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Harbace Anthology of Literature interview

Q: How did your childhood influence your writing? Have elements of your early life played a role?

A: I grew up in a rough neighbourhood, and I didn't have a particularly happy home life. I spent a lot of time alone, I had time to fantasize. I developed an elaborate interior world, filled with secrets and stories. Then the problem arose how to connect this inner world with the one outside. From the age of about eleven to nineteen I wrote poetry; I didn't write stories as such. When I was in Grade 12, I first read the modern short story writers--Joyce, Conrad, Woolf, Chekhov. I had never experienced writing at that level of intensity before then.


Q: What about your reading as a college student? I know that you studied the philosophers of the Eighteenth Century, which was a time of balance and control. Did these writers influence you?

A: I studied the Eighteenth Century so that I'd have an academic field of expertise far away from the last half of the Twentieth Century. I studied literary history, not theory. I loved Swift, Sterne, Pope, Fielding. Later I focussed on Berkeley, who was interested in how to talk about the connection between in here and out there--a concern close to my heart. Berekeley said that the essence of reality lies in the experience of it. He was speaking directly to me.


Q: Like some of the authors of the later Eighteenth Century, you have stories of manners, also of the grotesque, the absurd, like Swift, and you have a sense of exuberance like Sterne and Fielding. Do you think that these qualities of eighteenth-century fiction find their way into your stories?

A: I hope they do. One eighteenth-century value I am conscious of is the way I try to make things clear. Clarity is very important to me, especially if I'm dealing with off-kilter people, or complex situations. I want the language crisp and precise so that we have a sense of respect for the significance of the situation and the worth of the consciousness of the characters.


Q: You once said that writing is salvage. What is that? How are your stories a salvage operation?

A: In my short story collection White Buick a lot of the stories are based on documentation, so there was a way in which I was rewriting texts. I was taking historical documents and making them into stories. That was a kind of salvage. In a larger sense, my writing is salvage in that it is increasingly concerned with real experience, real bits of stories that have happened to people I know or actual people I have read about. So I think of myself as a collector of fragments and pieces, always looking for way to put them together to make a compelling narrative. I'm a retriever. In a still larger sense--coming back now to my anxieties as a child--writing has always been for me a way of salvaging experience. Early on, my anxiety about being out of touch with the outside world turned into an anxiety about experience as fleeting, as disappearing very fast down the sink of time. I try to get some things in focus as a way of holding on to them, before they disappear completely.


Q: That's somewhat like some of the characters in your stories--they wake up and things are gone. They're not successful salvagers.

A: No, they're not. The author is doing the work they should be doing.


Q: How did the story "The Naked Man" develop into the finished product?

A: That's simple to answer. It's an early story, based on personal experience. I came home from England one time to find a young woman living in my room. Her boyfriend also seemed to be an item of the household. This story as it first appeared in the late 1970s had a different ending. There was no car, and when I came to rewrite it for The Roaring Girl I didn't like the way I had done it. In the original version, the boyfriend in his jealousy hits her, and the story ends with the girl still in love, saying, "Yes [he hit me], but did you see his eyes?" It was all wrong, the wrong note. It turned the attention on her instead of the narrator. The car became a way of saying something more to the point.


Q: The Studebaker in "The Naked Man" and the White Buick are similar: ornate, glitzy, big, attention-drawing cars; they both get damaged, those two big American 1950s cars.

A: I see them as images of the male ego, a recreation of internal needs. They are showy, vulnerable--highly vulnerable--they promise mobility; they relate to males as sexual predators. In "White Buick" the car also signifies the immigrant's attempt to fit into this new society. In both stories there are elements of glory and absurdity to the car. In "The Naked Man" it's at the same time in the way and not there--just like the narrator.


Q: There is a basic situation in many of your works: a social gathering that is almost like the mad tea party in Alice in Wonderland. These gatherings aren't social minuets; everyone is going at cross purposes.

A: You get the crispness, the sense of hearing people talk. But the people aren't connecting. Those gatherings, party situations, are about lack of connection. Mavis Gallant calls it "the dialogue of the deaf."


Q: There seems to be a young person at a gathering, and he's lost. It's as if he never got to the party. It almost seems like a reflection of his existential situation.

A: Yes. There are two things I wanted to put together in "The Naked Man." One was the old story of the child who comes to understand that his family can carry on without him, that in some sense he's expendable, that they'll close ranks when he leaves. The family does not revolve around him. He no longer has a place. But also, these particular parents have no sense of boundaries. This is where the comedy comes in. They simultaneously encroach on him (or his car) and are always letting inappropriate people into their own space. I thought those two dynamics would make an interesting combination.


Q: When I read your stories I don't end up feeling despairing, the way I would if I read Camus. The characters are still struggling, still working at keeping their noses above water. I get the idea that there's hope in these stories.

A: I certainly want there to be. I wanted The Roaring Girl to have enough comedy, enough buoyancy, in the treatment of the situations--however dark or pessimistic they may be--so that they would not seem hopeless.


Q: There seems to be a lot of felt life--as novelist Henry James called it--it's as if the more you're involved with the characters, the more felt life emerges.

A: There are writers who don't seem to like their characters, they seem to be a long way above them. As a reader I find that can wear me down. One thing I am increasingly aware of is the compassion I feel for my characters. I care about them; I'm not going to do anything rash with them. There was sometimes a kind of heartlessness, a youthful anger, in my earlier work. Balance is what I'm after now. It seemed to work for Shakespeare.


Q: Is it sort of like being a parent, in the sense that when the kid reaches a certain age, you still care, but you have to let him go, all you can give is your love?

A: Yes, that's a good analogy. In the writing process, there is a point you reach where you're sitting around waiting for the characters to make up their minds about what they're going to do next. Your heart's with them, you're hoping they do something worthwhile, something good for themselves. But you never know--you can't force them. Most of James Joyce's characters are far beneath him socially and intellectually, but he cared for them, and he did it without sentimentality, and that is a very difficult balance to achieve.


Q: You don't stand god-like above your characters in a judgmental way; you see both sides of their stories.

A: I try to do that, for the poise. I try to write about characters who are my equals. As divided as I am.

 

------Interview by Jon Stott. Harbace Anthology of Literature. Eds. Jon Stott, Raymond Jones, Rick Bowers. 2nd ed. (Harcourt Brace: Toronto, 1998)