Aaron Shepard, a graduate of the University of Victoria’s MFA in Creative Writing program, just released his debut novel: When is a Man (Brindle & Glass.) When is a Man wades into the small towns of the British Columbian interior and shines a light on relocation, ghost towns, and rebirth. Shepard, a writer of award-winning short fiction, grew up in the Shuswap area of B.C. After earning a Recreation, Fish and Wildlife Technology diploma, he built hiking trails and worked for fisheries biologists and silviculture crews around the province. With this much exposure to nature it’s no wonder Shepard decided to explore B.C.’s remote forests in his debut novel. Recently, Adam Hayman was able to ask Shepard a few questions over e-mail about his novel.
This is your debut novel, and you mentioned that small portions were modified from a short story that you had published in the Malahat Review. How did this novel evolve from that, and what was that process like for you?
Most of the novel’s origins evolved quite separately from that short story, “Valerian Tea,” which takes place in Sweden and also has a protagonist named Paul. When I started writing the novel, I didn’t have a firm grasp on my main character – what kind of person he was or the conflict that was driving him. The mood and tone of “Valerian Tea” seemed to fit with the direction of the novel, so I started taking the story apart and adapting it as part of the novel’s backstory. Through that process, I realized I had a fully developed character in Paul that I could parachute into the novel to give it some emotion and heart. Even though their situations are different, the two versions of Paul share the same soul, the same defeated outlook on life.
Your biography mentions that you are an avid outdoorsman. This love for the outdoors comes across beautifully in your descriptions. Outside of a personal passion for nature, where did the lengthy descriptions stem from?
“Avid outdoorsman” is probably a little inaccurate after 10 years of city living, unfortunately. My canoeing and tracking skills are pretty rusty. I almost got lost in the woods a couple of weeks ago, and that’s never happened to me before.
The Immitoin Valley, where most of the story takes place, is a composite of different landscapes, rivers and towns that I know well. [I did] some research because I wanted to include elements of reservoirs I’ve never been to, like Kinbasket or Williston, but mostly I was going on memory and experience from years of working and hiking in southern B.C. To write the excavation site in Sweden, I did a lot of internet research on local bogs, birds, grasses, shrubs and so on.
For some reason, it was important to me for the setting to be as realistic and accurate as possible, right down to the moss. I guess it was a way of celebrating the places I’d lived and worked. It sounds really nerdy, but I have a background in forest ecology through a tech diploma program I took in the nineties, so I imagined my setting in terms of biogeoclimatic zones. That way I could invent a place out of thin air – like the old mill site along the river, for example – and know that it fit within the logic of the valley.
Recovery, relocation, and rebirth are some of the themes that course through this novel. Were these themes you wanted to work with beforehand or were they born from the subject matter?
When I started out, I knew I wanted to explore those themes, but didn’t know how they would fit together or what direction they’d go. I had some vague ideas. But the characters and their actions have to feel natural and logical, so ultimately they lead the way and everything else follows. I think a kind of structural tension always exists between the narrative and the underlying ideas – if you tweak something concrete, something abstract is changed as well. Eventually you realize you can only control the concrete stuff. The ideas become slippery and subjective.
One thing I realized early in the writing was how prevalent themes of displacement and rebirth are in Canadian literature. I felt that instead of trying to be coy about themes in my novel and pretend I hadn’t noticed they existed, it was better to hold them up to the light and really examine them. So there’s a bit of a self-referential or “meta“ aspect to my novel, like when Paul wonders why these stories of floods and displacement are constantly recurring and he starts to question the relevancy of his project.
The novel is separated into three sections and in the middle section the form differs slightly: there are no chapter breaks. What was the reasoning behind this?
Instead of having numbered chapters in the second part of the book, I used Paul’s interviews and field notes to create structural breaks. The interviews are a visceral way to mark the time passing, as well as the shifts in Paul’s line of inquiry and his attitude. I also liked the idea of blurring the distinction between Paul’s research and his life – as though he’s turning his ethnographic lens on himself.
As tempted as I am to simply ask you, “When is a man?” I will refrain, and let the readers figure it out. I am curious to know if your understanding of masculinity changed during the writing and/or research of this novel?
In terms of defining masculinity, I was definitely struck by all the untapped possibilities – in both life and literature. When we’re tackling the notion of “manliness” in fiction, it’s usually through the image of the hyper-masculine fighter/drinker/lover or else the “emasculated,” tragi-comic male. Paul’s definitely closer to the latter, but he also sees his recovery from prostate cancer as an opportunity to start on a different path. He goes about it the wrong way, perhaps, but I didn’t want to write a feel-good, politically correct recovery story either. If you become somehow displaced from your body – whether through paralysis, amputation, or impotence – you’re obviously going to go through some dark times.
I read some great articles about how couples dealt with prostate cancer and impotence. From that came the idea that our best relationships transcend the question of gender roles. You do whatever needs to be done for the relationship to survive and flourish, to help love endure.