Serendipity - Gail Anderson-Dargatz interview by Katy Wimhurst

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Gail Anderson-Dargatz interview
by Katy Wimhurst

The Canadian writer Gail Anderson-Dargatz, whose fictional style has been coined as 'Pacific Northwest Gothic' by the Boston Globe, has been published worldwide in English and in many other languages. A Recipe for Bees and The Cure for Death by Lighting were international bestsellers, and were both finalists for the prestigious Giller Prize in Canada. The Cure for Death by Lightning won the UK's Betty Trask Prize among other awards. A Rhinestone Button was a national bestseller in Canada and her first book, The Miss Hereford Stories, was short-listed for the Leacock Award for humour. Her most recent novel, Turtle Valley, was published in 2007. She currently teaches fiction in the creative writing MFA program at the University of British Columbia, and lives in the Shuswap, the landscape found in so much of her writing.

Gail Anderson-Dargatz talked about her work to Katy Wimhurst for Serendipity.

KW: Your writing has been described as 'Pacific Northwest gothic' or close to magical realism. What is it that drew you to writing in such a style and what do you think it offers you as a writer that, say, straight realism doesn't?

GAD: The handle 'Pacific Northwest gothic' always makes me laugh! It makes me think I should dress in black and wear a lot of heavy makeup (I'm a jeans and T-shirt girl). Not to mention the fact that from a Canadian perspective I live in the Pacific Southwest (a reviewer from the Boston Globe coined the term, as I recall). But I rather like the description now. It does seem to fit!

I really had no intention of writing 'gothic' or 'magic realism' when I began. I grew up in the Shuswap-Thompson region, in south central British Columbia, an area with a history that goes back at least 10,000 years into the stories of the Secwepemc, or Shuswap nation. My parents were great story-tellers and their tales of the Settler history of the area were of dark deeds, strange happenings, ghosts, and premonitions. So I suppose I was more interested in good old-fashioned story-telling than in writing in any particular style. Reviewers often comment that I use elements from many genres in my fiction.

But I am attracted to magic realism both in the writing of others, and in my own. In terms of craft, it's very useful to pull from the magic realism toolbox. Instead of waxing on about how a secret haunts a family, just drop in the ghost of the old bastard so they are literally haunted! Seriously, though, magic realism is so very useful in exploring the deepest parts of our psyches. Our dreams, after all, are full of magic realism elements, the uncanny. Magic realism draws from, and speaks to, the soul.

In the end, though, what drew me to magic realism is the fun. Who doesn't like the chill of seeing a ghost? The thrill of being chased? The wonder of flowers falling from the sky? I love the freedom of knowing that anything can and will happen on the page. It's a thrill for me when these strange elements turn up as I write, and I am always surprised by them.

KW: You have said your mother talked of ghosts and premonitions when you were a child and your father was seeped in the stories of the native Salish people. How has that influenced your writing?

GAD: Dad wrote about and passed on stories he heard from Secwepemc sheep herders and labourers he worked alongside, and my mother handed down her own life stories and stories of the region. She was a scribbler, a writer, as well, although there were few opportunities in her day to make a career of it. Simply put, my mother was the muse for my early books. She was hit by lightning as a girl and did experience a rain of flowers after one of our spectacular Shuswap storms lifted up a crop of flowering flax and it rained back down, just as it did in The Cure for Death by Lightning. Ghosts haunted her childhood parlour. Cougars followed her in the bush. Her stories of premonitions were the seed for those in A Recipe for Bees. When I was a child we talked each morning about our dreams and she made a point of seeking out premonitions within them. Like most people, I'm intrigued by these uncanny stories and interested in the role they play in people's lives. Do I believe them? I believe they shouldn't be dismissed or ridiculed. They are a tremendously important part of what it means to be human.

KW: In The Cure for Death by Lightning, the main magical or supernatural element revolves around the Native American trickster deity, Coyote, who the character Bertha Moses says can possess men and make them act in a destructive manner. Could you say a bit about what drew you to the Coyote myth and the role it plays in the novel?

GAD: Of course the trickster is a part of every culture, so it appeals to some deep part of our psyche. As Coyote is elsewhere in North America, he is a positive deity here (through tricky, lustful and greedy!) who brings many gifts. As tricksters do, he turns expectations on their head, brings needed chaos to everyday order, the animal (with all its needs, lusts, and greediness) back into the civilized world so we can laugh at these elements in ourselves, instead of fear them, and put them in perspective. In other words, Coyote brings balance. At a time of war Coyote seemed particularly relevant.

Also, we live with Coyote every day here in the Shuswap. Real coyotes regularly trot through our back yard, through local fields, over the golf courses. They have an uncanny ability to appear and disappear out of and into nowhere. You'd swear they were transformers, magic. My mother told me stories of a man she nicknamed Coyote Jack who would appear and disappear just like that. He was 'bushed' (a very British Columbian term), isolated, had lived too long by himself out in the bush and both wanted and feared human contact. So she would see him at the edge of the fields, watching. Very spooky, of course. This was the start of the Coyote element in the novel. I combined local Coyote stories with European werewolf stories, and the many stories of encounters with bears, grizzlies my own family told.

Even though the Shuswap-Thompson region is increasingly developed, we still live against wilderness and there are many places where you can still get lost in the bush. When you're out there you encounter not only your own fears, but the reality that you could be some other creature's lunch. In the bush there is that sense that you are being followed, and that feeling of being haunted by something unseen but very real found its way into The Cure for Death by Lightning.

The novel I'm working on now, The Spawning Grounds, once again moves into the stories of the Secwepemc, the Shuswap, and the landscape that inspired those stories. I rather imagine I will keep returning to these stories for inspiration in one way or another as I grew up hearing them and they are rooted so very deeply in the landscape that I love.

KW: As well as the magical or supernatural elements, there is a wonderfully earthy and sensual quality to all your novels: a knowledge of plants, animals, bee keeping, farming, cooking. Do you ever feel any conflict between the magical and more earthy elements in your work? Or do they feel complimentary to you?

Oh, no, the supernatural and 'earthy' aren't in conflict at all, as any gardener knows. Once you step off the pavement you encounter the unexpected, the wondrous. I grew up in a farm family and, of course, that kept my hands planted firmly in the life that sustains us. I only live on an acre now, but in the past everything on my dinner table was something I grew, fed, baked or otherwise had a hand in creating. When you are that involved in feeding yourself you come to understand just how very connected you are to everything around you. It's a sense that we lose somewhat when we live urban, when things are packaged and presented to us on grocery shelves.

Also, again, when you step off the pavement, magic happens. The ladybugs in my most recent novel, Turtle Valley, didn't start as a 'magic realism' element. I lived this! I stepped out onto my white porch one day to find it was orange-red, completely covered in ladybugs! They were searching for a place to live over winter and for the rest of the winter I found handfuls of them in my junk drawers, under the cushions of my couch, in my linen. On warm days they would congregate in the corners of the windows and on really warm days they would swarm over my head. One or two ladybugs are cute. A swarm is spooky! So they became a manifestation of a haunting in Turtle Valley.

KW: Your writing often contains resilient female characters in oppressive situations who manage to negotiate their way through these—I'm thinking of Beth Weeks in The Cure for Death by Lightning, for instance, and Augusta Olsen in A Recipe for Bees. Can you say a bit about why that is an important theme for you.

GAD: I also have resilient male characters: the protagonists in my first collection The Miss Hereford Stories, in A Rhinestone Button, and in my current novel are all resilient boys. So it's about 50/50. The fact is women of my mother's generation were terribly oppressed, even those in upper class families who were not abused. I think it's very hard indeed for women of my generation to understand what it was like for women in those times. And the women living in rural Canada often had a very hard go of it indeed. My mother was living in homesteader conditions well into the 1950's, raising four little girls (I was the fifth, born almost a generation later). And yet the women held these communities together and were often at the forefront of social change. They had to be. They needed to make things better for their children. So when I tell a story of a woman of my mother's generation, living in rural British Columbia, I can't help but face, and write about, these issues.

KW: In contrast to many contemporary writers who focus on urban scenarios, you write about rural places and characters, especially based in the Shuswap-Thompson area of British Columbia. What is it about that area and the rural way of life that inspires you?

GAD: While most of our population lives in urban settings, a good chunk still lives in rural landscapes and small towns. It's important that these stories are told. I choose to live here (though I spend a good deal of my time in urban landscapes), so of course I find inspiration here. I'm also simply in love with this region and continued to write about it during the twenty years I lived on Vancouver Island (I just returned home four years ago). The Shuswap-Thompson landscape is glorious and varied (from sagebrush country to lush temperate rain forest), like its people, and the stories here are largely untapped. Also, for a novelist, or this novelist in any case, the stories in a small town or rural setting are simply juicier than what I find in an urban setting. When everyone knows everyone else, or at least everyone else's business, there is so much more at stake for the protagonist. So much more potential for conflict!

KW: Your most recent book, Turtle Valley (2007), involves a mystery story in which the main character, Kat, explores the strange disappearance of her grandfather many years previously (against the backdrop of a forest fire that is threatening to engulf the area now), but combines this with (among other things) an examination of the pressures put on Kat's marriage by caring for a sick husband. Can you talk a bit about the magical elements of this novel—the ghosts that haunt Turtle Valley, for instance—and how they contribute to its atmosphere and plot?

GAD: At the time I was writing this novel, my own mother went through mental decline and then had a stroke. I moved back home to the Shuswap in large part to help care for her. When she was a girl the lightning strike I mentioned earlier compromised her arm for a short time. Strangely, her stroke took from her the use of her 'lightning arm', and hugely compromised her ability to communicate. She could no longer tell her stories or write them down. And her attempts to communicate were often magical and musical. You can see how these elements found their way into Turtle Valley, into Beth's lightning arm (that acts out on its own), and in Ezra's poetic speech after his stroke. The novel also holds a feeling of loss and nostalgia that I experienced during this time. My mother passed away just before the novel was released in Canada and as I wrote, I knew that I was losing her.

KW: Canada seems to be the place outside the Spanish-speaking world where writing that might be termed 'magical realism' has one of the strongest traditions. Why do you think that might be?

GAD: The simple answer might be that many, if not most, of the many and varied Canadian landscapes are imbued with magic. Even in cities like Vancouver, we live very close to wilderness areas. And, as I said earlier, when you step off the pavement, the magic is simply there. I was influenced by my own mentor, the legendary Jack Hodgins, whose writing is often charged with magic realism elements. Again, this comes largely, I think, from the landscape that he often explores, that 'Pacific Northwest', in his case, Vancouver Island, another landscape filled with magic and tall tales.

KW: You offer a mentoring programme for novelists. Can you tell me something about that? For instance, do you prefer to work with certain sorts of writers (e.g. those who write magical realist or gothic style?

I teach advanced novel and advanced fiction in the optional-residency creative writing MFA program at the University of British Columbia . It's a unique program in that we meet face-to-face for only a couple of weeks out of the year, in the summer, and the bulk of the program is taught on-line. Workshop discussions take place in on-line forums. So at any given time, we are teaching students living or travelling all over the world. As a result, we tend to attract more mature students who are already well established in their careers or lives and have a huge experience base to bring to their writing and to the program. It's an extremely dynamic program, unlike anything I've ever taught in before.

When time permits, and if I really think I have something to offer the writer, I also mentor writers one-on-one privately, through email, either in an on-going mentorship or through a manuscript evaluation, if the writer has a rough draft. In both cases the mentorship is instructional; it's not an 'editing' service. I teach a very practical, journeyman approach to writing, and living the writer's life. There's that great quote from John Gregory Dunne: "Writing is manual labour of the mind; a job, like laying pipe." I absolutely agree. Writing a novel is about laying one pipe after the other.

I remember getting a sheet from one of my instructors for a workshop in which he said he would not take genre fiction, in particular fantasy or sci-fi. I think that's just plain silly (not to mention snooty!). Good writing is good writing, and a writer working in one genre has so much to learn from others working in other genres. That's in fact the beauty of the UBC program: writers must take at least three genres, so they may work in screen, children's literature, and poetry, for example. One discipline feeds the other. That's one of the reasons why writers going through the UBC CW MFA program have been so successful (this program is very well known for generating writers who go on to publish and do very well indeed).

So, in short, I work with writers of many genres. Most write literary fiction, but I've worked with writers on magic realism projects, gothic, suspense, thriller, fantasy, young adult, you name it. I enjoy it all.

Gail Anderson-Dargatz's latest novel, Turtle Valley (2007), published by Random House, is now out in paperback. More information about the writer and her work can be found at her website,

Photograph copyright © 2009 Mitch Krupp

Story Copyright © 2009 by Katy Wimhurst. All rights reserved.
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About the author

Katy Wimhurst, who lives in Essex, UK, originally trained as a social anthropologist, but somehow ended up doing a PhD on Mexican Surrealism. She has a soft spot for magic, myth and mud. In a past life, she might have been Salvador Dali's moustache, and she'd like to be reincarnated as one of Russell Hoban's dreams. She writes fiction and non-ficion and has had stuff published in various magazines and online publications, including Guardian (Unlimited).

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