It all began with the sign down at Cow Bay in Prince Rupert. It hung on the weathered boards outside an automarine store right down there beside the docks, the name spelled out in fading black paint: Love Electric.
The building dates back to 1919 and still stands. But it no longer houses Love Electric. (I just checked to see that the company is still operating – it is. Its email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Come Valentine’s Day, it might be fun to send them a message.)
I was sitting in a coffee shop just down the road and started scribbling. I wrote three stories about people who had unexpected sex with unlikely partners: a suicidal meter reader, a bored housewife who decides to become an electrician, and a woman working in a Saan store. Isabel. I took Isabel along with me to the Banff Writing Studio, where I worked with Bonnie Burnard (A Good House, Suddenly). She suggested I turn it into a novel. At first I quailed at the thought, but ideas just came pouring out and I was off on a journey that took me to some amazing places – both physically and emotionally: the back rooms of a Saan store, the cemetery in Guatemala, the provincial house of the Oblates, the streets of Vancouver’s downtown eastside.
I wanted to explore the life of a woman others might think of as a victim or an irresponsible parent, but who views herself as someone strong, who makes mistakes, yes, but keeps going and refuses to be judged. You could maybe call this “family practice.” While mothers mostly love their children, sometimes their children are not particularly likeable. And visa versa. Isabel and her daughter Janna need to make their own way in the world, but also reconcile. Figuring out how to make this happen was much of the fun of writing this book. And it made me realize that sometimes it is the most dysfunctional families that are best equipped to dig in during crises and really support each other.
One of the difficulties for both of them is Isabel’s refusal to tell Janna who her father is. You know how it is when you keep a secret too long? It gets harder and harder to come clean. Which brings in the issue of the Catholic church (now there’s an outfit that knows all about secrets) and the behaviour of its priests. Father Àlvaro Ruiz snuck up on me as I was writing The Taste of Ashes. I am not Catholic and am more than uncomfortable with many of the church’s teachings. But I am fascinated with the way people of amazing diversity negotiate their way through that to make themselves a place within the church. They stick out their elbows and wriggle their way in. Often their very presence makes people uncomfortable because it forces them to re-examine their own beliefs. As Àlvaro struggles with this, he finds links with his Mayan heritage and that of our own First Nations communities – links that Catholic missionaries may think they forged, but are really connections that have roots in a much older indigenous spirituality linked to the land itself.
What has been intriguing for me in this process is the way I’ve come to feel about the characters in The Taste of Ashes – not just the three main characters but some of the secondary ones as well: Margaret Coleman, Amy Myerson and Father Walter. They are like old friends now, people who have shared many experiences with me. In the novel, we’ve all come to know each other. Publication has given me a chance to introduce them to you.