Christian Riegel, “Interview with Greg Hollingshead,” British Journal of Canadian Studies, 12 (1997)
CR: You are originally from Ontario, still spend some time there every year, lived in Britain for five years, as well as Montreal and Paris, but have lived in Alberta for a considerable number of years now. What sort of a literary tradition has informed your writing?
GH: A literary tradition in terms of geography?
CR: —or if geography has anything to do with your writing—
GH: I don’t often think of it that way. When I think of Ontario, I definitely think of Alice Munro. When I think of Britain I think of Swift and Beckett. But tradition? I don’t know. I respond to particular writers. In terms of the southern Ontario ethos, I have never seen it strongly expressed in a literary way that is sympathetic to my sensibility except perhaps by Alice Munro. But even there, there is a sense that this could be anywhere. So, I don’t know what to do with that question.
But I have come through a period of consciously writing about what I see as the suburban experience. Spin Dry is consciously a suburban fantasy. The suburbs being removed from the centre—whatever that is—and being nowhere in a sense but also universal in this part of the world. I lived in Surrey, a commuter part of Surrey, so I am very interested—or have been—in this nowhere place between rual life and urban life. The novel I am working on now [The Healer] is consciously rural, set on the [Canadian] Shield. Most of it, indeed, in the woods themselves.
CR: Part of The Roaring Girl was written in Paris, or some of the stories were finished there. Did it make a difference that you were there?
GH: For me, as in the first question, it always comes down to voice. For me, Southern Ontario is my father’s voice—his rhythms, his way of unfolding a story. That is now I connect to place. And Paris was a place where I spent most of my time writing this rural Ontario novel and working on ‘A Night at the Palace’ [from The Roaring Girl], which is the Prairie story. So really, Paris was the place to be removed to so I could get a sufficient sense of distance on the culture to do it.
CR: —a place outside—
GH: The idea of living in a place that is half-built, that is something I feel about living in Edmonton—a very suburban city. It doesn’t quite feel like a city yet, and this is very familiar to me. It is like being just outside of Toronto in the suburban village where I grew up. I suppose that I consciously explored some of those themes in Spin Dry; in The Roaring Girl it is more of an atmosphere. In the stories, the characters are pretty sure that they are not at the centre of their own lives, and they are not quite sure where it would be if they could find it or what it would be.
CR: You mentioned Alice Munro, and she is a writer frequently referred to when people talk of your work and look for comparisons to contemporary writers. I see in the attention to craft and detail figures such as Alistair MacLeod or other ‘classic’ short story writers such as John Cheever, Ring Lardner or, further back, Edgar Allan Poe—all fine practitioners of carefully-structured stories where, frequently, seemingly disparate elements coalesce into an aesthetic that works, that transcends the sense of the disparate pieces of a story. Do you feel any affinities with such short story writers—or any tradition of the form?
GH: It definitely comes down to individuals. I feel that of the classic short story writers I respond most to Chekhov, although I don’t often mention that when I am asked this question; I think he is extraordinary. That sense of an effortless construction of a strange compelling narrative—I think Munro has that same kind of natural ability to combine disparate elements and make something that works. Carver has it too—that wonderful balance that seems entirely credible and natural and true, and yet you look at it closely and you come away with a sense of strangeness that is what makes the story much more than it might at first appear to be. Those are the three that come immediately to mind.
I love Alistair MacLeod’s work, but I think, yes, he is a great craftsman, and the high Celtic voice he gets . . . I don’t think I come at it directly, the way he does. I come at it more through the Faulknerian than the Celtic voice. They are both, in a way, Celtic voices—or at least Bardic in that dependency on the rhetorical—but I come at it more by way of Faulkner, or Cormac McCarthy, though this may not be evident in The Roaring Girl. I always have trouble with ‘tradition’. I recognise the notion as a scholar, but as a writer it is always a matter of particular voices and particular writers, and I often fail to remember how they are connected.
CR: That kind of a question forces you to deconstruct your own work in the sense of its intertextuality.
GH: I am happy to do that; it is just that the genuine intertextuality is quite specific in terms of other writers and other stories, in terms of particular other phrases and particular syntactical habits.
CR: In the ‘Acknowledgements’ to White Buick you state that ‘writing is salvage’, which seems to me to be a very definite statement in the way it is phrased, and that phrase comes back later in the collection in the story ‘When She Was Gone’, in the words of Gordon Snider, the serial killer/sex offender. In his thoughts, the word ‘salvage’ is linked with notions of truth and real life. What do you yourself mean when you say that ‘writing is salvage’, and is the notion in any way linked with this character Snider’s thoughts?
GH: The ‘Acknowledgements’ here are kind of like what I did with the epigraphs to The Roaring Girl. There is a slight playful perversity about the choice. First of all, I focused on the word ‘salvage’ there because—as I point out in the same paragraph—many of the stories in White Buick are based on historical texts. The process was very much that kind of thing—a scholarly/narrative recuperation of certain found texts—and several of the stories work that way. More personally, writing for me began as, and to a certain extent still is, an attempt to give some form to experience which otherwise would be lost. So for me it functions as a kind of discipline of perceptual experience, not just as a way of getting down things that have obsessed me or happened to me or that I have heard, that I feel strongly about, but as a means of encouraging a kind of attentive state of mind so that I can continue to gather that information. So it is a way of holding back something from life rushing down the sink of time. Salvage in that sense is a holding on, keeping something back of value—something that is true.
Gordon Snider is talking about it, he is finding a way to talk in a normalising way about what he has done. He is, in his oblique way, trying to account for it for himself. It is what I was trying to do in the story too. He was a, well, what was he? A necrophile fetishist, essentially, a collector of memorabilia of women’s bodies. The story is about making a connection between what men to, what the male sexual imagination does with, the female body. But he is relating salvage to the notion of the memento, an artifact as a means of keeping hold of an experience—a wonderful experience. So, I guess that is enough on salvage.
CR: I want to ask another question on salvage, but it will lead in another direction. Gordon Snider also comments on the relation of salvage to dreams; he says in fact that salvage ‘is a changing dream’. In a number of your stories, your characters seem to be in dream-like states, or act in ways that could be defined in terms of dreams—and the novel Spin Dry is centrally concerned with that topic. In the story ‘The Comfort of Things as They Are’ from White Buick, for example, the family that is the focus of the story seem to be living a nightmarish existence in the hospital. Can you comment a little about the role that dreams play in your writing/approach/view of life?
GH: That is a big one. That is a big one for me. First of all, there is no question of the content of the dream experience going into the stories. That is not what it is about. I’ll put it this way. I think that dreams are traces of information that has come up in the course of a day that has been for whatever reason pushed aside because of distraction, because of repression, because of self-image or haste, and that pushing aside is essentially an emotional act that is a conflictual event on the verge of consciousness. Such events, I think, leave scars, if that is the word—traces, anyway—and I believe (I could be quite wrong about this) that in dreaming that information gets reviewed. However pleasant or enjoyable on the surface, I think that there are underlying genuine anxieties of all different kinds in dreams. There is one behind every particular moment or image of the dream.
In my twenties I went through a process of being very attentive to my dreams, to the extent that I was more or less conscious all the time, because as the images came up, in my dreaming mind, it was making note of or tracing and finding their origins. I had this idea that, given the Eastern saying The wise man never dreams, all you have to do is figure out how to stop dreaming and you will become wise. I figured I could come in the back door of wisdom this way. What it came down to was attention during the day, so I was attempting to be alert enough so that I could process those little moments of impression as they occurred, so that the dreams would be quiet—and that is what happened. But what also happened—this while I was in England—was that I was equally conscious during the night, so I never really lost full consciousness, for months at a time. We tend to count on dreams to represent our more glorious selves, our creative selves. But in fact I think it is just one consciousness, that’s all—just a little bit more out of control at night. I suppose in a sense this is what the writing is doing, although I would say after the fact that that is not what I am trying to do. There is a kind of surface clarity or surface cleanliness, but underneath you get the sense of a more painful reality. That seems to have developed on its own and isn’t anything I set out to do.
CR: We talked earlier about ‘nowhere’ and people living in spaces like that. Many of your characters frequently appear to be on the margins or at the edge of things. Yet, paradoxically, they are also at what could be called the centre of things. They have families, are professionals and have jobs. They are people who display qualities of extreme oddness and at the same time qualities of ordinariness. Do you see these characters as being demented or strange, or do you think that normal people also behave in strange ways? That this is what normal people do?
GH: I think that this is what normal people do, that’s all. I think that we all spend a lot of our time trying to normalise our behaviour, trying to block out those things that don’t fit the image of this moment that we are building for ourselves. But, I don’t have to go very far afield for my behavioural details. You know, I am not making this stuff up. I think that it is just the things that I see people doing, or that I see myself doing.
There are a couple of other things happening in relation to this notion, too—the way in which we don’t put things together. That is what I was trying to do in ‘The Age of Reason’, where the child is crying and the parents are making love and the mother is tied up. I just wanted to juxtapose her roles as sexual partner and mother, and in that context it may seem that they are a rather aberrant couple, but I don’t think that they are, particularly. But when you force this juxtaposition of the mother who has to go to comfort her child but can’t until she is untied it seems to be shocking. Partly it may be that we are not used to encountering that kind of detail in that kind of story. The thing about sex in fiction is that it is easy to do that with it. People are so various in their sexual behaviours on the one hand, and on the other are used to living inside narrower conventions about what is acceptable or not. It is not that they are hypocritical, it is just that in their attempts to normalise themselves they don’t consistency acknowledge the full range of what they are actually doing.
CR: I am thinking of one story, ‘The People of the Sudan’, in the latest book, where a kind of odd thing happens. The narrator is entrusted with a box, given instructions to deliver it to an aid agency, and she puts it on her clothes dryer for six months without doing anything about it, despite the fact that she bumps into it every day. At first it does seem like a very odd thing to do, yet when one thinks about it, it seems fairly normal to put off something like making a phone call, and then that act of procrastination feeds further inactivity, giving it a kind of snowball effect.
GH: In the case of that story it is part of what the piece is about in that she is procrastinating—she has fallen into the pattern—but she is also highly conflicted about her relationship with the woman she got the box from and that is the real reason, as I understand the story, why she can’t act effectively with respect to the box. Often my characters are behaving in response to something, but they are doing it in the wrong area. They are behaving in reaction to something, but not in any direct way—ineffectually, essentially.
CR: I am interested in what one could call, I suppose, historical intertextuality—how documents are worked into your stories. ‘The Mary Dunbar Letter’ and ‘Your God is Finished’ are good examples. How does a sense of history, or personal history, function in your work?
GH: ‘Your God is Finished’ [from White Buick] came out of a 15,000-word piece of autobiography that my father started to write after he retired, and he became stalled at the point where he met my mother because he must have known that he could not write it while she was alive—and then he died unexpectedly, and relatively young. I had it for about four years before I was able to look at it. My father was a politician at the municipal level and he wrote a column for the newspaper—he was a kind of uneducated philosopher. It was a piece of writing that was of a familiar kind, not exactly autobiography, more a celebration of how things were in the past, putting a good face on the past as a way of displaying something of value for future generations. But what struck me as I reread it was the recurrent theme that he never knew his father, just didn’t know who the man was. His father was very aloof, a cold man. And then I became aware that there was quite a bit of interesting writing in it, quite a bit better than I had at first thought. It had this palliative quality, but there was some telling writing. I thought I would write through it as a text to write about all three of us—me trying to recover my grandfather and in the process telling the story of my father, and displaying in that process the failure of the ability of not exactly to love but to show love between his father and him and consequently him and me. So that was an important story for me, partly because so much of my writing has been an attempt to recapture the voice of my father.
CR: It seems to me that that story is in many ways about dealing with loss. I don’t think the narrator is very self-reflexive about what he is actually doing, yet there is the sense of the emotion of the loss being there in him, in the way the grandfather and father are described.
GH: I was certainly trying for that. I didn’t want to get into the narrative of that; I wanted to have the loss displayed in the tone.
CR: In none of the three volumes are the stories interrelated, as some short-story cycles are. In The Roaring Girl, nonetheless, the stories fit together very well. Did you consciously work to fit these stories together?
GH: Well we did, although it was a question primarily of arrangement. Of the stories we had available, only one obviously didn’t fit. I wrote a few more, and I rewrote to fit, but otherwise we—my editor Patrick Crean and I—really just worked at it in an intuitive way. We negotiated between us what the order would be. We were working very much by feel, since there was no obvious simple thematic link. The analogy that I have used before is that of a rock album, and when a reviewer used the same analogy I was very pleased; some albums just feel like they go together, even though you can’t put your finger on why. A ‘greatest hits’ will not have that quality. It feels as though the stories belong together—I feel that way. There is a sense in White Buick that there is more shapelessness to it, it has a ‘White Album’ feel to it.
CR: Has winning the Governor General’s Award affected the way that you think of your writing?
GH: It has been gratifying to see the things I have been trying to do apparently find readers. I mean, I have been trying to do these things for a long time. It is nice to see that many people seem to be enjoying the results at some level. I am working on a novel, and I have been finding that one of the effects of the experience is that I have had a certain sense of energy and confidence in this current project. I seem to be writing as a completely new writer. Now, it is possible that this draft that I am so pleased with, when I look at it in six months, will appear as a work of folly—that there is a new level of pretension or a lack of critical severity. At this point it doesn’t feel like that; it feels as though some kind of energy has been restored to the process. One thing the Governor General’s Award does, it gives you a sense of the possibility of an audience for what you do next, and there is definitely something energising about that.
CR: Thank you, Greg.