Web Forum - Interview
The following online discussion took place in summer of 2007, on the web site of Gail Anderson-Dargatz (fiction writer, teacher). Gail is the moderator of the discussion. Other contributors to the disussion are June Hutton (fiction writer, former journalist and teacher) and Jono Lineen (fiction writer).
Good morning Jack!
Well, seeing as we're a couple of fiction writers, I figure we better set the stage here, let the readers know where these two characters are. I'm sitting in my little skinny office (used to be a rather large hallway) looking out over our backyard. We're had a coyote paying regular visits, and a bear ripped off the door to our garbage shed not long ago, so I guess you'd say I'm living rural. Our place is nestled in farm country, not far from the real Turtle Valley and adjacent Chase Creek Valley that inspired the Turtle Valley in my upcoming novel. But the Shuswap Lake is within walking distance and it's high tourist season.
My two wee ones are having their screen time so I've got a little time for having a cup of tea and chatting with you.
Where are you writing from?
I'm sitting at my desk, facing out a window that looks through a multitude of various trees, all a rather pale colour at the moment -- the sun is shining weakly through a cloud. The road outside is quiet, the city seems far away. A typical Saturday morning in the Queenswood bushy part of Cadboro Bay.
I want to start by talking about your collection Damage Done by the Storm, just released in paperback. Alistair MacLeod called this collection “A splendid achievement,” and said these stories, “pulsate with humanity. Jack Hodgins understands the strength and fragility that links our future to the past.”
I absolutely agree. These stories are, as your publisher described them, “vintage Jack Hodgins, at his highly crafted best.” The stories do “pulsate with humanity.” I know these people, even though they are often somewhat larger than life. And it is very much “vintage Jack Hodgins” in that I come out of this collection, as I have come out of your other fiction, feeling as if I have spent time with old friends and have gotten to know them better. Then there is that level of craft -- the experience, care and attention that you’ve put into every element of craft. So I want to start by congratulating you on this wonderful book.
Without giving too much away, I wonder if you can talk a little about how this collection came together, what inspired some of the stories perhaps…how, for example, did you come to write about an orthotics sculptor who falls in love with the plaster feet of one of his patients? I LOVE this story.
Well, thanks for the kind comments! I'm very pleased the collection has been reissued in an attractive paperback that may appeal to more readers. Some of the stories had been published in magazines over the years -- Capilano Review, Meanjin (in Australia), PRism international, Paris transcontinental, etc. "Balance" was first published in the famous American periodical "Story."
This story began at our dining room table, after a conversation with our younger son Tyler who is a sculptor and happens to work in an orthodics shop. After listening to him tell about the sorts of conversations the workers have, the "facts" of the job -- doctor and patient names on nametags attached to plaster feet, etc -- it occurred to me to wonder what would happen if someone in that job were to become too interested in the imaginary possessor of the original foot. One thing led to another. (Tyler still works there, by the way, and has recently won two public art competitions. His "rings" piece now sits beside the Lochside Trail in Saanich, and he is now working ona wall piece for the new Burnside-Gorge community hall -- made up of impressions of the feet of community members!) I hadn't intended to publish a story collection at all, but Doug Gibson raised the possibility, I refused, he pursued, I considered and sent him some stories, which I then set about revising .... and so on. Most stories are very close to the versions in the magazines, but a couple were seriously rewritten.
"The Drover's Wife" was written in response to a series of Australian stories. Firs there was a 19th century story called "The Drover's Wife" set in the rough outback. Then a famous Aussie artist painted "the drover's wife." Then Murray Bail wrote a story in the voice of a dentist who claimed the woman in the portrait wasn't the drover's wife but his own wife,who'd run away with the drover. Then another Australia writer wrote a comic story with the same title, which veered off the drover's wife and into the relationship between the drover and his sheep. And then another and another... so I was just adding my version. What if the dentist's wife grew tired of the drover and emigrated to Canada and took over a logging camp? Makes sense to me.
Writing short stories is so different from writing novels -- just as difficult but in a very different way -- that it's fun to work on them between novels, or perhaps to work on novels between short stories? I tend to think of myself as a novelist, but now and then a character and/or a situation occurs that just demands to find life in a short story.
Well, that was going to be my next question! I teach both short fiction and the novel at UBC, but I admit my strength is as a novelist. I maintain that in so many ways writing a short story is harder than writing a novel; a novel just takes longer. So what interests me most is process: do you approach to the short story differently that the novel (aside from structure); what are the differences and similarities to writing a novel?
I consider the short story and the novel almost as different from one another as, say, the novel and a sonnet. The difference probably isn't so much a matter of difficulty -- though it certainly can be a matter of time involved, or at least continuous time involved. The great thing about a short story is that you can find out much sooner if you've wasted your time. With a novel, you could work for five years and then decide to throw it away. This happened to me once. Five years working on the same novel, which I thought was brilliant, and eventually ... well, I had to give it up. I knew in my heart that something was seriously wrong. Dianne read it and said "Either this is so brilliant that no one will understand it for 100 years or else it is terrible." My editor read it and said "I agree that there is something seriously wrong but I'm embarrassed to say that I don't know what could be done about it." So I figured that "what could be done about it" was "chuck it." I did. I discovered later that, though I didn't exactly "raid" the thing, a central "issue" surfaced again in a new novel. I think now that the problem was that I started with a "brilliant" idea for an original structure and then "manufactured" a story for it. Of course it wasn't as simple as that, but I'm sure it was a matter of starting with the wrong thing.
There are certain things that are more satisfying to work with in longer pieces -- such as rhythm in a novel. The repetitions with slight changes, the recurrance of certain images, the echoes of this and that. Of course you can have rhythm in a short story as well, but there usually isn't the time to take full advantage of it. Some student writers tend to think that while you have to make sure every single word in a short story is the perfect one, in a novel you don't have to be so demanding. I understand that is it harder to be so demanding of individual words in something 350 pages long, but it is still necessary. Something I used to do in my university fiction workshops before we got into the various things we'd all talk about in a certain story was take them through the first paragraph or the first page considering and reconsidering every word, every phrase, every clause, every sentence, the order of sentences, the rhythm of sentences and how they might have been other than they were, etc etc etc. It's always a shock for the writer the first time, but many many times I've been told this was the most useful thing I could have done -- drawing attention to what they'd done with language, and drawing attention to the choices they had but didn't make, and illustrating the importance of paying close attention to the prose. This is as important for the novelist as for the short story writer.
Without suggestion there is a consistent pattern, I have the sense that short stories for me often begin with almost the whole thing in mind except for the ending, while a novel often begins with a fascination with a certain character or a certain place and my curiosity driving me to find out what happens when I put him or her into action. OR, a novel may begin with a very strong sense of a shape a story might take. The problem is, almost every novel (for me) begins as a desire to write a perfect novella, a lovely little thing like "The Old Man and the Sea" or "Death in Venice" but the minute I actually get into the writing I find the world seems much too complicated to be treated so purely. (And yet, and yet -- the novel I'm working on now just MAY be shorter, cleaner, purer, etc etc... if I don't discover some huge element I've overlooked!)
I absolutely agree. One thing I've done for myself for years (and that is a process now taught in Peter Levitt's translation workshops in the UBC creative writing optional residency program) is write sections of my novel as poetry, and then translate back into prose. It goes far beyond line breaks, of course. It is, quite literally, a translation of my own work. As a result I'm forced to consider each line, each word.
There is no way I could talk to you about your fiction without addressing the issue of landscape as it is such a powerful element in your fiction.
In my conversation with Catherine Bush last month, we talked about our approaches to writing about our landscapes. Catherine writes largely of Toronto, an urban landscape; I write largely about the Shuswap-Thompson landscape, the rural, small town. Yet both of these landscapes are “home” for us and our approaches to writing about those landscapes were similar, even if the landscapes themselves were very different.
You have often written about Vancouver Island logging and farming communities, small towns and rural landscapes as well. And of course you do in this collection (my heart ached for Vancouver Island when I read the descriptions of the ferry in The Crossing, and I laughed at the young ferry worker “who stood back to observe – to supervise” the walk-on passengers that hurried off and “looked as though he wished his job came with a cattle prod.” Having worked with cattle in the past, I’ve thought exactly the same thing watching these ferry workers usher the throng of passengers off the ferry!)
And yet the settings for the stories in Damage Done by the Storm are also Australia, Germany, Ottawa, and the Mississippi. I assume these are all places you’ve spent quite a bit of time in. I know you’ve spent a whole lot of time in Australia and I gather, from your writing, that you’ve rather fallen in love with that highly varied landscape, that it has become “home” in some sense.
Do you think a landscape needs to become “home” in order for a writer to write of it effectively? Or do you think we can write of a place where we are only tourists?
Landscape is often a trigger to a story, for me. For instance, the first time I was in Port Alice it was for less than two hours, but I was so "taken" with the place that by the time I left it seemed that every building, every person I saw, the inlet, the trees, the smell of the air, etc etc, were indelibly printed on my brain. More important, I began to imagine, almost immediately, what it might be to live there, the variety of people who might be attracted to the place, and the sort of story that might be acted out there. Most important, I saw a metaphor in the place -- a small town clinging to the edge of the world, being washed right down into the inlet every time it rained so much that a mudslide came down the mountain from behind them. And then, they put it all back together in precisely the same spot. How could I resist? I went back for a second look after writing about 100 pages and, so help me, met people I'd invented. It scared me a bit, but it also told me my instincts must have been pretty good. After The Resurrection of Joseph Bourne was published, someone who'd lived in Port Alice came up to me on the BC Ferry and asked how long I'd lived there. I said "Never. Just a couple of hours one day, and a couple of days months later." He said, "Well, all those people in the book are actually up there."
Landscape has always had that effect on me. It may be the beauty, but it's more likely to be the specific nature that suggests more than itself -- its effect upon the people who live there, upon me. I'm convinced that my own more comfortable writing style has been influenced by the colours, contours, smells, and vegetation of Vancouver Island, even more than the people. (Though I've read that most North American male writers write in the voice of their mothers -- which I believe. I often hear my mother's voice in my sentences. But then, she was raised in the same landscape as I was.)
Travel, then, means exposure to other landscapes (obviously) but those the most different to home affect me at a sort of gut level. The first time I set foot on Australian soil, for instance, I felt I'd returned to a childhood home I didn't know that I'd had! It was a spectacularly gorgeous landscape out of a fairy tale or a dream. The fact that I liked so many Australians increased my love of the place, of course, but the landscape is what drew me back again and again. Every time I would think "This ought to get it out of my system" but it only made the attraction stronger. After five visits -- some of them for several weeks -- I still long to return. Writing about the place is a way of returning. In preparation for Distance I drove out from Brisbane alone across the barren outback and stayed for a while on a sheep station, explored places I had no business being alone, talked to people, helped out the station owner -- checking the waterholes, etc. Of course I knew before I went that time that I hoped for a wild boar hunt.Didn't tell anyone this, but one day while riding around the paddocks discovered a wild boar racing up the dry creek bed after the sheep, and soon we were after him! So, unpleasant though it may seem, I got to smell the creature close up, and to hear my host rant about the damage he would have done.
Though I have set many stories elsewhere, I've never done it at random, nor ventured into a local person's psyche too far. Many characters have been visitors to the landscape, like myself. (Though they never ARE myself, I hasten to add.) It just seemed necessary that Mayor Jacob Wiens experience the same kabuki theatre as I had in Tokyo, that an expatriot Canadian concert pianist stay in the same guest hosue as I had in Marburg, Germany, etc.) Occasionally the piece itself dictates that I reduce the extent of my own experience. FOr instance, originally Sonny Aalto spent quite a bit of time (and several pages) in Helsinki, but in later drafts of Distance I had to accept that this wasn't important enough to the novel to deserve that much space. Chop chop.
Jack, our time has already come to an end and I know you have to go soon. So I want to say thanks to much! It's always a pleasure talking to you!
For those reading the forum: Jack and I will continue this chat for a bit next week starting on Monday, and Jack will answer your questions then too, on this forum, so go ahead and post them now! Later next week, I'll consolodate what Jack has to say and post it for easy reading on my blog (see www.gailanderson-dargatz.ca and look for "blog" on the index).
Hello Jack and Gail. I would be interested in what both of you think about landscape as a “character” in your novels (as opposed to mere backdrop). Also, does landscape dictate the nature of the story? In other words, would story X differ in more than appearance if it were set in different landscapes? Oh, one last one. What do you think of writing stories set in places you have never been?
Hi June! I just peeked in because I'm nosy. Gail e-mailed to say this morning's "talk' had been posted so I wanted to see what it looked like -- and there you were, author of a novel I look forward to reading. I think landscape is almost always a "character" in my fiction, though sometimes a passive observer and sometimes an active participant. I've discovered myself writing where it became obvious that the landscape (in a way) was going to alter the direction of my plot and the lives of my characters, though unconsciously. In fact, I suppose I have "relied" on landscape in some cases -- a forest fire in Broken Ground, a flood in Distance, an earthquake in "Earthquake" and in The Macken Charm. I suppose landscape is acting as a character even when it's passive, if it compels someone to act in a certain way, or affects the direction of a person's life even without acting up (fire, flood, earthquake). In Patrick White's Tree of Man, this wonderful novel could not be what it is, and its characters would end up quite differently, if they weren't trying to carve a home out the indifferent wilderness. He makes you feel the landscape is not so indifferent right from the first page, where the trees are described as having bark like fur ("stringyback eucalyptus" I assume) and the horses that pull the wagon stop and "put down roots." So the landscape can metaphorically play the role of "characters" even without doing a thing!
Spending more than a few paragraphs or pages on somewhere I've never been makes me nervous, but if I found myself in the middle of a novel where it was absolutely necessary that my protagonist spend time in, say, Patagonia, I would (1) see if I could justify a trip there, or, (2) go on the internet and scour National Geographics to learn what I could (and seek out what is unique and useful and probably metaphorical), or, (3) see if I can find someone nearby who has been there and could tell me. Not being there is really not much of a problem if, say, the character is already back from there and we learn only their impressions. Otherwise, the important thing is that the reader must believe that you must surely have been there, whether you have or not. Maybe it's enough to have been to the Patagonia of your own mind, though there are travel books to help you. The other important thing is that there be something, even one thing, one very specific detail, maybe, even something ordinary that is so unique in your detailed glimpse of it that it must "obviously" be the real thing. Even if you invented it. All is illusion!
Of course there are novels and stories that don't need to be anywhere specific. If the landscape doesn't affect the action of the characters or doesn't "do" anything to affect the characters, and if the characters are people who are barely aware of landscape (there are some!) it may be enough for the writer to let us know only that we're in a posh living room in a upper-crust suburb of Toronto. Of course, even then, if you "use" the furniture to give us signals about the people, you are dealing with a kind of "landscape."
Edna O'Brien is a writer whose landscape is always an important actor in the drama -- usually Ireland. When I think of James Salter's very powerful short stories, I can't remember where they took place, and I suspect it doesn't matter.
I realize I've used "place" and "landscape" interchangeably -- since I consider houses and streets etc as much "landscape" as are forests.
I hope I've made sense. I'll submit this now and leave it to Gail to answer from her own perspective.
Hello June! Yes, for me landscape certainly dictates story, and it's all wrapped up in situation, which is one of the first things I consider as I dive into a project (is there enough potential for conflict in the situation -- the environment -- which is the engine of narrative drive, that thing that keeps the reader reading and asking, what's going to happen next?). Landscape was the first thing I chose when I wrote Turtle Valley, in that I knew I would set the novel in the Salmon Arm fire of 1998 (fictionalized, as I have it set in Turtle Valley, rather than the Salmon River Valley). Story flowed out of that. In fact when I went back to my home landscape in this novel, the Shuswap, characters from The Cure for Death by Lightning appeared again. I had no intention of writing a sequel, and it isn't really that. But Beth and some of the other characters were just there, in the landscape. I guess this isn't surprising as, as I was saying to Catherine Bush in our conversation last month, the Shuswap-Thompson IS story for me, and the characters were right there, an integral part of the landscape.
June, I'd like to throw the question back at you: does landscape dictate story for you? For our readers who aren't familiar with June's writing, check out her website at:
Hello Jack and Gail. ... Oh, one last one. What do you think of writing stories set in places you have never been?
I have set stories in places I've never been, early in my career, but of course found that the novels that were set in a location I knew intimately -- the Shuswap-Thompson -- for example, had much more emotional power for me as a writer, and ultimately for the reader as well. But I see no reason why a writer can't write of a location she has never been to. I push my students at UBC to interview for their fiction, and a great deal of those authentic details that Jack talks of here can come of that. For example, I didn't experience the fireball event I wrote of in Turtle Valley, although I was in Salmon Arm evacuating my parents at the time. But I interviewed people who had actually gone through the event, lived in that terrible environment as fire rained down from the sky, and terrific details came of that that I never would have guessed at. There was one person who fought to save his house by putting a sprinkler up on his roof where he swatted at what he thought were mosqitos biting him. It wasn't until later that he realized what was hitting him were burning pine needles that left welts the size of quarters. Details like that make the writing real. I would never have gotten that from the newspaper reports of the time. But I did from interview.
How about you June? Have you written about places you have never been to?
You can see I’m a fan of landscape by the fact that of all the interesting things you two discussed above, I zeroed in on that. Jack it’s been a couple of years since you’ve seen my manuscript, and I’m still at it. Gail, many thanks for the link to the SPiN site. Anyone who checks it out will see what I mean when I say it sometimes feels like I will never be done. But I wasn’t expecting any questions back – so here goes.
I guess in my own work I see landscape as character-defining. I think that in a place like BC landscape is also divisive. For years ours was a resource-based economy and we were here as either worker or boss in that landscape. That polarization, I find, has much story potential. I have lived most of my life in the west. But when I wrote about events in the west that eventually led to the civil war in Spain, yes, I felt I had to pack my bags and go there. Still, I was just a visitor and didn’t feel I could have set the entire story in Spain as my knowledge of the country is fleeting. But that (I hope) fits with my character’s perspective of the place, as he was there temporarily as well. That seems similar to what you were saying, Jack.
Even so, the idea of writing about a place I’ve never been to is so tantalizing . . . I wonder how far the imagination could take a writer? I also wonder if there are times when travel gets in the way of the muse? For now, I don’t travel all that much so will leave it for both of you and for others to comment on.
There's a phenomenon akin to this where many writers find it hard to write about "home" when they are living there. They must go away, to allow the imagination some room to invent. This was true for me, that I first wrote about the Shuswap-Thompson after moving away from that home landscape. For the last three years of Turtle Valley, I was living in the landscape I wrote of. However I was writing of an "imagined" Turtle Valley, rather than the real one. The landscape was less the real landscape than the one of my parents' stories, the one I imagined as I listened to their often tall tales...
Landscape, like character, must be an exaggeration in fiction, I think, larger than life, even in "realistic" fiction. I'll be interested to hear what Jack has to say on that one...
Hello Jack and Gail. I would be interested in what both of you think about landscape as a “character” in your novels (as opposed to mere backdrop).
Hello again June. I came back to this one! Yeah, I do approach landscape as a character in my novels and when I teach I counsel apprentice writers to approach landscape as they do their characters, to allow the landscape to reveal itself over time as much to the author as to the reader. My landscapes develop over the process of writing a novel, just like my characters do. You'll see many guidebooks suggest that a writer decide who their character is before sitting down to write; I don't recommend that, not for the kind of writing I do, in any case. Rather, I do enough enough research to get some general sense of where I'm heading, but then allow the character to reveal herself through what she says and does, again as much to me, the author, as to the reader. In practical terms, that means I get to know my own characters as I write scenes and I'm almost without fail surprised at what they say and do, as I'm writing those scenes. It's an act of discovery.
In the same way, I do research into the landscape or setting, but then allow it to tell me what it's going to "say" and "do." And, again, I'm often surprised at what comes out of that. I didn't imagine, for example, that flowers would rain down from they sky in The Cure for Death by Lightning until I sat one day and wrote that. The landscape told me what it was going to do.
So it's a mix of getting out there into the "real" landscape, investigating what's there (and you can check out the Pretend to Be a Blind Cat exercise posted on the CBC site for more on that at http://www.cbc.ca/wordsatlarge/features/feature.php?storyId=509) then allowing the subconcious to work on it a while. Then sitting to write, and seeing what comes up! Again, I'm always surprised at how the landscape "acts," what it says and does.
What's your approach June?
Good morning Jack! Before I move on to a few other questions about the writing process and teaching, I wanted to talk a wee bit more about the role of landscape in your writing. Just this past Wednesday I had an interviewer ask me if I was writing in the grand tradition of the Canadian writers of the past when I wrote about rural landscapes. I said I didn’t think of it in those terms, that I wrote of rural landscapes because I lived in them, for the most part, and that my own landscape was changing rapidly, as development encroaches on the wilds and farmlands. Would that development change the landscapes in my novels, she asked? You betcha. That conflict between development and landscape is, in fact, plot material (and metaphor) for the upcoming novel (that I'm now writing). I wonder if your relationship to the Vancouver Island landscape within your writing is changing as the island is becoming so very developed? How will that alter your fiction, do you think?
Hi Gail. While you wait for Jack's response I thought I'd pop in to answer your question to me about my approach to landscape.
I have a thing about dirt, the feel of it, the look, the smell, which surprises me as I have lived on the coast (in Vancouver) most of my life. But ocean settings seldom make it into my writing. Maybe that’s because our house was on the east side, far from salt water, and we had a double lot, rare in the city, one half neatly manicured with rose garden and lawn, the other half completely wild. You can guess which half I preferred. And I learned to swim in the Fraser River. (I know. It’s a wonder I don’t glow at night.) But I also spent childhood summers in Tulameen near Princeton, and I think those rustic experiences — building the wooden outhouse, sinking a pipe for the waterpump, chopping wood — became a conduit to earlier times and allowed me to imagine stories set in an earlier era. So in that sense landscape from my own past helped create an imagined past landscape. So far, my creative world seems to inhabit that earlier time. When I sit down to write I might have one of these scenes in mind, but as I write more and more of those images come to me, half-real, half-imagined. And of course, scent can trigger a rush of memories. I get the feeling scent was a source of inspiration for some of your cooking and farming scenes, Gail, and your logging, stump-busting scenes, Jack.
I find it quite irritating when literary critics and even other writers so often refer to "rural" fiction as a thing of the past! "We're all urban now! Why do our writers still write about the country?" Maybe because most of them grew up in rural areas or small towns, or maybe because they realize that most of this country IS country and that the landscape is so powerfully present everywhere that it is a natural part of most stories set in Canada. But there are those who seem to think that because they can't see anything but steel towers outside their windows the whole rest of the country must be the same. Oh well.
But of course the rural landscape is changing even as we write! From the point of view of southern Vancouver Island it appears as though the developers are trying to make sure (and expect) that everyone in the world will eventually want to live here. Bear Mountain just outside Victoria is an example -- acres and acres of forested mountain now being turned into TWO 36 hole golf courses, plus hundreds of highend homes, plus four condo towers about to be built -- one of them 45 storeys high, to become the highest building in the province, visible from Vancouver. Hiking areas obliterated. Native burial sites ignored. Money money money. And the same sort of thing is happening up the island....
As a fiction writer I haven't been able to escape this. This has become the new landscape --- something that came home to me in the novel I'm now working on. My main character(s) live, at the beginning, on a small isolated island off the coast of Vancouver Island, and it was a joy to write about life there, and the people there. THinking of "plot" was almost irrelevant, since it felt as though I only had to follow the people as they interacted with their chosen landscape. But the story I wanted to tell required that my protagonist leave this island behind and plunge into a more mainstream world. A small city at first, and then south to a very large foreign city. (I hadn't planned THIS but it was clearly a descent into, well, THERE.) It was very difficult for me at first, because I discovered I was writing scenes of dialogue and action and not really caring much about the settings. Of course I made sure the reade would be able to observe the surroundings, but... even though I live in Victoria (albeit in a quiet thickly wooden area where the deer are a constant bother to the garden) I found it difficult to respond to the story's surroundings with as much enthusiasm as I had for the little rural island. Of course, at some point I realized that I needed to respond to the new landscape as HE would and did, not as I might myself. And so, individual homes, condos, office towers, traffic, building sites, billboards, noise, every second vehicle painted with advertising ... became a part of the novel's world. These buildings, this traffic, these "Assisted Living" homes took on as much life and as much influence as the beaches and woods and falling down buildings on that island. So, I have my preferred landscapes out of early life, but I recognize that all landscapes have power and life, and can contribute to a fictional person's story.
I get the feeling scent was a source of inspiration for some of your cooking and farming scenes, Gail, and your logging, stump-busting scenes, Jack.
Oh, scent is huge for me, for sure! When I returned home to the Shuswap, the smell of the lake, and the cottonwood and poplar around, sent me reeling into my own past and into that imagined landscape you talked about. Interestingly, I haven't written much about the Shuswap Lake itself, where I spent so much of my time growing up. I'm writing of rivers now, which were also a huge part of my past and this region. That huge salmon run in the Adams, for example. But I think the lake is coming...Before I made the decision to move back home I dreamed of the Shuswap Lake over and over again, as if it were calling me home. Very strange and wonderful.
I'm with you on this one, Jack. Most of our population, and media, lives in urban settings, and I think its hard for many living the city life to understand that most of our country is still wild and/or rural and what that means for those who chose to live outside a city. I am also irritated by the assumption that those living in rural areas or small towns are less sophisticated or backward or less worldly in some fashion. A kid raised on a farm is self sufficient in a way a kid living in a city will never be, and I regret I'm not able to bring my kids up in that farm lifestyle for that reason. And when it comes to setting fiction in a rural/wild setting, I've said it before and I'll say it again: step off the pavement and you'll find the unexpected, the magic, the conflict that you won't find in the urban. We meet our subconcious head on when we step into the bush.
I was amazed, and envious, to hear that you were juggling – what was it – five novel projects (!). But you were also complaining that you were having a little trouble getting that one novel finished because of it, that just as you were getting near the end, a different project seemed so much more enticing. I sure know this one. I had just finished edits on the upcoming novel, Turtle Valley, and the next big one was calling me, so what did I do? I started working on children’s and YA fiction, renovations, closet cleaning and yard work. Part of this was a literal and psychological house-cleaning in preparation for the next big project, but part of it was simply avoiding what I needed to do. It’s a strange push-pull isn’t it? I’m drawn to the next project, but will do nearly anything to avoid it, at first. What's with that?
Our grandchildren will probably see the day when urbanites are scrambling to find new country to raise their children in. These Canadian critics and writers don't seem to notice the abundance of wonderful "rural" and small town fiction coming out of other countries and cultures. I should have bought a thousand acres of the Island's north ....
I'm reading a wonderful Norwegian novel ("Out Shooting Horses" by Per Petterson) that is about as "rural" as you can get. I bought it as much for the title (I'm jealous) as for the great review written by Thomas McGuane. Set in Norway's far north, its every sentence seems to be infused with the smells and textures and sights and necessities of the lonely remote woods, where the past returns in person to confront the present. For all the overwhelming landscape, it is still very much a human story! On the other hand, the last-read, Annie Dillard's "The Maytrees," is set amongst the crowded population of Provincetown at the tip of Cape Cod, but she is so aware of the landscape that includes much more than just the buildings that I came out of it convinced Iknew every sand dune, the smell of the sea, and all the elements that predated the buildings in a way that reminded me of how the towns and cities and tourist traps are additions to the landscape rather than replacements. (Except, perhaps, on Bear Mountain!) And before reading Dillard, I read two marvellous novels by the Israeli A. B. Jehoshua, an urban writer who has no trouble moving smoothly from the condos of Haifa to the sandy Palestine villages in the Galilee and even -- in "A Woman in Jerusalem" -- to the remotest frozen village of what I assume is a primitive far-eastern area of Russia. The skilled writers that I admire tend to be sensitive to ALL forms of landscape, including the university classroom and the luxury condos, apparently aware that these landscapes are not only the background and "stage" for their character's stories but active contributors to their lives as well, sometimes with a powerful influence upon the direction of a plot. I can never tell whether the writers have lived in those places, or even BEEN there, but I feel that I have been there just because of their skill in evoking the world of the story.
I’d like to talk to you a little about teaching as you have been a mentor for me not just as a writer, but as a teacher as well. And in fact I use your writing guide, A Passion for Narrative, in the courses I teach in the UBC MFA optional-residency program.
This past week I received a wonderful thank you note through this website from a former student from Booming Ground. It really made my day. I’ll quote (with the writer’s permission) a little from that note, because I think this writer’s description of what she went through sums up what so often happens as we struggle to learn craft, and as we struggle with our writing projects:
“I was frustrated when you put it right in front of me, showed me how to do it and I still didn't get it. I tried and tried again but it wouldn't work for me. I finally quit writing for a year. I kept looking back at your notes in exasperation. My husband thought it was good for me. He said I needed to be stretched... It was a trying time, but in retrospect, even though I wasn't writing, it was when I grew the most. When I finally understood, and put pen to paper again, it was like a dam burst. It seems so simple…”
I remember this happening when I took your classes, Jack, and as I was working on those initial projects. I worked and worked, often feeling like I was beating my head against the wall. I would give up for periods of time, and shelve the project. But then something drew me back, and when I did go back, I “got it”, and, as this writer says, it was like a dam burst.
Most often the students I teach in the MFA program feel exhausted and completely overloaded by the middle of the second term. The writing that happens at this point isn’t their best. However, a few months, perhaps a year down the road, after all that learning has a chance to process, there’s a breakthrough, and the wonderful writing floods out. I’ve seen it happen over and over again. So when my students get to that exasperation point, where they really want to give up, I tell them that’s a good sign. On the other side of that “wall” is the really good writing. If they stick with it, perhaps take a break and then come back to it, the writing will be there. But it doesn’t seem like it at the time; that “wall” is often a time of tears and discouragement.
I wonder if this has been your experience?
For all the overwhelming landscape, it is still very much a human story! On the other hand, the last-read, Annie Dillard's "The Maytrees," is set amongst the crowded population of Provincetown at the tip of Cape Cod, but she is so aware of the landscape that includes much more than just the buildings that I came out of it convinced Iknew every sand dune, the smell of the sea, and all the elements that predated the buildings in a way that reminded me of how the towns and cities and tourist traps are additions to the landscape rather than replacements. (Except, perhaps, on Bear Mountain!)
You've just mentioned one of my all time favorite authors, Annie Dillard, and for just the reasons you've described here. Her attention to the landscape is overwhelmingly beautiful, but more, she finds humanity there in our environment surround. When she's at her best, she uses the landscape as a way to talk about the most fundamental, and transcendent, elements of ourselves.
I recall very well your early struggles with "A Cure for Death by Lightning" and the back-and-forthing that went on. I think both student writer and teacher writer need to acknowledge that the "breakthrough" isn't necessarily going to be a matter of "simply" responding to criticism or suggestions, but (in addition) the persistent struggle to "find" the story (as if it already exists somewhere waiting to be born). With some of the most talented student writers it seemed that the revisions-critique-revisions-critique-etc might eventually lead to a fine story, but seldom by itself to a superb story. Whenever I saw an obviously talented writer had taken a story to this stage, I often suggested that the time had come to stop the suggestions-revisions process and, rather, to put the story aside and write if from "scratch." (Advice easier for the short story writer than the novelist, I realize.) The reason this is sometimes the one real hope for the almost-brilliant story is a new draft from scratch is the wonderful combination of -- the imagination has the joy and freedom of acting as though it were a first draft, totally open to inspiration from wherever inspiration comes, while being relaxed in the knowledge that the previous draft cannot be harmed and will still be waiting if you need it later. If I can use professor language here for just a moment, those were the stories that went from A to A+. The excitement and exilaration of a first draft combined with the knowledge and comfort in knowing a pretty good draft already exists and cannot be lost. So much of successful writing depends, I think, on that combination of excitement about what may be just around the corner and some confidence in what has already been done. The earlier version is still there to go back to.
I think I am far too long-winded for internet interviews. I can't imagine it's easy to read so much prose on the screen, compared to the page. But then I have always been in love with paper and books and printed words that actually make indentations in the paper. Surely I could have accomplished all of the above with just "Rewriting and rewriting with the help of outsider input can make your work better -- in increments perhaps -- but sooner or later you have to turn your own imagination loose on it again and afresh in order to discover where it has been meant to go all along." Easy to suggest, not so easy to do!
Hey, I like the long-winded replies! For one thing, it gives me great material for my blog!
You are now in “retirement,” though from our discussions you seem busier than before! Has retirement from teaching at the University of Victoria changed how you write, or the writing itself? As I recall, for example, when you were teaching you didn’t attempt to write during the school year much, but got that writing time in during the summer. Do you miss aspects of the teaching? I know you continue to teach workshops and to mentor on occasion…
I remember thinking that retirement would mean endless time for writing! I suppose it could if I moved to an otherwise uninhabited island! Being retired isn't the problem -- the problem is all those other retired people who think it's now time for play! So where for years I had to find a balance between teaching and writing, I now have to find a balance between writing and Not Writing! So long as I had the teaching, with an institution imposing a schedule on me, I could consider the not-teaching time as full-time-writing time. But it took me about four years to adjust to being responsible for my own schedule. Naturally I don't want to miss out on "life" -- family, travel, shopping, etc etc -- but "life" doesn't stop out there while I sit at my desk writing as it seemed to do when I was taking advantage of the precious time of not-teaching. But I now have a schedule that makes sense and seems to work. I don't miss out on much yet have certain hours where I'm invisible and mostly inaccessible.
In the first excitement of all that "free" time I actually started five projects -- three novels and two nonfiction. I'd write on one till I came to a tough spot and then shift to another. At one point I had three novels creeping up through chapters 3 and 4 etc and two nonfiction books outlined in some detail, and realized that this was not the best way to finish anything! Not for me, anyway. I was using the different projects as escapes from having to deal with the challenges each was presenting. So I chose one and concentrated on it, promising myself not to go to the others. It will be interesting to see what I think of my temporarily abandoned ones when I am free to return to one of them! Of course I'm assuming that in my "absence" they will have continued to grow on their own or to have self-destructed in the face of such neglect and the passage of time.
Jack, I’ll just ask one more question, as you've been so generous with your time and I'd like to give others a chance to ask questions of you over this week:
So what’s next, do you think? You’ve got several books on the go, so I imagine you have no plans to stop this writing business.
I do have some days when I would like to start up some other career. Something physical, perhaps, that takes less mental energy. Or I think I might like to play around in the visual arts as I did when I was young(er). But the writing always pulls me home. I wonder if you have had similar thoughts of giving up on this whole writing thang and trying your hand at something else? If so, when do those times come? Is it during times of discouragement or fatigue? That’s the case for me, for the most part. If I feel this way then I know I need a break…
I suppose for me teaching is the "other thing I do" which is probably why, even in retirement, I accept occasional invitations to teach a workshop. For four Septembers I taught a fiction workshop on the island of Mallorca in Spain. I've committed to a workshop at Hollyhock on Cortez Island.
When I think of all the other things I've wanted to BE, it seems to me that writing fiction allows me to be most of them indirectly. I wanted to make movies -- write, direct, whatever. But that's no more practical now than it was when I was growing up in Merville! I wanted to be a diplomat (for a while) -- but being a writer has resulted in wonderful opportunities to visit all over the world, absorbing all those landscapes and meeting all those people. (I'm about ready for #6 trip to Australia, I think. And #2 to Ireland. etc etc) I wanted to be an architect -- and structuring a novel is not so very different from designing a house (and after designing and building our first house I knew it was a good thing I hadn't trained as an architect, since the one project had cured me of that desire!) If I'd had the talent I would like to have been an actor. And, good grief, I think it would be great fun to be an opera singer -- for a while. So, I think that the plunging into a new work of fiction is a way for me to live all those lives I was too shy to take on, not appropriately talented for, or too poor even to consider. ALL of those careers were completely impractical dreams during my childhood.
And there are compensations. Although I never became a movie maker, one of my best friends (who originally wanted to be a novelist) has become a successful writer and executive producer of his own TV series in Hollywood -- which means I've been down a few times to watch the whole process, to meet the actors, to talk story talk with his assistant writers (one of whom was Jesus in the original NY stage version of Godspell!) , etc etc. In addition, he has named one of his characters after me -- which may be flattering but it is also a mixed blessing because, since the actor is very popular, it means his fictional name sometimes comes up ahead of mine when someone types my name into Google or one of the other search engines. The other week I was at Home Depot buying some deer fencing (!) and the clerk, after running my Visa card through her machine said, "Do you ever watch Bones?" I said, "Yes." She said, "Then you know there's a character on that show with the same name as yours." After I'd explained the situation, she almost fainted when I told her I'd met the actor and he was a great guy, etc etc etc. I was in my car driving away before I realized that it hadn't even occurred to me that I had a "public life" as well. (When I "complained" to my friend that his character was elbowing me aside on the internet, he e-mailed back "Well, look what you're competing with!" and had attached a photo of the actor -- stripped to below the waist, looking muscular and sexy and YOUNG.
So you see, I don't NEED to have another career! (THough sometimes I think I would be happy as a small-farmer on the edge of a quiet village somewhere. But I probably wouldn't be very good at it, and I'd almost certainly lose interest quite soon and start writing again.
It's funny you should talk of your name because this morning my five year old asked me what I was up to and I said, "Chatting to a writer named Jack Hodgins." He said (honest to god! He's a funny little monkey), "That's a beautiful writers' name!" and made me promise that I'd tell you that.
As always, thanks for your insights Jack, and thanks so much for your time!
I'll again remind readers of the forum that Jack will take your questions this week (up to August 11, 2007), though I understand he will be away Friday/Saturday. I may throw in my two-bits from time to time as well. See you on the forum!
HI Jack and Gail,
sorry I'm a little late in on this. Didn't realize you were having this time with Jack until yesterday. Gail thanks for organizing this. I have an observation and few questions for Jack although I realize that Gail has said he may be unavailable Friday and Saturday.
I was very interested in Jack's comments on his feelings towards the Australian landscape and how he felt it was a home he didn't know he had and it seems that you have successfully been able to write about that place. Like Jack I grew up in the Comox Valley and now I live in Australia. I have not been motivated by the landscape here, in fact I find myself writing about the landscapes of my youth. However, I spent many years in the Himalayas and feel that is my second home, and yes, I have written quite a bit about it. I respect what Jack is saying that writers should strive to be able to write about any landscape (or people, or situation) but do you feel that there are places that you NEED to write about?
I was also thinking about how much of this discussion has been absorbed in talking about landscape and writing. Yes, one of my favorite subjects, but Jack your writing deals as much with family and work as with landscape. I was wondeirng if you could say a few words about the relatiionship between these subjects in your stories?
Thanks again Gail for putting this together and I am VERY much looking forward to Jack's upcoming books.
Cheers - Jono Lineen
Hey Jono! I know Jack may not be able to get to this until Monday, so in the meantime, I wanted to say hello! Your point about Jack's writing dealing as much with family and work as with landscape is an excellent one. I think as writers, Canadian writers at least, we too often forget the huge role work in paricular plays in our lives and we sometimes neglect it in our writing. But the work of Jack's characters is an inherent part of the landscapes he writes about.
Another writer who comes to mind who writes beautifully about work is Timothy Taylor.
great point and I would take that a step farther - work in many ways is what connects us to landscape. I think of Jack's characters logging on Vancouver Island or your Shuswap farm characters and there is a feeling that work is the nexus between character and landscape, and therefore how can a character who spends so much of her life in landscape not become intimately connected with it. Without work I feel that landscape is more observed than experienced. When a character is forced to spend eight, ten, fourteen hours a day in a landscape how can the feeling of that environment not infuse the character and ultimatley the style of the writer?
The flip side of this is now that so many of the country's population is urban and consequently so many of our writers are urban, will this feeling for landscape wither, and how can the subtle attractions of characters in landscape compare with the in-your-face rawness of 'city' writing (never mind Canadian Idol and Survivor!)
Cheers - Jono
Hey Jono! Speaking of landscapes, I'm just heading out this morning to fly across the country to Newfoundland (my book launch!), a very different landscape from my home indeed. I'll try to find an internet hotspot along the way and throw my ideas in here! May take me a day or two! See you then!
Morning, Jono (though for you, it's already tomorrow afternoon) --
I remember reading somewhere that William Faulkner was one of the few "modern" fiction writers whose characters actually WORK. Not only do they work, but the fabric of his tales include the details of the specific work, whether is a farmer's work, or a landlady's, or a travelling salesman's, or a store clerk's. I think this is significant because one of the ways we learn about characters beyond what they say and how they behave towards others is by watching how they work, how they relate to the world they work in (including attempts to avoid work). I agree with you that "work" is often the link between character and landscape, at least for those whose work brings them into contact with the earth -- all the way from fishermen to loggers to farmers to telephone line workers. The office worker who spends entire days on the computer is relating to a more abstract version of the landscape, which exists more in thought than observation, but this is still a connection with the world outside the room. I suppose this is more immediately relevant for the writer interested in rural or small town locations, but surely the writer who lives in a big city and writes about people in a big city can reveal much about a character through his or her relationship with the pavement, the traffic, the artificial light, etc. I guess I want the big city writer to make me feel I'm THERE in that particular city alongside the characters -- just as I expect to learn something about the characters from their relationship to their jobs. Some jobs seems easier to write about than others -- or are more inherently interesting perhaps. I found it much easier to write about Comox Valley pioneers clearing the land (I've watched it, I've lived amongst it, but I've never actually done it myself) than to write about a teacher at work in the classroom (which I have spent much of my life doing). I still haven't figured out why. It may be that I know too much of the teacher's work from the inside in order to capture the right thing for believability (and interest) or it may be that a teacher's work is inherently more difficult to make interesting because everyone reading the story will have had experience as a student -- bringing certain prejudices to the reading. Also, it is very difficult to make working with a classroom's chalk boards and desks as interesting as, say, the great stump a farmer has to blow up without blowing himself up as well. Of course, students are part of the teacher's landscape and they are infinitely interesting as people -- but moreso if they are rioting or even refusing to do their work. Well, I exaggerate. The teacher's interior life is as potentially interesting as the explosive expert's interior life if enough is at stake.
Perhaps that's the key to the whole works. Is enough at stake? Can the job we are watching go wrong and cause trouble, or can it lead to good fortune? Does the forest offer a threat to progress or an opportunity for escape? Like much else, so much depends upon what you do with it -- and how. For me, it seems a bonus if I sense some subtle whiff of metaphor in either the work a character is doing or the landscape in which the work is being done.
A note on my reaction to the Australian landscape: I think my responses have been largely because of the difference from my own familiar place. My first visit to Australia followed upon a visit to New Zealand. While there was much about New Zealand I liked and admired and enjoyed, the physical landscape was too much like Vancouver Island to "thrill" me in any way (compared to the differences I found in the people, the cultures, etc). To encounter the colours, expanses, textures, and even the temperatures of Australia -- both the coastal rainforests near Brisbane and the dry outback near Alice Springs -- was such a contrast as to make me feel like an excited explorer (with an edge of sensing danger: "You wouldn't last three days in this, mate, if you don't know what yer doin'.") (Of course I'd read a tonne of Australian fiction before crossing the Pacific, and loved so much of it that I felt I was entering not only an exotic foreign dangerous "make-believe" landscape but a fictional world as well.)
You mention family in fiction, and it is true that I often write about families. I suppose this is just my version of community, with all the same potential for love and laughter and hatred and intrigue and revenge etc etc as in a big city inhabited by singles dealing with strangers and fellow workers. For me, the family has the added interest caused by more complex emotional responses towards one another, based on history -- their own and their ancestors'.
I think I shouldn't engage in these "conversations." I find almost everything far too complex for easy simple answers. Worse, I go on and on because I realize that it's impossible to say all that should be said about something. This is quite the opposite to my classroom/workshop behaviour, where I'm more likely to spend more time asking questions than pontificating!
I for one am glad for your pontifications!
Your quote here really highlights for me the intrinsic place of landscape in literature. "Is enough at stake?" ... "Does the forest offer a threat for progress or an oppurtunity for escape?" The same could be said for the city or for another human character in the story. You've cleared up for me the role of environment/landscape in my writing. Thanks for that Jack.
Thanks for your interest, Jono. I hope I'll get to read some of your work one day soon -- whether it's set in the Comox Valley, the Himalayas, Australia, or some place you've invented yourself. In fact, I suppose when we write fiction we are inventing the setting even when it has been inspired by a real place on earth. If we don't, the reader won't believe in it. Since you're Down Under at the moment, check out the wonderful writer David Malouf's novels and stories -- especially (since we're talking about landscape) his Remembering Babylon (novel), Conversations at Curlew Creek (novel), and Every Move You Make (stories). A great writer and a great man.
This interview was originally posted on the web site of Gail Anderson Dargatz: www.gailanderson-dargatz.ca/index2.htm and go to "Forums".