca Book Publishers with a proposal for Pedal It! I chose Orca because they’d published two of my novels, and I love the relationships they establish with their authors. I knew they published non-fiction, but I didn’t know how they’d respond to my book idea. As it turned out, their answer was a question: would I be willing to write not only this book, but two more in a brand new series about ecological issues?

I took a deep breath, signed a contract, and started researching like mad. Last fall, my book Brilliant! Shining a Light on Sustainable Energy hit the shelves, and this spring, Orca released Every Last Drop: Bringing Clean Water Home. Every book has been an exciting adventure, and I love all the learning I do as part of my writing process.

 What sorts of books did you like to read when you were a kid?

I loved novels. I devoured Beverly Clearly’s books and then Judy Blume’s. In particular, I remember reading and rereading Judy Blume’s Deenie. It was the first book I’d read about a kid who felt like she didn’t belong, and for me it was a revelation. Although I never worn a brace for scoliosis like Deenie did, I’d always felt socially awkward, and this book showed me that I wasn’t the only one in the world who felt this way. Even though I had very little in common with the main character, reading her story somehow made it okay to be me.

As a teenager, I stopped hanging out in the children’s section of the library and headed for the adult books. I read everything from pot-boilers to Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, and I loved them all for different reasons. The books that I read as a young person have stayed with me all my life. I may not always remember the titles or the names of the authors, but each story is like a separate life experience, and by the time I hit university, I felt like I’d lived several lives already!

 Once in a while, I meet someone who (erroneously) thinks that writing for kids is much easier than writing for adults.  Can you talk a little about your philosophy of writing for young readers?

Whether I’m writing for kids or adults, I want to write honestly and clearly, in a way that engages the reader. This can be challenging when I’m writing non-fiction for young people because my research materials are all written for adults. Sometimes I can’t even understand my sources myself!

That’s when I seek out experts. I write to them with many questions, and they’ve all been extremely patient in answering. When at last I feel like I could chat knowledgably about every aspect of my topic, I begin to write. I believe a good children’s writer can explain absolutely anything in a simple, thorough way that both engages and empowers the reader. For me, that takes a lot of research and revision. And then a lot of polishing to make it all look effortless.

Every Last Drop reminded me how much Canadians take water for granted, and how much we waste.  What has been young readers’ response to this book when you visit them in schools or at readings?

I think they’re surprised that someone can write a whole book about a glass of water! Funnily enough, though, I found it challenging to make the book so short. The first chapter is about how humans have collected drinking water since the dawn of time. (How do you tell that story in ten pages or less?) The second chapter discusses where our water comes from, where it goes once we’ve used it, and how climate change affects the water cycle. The last two chapters explore how people get and conserve water in countries around the world.

I’m fascinated that I can turn on a tap and fill my glass with a healthy, danger-free, life-giving liquid. I hope that, by the end of the book, young readers will share my fascination.

Can you discuss what your next book will be about — or is that an impertinent question?

Rubbish! That’s what the book is about. A few years ago, I read Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal (Penguin 2009). I was horrified to learn that, in North America, one third of all our food gets thrown away as garbage—tossed out of farmers’ fields, or into grocery store dumpsters, or into garbage cans in homes. I wondered if anyone had written about this for kids, and I began my research. I read both about what we throw away as a society and people who live off of the garbage of others. Then I read Zero Waste Home, by Bea Johnson. It completely transformed the way I thought about waste (not to mention how I shop)! We got rid of our garbage can, and I wrote a proposal for Trash Talk! Moving Toward a Zero-Waste World. It’ll be on shelves in Spring 2015.

Learn more about Michelle Mulder’s world at

Poet’s new book ruminates upon death

Brentwood Bay writer Eve Joseph’s new book, In the Slender Margin:  The Intimate Strangeness of Death and Dying, is essential reading for everyone.  She recently took the time to talk to Coastal Spectator Editor Lynne Van Luven. Joseph’s first book of poetry, The Startled Heart, was nominated for the Dorothy Livesay poetry prize, as was The Secret Signature of Things.  She is the recipient of the P.K. Page Founders Award for Poetry.  Joseph will launch In the Slender Margin on Wednesday, June 11 at 7 p.m. at Munro’s Books.

Eve, I so admire this profound book of nonfiction, which reads like the exploration of a lifetime. Can you talk about how long ago you started this book “in your mind” and how the compilation of the essays came together for you?

The idea for the book started in the fall of 2005. One year before I left hospice. I was burning out – saturated with images and thoughts about death – and that wasn’t something we talked about in any organized way at hospice. I clearly remember calling one of my colleagues from a phone booth in the Mayfair Mall and saying I could not continue working with the dying if I couldn’t talk about the work. We both agreed this was badly needed and, over the period of a couple of days, we contacted three other friends we worked with and started a group. We decided we would meet once a month, talk about death and drink whiskey. The Women and Whiskey group as we called ourselves. It was from those meetings that the book began to take shape.

I first attempted to write about death in my first book . . .  the poems –  ghazals – really only touched the surface but the associative nature of the form allowed me to use imagery without narrative and that was a breakthrough for me. When it came to this book, I knew I didn’t want to write a traditional narrative; rather, I wanted to build a kind of thematic resonance. One of the most immediate challenges was how to write about death without sentimentality and writing “fragments” as opposed to continuous story helped me do that. It was also really important to me to avoid the kind of false wisdom and new- age language often found in books on death and dying. It helped to have works by Joan Didion and Annie Dillard close by. Didion for her clarity of thought and Dillard for her imagery and the marvelous way she weaves things together.

In The Slender Margin started as an essay that was later published in The Malahat. I returned repeatedly to that essay and “blew it up” from within. I kept going back in and expanding my thinking. The greatest pleasure of writing this book was the opportunity to think on the page and to follow thought as far as I could. Don McKay once said to me my poetry was spare – as if I was a bird hopping from branch to branch. Prose, he said, requires one to be more “doglike.” Nose down, rooting along the ground, getting muddy and lost in the exploration. I’m more dog in this book than bird.

Your brother’s sudden death in 1964, when you were 11 years old,  appears to have been a touchstone-event for your whole life. Does writing a ruminative book like this assuage feelings of loss?

This question is interesting to me as it raises the topic of art versus therapy. In the book I tell a story about a friend of mine who teaches weaving on a reserve in North Vancouver. When she applied for a grant to teach local women, it was suggested she gear her classes for women with alcohol problems. She refused to run the classes as “therapy,” choosing instead to concentrate on creativity and tradition. As it happened, some of the women who came did have problems with alcohol and the course helped to turn their lives around. The intent was not to “heal” people but, interestingly, engaging deeply with the creative act was healing.

I did not set out to assuage an old grief, and I distrust that impulse. When people say “that must have been so healing” I feel grumpy and argumentative as if there is some unspoken belief that writing helps one to “let go” and provides some sort of “closure.” If anything, the opposite was true for me. Rather than letting go, I embraced my brother fully for the first time. I was immersed in thinking about him, in remembering and in learning new things.  In the end, the act of writing and remembering – of giving voice to sorrow – was cathartic. But it was never the purpose of the book.

I find it amazing that you were able to work in palliative care for two decades when so many of us fall apart at the death of a parent or family member. Does glimpsing the Grim Reaper daily harden one’s spirit?

I think it tires one’s spirit more than hardens. There is just so much sadness. As strange as it sounds, on one level it was just a job. It’s what I did to make money and support a family. There was a kind of compartmentalization – I did not feel the immensity of grief that family members felt because I was essentially a stranger to them. It’s completely different to lose someone close, and all my years at hospice don’t soften the grief I feel with personal loss.

To harden one’s spirit implies a shutting down or turning away from something. I don’t think I did this. The problem for me was one of deep weariness. We don’t have an adequate language in the West for problems of the spirit. My mother-in-law, who was Coast Salish, worried that my spirit was walking with the dead, and she encouraged me to pay attention and to practice certain rituals – which I did, but not nearly as often as she would have liked. As much as I appreciated her concern and suggestions, I felt as if I was “borrowing” something that wasn’t mine. If anything, writing has been the thing that has helped me to enter places of darkness and to maintain an open spirit.

In the Slender Margin is laced with wry commentary and humour. Do you think you would have lasted 20 years in your hospice work without a sense of humour?

Humour was an essential part of hospice work. It helped us to laugh at ourselves and at death. It kept us from taking ourselves too seriously and, for many of us, humour made death smaller and less terrifying. Sometimes it allowed us to see beyond illness. One of the stories I tell in the book has to do with a well-respected First Nations man who was dying of leukemia at home and had been in pain all day. When the nurse and counselor arrived from hospice to attend to him, he asked his wife if she had shown them the smokehouse. When she said “no,” he asked her to take them out to see it. Bewildered, she did as he said and showed them the rows of salmon slowly smoking in the shed behind the house. When the three of them returned, he looked over and said to his wife “you didn’t leave them in long enough, they’re still white.” Everyone collapsed laughing and for a moment he was a man with a sense of humour and not a man dying of a catastrophic illness.

People we encountered often called us “angels.” Humour flies in the face of that. It mitigates against the work becoming precious. The saying attributed to Abe Lincoln “I laugh because I must not cry” has a ring of truth to it. We found humour in the absurd and could share things with each other in a way we couldn’t with friends or family. I think it just helped us cope.

I love the ending of your book, when the Egyptian God of Writing, Thoth, tells you “You’re on your own with death.” I’ve always thought that to be the case. Is our final task on this Earth to figure out how to accept that reality, preferably with some modicum of grace?

Yes, it is our final task.  And, I’m not sure it is a task that one can prepare for completely in advance. There will be surprises and unforeseen circumstances and what we may have imagined in advance may or may not be possible. A friend recently asked me if I was less afraid of death having worked with it for years and my answer was mixed. On one hand, I’ve seen so much that I have way more ways to imagine what death could look like – the good and the nasty; on the other hand, at least with expected deaths, I saw that most people met their deaths without the struggle that one might fear or expect. In my experience, I saw that the dying most often enter into a kind of altered state in their last days. Maybe it’s that the body takes over. By the time things are shutting down people are often unconscious and so are spared the “bigger picture” in the way the living are not spared.

Of the few people I saw who fought right to their last breath, family often said that was true to their nature and couldn’t imagine it any other way. You have to remember, though, that I saw people dying in a hospice with excellent supports. The reality of dying in an under-staffed hospital might be quite different.

The analogy of birth makes sense to me. We labour to be born and we labour to die. Childbirth may be painful, but if it were intolerable no mother would have more than one child. The work of labour is so focused that other things disappear – I saw this exact thing with the dying. So, while I have no illusions about how we can die, I also know that most people do it with a modicum of grace.

When I first started working with the dying I didn’t believe in euthanasia. Over the years, I’ve changed my mind about that. I don’t think there’s “one” best way to die. For some people, probably myself included, I think the knowledge that there is a choice about the timing of our deaths could be a very good thing. We don’t have control but we can be active participants in our dying.

Who knows? I may well go out kicking and screaming. I have no wisdom to impart. The things I learned about embracing death and helping others turn toward it may be of absolutely no help to me with my own death.

It’s a funny business this death business. We just don’t know!

Language play enlivens Barton’s Polari

Victoria poet John Barton, perhaps as well known as the editor of The Malahat Review as for his 10 previous books of poetry, has just launched Polari, a new collection with Icehouse Poetry, an imprint of Goose Lane Editions.  Co-editor of Seminal:  The Anthology of Canada’s Gay Male Poets, he has won a number of writing honours, including three Archibald Lampman Awards and a CBC Literary Award.  He teaches poetry workshops across Canada, at such places as The Banff Centre, the Sage Hill Writing Experience and the University of Victoria.  He recently answered Lynne Van Luven’s questions about Polari in an e-mail exchange.

John, I like the title of your new poetry collection, Polari.  Can you tell me a little about when you first learned about the word, derived from the Italian parlare, which you define as a “coded anti-language or idiolect at one time spoken by gay men.”

Polari? I am not sure when I first became aware of the term, exactly. In the last 10 years, maybe longer?  I would hear mention of polari, then forget what it was or how to spell or pronounce it, go searching for it, find it and forget it again, in a long, irritable and irritating cycle, until one day it stuck.

Of course, I am not of the generation who would have used polari terms in order to pass, since the reasons behind needing to “pass” are now nowhere near as relevant as they were sixty years ago (or more precisely thirty years before I came out)—at least not in the part of the world and the stratum of society that is mine. It’s a different matter in Russia or Uganda, for instance—and God knows how one chooses to pass in either. However, I am old enough to remember when the society I belong to was not as open-minded and the urge to speak plainly did truly involve risk—though not risk of imprisonment. I am sure gay men do still talk differently amongst themselves than they would if “non-gay” people were present—and when “non-natives/speakers” are part of the exchange, “experiences” are “translated” for them. Any group is like this.

I realized a few years ago that anyone who might overhear a group of gay men discussing matters solely of their mutual concern might still find the conservation hard to follow. This tendency toward opaqueness—toward this anti-language—is a way of marking and restricting space—and even of policing access of it.  The idea of polari even became a kind of joke to me—”Oh, am I speaking in tongues again—LOL?”

I can’t claim that I was consciously thinking about all these ideas while writing the poems collected into this book, but after writing the title poem it occurred to me that “polari” helped characterize their texture. The surface “beauty” of their language is a protective crust that challenges the reader to take a firm bite—sharpen those intellectual incisors!—by reading carefully (and sympathetically) in order to break through to whatever substance resides within. (Or so I vaingloriously and self-consciously think.)

I also enjoyed the way you played with rhyming language in this collection.  There was a time – not too long ago – when Free Verse Ruled; a poet dared not rhyme words for fear of being thought fusty, but now I see it cropping up in many contemporary books of poetry. Can you talk a bit about this shift?

Observing metrics and rhymes has fallen in and out of fashion since the origins of modernism in the early part of the twentieth century. The current vogue in Canada found its inspiration in the New Formalism movement that began taking hold in the United States in the mid-1980s, with Canadian poets like the late Diana Brebner taking up the influence in her work; I can’t think of anyone who would have tried her hand at such formal concerns in Canada as early as she did—or at least not as well. Today, Matt Rader and Elizabeth Bachinksky, I believe, are among the best practitioners.

For myself, I grew tired of writing in free verse and was looking for a new challenge, which so-called traditional, rhyming forms offered. I had written a little bit of formal verse—the sestina, the sonnet, and the villanelle—when I had been a student over 30 years ago, but had never explored the opportunities to be found in formal writing with any focus until eight years ago.

Writing a formal poem is akin to offering different appetizing tidbits to a fussy eater, having them refused one after the other until said child (or poem) takes a bite and some sustenance—and substance—has been both derived and transferred. It takes patience and inventiveness—much more than I would have ever guessed, especially once one gets beyond thinking that merely observing the rules is enough—the “what a nice plum, what a good boy am I” syndrome. Writing a formal poem is less like filling in the answers to a crossword puzzle than designing a mandala—it’s all about balance and intent. I like how adhering to a strict syllable count and a subtle rhyme scheme forced me to make decisions I might not have had to make had I chosen to write a free-verse poem. I might settle early on for something reasonably satisfying in the latter, whereas to get to something satisfying in the former takes much more tenacity. Writing formal poems expanded my vocabulary, made me more flexible in my expectations, and open to change. Writing in form is like doing aerobics or weight training; writing free verse is like going for a nice walk with great scenery, and if you have a dog, picking up after it.

Writing formal verse has re-enforced my belief, developed while writing free verse, that it doesn’t matter which words you use as long as they work well together.  The challenge ultimately becomes how to write a formal poem that still feels contemporary. For example, I decided not to be a stickler for singsong metrics—ten syllables always, but not necessarily in iambic pentameter. You want the formal attributes to support the poem and not be the end in itself. Also, to match the form to the subject can be crucial; it can make the tension between traditional form and the contemporary subject a subject of inquiry too. However choosing a form arbitrarily, without regard for the subject, and then making it seem like the obvious and only choice is great fun too.

 Some of your titles — I am thinking of “Bombproof Your Horse” or “The Book of Marmalade . . .” — tackle the world with a wry eye that simultaneously notes its violence and its mundanity.  Is that a renewed tension in your work?

The absurdity of these titles—which are titles that have won a Diagram Prize for the oddest book title of the year—automatically draw attention to itself, doesn’t it?  They bring the humour implicit in my work right to the surface. That said, I agree this book is wryer than my previous books. Humour is a defense mechanism we all deploy to sample a smorgasbord of personal and social hurts—a way to make them visible, to decry them if necessary, and if we are lucky, to put them into perspective. Up to a point, self-deprecation is so much attractive than self-aggrandizement. I might not have been able to write many of these poems had humour not empowered me to do so.  In the case of the Diagram Prize poems, they might not have occurred me at all.

 John, you have lived and worked in many regions of Canada – Saskatoon, Fredericton, Calgary, Ottawa – and your family history in this country goes back a long way.  Do you think of certain of your poems as products of geography, or is your relationship to space and place more nuanced than that?

I am not sure what place means to me any more, having moved about so much. It is a pleasant wallpaper against which I live my existence.  Now my response is less one of a tourist, by which I mean I don’t write a poem simply because I have been somewhere (though I have written my share of such poems)—a temporary geographic cure equivalent to grazing at a salad bar. I suppose I see locale as an opportunity to give a particular concern a context. Sometimes, through the concern in question, I become connected to the place where a poem is set. Writing a poem set in a familiar location renews my connection to it. “I am somewhere, therefore I am a particular am”—and am forever. How many tourists taking selfies of themselves with a smart phone can truly say that?

 I’m an old fogey, I fear, but I think our use of language is growing less precise every day.  Is there any one essential piece of advice you like to give the emerging poets you mentor in workshops? 

 No poet can afford to be imprecise, if she or he hopes to be any good. Anyone who aspires to the craft (however fey that may sound), should never allow themselves to think that their readers will get the gist of what is intended—i.e., don’t become too wed to what you’ve put down in your initial draft and think it’s good enough. Instead, revise, have fun, agonize, fall in love with your genius, despair, be surprised, and explore. And most importantly, be your toughest and best reader.

Silent-film romance speaks eloquently

British Columbia writer Margaret Gunning just published her third novel, The Glass Character, with Thistledown Press.  Gunning, a long-time print journalist, columnist and reviewer, as well as a poet, has written two previous novels, Better than Life and Mallory.  She recently took the time to sit down in her office in Coquitlam, B.C., to answer questions  from Lynne Van Luven about The Glass Character.  The novel is a well-paced narrative that melds a young girl’s coming of age story with insights into the ambition and competition that drove the creation of silent films.

Margaret, for some reason the subject of your new novel startled me.  How did a sensible no-nonsense journalist (as I think of you) get so interested in Harold Clayton Lloyd, a 1920s silent screen comedian?

The first thing I ever wrote or published was poetry, so I have never really been all that sensible! But if it hadn’t been for Turner Classic Movies, I don’t think this novel would have happened. Not only do they regularly feature silent movies in their programming, they seem to champion Lloyd above all the others (including Chaplin).  So I first became hooked five or six years ago when I tuned in halfway through The Freshman, during a hilarious dance sequence when Lloyd’s cheap suit falls apart piece-by-piece.  But as a kid, I distinctly remember seeing a full-page black-and-white photo of Harold Lloyd, I think in a coffee table book called The Movies. It was the iconic photo of him dangling from a huge clock, and somehow his name fastened itself to that image.

Can you talk about all the research you did to capture the nuances and action of the Jazz Era in your novel?

I kind of did this backwards! I had already become enchanted with Lloyd, but at that point I was interested in a lot of things and was randomly picking my way through YouTube snippets. Then at some point – I remember the exact instant, when I was sitting in my office chair in a daydream and the idea hit me like a brick – I realized I was going to write about Lloyd. This filled me with woe, because at that point I knew very little about him. I had ordered a superb DVD boxed set called the Harold Lloyd Comedy Collection – take note, it has all his best stuff in it! – but by the time it arrived, I was already writing. So the research ran parallel to the work, and continues today because I am still interested – or should I say, enthralled.

Your narrator Jane is an inspiring character on so many levels.  Do you think “Hollywoodland” would be any different today for an innocent, star-struck teenager?

I think it would be totally different. In the novel, I use the cliché of the girl from a small town getting on the bus, headed for stardom. I figured if it was such a cliché, it must have been true in a lot of cases. Nowadays, a girl could not just walk on a movie set and get a part as an extra. At least, I don’t think so. The devouring machine of these TV talent shows is shark-infested water, as far as I am concerned, and no matter how gifted and determined you are, it’s a lottery with almost everyone going home heartbroken.

As I continued to read your novel, I realized that I had a subliminal memory of seeing the occasional Harold Lloyd movie, but that I was more familiar with Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.  Do you identify with the ordinary guy/underdog epitomized in Lloyd’s many “Glass Character” roles?

Funny you should say that! Over and over again, when I told people I was writing about Harold Lloyd, I’d get a blank look. Then I’d say:  “You know, the guy dangling off the clock 20 stories up,” and then came the “Ohhh! Yes, I know who you mean.” He’s filed somewhere in the back of people’s minds, but one reason we don’t know him better is that he was overprotective of his movies. He literally locked them in a vault and refused to show them on TV. He seemed to be engineering his own oblivion. As for being the underdog, Lloyd described the Glass Character as “just a regular fellow,” so most of us could identify with him:  an ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances.

I noted that you make no mention of Lloyd’s involvement with the Freemasons at the height of his career.  He reached an exalted level within the Masons, and that association was always part of his life.  Did you skip that fact as just too cultish and unromantic for Jane to absorb, a fact just unhelpful to your fiction?

Oh, there were so many things I could not cover, because Lloyd was the ultimate Renaissance man, an amateur scientist, painter, 3D photographer, show dog breeder, magician, golfer, acoustic innovator, and on and on. Right now, Freemasons are looked upon as targets for all sorts of conspiracy theories, but when my Dad was a Mason in the 1960s, it was just something you did, a dull men’s club. So in many ways it was the most conventional aspect of his life – but perhaps he needed it to remain grounded amongst all the more pedestrian souls.


Novelist explores loss and identity

Victoria author Margaret Thompson’s new novel, The Cuckoo’s Child (Brindle and Glass) is a compelling exploration of a character’s loss of both son and brother, as well as her own sense of identity.  Overall, it’s a hopeful narrative about accepting life’s mysteries. Thompson says her initial idea for the novel sprang from a 1980s  news report about a kidnapped boy who had been missing for 12 years but then suddenly turned up at a police station.  She says her first draft “hibernated in a drawer for several years” until she “dusted it off” and did the final editing.  Thompson is the author of an award-winning young adult novel, short stories and two collections of personal essays.  She’s a past president of the Federation of BC Writers.  This month she will be reading April 15 at 7 p.m. as part of Russell Books “At The Mike” Fiction Night .  On May 23, she will give a 4 p.m. reading at Salt Spring Library.  Coastal Spectator Editor Lynne Van Luven and Thompson conducted the following conversation via e-mail just after The Cuckoo’s Child was published.

 It is always interesting to read novels by writers one knows because their invention of characters and creation of narrative are studded by facts and events in the public domain. What tactics do you deploy to balance all three?

Tactics sounds frighteningly intentional! I think the process has something to do with different compartments in the brain contributing to the mix. The characters come from the creative department; they are almost entirely inventions, though Magnus  owes a lot to a head gardener I once knew, and there are a few people who might find something familiar about the three Wimbledon ladies [from whom Livvy Alvarsson rents a room]. I think it’s essential to fabricate the characters because that is the only way to maintain any sort of control over them. Even then, they sometimes get away from you and insist on having their own way. It’s handy, though, to be able to slot them into some kind of framework, and that’s where facts from the information vault come in. The inclusion of fact—things like geography, architecture, the Second World War, the Thatcher era, and the hurricane which flattened 15,000,000 trees in the UK—lends reality, but also imposes limitations that may affect the narrative. The novel’s present, for instance, is the late 1980s; most people at the time had barely heard of computers and certainly didn’t possess their own; there was no Internet, no email, no social networking, so the kind of search Livvy undertakes would of necessity entail a journey and personal effort. The last element to include is memory—untrustworthy by definition, but essential for colour and warmth. I may not remember the exact dates of my visits to the estate I based Hescot Park on, but I can vividly remember every detail of the place and how it made me feel.

The Cuckoo’s Child is a compelling meld of family mystery and searing meditation upon loss. Can you talk about the impetus to combine those themes?

Like most undertakings, things started simply and got more complicated the more I thought about them. I think that long-ago news item about the kidnapped boy had planted the seed of loss, but it took a little jolt in my own life to bring the family mystery idea to the surface. I would have said my family history was boringly transparent until the day shortly after my father died when my mother said, à propos of nothing at all, “Of course, he had another wife before me.” Nothing sinister about that, but it drove home the truism that every family has its secrets! I already knew I wanted to explore loss—how would it be, I wondered, if I took away the family anchorage, too? What effect would that have on the sense of identity?

I notice that, as your novel’s setting ranges from Sechelt to Prince George to London to the English countryside, the narrative action moves naturally through geography once familiar to you. Did you have to revisit these sites or did you write solely from memory?

I had to do a bit of research on places like London and Brighton, but that was just for general topography rather than precise detail, and I wasn’t above taking liberties, either! Most of the details of the various settings came from my own memories.

I don’t want us to give away the novel’s conclusion but I do want to know if you struggled with keeping the ending credible without being sentimental. Can you comment on that?

Fiction rather encourages the inclination to play God, but I am no sentimentalist and I do distrust the pat ending. I wanted an ending that allows Livvy to embrace her future with confidence, but realism ensured that it wouldn’t turn out exactly as she hopes. Life just isn’t like that. So, I deliberately took away as I restored, and left loose ends, some that may turn out well, and others that will never be explained.

I loved Livvy’s dry, sharp comments about teaching that I deduce are drawn from your own experience. I find it interesting that Daniel’s disappearance finds its way into Neil’s art—that is, he is eventually able to externalize his pain at the loss of his son, while Livvy seems to have more difficulty in “dealing” with loss, hence her need to try and “save” Stephen. Can you talk a bit about how that came about in the narration?

Making Livvy a teacher was well nigh irresistible! And the staff meeting scene came from the heart; that Them/Us vibe was so much a flavour of the time during the 80s. As for the art, that arose from a need to turn up the narrative heat a bit. It’s another truism that everyone grieves in his or her own way; it stood to reason that Neil would not react in exactly the same way as Livvy and that his way could be alienating for someone who doesn’t share it. It’s also true that losing a child often puts a huge strain on the parents’ relationship. I didn’t want that rupture—I wasn’t looking to make Livvy a sort of female Job!— but having her run that risk and experience further drift and isolation seemed dramatically feasible. Neil’s art serves another purpose, too. Daniel himself sees it as his father’s way of keeping him alive, which suggests that even though Livvy’s literal attempt to save Stephen fails, there are other ways for her to preserve her brother.

5 Questions with Catherine Bush

“I always wanted to make something with language,” Catherine Bush once commented about her early love for reading and writing.  Bush’s four acclaimed novels include Accusation, Claire’s Head, The Rules of Engagement and Minus Time.  Bush, who has also worked as an arts journalist, has taught creative writing at several universities.  She is the co-ordinator of the Creative Writing MFA at the University of Guelph.  Recently, Lynne Van Luven held an e-mail conversation with Bush about her 2013 novel Accusation, published by Goose Lane.

Catherine, as a former journalist, I love reading novels about the ethical conundrums journalists face, and that subject matter drew me to Accusation.  Can you talk a bit about what event or events sparked the novel?

The novel draws upon some actual incidents from the mid-1990s that touched me. While visiting my sister in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, I and my then-partner spent some time with a children’s circus founded by a Canadian man, whom I interviewed. I wrote about the circus for The Globe and Mail; my partner made a low-budget documentary film. A few years later, some of the teenaged performers fled the circus while on tour in Australia and made an asylum claim, citing the circus director’s sexual and physical abuse of them. I felt caught up in the story, wondering what we had missed. The case became more tangled when another journalist, who happened to be an old friend of my sister, tracked the director down after he’d left the circus and vanished. He denied the allegations and claimed that the teenagers had been coached to say what they’d said in order to make a stronger asylum claim. In the novel I’ve taken events from life and reshaped them, including what the man does once found, which has a harrowing effect on the journalist. My characters are all fictional, however. What interested me was the way others responded to what happened: the assumptions and judgments we all bring to bear when accusations of this extremity are leveled against someone. I wanted to explore the complexities of the case, the difficulties of writing about such a case as a journalist, and the way in which we all judge others and decide whose story to believe.

Your character, the journalist Sara Wheeler, a gets drawn to an exciting story – the hopeful narrative of an Ethiopian children’s circus, Cirkus Mirak – which tells a “good news” story about a part of the world so often the source of sad news.  Do you find yourself frequently reading news about “developing countries” with a sinking feeling?

Stories of calamity tend to attract attention no matter where in the world they occur. Think of weather porn: we are all drawn to natural disasters. Also, acts of sexual predation can and do happen anywhere, across geography, across class, in the houses of affluent North Americans as often as in orphanages in Africa. I feel frustrated when heartening stories from the developing world don’t get told or told as loudly. I was lucky enough to be in Kenya two years after the post-election violence of 2008 and to observe the remarkable artistic response to the violence, the way artists did so much witnessing through writing and film and photographs to make sure that such terrible fracturing and killing along ethnic lines, driven primarily by economic stress, didn’t happen again. Globe and Mail journalist Stephanie Nolen did some amazingly in-depth reportage while posted in Africa, as she did subsequently from India – for instance, her stirring work on the education of dalit girls – and is now doing from Brazil. Philip Gourevitch has done some fantastic long-form journalism on Rwanda for The New Yorker, including a brilliant piece on young Rwandan racing cyclists which was simultaneously an examination of the legacy of the genocide in the generation that had been children at the time. What’s frustrating about much newspaper reporting is how little room it leaves for conveying complexity. This is Sara’s quandary in the novel. One of my aims as a novelist is to convey human experience with some depth and ambiguity.

I have noted that now and then critics claim that Canadian novelists are too dull or too parochial or too-something-not-cutting edge.   I have always felt your novels are critical of the sheltered and insular unexamined lives.   How would you reply to those critiques about Canadian writing?

There’s a strain of domestic, realist fiction that tends not to look beyond the interior life of the self, sexual and social relationships, the world that ends somewhere beyond the street where the characters live. You find it in British and American fiction, too. And yes I find that way of looking at the world limiting. At the same time, I wouldn’t want Alice Munro to do anything other than what she does best. Yet there’s plenty of Canadian fiction that doesn’t fit this description. A large part of the problem is that critics don’t see or don’t know what else is there. They operate according to self-confirming assumptions. If you don’t look for the outward reaching or the beautifully strange, you won’t find it. Among the work of my peers, there’s Michael Helm’s thrillingly smart novel, Cities of Refuge, which is a profound act of sympathetic imagination and links Toronto with the politics of Central America. There’s Martha Baillie’s formally odd and alluring The Incident Report. Madeleine Thien’s Dogs at the Perimeter tackles the legacy of the Cambodian genocide. My novels take in a world that expands beyond the domestic: it’s very important to me to link here, which in my case is usually Toronto, with various states of elsewhere.

In Accusation, Sara begins her story with what we might call good intentions.  But as her research and interviews progress, she begins to learn that the story is deeply complex, more nuanced, than she thinks, and that  Raymond Reneau, the leader of Circus Mirak, may not be purely heroic after all.  Can you comment on the “cautionary” aspect of your narrative, as it applies to writers of all sorts of stories?

The novel opens with Sara’s discovery on-line of the allegations against Raymond Renaud. Because she’s been falsely accused herself in the past of a much smaller crime and she’s spent time in Raymond’s company, she doesn’t want to leap to conclusions about him. She doesn’t want to assume he’s innocent but give him the space in which to be potentially innocent. This is one god intention. She also sets out in pursuit of him, ostensibly so that she can find him and give him a chance to respond to the allegations, another good intention, yet her pursuit brings further complication and harm. Any writing about an accusation risks spreading the allegation further. Yet keeping silent can be a problem. And the voices of those making serious accusations, such as of sexual abuse, must be listened to and taken seriously. While journalism attempts neutrality, fiction doesn’t pretend to it: it enacts our subjective struggle to make sense of the world, a world in which we can’t always find out clearly everything we want yet one in which we still have to act and make choices. We’re always judging others and trying to decide whether or not to believe the stories they tell us. Accusations intensify this condition.

I’m always shocked, even dismayed, when students express a disinterest in anything related to “politics,” if they think the political process is boring.  Do you think this aversion is just a phase the youthful pass through, or is there truly a disconnect between the under-25 demographic and the political process in Canada?

There are some incredibly engaged under-25-year-olds. Witness the Occupy movement. I talk to students who give voice to a great yearning for more meaning. The political process may have failed most of us. One of the problems with democracy is that its attention span exists in election cycles. The life of the planet, for instance, does not exist in election cycles. Our relentless preoccupation with purely human affairs may be the cause of our destruction. I’d like to teach 25-year-olds how to pay attention to the world. To frame the question not as being about politics or being political but about the practice and ethics of attention. How do we pay attention to the world around us? What is the world, your world, here and now? Name its particularities. Think about what gets left out. Every act of attention that focuses on one thing leaves out something else. How can we make those absences felt? In a writing class, with graduate students who similarly resist the political, I use questions like these as our starting point.