Interview by Friederike Knabe
OSCAR (Ottawa) July/August 2011
At the Spring edition of the Writersfestival 2011, you read from your new novel Alone in the Classroom. In your introduction and the discussion afterwards, you touched on the personal journey you took in preparation and writing of this novel. Could you summarize for the OSCAR readers – without giving away too much – what led you to give schools, learning, teachers and pupils such a central role?
It seems to me that school shapes us almost as much as our families do. And when your father was a teacher, as was mine, it’s hard to find the line between home and school. The tension I felt about homework and exams was acute, even though my father was very forgiving whenever I didn’t do well. He expected a lot from his children without exactly saying so. When I moved to Ottawa in 1992 and walked past Parliament Hill, I felt as if I were writing and failing a history exam. And yet I love to learn. It’s fascinating to explore this emotional terrain, the complexity of overlapping failure and excitement.
The book title “Alone in the Classroom” automatically triggers connotations in the mind of the reader. Why did you choose this title?
I wanted a visceral title that would resonate with anyone who has ever felt alone with his stupidity, or alone with his loneliness in a classroom. I like titles that are easy to remember, and suggest either directly or indirectly a character in a place.
Alone in the Classroom appears to those of us who have read most (if not all) of your novels to be the most personal story, written in the first person voice of one of the central characters. Have personal memories and stories of people close to you been a special inspiration?
One starting point for the book was my mother’s memory. I’ve always loved her vivid stories of growing up in Renfrew. Everything about her childhood intrigues me. Twenty years ago she told me about her high school principal, a very strange man who met a tragic end. He left a huge impression on her, and therefore on me. She also told me about a schoolmate who was raped and murdered in 1937. This material took root in my mind and I knew I would write about it one day. The huge challenge, of course, was taking these kernels and turning them into fiction.
Your central characters are very complex and their behaviour does not follow paths expected within their community. Were they inspired by people you know or knew? Did writing the novel in the first person change the way in which you imagined the characters and the story details?
My first three novels were written in the third person, which gave me the room I needed to move in and out of the lives of the characters. With Alone in the Classroom I wanted to have my cake and eat it too. I wanted to have the freedom the third person allows plus the intimate, communing tone that’s easier to achieve with the first person. A narrator, Anne, tells the story. She remains in the background for the early part of the book, piecing together the lives of people who fascinate her, then she gradually emerges as a character in her own right. Balancing first and third persons was tricky. Balancing invented characters, like Connie and Michael, with more recognizable characters like my mother, was also tricky. But I like to interweave the two.
In this novel, your language flows with ease between describing events that move the story along and allowing some of your characters to reflect and question moral imperatives and behaviour. The language conveying these is beautifully poetic and rich in images and “pearls of wisdom” that make the reader pause to follow the personal musings of the protagonists. How important has poetry become in your writing in general and in this novel in particular?
I started out as a poet. I began writing when I was fifteen and what I produced was stream-of-consciousness poetry. I was never much of a poet. I love reading poetry, however. It helps me very much with my own writing. It greases the wheels in my brain. What I hope to achieve is language that lays bare the heart and soul of things.
This novel is set against the background of the Ottawa Valley and southern Saskatchewan. How important have the localities been for you and for this novel?
The Ottawa Valley produced my mother and so it is central to my life. I feel a living connection to it. I’ve never lived in southern Saskatchewan, but when I saw it from a train window in my early twenties it had a lasting effect on me. Who knows why we respond so strongly to certain places? They quicken our imaginations and make us aware of the invisible connections coursing through things.
In your discussion of Alone in the Classroom you stated that as a first in any of your writing you have introduced the concept of “evil” into the mix of subjects and characters you wanted to explore. Since this is the first time you are delving into this difficult subject matter, how did you prepare yourself for it?
Perhaps you’re referring to my remark that in Alone in the Classroom I have a real villain for the first time. I was just trying to get laugh. In fact, I’ve always tried to explore honestly the darker aspects of human nature – disloyalty, cruelty, explosive anger, passive anger, punitive anger, vindictiveness and so on. All of my books zero in on failures in love and generosity.
During the discussion you also told us that you had written much more about one specific character in the novel and then decided to take it all out again. It is a character who plays – somewhat surprisingly for the reader – a more important role in the life of the narrator towards the end of the novel. Would leaving this material in the novel have changed the flow or direction of the story? Will you keep the material for another project?
A lot gets edited out, that’s true. Whatever drags the story down. And yes, I do keep it, and sometimes I’m able to use it in something else. I don’t throw material out, even when it’s obviously bad, because ugly ducklings, as we know, don’t always remain ugly.
What impressions, reflections, and questions would you hope that the reader of this novel will take away with him- or herself?
I’ve had some notes from readers in the Ottawa Valley, who feel inspired by the book to learn more about the Valley. That delights me. I think it’s marvelous to read a book that ignites your interest in other books and in the world. I would hope that the characters live on in the minds of readers. And that readers feel more intensely alive while reading the book, and for a while afterwards too.