Thursday, July 29, 2010

Diana Fitzgerald Bryden

No Place Strange
by Diana Fitzgerald Bryden
Key Porter, 2009

I read this book last year and have been recommending it ever since.

It is the story of the birth of a child and the motives and complications, intentional and unintentional, that brought the parents together, pulled them apart, and possibly bring them together again.

That is the simple, high-level reading of the book.

The phrase "motives and complications" only begins to suggest the complex baggage each parent brings to the relationship. The mother, Lydia, is Canadian, Jewish; the father, Farid, is Lebanese, Muslim. They meet in 1986 in Greece, which functions as a kind of magical middle ground. When they meet, they are each moving "away," but also forward. Toward the new. The other. Each other.

Their courtship begins tentatively, but then it becomes intense. Ultimately, they are separated by a misunderstanding, an error, but not before conceiving a child.

A deeper level of backstory also animates this book. Lydia's father was a journalist who covered the Middle East and travelled deep into dangerous territory to interview members of Palestinian militant groups in the early 1970s. In 1972 he was mysteriously killed, possibly for having a romantic connection with a glamorous revolutionary. The revolutionary, who lived, is friends with Farid's family in Beruit, who are professionals opposed to militarism and the civil war tearing Lebanon apart in the 1980s.

The narrative is, therefore, infused with environmental influences that have only become more amplified in the 21st century: clash of cultures, war and peace, revolution and terrorism. The author handles these influences well, contextualizing the historical, managing and articulating a range of perspectives, while grounding her characters in the specific details of their lives. This isn't a story about politics, in other words; this is a story about people whose lives have been thrown about by politics.

See also reviews in:
The reviews, to my mind, seem stymied by the novel's mixture of love story and politically sensitive historical context. Though the author is praised for her handling of this "incendiary" material, she is not lauded enough methinks.

Initially, I thought I might do a compare/contrast between this novel and Cockroach by Rawi Hage, which also includes a character who experienced the chaos of Lebanon in the 1980s. Hage's narrator now calls Montreal home and lives a noir existence that seems half William S. Burroughs and half Albert Camus. He is also a man with strongly traditional masculine traits.

No Place Strange, on the other hand, is a woman's book. It is a book, at base, about a baby. A magic child. One who embodies hope that the world can move beyond chaos, conflict, misunderstanding and move into a more nurturing, caring, yes, mothering environment.

Wouldn't it be pretty to think so.

No Place Strange was nominated for the Amazon First Novel Award (which was won by Jessica Grant).

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Marion Woodman, Elinor Dickson, Robert Bly

This review first appeared in Id Magazine (Fall 1995).

Robert Bly
The Sibling Society
Addison-Wesley

Marion Woodman and Elinor Dickson
Dancing in the Flames: The Dark Goddess in the Transformation of Consciousness
Knopf

New books by Robert Bly and Marion Woodman provide an interesting compare-and-contrast study. Woodman, the Canadian Jungian analyst, feminist, and author from London, Ontario, and Bly have shared the stage of various workshops for the personal development set. Woodman discusses the feminine, and Bly promotes the masculine. Now readers who peruse the latest offerings from two of the 1990s more creative thinkers can attempt to recreate the atmosphere of those workshops for themselves.

Bly, an American poet who first gained prominence for his principled stand against the Vietnam War, is probably best known for influencing men to retreat to the woods with a set of bongos and body paint. Bly's 1992 book, Iron John, became a surprising bestseller and brought the so-called Men's Movement into the media glare.

Iron John, of course, was also attacked for minimizing feminism's significant gains and achievements. In particular, many found Bly's suggestion that men return to a pre-patriarchal form of masculinity ridiculous in the extreme. Bly's new book, The Sibling Society, picks up where Iron John left off. However, this time Bly has been more careful to clarify his position.

"The anger against patriarchal structures," Bly writes, "is a just anger; its structure has damaged both women and men. The women's movement has in general been a vigorous and essential wave of energy, which has brought about deep changes, long overdue, in the relations between men and women. Patriarchal certainty is no longer so firmly implanted in the brain of every man, and patriarchal structures have dissolved in many fields, allowing women to move forward and take a place in the world."

Bly, however, is on guard against feminism's excesses, and it is here that the critics stumble. See for example the recent brutally inaccurate review of The Sibling Society in The Globe and Mail, which all but called Bly a Neanderthal. Bly's critics take him to be saying that we ought to return to the past, where fathers ruled the home and all was right in the land. Bly is not so simple. He strikes, instead, a cautionary note: he celebrates the progressive elements of feminism, while at the same reminding us to respect and honour men and women, their distinctiveness, and the complexity of their differences.

On this point, Woodman agrees. "Even now," Woodman writes (with co-author Elinor Dickson), "in the patriarchal excesses of militant feminism, we see yet another swing of the pendulum, the failure to find balance." Woodman's book is called Dancing in the Flames: The Dark Goddess in the Transformation of Consciousness, and it is primarily concerned with how Goddess imagery can help save Western culture from its more outrageous bloodbaths. However, Woodman delivers a cautionary note to feminists who find little to like in men, comparing "militant feminism" with the dreaded "patriarchy" it claims to oppose.

Bly and Woodman each retreat from the male and female cultural powermongers and attempt to cultivate the creative middle ground. Woodman, for example, promotes "a new masculine consciousness that can pull the feminine out of the inertia of the mother, bringing a new assertiveness, a new perspective on life." This may sound like a bunch of gobbeldegook, and more than once I got lost in Woodman's book, feeling cast adrift in some netherland of her creation. But it also strikes me as a generous contribution to the stalemate which too often passes for the relationship between the sexes.

"Men have not escaped patriarchy's bludgeonings," Woodman writes at the beginning of a chapter on how a dream relationship to the Goddess can lead men into deeper relationship with themselves, others, and life itself. What is strange is that this needs to be said, and that it has the potential to be so explosive. Bly speculates in The Sibling Society that the reason that Iron John was so consistently misunderstood is because he wrote it for a literary audience, and many of his critics were sociologists.

Maybe that's true. Maybe there is a significant gap between those who can appreciate the wisdom of mythopoetics (the power of myth, metaphor, poetry) and those who prefer their knowledge of the world broken down into statistics, charts, graphs, historical patterns. But if this gap is so wide that we can no longer hear each other, then I think that it's time that we learned to bridge the crevice. There is a ringing need for new answers and new approaches, and Bly and Woodman offer some of the most original.

Bly's point is that patriarchy needed to be broken down, but that the culture that is slowly replacing patriarchy also has its destructive elements. Bly notes, for example, the rise in single-parent homes. Men are neglecting the role of fatherhood. Patriarchy overvalued the role of father, but now we have accommodated the absent father. Western culture has swung from one end of the pendulum to the other. It has created, Bly contends, a society where we parent each other: a sibling society, which has done away with the father figure and is now busy attacking motherhood (see, for example, the significant role attacks on welfare mothers played in electing the Harris government).

Bly makes his point by quoting sociological statistics; however, in the more interesting part of his book, he illustrates his thesis with examples from folklore.

When he talks about fatherless sons, for example, he provides some of the most interesting criticism you're ever likely to read about "Jack and the beanstalk."

For those familiar with Jungian psychology, Woodman's book will prove to be equally rewarding. For beginners, however, many of the passages may prove tough going. Also, I was particularly uncomfortable with her broad generalizations linking Jungian archetypes with quantum physics and chaos theory. It makes for interesting reading and dinner conversation. But is it true?

Monday, July 26, 2010

Eye wuz here

This is a review of an anthology published in 1996 of women writers under 30. Perhaps by now they are all under 44?

*

This review first appeared in Paragraph (Summer 1996).

Eye wuz here: Stories by women writers under 30
Edited by Shannon Cooley
Douglas & McIntyre, 1996

Forty, fifty, sixty years from now, graduate students will read this book and discuss the 1990s feminist consensus the same way that we now read W.H. Auden and the rest of the Angry Young Men and wonder what it was exactly about socialism that so intriged them.

In the meantime, however, readers will be pleased to spend time with the 28 sharp-witted writers brought together in this collection. Eye Wuz Here presents 28 Canadian female writers under the age of 30, all of them working in the short story form. The writing is intelligent, daring, insightful, dangerous, provocative, searing, sad, funny, delightful.

The collection is the project of Shannon Cooley, who began gathering stories for this publication as she was working on a creative writing degree at the University of Victoria. The Canada Council assisted its publication, and now we know what young women have on their minds: mostly sex.

It would be easy, of course, to complain that the view of the world that emerges from these stories has rather sharp borders. The men, for example, tend to be shallow. They are lovers, losers, boyfriends, abusers, husbands, brothers, uncles, accessories all to the drama of the female narrators. This criticism, I recognize, is cheap, and I wouldn't make it, except that it leads me to where I want to go.

Which is here: In her introduction, Cooley claims a peculiar "goal for all art and literature." Cooley writes: "Through sharing point of view comes empathy, and through empathy, the lessening of loneliness and isolation," which plays an important role "in the process of working towards positive change." A fine sentiment, surely, but as misguided as all attempts to link art and politics.

I would argue, for example, that Cooley's collection feeds a middle-class feminist myopia and assists in the splintering of society, not its healing. Class issues, for example, are dealt with very poorly in this collection, if at all. And it's hard to believe that a generation of writers which grew up during a period which saw two referendums in Quebec, plus the Meech Lake and Charlottetown debacles, has nothing whatsoever to say about the fate of the nation. To say nothing of the fact that this collection heavily favours West Coast writers over East Coast writers, and includes not one Quebecois or First Nations voice.

But these are political issues, not aesthetic ones, and I have already said that this collection contains some fine writing. I expect publishers to pursue each of the 28 writers in the collection. If they do, Canadians will be offered a rich array of literary work in the years ahead. If I was to offer any advice to the group of 28, I would ask them to move beyond the Jack Kerouac school of journalism as fiction and to let their talents take them into deeper waters.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Jessica Grant

What a delightful book this is, Jessica Grant's Come, Thou Tortoise (Vintage Canada, 2009).

Having just finished, I looked about at what others have said:
  • "a mad cap adventure that never fails to feel real" (Globe and Mail review)
  • "one of those rare books that manage to entwine humour – in this case, even outright silliness – with poignant insight and a captivating plot" (Quill and Quire review)
  • "Author Jessica Grant, bless her big heart, lives by this rule: throw plausibility out the window. In her novel, amputees attend a school where they custom-design their own prosthetics; fruit flies get addicted to toothpaste; cabbies learn safety by driving on an ice rink; and a centenarian tortoise whose skin feels like an old elbow recounts the story of Audrey’s love for a mountain climber named Cliff" (Neil Smith in The National Post)
  • "As the story progresses, mysteries deepen, and it's a race to the end to see what is what. And what is what, as you might imagine, is not what is expected, nor perfectly clear, but it's nearly perfect. As is Audrey Flowers herself, and this altogether marvelous and clever book" (Pickle Me This review)
  • Jessica Grant wins Amazon.ca First Novel Award (National Post)
See also:
Lynn Coady once wrote that Mordecai Richler was the only writer in Canada who was allowed to be funny. Sometimes that seemed to be true. Strangely, as we move into the 21st century levity is becoming more ... um, CanLit. (Not Canadian, surely [Shirley]; we've always been comic.)

As the comments above all suggest, the comic prevails in Come, Thou Tortoise, and at the same time, there is a lot going on here. There is a seriousness that the "first readers" sense, but have a hard time articulating. That is a show of deep respect for the writer, I would suggest. Those readers were, like me, in awe of this book.

We can talk plot, but let's first talk word play. I can't name another Canadian book that is so playful with words. The Q&Q reviewer is slightly critical of Grant's penchant for puns, suggesting that this tactic "frequent misspellings and far-fetched word choices come across as gimmicky rather than reinforcing [the narrator's] childlike character." I disagree.

The "truthfulness" of the book is perhaps diminished by the wordplay, but the magnificence of the art is increased. We might call it post-modern playfulness. This isn't a story that depends on verisimilitude. This is a book the revels in all kinds of made-up-ness. First impressions, as the first reviewers suggest, isn't enough to get all of it.

Here's my favorite quote:
  • "My dad used to say I was chalant. A lost positive. Nonchalance, he said, is indifference to mystery. Nonchalant is one of the worst things a person can be. You hang on to your chalance."
This is a book full of chalance. I've never read another like it.

What's the plot? Go read it for yourself.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Barbara Lambert

This review first published in Quill and Quire (April 2000).

A Message for Mr. Lazarus
by Barbara Lambert
Cormorant, 1999

With the publication of A Message for Mr. Lazarus, Barbara Lambert joins the growing throng of first-rate female short story writers in Canada. In her debut collection – following a novel, The Allegra Series – she proves herself a deft practitioner of the short story form, and an eminent cartographer of the heart.

A Message for Mr. Lazarus is a stunning piece of work. The stories are told with a simple, direct style that resonates with a complicated architecture of images and themes. Many of the characters work in the visual arts, which allows Lambert to layer her stories with connections between art and life, reality and dream. Kundera’s phrase, “the unbearable lightness of being,” applies here, as Lambert’s characters seem both buoyed against the darkness that surrounds them and also tragically, inevitably fated to disappear into it.

The title (which seems oddly prosaic, given the depth of poetic suggestions the stories conjure up) is taken from the book’s longest story. A winner of the prominent Malahat Review novella contest, it features an older man from Toronto who has gone to a remote tropical resort, while his gay lover faces the final, fatal stages of AIDS back in the frozen north. The dying man is an artist, the protagonist an art dealer who grew up in Nazi Germany and has spent a lifetime escaping from one trauma after another. As the story moves delicately toward its conclusion, readers will have plenty of time to reflect on their own mortality, and on what they would be willing to risk for love.

Raucous, anti-humanist postmodernism has its own band of champions, but Barbara Lambert reminds us that the best metaphors still reside around the heart.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Evelyn Lau

I met Evelyn Lau 15 years ago at a hotel in Toronto to interview her for the profile below, first published in 1995 in Id Magazine. The review I wrote of her then current novel, OTHER WOMEN, was never published. It is also below.

*

Sex had always been a measure of power or abuse before we met, a way of hurting myself and, sometimes, my mother.
-- Evelyn Lau, OTHER WOMEN

With a look of concern on her face, Evelyn Lau, the 24-year-old Vancouver-based writer, leans forward to listen to my first question. Random House of Canada has just released her sixth book and first novel, OTHER WOMEN, the tale of a younger woman's romantic obsession for a married older man.

How does she feel, I ask her, about the fact that for many people OTHER WOMEN will be their introduction to her.

The concern disappears as a smile spreads across her face.

"Great," she says, enthusiastically.

A young writer with a troubled past, Lau is eager for a fresh start. Another one. Her first new beginning came ten years ago, when she ran away from home at 14-years-old with $10 in her pocket and a grade nine education. The horrors and eventual triumph of that period became the content of her first book, RUNAWAY: DIARY OF A STREET KID. Published in 1989, the book was later turned into a made-for-TV movie by the CBC starring Sandra Oh.

Three books of poetry and a collection of short stories have followed.

For this interview, we are seated in the lobby of one of Toronto's lakefront hotels. Lau sips from a glass of water and tells me how eager she was to do something different.

"I hope for many people this is the first time they are reading me," she says.

It is obvious that she feels strongly that OTHER WOMEN, which began as a series of short stories, is a separation from her earlier work.

"I wanted to focus more on desire, which I don't think I've ever dealt with," she says. "I've always dealth with sex in such a negative, pain-filled way, and I wanted to explore love."

Lau felt that by not focusing on sex in OTHER WOMEN, there would be more desire, "though not sexual desire; it's a desire for connection, closeness, or love."

This division, however, is a subtle one. Lau insists that the book is not about sex because Fiona and Raymond, OTHER WOMEN's main characters, do not consummate their 18-month affair. The characters are sexual, however. Raymond nibbles on Fiona's breasts, and Fiona administers fellatio. So the distinction, while obviously important to Lau, is one that is bound to be missed by many readers -- and critics.

NOW's Ted Mumford, for example, wrote that Lau "is working to put the hooker-turned-writer label behind her. Problem is, she keeps writing about sex."

It seems as if the confusion over Lau's earlier work has never really ended. In previous interviews, for example, Lau worked hard to clarify the dark sexual metaphors of her writing. And following the publication of her short story collection, FRESH GIRLS, she was dismissive of labelling her work "erotica." Her main theme is power, not sex, she has said. Sex may be the playground of her narratives, but it is not the reason for them. What is important to her is illuminating the destructive power that works in relationships, particularly in the bedroom.

Just as it has been difficult for Lau to escape her notoriety as a "former lady of the night," as NOW so ungraciously called her when it announced her September 12 appearance at the Harbourfront Reading Series, so too will it be hard for her win arguments that OTHER WOMEN is about an emotional process, not a hormonal one.

In the novel, Fiona first meets Raymond at an arts function. Though he is married, lives in a distant city and is only able to see her sporatically, she falls in love with him. The novel opens with their final conversation. Fiona's heart breaks as Raymond closes the door on her for the last time. She spends the rest of the novel replaying their relationship and trying to put back together the fragments of her life.

The book is no pot boiler, but Lau, still uses a typewriter to produce her work, entered life as a poet. It's the strength of her style that carries the reader through troubled waters. Lau's style here is more affiliated with the poetic prose of Elizabeth Smart than anything by, say, Charles Dickens.

When she is on, there are few better at snapping off a string of sharp metaphors. Unfortunately, the emotional intensity needed to sustain a book of so few incidents through so many pages wanes, and the limited plot doesn't help.

"I didn't want a traditional beginning, middle and end," says Lau, adding she's unsure if there's a character growth through the course of the novel.

"Plot is not one of my strengths," she says.

Though she admints that there may be a certain impotency in the book, she stresses that she wanted to slow down time and focus on the characters' feelings. She also didn't want to write a book that would be easily picked up by Hollywood.

"Though the money would be nice," she agrees.

She says the novel is about Fiona's internal process to come to terms with her powerful feelings for Raymond. She learns that it's possible for her to have such feelings.

"Fiona is frantically thinking and feeling, but nothing happens," says Lau.

Fiona is also searching to come to terms with the fact that she'll never know how a relationship with Raymond might have turned out.

"It would have been an explosive relationship, or nothing," says Lau. "But Fiona doesn't know. She's fascinated with why Raymond decides to stay with his wife. It's something she doesn't understand."

Lau says men and women have reacted differently to her new book. Men have been supportive, she says, while women have been hostile.

"Women are impatient with women [like Fiona] who allow themselves to be victimized," she says, "though there are lots of women who are suseptible to the sorts of relationships she finds herself in and who suffer the way that she does.

"Older women were put off by [Fiona's] obsessive listing of older women's appearences," says Lau.

Men, on the other hand, have admitted a feeling of empathy for Fiona. They admit to having felt for another woman as she does for Raymond. Lau says she finds these admissions interesting, and rewarding.

"I was afraid that this was going to be a women's book because it was so emotional and internal," she says.

Lau herself admits "to being half in love with John Updike," to whom she dedicated OTHER WOMEN. She admires Updike as a writer with a clarity of observation.

"He's not afraid to write about anything," says Lau, who no one could argue is a shy writer herself.

"My strength is in my feelings and my ability to instantly identify them," she says. "Sometimes I'm quite driven by my feelings, more so than by my head. My writing is driven by emotion. I envy writers who write more from their intellect, or who have a happy balance."

Lau is the past winner of the Milton Acron Memorial People's Poetry Award and the youngest person ever nominated for the Governor General's Award, Canada's highest literary honour. She says for the first time in a long time her next literary project is undecided.

"I'm waiting to see how people respond to this book before I decide what to write in the future," she says.

Don't listen to the critics, Evelyn. Do it your own way. You always have.

*

Review previously unpublished.

Other Women
by Evelyn Lau
Random House, 1995

A few years ago David Gilmour wrote a book called HOW BOYS SEE GIRLS about a middle-aged man's affair with a younger woman. Now we have Evelyn Lau's new book, which tells the story from the other side of the bed.

The contrast between the books is intriguing, and perhaps suggestive of the reasons men and women enter relationships in the first place. While Gilmour's book is essentially a mastabatory fantasy (older man falls for beautiful young women; she invites him to bed; she kicks him out, invites him back, kicks him out again), Lau's book is a poetic wail of emotional need.

Are the clich├ęs true? Is men's first interest sex? Is women's first interest emotional support?

Fiona meets Raymond at an arts function. Over the course of their 18-month affair, which is never consummated, she falls in love with him, forcing him to choose between her and his wife. The novel opens with their final conversation. Fiona's heart breaks as Raymond closes the door on her for the last time. She spends the rest of the novel replaying their relationship and trying to put back together the fragments of her life.

The book is no pot boiler, but Lau (who has yet to see the far side of 25) entered life as a poet, and it's the strength of her style that carries the reader through troubled waters.

Lau's first novel is more affiliated with the poetic prose of Elizabeth Smart than anything by, say, Charles Dickens. When she is on, there are few better at snapping off a string of sharp metaphors; unfortunately the emotional intensity needed to sustain a book of so few incidents through so many pages often wanes.

Measured against the high water mark of Smart's masterpiece, BY GRAND CENTRAL STATION I SAT DOWN AND WEPT, Lau's wail approaches a low moan. It is a heartfelt moan, however, and one few others could have pulled off. Readers should pay particular attention to images of pain, grief and violence ("edged," "sharp," "sliced," "flick") and note their relationship to desire.

These images continue the metaphorical cycle that Lau began in her short story collection, FRESH GIRLS AND OTHER STORIES, and in her poetry. Images of mirrors and identity also figure prominently. OTHER WOMEN will introduce new readers to Lau's growing stable of work and help carry her away from her unfortunate reputation as "prostitute turned writer."

Lau's first published work was her diary of life as a teenaged runaway on the streets of Vancouver. Three books of poetry have followed; one was nominated for the country's top literary award, making her the youngest writer ever nominated. She continues to be a young writer to watch (and read!), fulfilling every promise that her best work is still ahead of her.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Carrie Snyder

The following is a short interview I did with Carrie Snyder in 2004. It was first published in The Danforth Review after the publication of Snyder's short story collection, Hair Hat (Penguin).

In blogger world, she is Obscure Canlit Mama.

*

The biography of you in your book says you grew up in Ohio, Nicaragua and Ontario. Did that seem like a lot of moving around? Have you always thought of yourself as a writer (or wanted to be a writer)? Give us some basic facts on who you are.

We did move a lot. But for a child, whatever is happening seems normal, and I remember the moves as being adventures. I was 9 when we moved from Ohio to Nicaragua (my parents worked for an organization called Witness for Peace), and we were sent first to the American school, where the wealthy Nicaraguan and the foreign bureaucrats sent their children and the classes were in English, and then to the Colegio Bauptista which was not quite a public school, although it wouldn't fit our Canadian idea of a private school.

I was put into a grade four class with close to eighty students in one room. There were no schoolbooks. The teacher wrote the lessons on the chalkboard and we copied them into notebooks. Everything was in Spanish and I was quite lost and lonely, though my Spanish improved as time went by. At school, in my notebook, I wrote a lot of stories when I was supposed to be copying something else. Some of them were epic, most were about horses. I remember sending a letter, while in Nicaragua, to the author of the Encyclopedia Brown series, asking how I could become a writer. The publisher kindly sent me a large package of brand-new books. No advice, however.

We moved to Canada when I was 10, to Waterloo. We also spent several years renting a farmhouse on a working farm. I studied English at the University of Waterloo, and then at the University of Toronto where I earned an MA in English Literature. I always hoped to become a writer. I wrote for the pleasure of it, just like I read for the pleasure of it.

TDR published one of your poems in our inaugural edition (Sept. 1999). You've just published a short story collection and you're working on getting a novel published. Are you equally comfortable in all genres? Can you express different parts of yourself in different genres? Any thoughts about dis/connections between the different types of writing you do?

Each genre requires something different from me. I like the individual challenges. In my teens and early twenties, I wrote poems almost every night before bed, almost like writing in a journal. It was my way of finishing the day. I would close my eyes and just type. Poems, for me, are intimate and personal and hardest to share. Stories are satisfying because they can be completed in a relatively short period of time, and the characters can be drawn in glances so you don't have to like them quite so much. Novels require long-term commitment, but there's much more room to play. There is so much that is written and then discarded in a novel, because as you write, you discover what you're really writing about, and most likely it's not about what you thought it was. Stumbling onto that solid path through the novel is a deeply rewarding moment.

If I'm in a poetry mood, like I was all last fall, there is no point in trying to write something else. All fall I craved the intimacy, I craved the sealed little jars of thought that poems are. Right now I'm in the mood for a novel, a big juicy exploratory adventure. Stories hit me at odd hours. I often write down ideas for stories which I'll turn to later, when I'm neither in a poetry mood or a novel mood. I always want to be writing something.

Okay. HAIR HAT. This is a collection of stories linked by a character common to all of them. The character has hair shaped like a hat. What's the deal with that?

I saw a man wearing a large, flamboyant hat, which may or may not have been made out of hair. I didn't get a second glance. But the picture of him stuck in my imagination. In the first hair hat story I ever wrote, he appeared completely out of the blue. That was for a creative writing class and I never finished it. More than two years later, I came across the story again. Mostly I wondered who this man was. I wrote another hair hat story. I remember reading it to my husband and saying, What is going on with this hair hat man? Is it just too peculiar? I didn't really care. I was too curious. I learned about him as I continued to write more stories. I feel like I didn't invent him, but that he was given to me, he appeared, he arrived.

He walks a fine line between being a figure of fun, a visual joke, and being almost tragic. I think to those characters who really see him, he is dignified despite the hair, they accept him, they recognize him. He is himself.

To tell you the truth, I love the hair hat man. There are some days I wish he would appear to me and lift me up by the elbow, offer some small magical gift.

The Globe and Mail reviewer of your book seemed to think that the hair hat trope was almost irrelevant. I don't want to give too much away to any potential readers, but I think it's fair to say that the stories in HAIR HAT are linked in a subtle, almost tenuous way. Perhaps too tenuous for the Globe's reviewers. However, the sensibility of your book reminded me of the light touch Sophia Coppola demonstrated in LOST IN TRANSLATION. I wonder if you could say something about the tension between linking the stories and what seems to be your preference for the subtleties of narrative.

I saw "Lost in Translation" in the theatre last fall and loved it. I'm glad Hair Hat reminded you of that movie, which was structured as a series of vignettes, taking the viewer through many small (but not small) emotional revelations, all the while building toward something. Hair Hat works in a similar way, I think.

The links between the Hair Hat stories are often subtle, glancing. When I arranged them into the final order, I had two things in mind: one was that I was revealing through these stories the larger story of the hair hat man, and there was a kind of teleological sense to them, working towards an end; but I also thought about interior links between the stories, and how each story's particular flavour of sadness, discovery, joy, fear, desire to know, desire not to know, fit with the flavour of the stories before and after it. I hope those links resonate.

The Globe and Mail reviewer did wonder whether the hair hat became irrelevant in the end - I actually found that perspective quite interesting. It wasn't what I was thinking about when shaping the stories, but I did intend for the reader to become familiar with the hair hat, and perhaps familiarity makes the hair hat seem less peculiar, so that in the end the man wearing the hat becomes a person too, he steps outside of the hat's boundaries. That's how I read the reviewer's comment.

The same reviewer also suggested that there would be a variety of individual responses to the stories. That's what I hope for. I hope that Hair Hat will involve readers in a very personal way. I hope that the book is ultimately larger than the sum of its parts, that the subtlety leaves room for layers of experience and meaning.

I'm going to use LOST IN TRANSLATION in this question, too. Someone said to me that she liked LOST IN TRANSLATION because it depicted well that lost, searching feeling many women have when they're in their twenties. HAIR HAT is a book about growing up, in many ways as well. While many of the stories are snapshots in time, and thus don't really "go anywhere," there is a forward narrative through the collection about a teenaged girl who disappeared. This disappearance is never fully resolved, and it left me with a haunted feeling at the end of the book. Similarly, the story in LOST IN TRANSLATION is never fully resolved. As are many relationships in life. Maybe this is just another way of asking the previous question. Thoughts?

Your previous question got me thinking about what I thought I was attempting to do when writing the stories. My original intention was simple, almost basic: to tell the hair hat man's story through the eyes of people meeting him at random. This was the only way I seemed able to meet him and that had become very important to me.

But somehow in the writing of the stories, there seemed to be a certain kind of character who would be likely to see a hair hat man (not everyone in the book does see him, after all), and ultimately it is those characters - and the hair hat man himself - who give the book its haunting flavour. There is such a divide between what the characters mean to say and what they actually say, what they mean to do and what they actually do. That's my experience in life, too. But the hair hat man stands in opposition to that, I think. He is what he is, he does what he does.

Maybe what's haunting about human relationships in general is that they are governed by forces within us and without us, and we think we should have control over them, but we rarely do. Or maybe we're not brave enough. Maybe we don't want to risk standing out like the hair hat man does. But there is beauty and hope to be found in our relationships, no matter how fractured. Actually, those fractures are what is beautiful, to me. That haunting feeling is linked, too, to hope.

Also, I do think the stories go somewhere - there is a sense of searching for and discovering in each, a moment of change. Like most change, it's fleeting, almost ungraspable, almost indefinable, but sweet with potential. But it doesn't matter to me whether that potential is ever realized and maybe that's why the stories seem like snapshots. And like snapshots, the stories can be returned to - I hope readers want to return to them - like moments in our own lives that we want to look at again and again, wondering about, wondering what we did wrong or right, maybe wishing we could enter that moment and experience it again.

Without meaning to, without setting out to, I think in Hair Hat I created another world, sadder, braver, better, than my regular one. That's why I return, even now, to these stories and these characters.

Usually we end with a question: What are you working on now? But I also wanted to ask you about work/life balance. You and your husband have two children. How do you find time to write?

Short answer: I have help. Frankly, if I were alone full-time with a three-year-old and an 18-month-old, I would be writing poetic grocery lists and little else. We moved back to Waterloo last summer to be nearer to my parents. My mother has become a major part of my writing life. She babysits two hours a day, every weekday. And I put that time to good use.

If I'm working intensely on a project, like I was recently, my husband spends as much time as possible getting the kids out of the house (evenings, weekends) while I write like I'm possessed.

I just completed a solid draft of a new novel, so I'm re-entering normal life again. It's almost impossible to concentrate on anything else when I get to a certain stage in the novel. It's like I'm living in another world and everything else - ie. real life! - is an irritation. Which is completely unfair to everyone around me - and they deserve so much better! In that final push, I feel extremely conflicted and guilt-ridden and wonder whether I'm out of my mind to be sacrificing my children's babyhood to these characters who don't actually exist.

Thankfully, it's a brief phase. And I think without that other world to escape to, I might go a little bit crazy. Everyone needs a break from full-time parenting. Writing is mine.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Anne Denoon

Backflip
by Anne Denoon
Porcupine's Quill, 2002

Backflip is set in Toronto's art community in Canada's centennial year, 1967. Anne Denoon has recreated with exceptional clarity the provincial nature of the city on the verge of a cosmopolitan boom - and a national culture on the verge of an introspective renaissance. Denoon's Toronto may be set in the same year as Expo, but her Canada is pre-nationalist obsession. And her artists are virtually all abstract expressionists. There is something retro in her retro, which isn't necessarily a problem (just a curiosity).

If Backflip had been written in 1967, it would hold a place alongside The Edible Woman as an example of the new wave of Canadian writing that came of age in the late-1960s. As it is, Backflip will likely disappear with the rest of the wave of small press books published in 2002. Which is a pity, because Backflip is better written than The Edible Woman. It's just as smart, just as quirky, but it also has thirty years of reflection layered into it. Though not self-consciously.

For example, Backflip presents Toronto's male art establishment as blindly misogynistic. Yet, these men are also presented sympathetically - however pathetic they tend to look through 21st century eyes. Denoon doesn't borrow from Atwood the great-Peggy's sly putdowns of men. She just lets the men live out their roles, which are halfway charming and halfway ridiculous.

A plot summary: A young Toronto artist (male) paints "Backflip", a painting that garners special attention at an art show. The gallery owner tells the painter that the painting is sold to an anonymous buyer, but really the owner has kept it for himself. Which becomes relevant when a London, UK, art dealer comes to town looking for work to take to the UK for a trans-Atlantic show. The painting is nowhere to be found, so the painter paints a duplicate. Meanwhile, the artists and poseurs around town are involved in various artistic and sexual intrigues.

Okay, so it's not One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, but Denoon's characters are brightly realized and her language is precise and robust. This isn't a novel that patronizes the reader, nor does it try to dazzle with obscure prose. Backflip is gripping and heartfelt, and I look forward to more from this author.

Review first published in The Danforth Review.