Elizabeth Hay in Conversation with The New Quarterly Magazine, originally published in spring 2009. The original item is published here with permission of the magazine.
Elizabeth Hay – In Conversation With Hannah Albert
I began this conversation with Elizabeth Hay last fall, during the first semester of my last year in university, against a backdrop of job- and graduate- program applications and a barrage of questions at family gatherings. “What are you doing next?” well-meaning relatives concerned about my Future would chorus every time I entered a room. “Have you chosen your career yet?” “Where are you going to work?” Coming to the end of University is a bit like standing on the edge of a cliff and having enthusiastic and caring people cheering you to jump. It was with relief that I discovered that someone as accomplished as Elizabeth Hay had also found this an unsettling time. I looked forward to corresponding with someone who so clearly had found or grown into or crafted her calling with great success, and, I later discovered, with great pleasure.
Liz began our email exchange with a short memoir, included in this issue, entitled “City as Redhead.” At first I was apprehensive about encroaching on someone’s private life and displaying curiosity about the deep things in a way that, in an ordinary exchange, might be considered rudeness, but the unstinting, if sometimes unsettling, honesty she displayed in the memoir allayed my fears. Despite her confiding to me in an early email that she is shy when questioned, and hates to be pinned down, my questions returned to me as full stories, each as honest as that memoir, each as finely crafted as what I had come to expect from her wondrous novels. I sent her three sets of questions. These she tackled, over the course of a month, and for one month, I had my own private story-teller, a sage who shared her travails, her joys, and her acquired wisdom with me. I look forward to hearing more in the years to come. Welcome to the conversation.
– Hannah Albert
Hannah: Firstly, where did you go to university? Why did you attend that particular university?
Liz: You ask me about university and I wince a little. I went to Victoria College at the University of Toronto. It’s where my father went and I must have wanted to please him. This would probably surprise him. I didn’t get along very well with my parents when I was growing up, with anyone in my family for that matter. We were a family of six. As a girl all I wanted to do was read and I hated to be interrupted. It made me furious. In some ways my parents were good about leaving me alone, but they insisted upon helpfulness and obedience, and frequently they found me unhelpful and belligerent. It astonishes me when I think back and see that not only did I curry their favour by going to my father’s university, but when I got married the first time I arranged to have the wedding in the same chapel, Hart House at U of T, where my parents were married and I purchased the same wedding bands, exactly, that they had bought years earlier at Birks Jewellers.
But I wince because university was a lonely time. Grade thirteen had been hugely rewarding and I thought university would be more of the same, but better. Instead, I felt dashed by the size of the place, the size of the city, the peculiar life of residence, my shyness with other students and in class. I began to sleep with a heavy old coat of my mother’s on top of me and the weight gave me a lot of comfort. The coat was wool, black and white checks, with a cinched waist and a worn velvet collar. I wore it too. At Christmas a professor friend of my parents said the coat looked very Dickensian and I asked him who Dickens was. These are the embarrassments that now delight me and delight my children when I tell them. That great writer Dickens. ??At the beginning of third year I had a crisis, a little breakdown of sorts. After five days of classes, I couldn’t bear it anymore. I remember going for a walk in High Park and realizing that I could quit, and for a few hours I was euphoric. That was the year I went out west. I worked in a printing shop in Victoria. I hiked the West Coast Trail. I travelled up to the Queen Charlotte Islands. In September I went back to university and did the third year, but that was it for me. I knew that because of my tendency to isolate myself I needed to be out in the world. Also there was a snobbishness at university that grated on me. My subjects were English and Philosophy. In the English Department there was a good deal of ranking that went on: major writers, minor writers, less than minor, laughable. I hate that approach to literature.
Hannah: What was on your book shelf in university, and now?
Liz: You think too highly of my memory. Schoolbooks were on my shelves. I do remember opening Waiting for Godot and being so entranced by the simple, evocative words for the setting—A country road. A tree. Evening. —that I read them aloud and my roommate made fun of me and my rapture. I really didn’t mind. They were thrilling words. The physical effect of language can be remarkable. It sets off a great clang in your body.
Within reach right now is Out Stealing Horses by the Norwegian, Per Petterson. It has ruined me for other books at present, it is so tense, tight, deep and clear. A few months ago, when I came back from my first trip to the Yukon, I read The Man from the Creeks by Robert Kroetsch, a great, intoxicating novel based on “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” by Robert Service. I read slowly and make no attempt to keep up with what is current. In the last year my twenty-year-old son has goaded me into reading Crime and Punishment and War and Peace. My eighty-eight-year-old mother shamed me into reading Moby Dick. I am so glad that I haven’t gone to my grave without reading them.
Hannah: Do you make friends easily, and was that always the case? I can’t really imagine not having a pool of people to explore in class, the dining halls, and on campus, so tell me about finding friendship in and beyond university.
Liz: You’ve touched a tender spot. For years I considered myself a true and loyal friend. Then in my late thirties, I looked back on my life and saw numerous friendships in tatters and I had to ask myself what my role had been in those failed friendships. Out of that grew the story collection Small Change about the pain we experience in the name of friendship. What fascinates me is the distance necessary for intimacy. I try to give people room and I appreciate it when they do the same.
It’s a delight to be more relaxed than I used to be. I used to be so nervous before a dinner party, say, that I would prepare in my mind questions to ask or things to say. Then in the moment my mind would go blank. I’m not as afraid of social encounters or of people as I used to be. But the fear is fascinating subject matter. The phenomenon of shyness was the starting point for Late Nights on Air. That is, the paradox of the shy/bold person, brave enough to go on air, but too self-conscious to be any good at it.
Hannah: Were you writing in university? Did you write for yourself, and was there anyone you shared your writing with, to help edit, or bounce ideas off of, or someone who just listened?
Liz: I wrote poetry. I showed some of these poems to my mother. She shared one of them with a painter friend and teacher, Yvonne Housser, who knew the very young Michael Ondaatje. Yvonne sent him the poem and he wrote to me, the kindest letter. This would have been about 1972. He pointed out the lines that were strong and where he thought the poem should end, half a dozen lines back. He urged me to read Margaret Avison, “a beautiful poet.”Your questions dig up the past. I have no idea whether Ondaatje remembers writing to me. I assume not. And this is where shyness complicates one’s life. It embarrasses me (and gives me no delight) to say that years later when I had a first manuscript of stories that I was trying to get published I pestered him to read it. He said no clearly and forthrightly, as he should have done, as I do now when approached. A writer has to guard his or her time very jealously. I hope he has forgotten all of that.
After university and over the years, others have been very kind in reading my work. I met Daphne Marlatt in Yellowknife when she did a reading there in 1975. At the time she co-edited a small magazine called periodics. I sent her material for years and she gave me the most generous feedback. Others too. Many writers and editors have been very good to me. I continued to show things to my mother for a long time. Poor woman. It was hard for her to read my bleakness, although she was happy that I was writing.
Working Life and Writing Process
Hannah: You mentioned working in a print shop in Victoria. Can you tell me more about that? Were you involved in making prints, and was (or is) that an interest of yours? Was it just a job to free up your mind and give you time for other things?
Liz: The shop was Empire Printing and it did job printing, programs for the symphony, wedding invitations, business cards and so on. In A Student of Weather Norma Joyce works in a similar place in New York City. I had the notion when I was twenty that I might make a living printing books while I wrote on the side. For my pains, I caught my right hand in a Gordon platen press, treadle-operated, and still have a flattened, out-sized knuckle as a result.
Hannah: So far, I’ve worked inputting data for hospital records, as a summer school teacher for 6-8th graders, as a private tutor in math and physics, and in a supermarket deli, where I stocked cheeses. For two years, I was a volunteer with the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue team, where I led teams into the Mt. Hood wilderness to search for lost hikers, bodies for homicide investigations, and on one occasion, some dogs (and climbers) suspended on ropes 50 feet down the face of a cliff and 45 feet beyond the reach of their own anchor ropes. Working at the supermarket, I once had someone ask me in Russian for candles, “the kind that blows out.” It took me several minutes of mime, and trips down many aisles to display the available wares, to realize she wanted birthday candles, but not the trick kind which re-light. It still amazes me that, across barriers of language, culture, and the frantic haste of grocery shopping in a supermarket, we succeeded in tracking down such a specific product. I was afraid I would get fired for not being helpful, that she would call my manager, but she was remarkably cheerful throughout the whole thing.
What jobs have you had, or what projects have you been involved in, which have influenced your writing, or of which you have fond (or simply strong) memories?
Liz: The real world is ingenious at giving with one hand and taking with the other, isn’t it? One of my most humiliating jobs was working the planer chain in a sawmill in the interior of BC. I simply did not have the physical strength.
My work in radio fed directly into Late Nights on Air, of course, and my teaching jobs into some of the scenes in Garbo Laughs. Unlike Gwen Symon, I never did a late night show, and unlike Harriet Browning, I never taught a course in comedy. But I understand being on air and being in front of a class. Paradoxically, it was teaching that helped me relax. If it’s the case that I read well to audiences now, it’s not because of my radio work, which made me even more self-conscious, but because of teaching. A microphone is not a satisfying audience if you’re as literal-minded as I am.
Part of what I hoped to do in Late Nights on Air was explore what it’s like to have a job doing something that you don’t think you can do. Professional self-doubt, in other words. A river pilot who’s afraid of the water, an actor with stage fright, a radio personality who is agonizingly shy, a writer who is inarticulate—these poor lambs fascinate me.
Hannah: Do you write full time now, or do you have another job? (A family counts).
Liz: I write full time and have done for ten years or so. My children are 20 and 22, neither one is at home. I see my life in parts, pre-children, children, post-children. Post-children is by far the most restful.
I’m a fairly dogged worker. I like to be at my desk. But I am not wildly productive. A great confusion seems to overtake me in the early stages of any piece of writing, especially novels. There is a lovely initial time of musing, note-taking, mulling as I follow my interest in a general area—a place, an emotion, a difficulty. Then I find myself on the rack for quite some time, pulled in different directions, and pulled hard. For example, will it be first person or third? Everything in me wants to write in the first person, yet experience has taught me that the third person is actually the better vehicle for me when I write a novel. It allows me all the room I crave.
You would think, then, that I would forego all the torment and just settle into the third person. Trouble is, I would like to write as spaciously and freely in the first person as I do in the third. This is a nut I haven’t yet cracked.
What calms me is reading. I read poetry or prose that I admire and love. Also, getting up early, while it’s dark, and coming into my study and having the world to myself.
Hannah: What is a day of writing like for you? Are there any activities you engage in to get started, or to take a break? When studying math, I always settle on a flat surface, deposit my books and three notebooks (one with in-class notes, one for definitions, and one for the actual problem solving) all around me, and then I chew a piece of gum while I work. Music is absolutely forbidden. Have you any rituals for your writing?
Liz: If I had to study math, I’d be snorting cocaine.
I spend a lot of time in my dressing gown. It’s warm and cozy and easy to put on in the dark. My sleep is very erratic now and has always been problematic. When the kids were little, I would set the alarm and get up before they did in order to write. Now I sleep as best I can and then I get up. I go downstairs and make myself very strong coffee in a stovetop espresso maker, I heat milk, I froth it up with a little battery-powered wand, I take a muesli pita out of the freezer and put it in the toaster. I put a big spoonful of sugar into my creamy, fluffy coffee and come upstairs into my lair with the pita in one hand and the coffee in the other. If I’m in the midst of working on something, I continue with it. If my brain is on strike, then reading poetry soothes and reanimates it. I do not listen to music either.
Hannah: Where do your stories start? Something jotted down, someone who catches your eye, an idea you’ve been turning over in your mind, a theme you’ve been worrying away at? Perhaps you could give me an example from one of your previous pieces.
Liz: I wish my mind teemed with stories. Can a person be story-blind the way someone is colour-blind? I often feel that way. Much as I love stories, I don’t see them. I don’t have a knack for story shape or story structure, and as a result I have to work very hard at it. I mean, at basic narrative.
In Small Change there’s a story called “Hand Games.” I was immersed in the situation of that story, almost ill with it, and then an image arrived that gave me clarity and a sense of direction. My daughter and her little friend, both four years old, had been good friends and weren’t anymore. The friend, Joyce in the story, was the daughter of a friend of mine, and the situation was a replay of my own sorrows as well as the introduction of my daughter at a much too-early age to the pain of rejection. We were walking home from the store, the three of us, and I had a grocery bag in one hand. The little friend slipped her hand into mine, cunningly, I thought, leaving my daughter with my encumbered hand. Our hands formed a fraught triangle and gave me a jolt of understanding and a concrete image around which to organize the story.
The emotional leftovers of the story led me to A Student of Weather in which I take the side of a small dark child, a variation of Joyce, and follow her life over the course of decades.
How do things begin? All at once and in a dozen ways so that I have too much and too little simultaneously, too much material and too little direction. The pressure this creates is very uncomfortable. Recently, I was at loggerheads with myself because I had two beginnings, completely dissimilar, to the same story. Then it occurred to me that one of those beginnings was actually the ending and I felt great relief and joy. Now I actually had something to head towards. A month from now I might discover that it’s not the ending at all, because endings are fiendishly difficult.
Hannah: When you begin a story, really sit down to start writing it and fleshing it out, what comes first? Characters, location, plot, setting? What drives the story forward?
Liz: I might have gathered a lot of material (I keep notebooks in which I jot things down, then I transfer their contents to the computer and print them out), but nothing really starts to move forward until I have some of the characters in place. Hand in hand, we enter the world of the book, and feel our way forward. Without the characters, I am lost.
May I just say that it’s a great surprise to me that I’ve turned into a novelist. I began writing poetry at fifteen. I knew then that I wanted to be a writer. Writing, as Robert Creeley said, gave me a way to live my life. After that spell at university, I returned to British Columbia, so I’m an Ontario girl who was exposed early on to the anti-eastern sentiments and sensitivities of the west. This was in the early seventies. Among the aspiring writers I knew, experimental writing was all that mattered. If you read Alice Munro, you did so with a bag over your head. She was not a language writer, she was not doing ‘important,’ ground-breaking work. There was a tremendous running feud between the poet Fred Wah, who is a friend, and very much of the west, and Al Purdy in Ontario. They hated each other’s poetry and they hated each other’s guts. I love the work of both. I’m saying all this to give you some idea of fashions and trends in writing, how they come and go, how essential it is to stay at one’s own lonely, lovely desk and not worry about reputation.
On the shelf above my desk I have Alice Munro, Daphne Marlatt, Ondaatje, Philip Larkin, Fred Wah, Terry Griggs, Per Petterson, William Maxwell, Lydia Davis, Phyllis Webb, V. S. Pritchett and so on.
I say I’m surprised to be writing novels. It happened because I came to a dead end. I couldn’t go any farther in the first person and so I had to do something drastic. In Small Change I had made some tentative efforts to write in the third person, I had invented dialogue and situations, but I was still drawing on my own life and the lives of others I knew, and this was causing too much pain. The novel—told in the third person and set in a place and during a time I hadn’t experienced myself—seemed to me to be the only answer.
I felt like a square peg driving myself into a round hole, but I saw no other route. And gradually the novel came together, though at what price I’m still not sure. Writing a novel was like learning a new language. It was tremendously hard work. I often think of myself as having a very strong first-person accent.
With all three of my novels, I’ve had a tremendous editor in Ellen Seligman, who illuminates what is missing and what is needed. I will never forget her saying to me with firmness, “A novel is not a short story.” More is required. “Think subplot.”
Thinking subplot for someone who can’t think plot is a big job. Really, it was her way of saying that I needed more strands in play if I was to sustain a story for three hundred pages. And that’s how I see the making of a novel, as the weaving together of various materials.
Hannah: When I read your stories, I feel so intimately close to your characters. How do you get to know them? Do they have faces in your mind first, or does their inner world come before that? Do they begin with dialogue, or does their voice come later in development?
Liz: I get to know them from the outside in. This was the breakthrough I made when I wrote A Student of Weather. Until then I hadn’t been able to invent characters I believed in. Pretending I knew the inner thoughts of some made-up person seemed utterly fake to me, pointless, and boring. Was I restricted then to writing about myself and people I knew? It seemed I was, and I felt my limitations painfully. Then, as I’ve indicated, I gave myself the challenge of writing a novel without sliding into autobiography, and I discovered that if I built a character’s physical appearance—looks, walk, mannerisms, clothes—and placed her in a room with another character, things began to happen. I loved doing this. It was theatre-like and freeing.
I get to know a character as I get to know someone in real life, watching her or him over time in a variety of situations, but it’s more companionable and more intense, because I don’t have to make conversation and I don’t have to worry about what they think of me.
Hannah: To what extent do you feel still that your characters are reflections of or extrapolations upon people you have encountered in your life?
Liz: In one of her letters, the poet Elizabeth Bishop said, “It takes an infinite number of things coming together—forgotten, or almost forgotten, books; last night’s dream; experiences past and present—to make a poem. The settings, or descriptions, of my poems are almost invariably just plain facts—or as close to the facts as I can write them.”
Writing fiction is no different, in my case. I use everything I know, I do research in order to know more, I often try to make the settings as accurate as possible so that my feet are on real ground as my characters lift off into their own lives. I found it more exciting to write about Saskatchewan in the 1930s than Ottawa in 1998 or New York in 1940 because I was so enamoured of the physical look of the prairies. I think we fall for places as we fall for people, taken by their looks, their smell, their interesting minds and souls, which seem to connect us with something deeper and mysterious.
My short stories tend to be fairly autobiographical, the working out of a worry or a tension. The characters in the novels are invented, but not from nothing. I might start with something I’ve been told about someone in my mother’s childhood, for instance, and build from there. In Late Nights on Air the one character who was least alive at first was Gwen Symon. My editor said astutely that perhaps this was because she was most like me. I had to free Gwen from myself so that she could have her own life.
Hannah: Have you got any unfinished stories hanging around that you would like to revisit?
Liz: Hannah, I have piles of paper, dusty, yellowed, typewritten, computer generated, going back decades and most of it going nowhere. If I’m commissioned to write a story, I dip into it and the deadline seems to sharpen my wits. But there are days when I can’t wait to be dead so that I don’t have to see the wretched stuff anymore.
Person, Place, Genre
Hannah: Of the many characters in Late Nights on Air, whose perspective was the most interesting, or most fun, or most challenging to write from? Do you have a particularly cherished character among your creations?
Liz: I loved being with Harry Boyd. He’s knowledgeable, funny, battle-scarred, vehement, romantic, self-aware, self-sabotaging, ambitious but not cravenly so, unwilling to hurt people, and not a snob. He has an eye for women and is happy in their company, yet he can stand alone. He doesn’t need to be fed. Actually, he’s perfect. He likes sex and talk and solitude.
But it was Norma Joyce in A Student of Weather with whom I had the most intense relationship. I managed to finish that book because she poked me as I lay in bed worrying. “Lizzie, get up, we have to finish.” Her presence was quiet. She didn’t phone me or pester me or tell me what to write. Whenever I left my desk—this was in the final stages of the book when I was working to a deadline—I felt sick to my stomach about how rotten the pages were, but she never overreacted. “Come on back. Try again.”
That sense of a hand slipping into yours, coming to your rescue. You’re not all alone with your pitiful brain. You are a part of life, which flows into you and onto the page.
In Late Nights on Air Dido’s was the most challenging perspective to write from. She arrived fully formed physically, but her personality wasn’t transparent. Several times my editor would say, “I don’t think Dido would do that or say that.” And I would have to admit that I had imported something from my own life and plastered it clumsily onto hers. So I would go back and see what I could tease out of Dido herself.
Hannah: In many of your stories, you explore family relationships. Are there any particular relationships which fascinate you, for instance, between siblings or spouses?
Liz: Siblings, perhaps even more than spouses, even more than parents and children.
Family stories are the best stories, I think. They draw from the deepest well. I mentioned earlier that I didn’t get along with anybody in my family when I was growing up. I can come to the boiling point within seconds about what’s it’s like not to be the favourite child. But I knew what I was doing. I chose not to ingratiate myself.
It’s complicated, isn’t it. I really don’t want to sup from childish and bitter waters, but they’re there if I need them in order to understand a character.
I’m close to my family now, for the most part, very close at times. I have a better sense of humour than I used to have, and a better sense of proportion (what the ancient Greeks called the last and greatest gift of the gods). Still, it doesn’t take much to activate the old wounds.
I must say that nothing moves me to tears faster than examples of loving sisters and brothers. Not that I necessarily trust these stories of easy affection, or my tears.
Hannah: Many authors find it difficult to capture the voice of a child in their writing. You have done a remarkable job with that—the precocious children in Garbo Laughs come to mind. How did you develop that voice, that approach to a child character?
Liz: I used my pen and my notebook and copied down the things my children said, including the exchange about their names. They were aware of what I was up to and they were irate—my son especially—about my naming them Kenny and Jane. They wanted to be Jean-Claude and Nicole.
Hannah: Last time, you said you found it exciting to write about Saskatchewan, specifically because you loved the prairies. Do you recall the first time you set eyes on that landscape? Where were you coming from, physically, and in your life? What was your first impression? How is it different from Ontario, where you grew up?
Liz: I first saw the prairies in January from a train window. This was after I had dropped out of university and was on my way to Vancouver. I saw them again the following summer from a bus window, and that was when something unforgettable happened. I had boarded the bus in Prince Rupert and was on my way back to Toronto—three days and three nights of travel. I didn’t sleep. My seatmates changed. At one point an enormously fat man sat beside me, wedging me in place so that I could barely move. I stared out at the prairie, which undulated ever so slightly, and the release I felt at seeing that minimal, simple shift in line was equal to the release I felt when I moved my leg an inch. It was a lesson in how the smallest change can alter everything. Sometimes all I need is a word or two of direction and a story that is stuck will open up. Or a grievance I’ve nourished for months will completely fall away when the person I’m angry with says a few kind words.
Ontario is complicated. I grew up on the Bruce Peninsula, in Owen Sound and Wiarton. I love that rocky, watery part of the world. Birch trees, for instance. Is there anything more beautiful than birch trees against rock? Then when I was about ten, we moved inland and farther south to a small town called Mitchell, near Stratford. What a comedown, what a fall from grace. The move coincided with my early puberty, my first experience of being dumped by a friend, my first experience of having a teacher who took a scunner to me. Place and personality. They go together in my mind.
Yellowknife took me back to Wiarton. It, too, was a town on a rocky peninsula that pointed north. Last May, when I went back to Yellowknife for the first time in twenty years, I fell down in love, as my Québecoise sister-in-law would say, I fell down in love with the rock.
Hannah: Many people say LA can’t be beautiful; it’s true it’s full of ugliness, both moral and physical, but there are moments, crossing the bridge into old Pasadena, or wandering through the warehouse district below the lights of Chinatown at night, when you feel you could be Phillip Marlowe in a Raymond Chandler novel, and somehow the city is beautiful beyond words. Have you ever felt that way for a city, or are you more drawn to small towns, or wilderness? What do you find beautiful about Ottawa?
Liz: I understand you completely. ‘Somehow the city is beautiful beyond words.’ That’s what I wanted for Norma Joyce in A Student of Weather. She would be like one of those places that’s dismissed as homely, unworthy of notice, until seen in a certain light.
I am drawn to small towns, but I need a good library. Ideally, I would live in a place with one street. On the street would be a tremendous library, an excellent theatre, movie house, bakery, bookstore, stationery store, hardware store, grocery store. Water on all sides. A great deal of bare rock. Trees that don’t block the view, but offer deep shade in the summer. No need for a car.
My children hate Ottawa. I defend it, sometimes tepidly. I’ve never fallen in love with Ottawa. I am fond of it. One longs to fall in love with a place. My children would say I’m settling for too little and they may be right. I am comfortable here and there are views that soothe and delight me. If you stand on Pretoria Bridge and look down the canal in the winter, you could be in a painting by Breughel. Close to Ottawa, very accessible, are lovely woods and fabulous swimming lakes. And the city itself is fairly slow-paced and relatively quiet, which suits me. Also, history-filled.
Hannah: I lived for a year with my family in China, in 1992. I was five and turned six while in Chengdu, in Schzechuan Province. People used to stare quite openly at me and my sister, two westerners with reddish hair and different faces, and call out “wi-guaren’ which meant foreigner (although I think it translates to ‘white devil’). But I never felt threatened, or disliked, never got that uncomfortable feeling I get in New York or LA or even Portland, that people resent you, or that you could be in danger. I wandered the city around the University with just my sister and our two friends, me six and my sister four years old, and panda trainers fed us rice candies and let us pet a panda bear, and people tried to sell us rabbits for dinner, fresh eels, and strange, exotic goldfish. The panda had the softest fur you can imagine, like silk, but thicker than sheep’s wool.
You’ve lived in Mexico, the United States, and Canada. What do those borders mean to you? How do you delineate them in your mind? What virtues or follies are peculiar to each, things which drew you in or repulsed you?
Liz: For the longest time I wanted to see places with my own eyes. I would read about a city or a particular climate and want to be in it. I wanted to intensify my reading, I suppose, by seeing the location.
My parents did something unusual for which I’m incredibly grateful. When I was fourteen, they decided to move to London, England for a year. We traveled there as passengers on a Dutch freighter (that’s where I learned the expression Dido uses about not having to bicycle between the raisins in raisin bread), we spent the summer traveling by train around Britain, and then I attended a grammar school. I saw Nureyev and Fonteyn perform at Covent Garden. I went to my first opera, “Carmen.” I became more mature than I was in some ways. Mature on the surface, perhaps. Then the re-entry to Canada was lonely. I went into Grade twelve in Guelph, knowing nobody.
It was my English literature teacher in the grammar school who opened the world of writing to me. She asked us one day to read a poem by D. H. Lawrence, then to write down whatever came into our heads. I wrote a stream of consciousness poem and astonished myself.
I’m very glad I lived in Mexico and learned rudimentary Spanish, and lived in New York and learned how varied and progressive so much of American life is. Canadians can be so insufferable in their narrow and ignorant disdain of things American. My husband and children, who are dual citizens, catch me out sometimes when I fall into easy contempt.
Borders mean nothing in some ways, but they must mean a great deal, since I find it necessary to live in Canada and set most of my writing here. Home is my desk, but it’s also this Canadian air that I’ve breathed from birth.
Hannah: From what Kim tells me, you’re into films as well as the written word, and of course you’ve had some experience in radio, which is purely auditory from an audience’s perspective. As an audience member or a reader, do you think there is a specific kind of story which works particularly well in each genre? Do you enjoy listening to the radio, because of or perhaps in spite of your experiences there? I myself am currently discovering the wonders of early noir films.
Liz: I wonder if I didn’t use up my love of films by writing a book about them. I don’t watch movies much anymore. I go to plays instead. In recent years I have seen so much bad theatre that my tombstone could read: Killed by bad plays.
I would like to write a play. From what Kim tells me, you are writing a play, to say nothing of a novel. My daughter is studying acting. I would really like to write a play for her. If only I knew how. Teach me.
Speaking of bad, I don’t listen to radio much anymore either. CBC Radio is a sorry shadow of its former self. We always used to think that the threat to public radio came from hostile or financially strapped governments that cut back on funding. The greater threat these days is the rot within. The desperate scramble to increase ratings. Top management doesn’t care about its longtime listening base of people who want to learn about Canada and the world. It has no loyalty to us at all. None.
Hannah: This next question comes from my utter ignorance about the world of authors. A friend in theatre once told me that she could feel an audience reacting to her performance, and she would respond to that, attempting to change her performance or play up certain elements of it according to her audience. Do you ever read reviews of your work? How do you react to them? What do they offer you?
Liz: I read reviews unless I know they’re bad. I don’t read bad reviews intentionally. They kneecap me. Unexpected rejection is very tough. I’m fairly used to a string of what are euphemistically called ‘declines’ by publishers. That’s something I prepare myself for. Still, they make me grouchy and sorry for myself. Self-pity is the big enemy.
I have one fortunate trait that helps me with rejection. I take my kneecapped self to my bed and I lie down, and after a spell of sinking to the bottom, I find my bloody-minded essence. I can live without that reviewer’s approval. I can live without that publisher’s yes. I can live without that award. And I feel much stronger for the rejection. I always think of Tommy Douglas. When I was about twelve, I heard him on the radio after another disastrous NDP defeat saying he was ‘bloodied but unbowed.’ Me too, bloodied but unbowed. Unlike Tommy Douglas, I curse like a sailor. I bury my rejectors under a mountain of foul language. That helps a lot.
I’m also perfectly aware that my books aren’t perfect. I don’t expect everyone to like what I write, or to like me. I don’t like myself half the time, and I wish my books were better.
Hannah: You’ve been incredibly, wonderfully open and engaged throughout this interview. I’ve enjoyed our conversation immensely, and your responses have been so complete I can’t think of anything else to ask you at the moment. Is there anything I haven’t asked that you might want to address? I can make up a question to fit it.
Liz: There are so many things that muddy the waters for a writer. All the many forms of rejection and insecurity, the lack of time, the lack of ability, the self-disgust, the envy. All you can do is keep writing until the waters clear. They don’t seem to clear for me until I manage to set foot on what feels like real and urgent ground.
I jotted something in my notebook yesterday morning, a quotation from the filmmaker Danny Boyle. “You can’t always control things, but you can open yourself up to them and find the pattern there.”
To live with not knowing. Danny Boyle, Keats, Buddha, they all reach the same conclusion (I’m in shaky ground with Buddha, but Buddhim as a philosophy makes huge sense to me). To loosen the reins and allow the horse to take you home. That was Graham Greene’s wonderful way of putting it. I think of his words every day.