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.

Love Electric

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.

ImageThe 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 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.