Answer to a question

Readers ask me questions. Most recently, “I am curious about the constant reference to berries – growing, picking, crushing, oozing etc. at various key points in Alone in the Classroom. If I had had the time, I would have charted their appearance and looked for patterns. How significant is the symbolism?”

I wrote back: A simple answer is that I love wild berries, finding them, picking them, eating them. It’s a practice that takes us out into the landscape and unites generations, especially mothers and children, though in Alone in the Classroom Anne’s mother’s first memory involves her father and blueberries. A precious memory. Children picking berries in the wild are as alone and exposed as the berries themselves, vulnerable to being picked in turn, as happens to young Ethel.

I continued, since once I get going I find it hard to stop: I’m not sure I understand all the reasons why a cluster of berries on a bush has such an effect on me. It’s aesthetic, but also spiritual in some way. The fruit on the bough as our fingers reach out and connect with the physical world sets off a deep response in me. I’m not working with symbols, so much as connecting visual images, very concrete, like threads in a weave that will remind the reader of earlier moments and build an atmosphere of tension and release.

And I would add: in a world where tiny, precise things open into vastness.

What moves me most are berries in winter, what I call berries, which could be red crabapples on a bare branch or haws on a rosebush or fruiting bodies on a spindle tree. The words themselves set off a big clang in my body.

It happened the other day when I read Sarah Milroy’s wonderful tribute to Kenojuak, the Inuit artist who died last month at 85. Milroy spoke of the artist’s “rapturous grasp of the natural world … her passionate affirmation of the land we are honoured to share, where a cluster of berries, a scrap of lichen or a breathing hole discovered in the ice would once have meant the difference between sustenance and starvation.”

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Sussex Drive, Pinboy

I’ve been pressing two recent books upon everyone I know. Linda Svendsen’s Sussex Drive and George Bowering’s Pinboy.

Sussex Drive is a pungent, brilliant, raucous political novel about the Ottawa of 2008, the notorious moment in Canada’s political life when Harper prorogued parliament for the first time. Svendsen boldly goes where others fear to tread, giving us fictionalized portraits of the prime minister and his wife, of the Governor General at the time, and of the leader of the opposition whom she adroitly calls Monsieur Triste, a name that says it all. It’s as funny as it is knowing and over the top, a novel that Mordecai Richler would have wished he’d written, the sort of novel this country is crying out for.

George Bowering’s memoir is a testament to his phenomenally juicy powers of memory and empathy and imagination. His account of himself at fifteen gives us three levels of romantic involvement, three orbits of fascination, involving two girls from opposite sides of the tracks and one female teacher with immoderate appetites. Is there anyone who writes about sex better than George Bowering? I don’t think so.

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Trevor Cole’s excellent website has over one hundred author readings, recorded and framed by Trevor himself. The readings are blessedly short, five minutes or so in length. You can listen without having to trek to a public reading, you can extricate yourself without embarrassment if you’re bored. In the fall, at the Muskoka Writer’s Festival, Trevor found a quiet spot in a near-empty restaurant and recorded me reading from Alone in the Classroom.

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Sickbed Reading

In the middle of the night, head stuffed and aching, I wandered down to the kitchen and there was the latest Brick magazine on the counter, containing at least two major thrills.

First, the news that David Milne’s archive in the Art Gallery of Ontario will soon be online, with samples of what that means: This Sunday morning I picked two honey pails of blueberries and killed a rattlesnake and had a swim. It means access to pages of autobiography, illustrated letters, diary entries, pencil drawings, cancelled watercolours. How can I say this any other way? My heart leapt with joy. Milne’s paintings have been a part of my life forever, even longer than my intention, never acted upon, to ferret out his unpublished writings. Now here they are, or will be, suddenly available to everyone.

Then an exceptional essay by Colum Toíbín about Mary Lavin, an Irish writer whose stories about “solitude and widowhood” brought back to mind my fairly recent discoveries of two other incredible Irish writers, Molly Keane and John McGahern. Reading the novel Good Behaviour by the one, and the memoir All Will Be Well by the other, made life worth living last winter and spring. The Irish. How can anyone who writes not wish to be Irish?

My broken-up, wakeful night followed a similarly rewarding, semi-stupefied day in bed reading Artemis Cooper’s wonderful biography of Patrick Leigh Fermor. Perhaps people did sometimes wonder when he was going to leave. Yet whatever his faults, he had one gift so enchanting that it made up for all his shortcomings. He was genuinely fascinated by his hosts, and wanted to hear everything they could tell him about their families, their history and their way of life. Called simply Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure, the book immerses you in the life of this astonishing writer-traveler, whose mother informed him when he was a boy that Mary Queen of Scots had such white skin and such a slender neck that you could see the red wine slide her throat.

I am going backwards in the chronology of my sickbed reading, arriving now at James Wood writing in The New Yorker about Per Petterson’s I Curse the River of Time. The book itself was within reach, on the shelf next to my head, a gift from my daughter last Christmas or the Christmas before, and unread, despite my love of Out Stealing Horses. Liking one book by an author is no guarantee I’ll like any of the others, so I tend to proceed with a certain resistance, voracious yet reluctant. I dislike this about myself, this hanging back.

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Canadian Godot

I don’t drive at night. I barely drive at all. Then at times I feel the need to be brave.

A week or so ago I found myself on the road to Brockville, making the hour and fifteen minute journey from Ottawa to the Brockville Museum for an evening reading. A simple route, the 416 to the 401 to the second turn-off, and then down to the water.

It was pitch dark by the time I finished the reading and it was raining. An angel named Doreen guided me back through town. I followed her truck and it was a merciful sight. On my own it would have been like threading a needle in the dark. She indicated the entrance to the 401 with her turn signal and sailed off, while I turned right into the valley of death.

I had an apple. I had Leonard Cohen. I kept my mole-eyes peeled for the turnoff to the 416 and nearly missed it when I second-guessed the direction. The truth is that I can’t see when I drive at night and I can’t think. Numbers and directions shred in the hurricane of my doubts. Eventually Ottawa came into view, another merciful sight, only to disappear as I sailed on by.

And that’s when I started to rewrite Waiting for Godot in my head.

If Beckett were writing now instead of in 1948, the two tramps would be in a car on a very dark highway in the Ottawa Valley, not knowing where on earth they were or where on earth they were going, and all of this not knowing would be happening at 110 km an hour.

I was near Almonte by the time I found a turnoff. A service station; a Kitkat; a word of advice from the recent immigrant behind the counter, and I traced my way back to Ottawa on lanes narrowed by orange cones into bowling alleys from hell. When finally I got home, hungry, exhausted, nothing Mark said seemed other than patronizing and nothing I said was other than self-pitying.

In 1956, in a letter written to Desmond Smith, a Canadian interested in staging Waiting for Godot in Toronto, Beckett urges him to “see the thing primarily in its simplicity, the waiting, the not knowing why, or where, or when, or for what. The point about Pozzo, for example, is not who he is, or what he is, or what he represents, but the fact that all this is not known.”

The letter is a reply to the one he received from Smith, which Beckett characterizes this way: “I had a letter from Mr Desmond Smith asking me to explain the play to him. Canadians are queer that way.

I love Beckett. Canadians are queer. Imagine trying to eat a Kitkat without taking your hands off the wheel. Imagine discovering the next day a car seat covered in chocolate, and then going back inside and taking a long pitying look at the seat of those good black pants still hanging over the railing where you left them the night before.

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Liking Your Characters

I wrote this post for my UK publisher, MacLehose Press. (Their photo of a ball and chain was taken in the British Library, not as you might think in Ottawa.)

My natural inclination is to look for the flaws and weaknesses in people. Who knows why? The way I was raised, my years as a journalist, my interest in figuring people out. But you need more than a critical eye to be a novelist. That is, if you want a novel where characters reveal themselves over time.

The trick, I think, is to let the characters out from under the authorial thumb, to give them room. They respond to that, just as your friends and family respond when you stop being so hard on them.

Something happens to me, too, when I see a character from different angles and in different lights. More of my imagination, more of my sympathy is aroused, and I become less narrow.

In Alone in the Classroom I have a villain, Parley Burns, the disturbed headmaster. The notion that a headmaster might be insane engages every fibre of my being. My father was a school principal and I was terrified of him (not that he was insane). There is the mystery of what makes such a person tick. There is the greater mystery – this fascinates me even more – that hateful people are loved.

To reach any understanding of why, you need to have characters who bring out the best and the worst in each other. It’s like watching the weather, the way a person changes depending on whom he’s with.

Some weeks ago I watched on YouTube a panel of academics, critics, playwrights talking about Pauline Kael, the great movie critic whose work I read endlessly in my forties. I loved her old reviews, especially the ones a paragraph long; she was the nerviest, most succinct of writers. The playwright on the panel knew her personally and had sent her one of his plays to critique. To his surprise, she told him he didn’t like his characters enough. “You have to make them brilliant – even the dumb ones – smarter than you are. That’s what it’s about.”

I’ve been turning this over in my mind ever since. How can a character be smarter than the author? Well, it happens all the time. You invent a character, but not from nothing. You steal things. You overhear things and use them. You read things and make use of them. You work with ingredients you pick up here and there, and you open yourself to the character’s possibilities.

As you write you discover thoughts you didn’t know you had, and images arrive out of nowhere. It doesn’t happen unless you’re writing. You become, while you’re writing, smarter than you are. Then when you’re blocked, you are stupider than you are.

Pauline Kael wanted to fall in love when she watched a movie, to be seduced, transported, surprised, caught up. She wanted to rise to meet the characters. I think that’s what she meant when she said the playwright didn’t like his characters enough. Not that the characters have to be likable, not at all, but that the writer didn’t let them expand and blossom and surprise themselves, and in the process surprise her.

What I aim for is to be unsparing without being dismissive, tender without losing my edge. It’s the hardheaded writers I’m drawn to, hardheaded writers who double back on expectations. They’re the ones I can’t get enough of, Pauline Kael being a prime example.

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UK Edition of “Alone in the Classroom”

Alone in the Classroom has now been published with a great new cover in the United Kingdom by MacLehose Press, which published Late Nights on Air in 2008. For more details visit the publisher’s website.

“It’s a testament to the quality of Hay’s writing that the lack of a traditional ending tantalises rather than disappoints; and the villain, Principal Parley Burns, who moves through the school ‘like mustard gas in subtle form’, is one of the most memorable villains I’ve ever encountered.”
The Guardian, Laura Wilson

“Unforgettable characters”
Literary Review, Jessica Mann

“A highly accomplished and resourceful stylist”
The Spectator, Paul Binding

“Wise and able, and deliciously comic too … [Hay] is another cherishable novelist from a country with a preponderance of such talent. Alone in the Classroom is one to savour.”
bookoxygen, Elsbeth Lindner

“The narrative crosses the generations and should be read carefully in order to appreciate its richness and the author’s genius as a storyteller.”
Bookgroupinfo, Paula McMaster



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Femalefirst Interview

An interview in the online magazine Femalefirst coincides with the UK edition of Alone in the Classroom.

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Book Gods

Another bookshelf came down two Sundays ago as we were eating supper. A heart-stopping double thud, and we thought a tree had fallen. But no, another waterfall of books from the toppled shelves directly beside our bed. We stood appalled in the doorway, Mark and I and our tall son, who happens to be home for a few weeks.

“The book gods have turned against us,” Mark said. “Literature,” I said, “is putting its boots to me. Or Kindle. Kindle is on my case.” Our son, bending down to pick up the books, said evenly, kindly, “Or is it possible a shelf can take only so much weight?”

The gods. Mark is in the middle of reading The Odyssey. The other day I finished The Iliad in the great translation by Robert Fagles. The same day a friend came for lunch, heartbroken by the end of a love affair, devastated, ashamed, humiliated, incredulous at the amount of grief she feels. Where does it come from? Her shrink answered, “From your mother. Unresolved issues with your mother. That’s why you feel so abandoned.”

The Greeks knew better. The gods are responsible. They shoot an arrow through your heart and there is nothing you can do about it. The little shits.

On the other hand, our tall son was right: there is only so much weight a bookshelf can take.

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Monday, September 24, 2018. Victoria, B.C.
7 p.m. Bolens Bookstore, 111 1644 Hillside Avenue, Hillside Centre
Reading and signing.
Free but please rsvp: 250-595-4232
For more information click here.

Thursday, September 27, 2018. Uxbridge, Ontario
7 p.m. Uxbridge Music Hall
Reading with Rawi Hage, Wayne Grady, Lisa Gabriele
For tickets: Blue Heron Books 905 852 4282

Wednesday, October 3, Burlington, Ontario
Elizabeth Hay in conversation with Jill Downie
7 p.m.
Holy Rosary Church, 287 Plains Road East, Burlington
Tickets: Different Drummer Books 905 639 0925
For more information: click here.

Tuesday, October 9, Calgary, Alberta
Wordfest: Canadiana Showcase with Elizabeth Hay, Esi Edugyan, Wayne Grady, Keith Maillard, Kim Thuy
7 p.m. DJD Dance Centre, 111 12 Ave S.E.

Wednesday, October 10, Calgary, Alberta
Breakfast with Elizabeth Hay, hosted by CBC Radio’s Jennifer Keene
8:30 a.m. Memorial Park Library, 2nd floor, 1221 2nd Street W.

Sunday, October 14, Ottawa, Ontario
Dinner, author presentation, book signing
5:30 p.m. Table 40, Springfield Road
Purchase tickets at Books on Beechwood

Thursday, October 18, Winnipeg, Manitoba
Elizabeth Hay in conversation with Kathleen Venema
7 p.m. McNally Robinson Bookstore, Grant Park in the Atrium.

Saturday, October 20, Vancouver, B.C. 
Vancouver Writers’ Festival.
Event 64 – The Things We Inherit, 10:30 am – 12:00 noon, Granville Island Stage: Peter Gajdics, Elizabeth Hay, Chelene Knight, Lindsay Wong

Sunday, October 21, Vancouver Writers’ Festival
Event 77 – Passage of Time, 10:30 am – 12:00 noon,
Waterfront Theatre: Bill Gaston, Elizabeth Hay



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