Visiting Bonnie Burnard

Joining a community of writers at places like Sage Hill, Banff, or any of the diverse retreats/residencies available to us these days, is usually a treat. We can begin conversations right in the middle of things because the writing process is familiar to us all, even though how we go about the work is as varied as human nature itself. We share the knowledge of what it is to sit down day after day to start moving our fingers and somehow transform whatever it is that goes on in our heads to words on the page, whether we’re using a pencil or a keyboard. If we wander around with a glazed look and don’t say good morning, other writers know enough to leave us alone. Best of all, you don’t have to explain what it is you do or why you do it.

Of course, egos and competitiveness are present, but at the retreats that are well run, there isn’t much grandstanding and the most acclaimed writers sit down with the novices and share stories as equals. It is very affirming for those of us who sometimes feel isolated from the writing world.

When I attended the Banff Writing Studio in 2002 and was told that I’d be working with Bonnie Burnard, I was more than a little anxious. The author of award winning short story collections and the Giller Prize winning A Good House, she was a very big name in Canadian writing, up there with Alice Munro and Carol Shields. She had just flown in from Mexico City with a nascent case of pneumonia; Banff’s air was cleaner, but the altitude did her in. I had one meeting with her before she was hospitalized, but as I’ve said before, that one meeting sent me on a long journey, taking Isabel from a short story I’d called “Frost Warning” and set in Smithers to Vancouver, Guatemala and deep into the lives of her daughter, Janna, and Janna’s father, Alvaro.

So when I arrived in London (Ontario) last week, I was tempted to track her down. I wanted to thank her and give her a copy of The Taste of Ashes. I was a bit nervous – her time in Banff hadn’t been easy for her (there’s a story there, but it’s hers to tell) and I didn’t think she’d even remember me. When I found out she lived very close to where I was staying, I finally screwed up my courage and called her. She seemed surprised, but very graciously invited me over the next morning for tea.

I’ve always been nonplussed by stories of people tracking down writers – searching for Pablo Neruda at Isla Negra, or nursing endless cups of coffee at the café Simone de Beauvoir frequented – so felt a bit nervous walking up the leaf-strewn path to her door right on the edge of the University of Western Ontario campus. And there she was, smaller than I remembered, welcoming me into her home and congratulating me on the publication of the novel.

Her house is a long one with glass doors opening into a sitting room, a sun porch, a living room, each room with multiple doorways. This kind of house is a treat for a child (and Bonnie has a new grandchild living nearby as well as two others) – the many nooks and crannies can provide escape from whatever might be happening in the house, but are also connected enough so he or she doesn’t feel alone. It’s the kind of house that exemplifies the kinds of plots I love to read and write – storylines that have their own lives but link in sometimes unexpected ways.

By which I mean to say we soon got down to talking about writing, about her writing life, about Banff, about how we go about things, how writers find ways to support each other, how we go through times when we lose sight of writing itself until we miss it so much, we sit down again and begin.

It was good to see Bonnie Burnard living in a comfortable house because so few writers make a decent living from their writing. It was a pleasure to sit at her kitchen table and talk writing because that talk is not always easy to come by.

While she expressed some concern about having suggested back in Banff that I write a novel, I said it was just what I needed because as soon as she said it a whole new world opened up for the characters living inside my imagination, characters her encouragement led me to release from the strict confines of what the current literary expectations are for short stories. Discursion is not permitted. (Even within the breadth of a novel, I have difficulty reining in my characters.)

So thank you, Bonnie. As for the writing talk itself, I look forward to someday reading in print the writing stories you told me.

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