Gail Anderson-Dargatz has been published worldwide in English and in many other languages. A Recipe for Bees and The Cure for Death by Lightning 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. Both Turtle Valley and A Rhinestone Button were national bestsellers in Canada and her first book, The Miss Hereford Stories, was short-listed for the Leacock Award for humour. Her most recent novel, The Spawning Grounds, came out in September 2016. After nearly a decade of teaching within the Optional-Residency MFA program in creative writing at the University of British Columbia, Gail now mentors writers around the world through her own on-line forums. She also hosts the Providence Bay Writers’ Camp for adults from her summer home on Manitoulin Island, Lake Huron, Ontario. For most of the year, though, Gail lives in the Shuswap in south-central British Columbia, the landscape found in so much of her writing. For more, please visit her website at www.gailanderson-dargatz.ca or follow her @AndersonDargatz.
Gail Anderson-Dargatz answered questions from Katy Wimhurst via email. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Katy Wimhurst: Your writing has been described as “Margaret Laurence meets Gabriel García Márquez.” Do you identify with that description?
Gail Anderson-Dargatz: Having my writing compared to that of these two greats is flattering, and I deeply admire their work. Margaret Laurence was certainly an early influence in that her novels inspired me to write about women characters in environments I was familiar with.
But the real influences for writing both rural and magic realism came from my parents’ stories and the Thompson Shuswap landscape in which I grew up. My father passed on stories that he heard from Shuswap herders that he ranched with. Over summers spent on the mountains, his Swedish family and the Shuswap ranchers entertained each other with stories. My mother, on the other hand, told me the British folk tales she inherited from her own parents and grandparents. Both my mother and father also told a never-ending stream of tall tales about the region and they did so as they pointed out specific locations where the events apparently took place, and many of those stories were about ghosts or the natural spirits that haunted the place. So I came to think of the Thompson Shuswap landscape as one filled with story and spirit.
KW: Although your novels have a strongly realist quality, with naturalistic landscapes, events and characters, there are also intriguing magical realist elements—ghosts, Coyote trickster spirits, odd happenings, second sight. What does the magical realism toolbox offer you as a writer that straight realism doesn’t?
GAD: First, again, these elements seem inherent to the landscape I write about, so it’s natural that the magic of that real landscape should find its way into my imagined world.
But from a narrative perspective, magic realism is an incredibly useful tool in the writers’ toolbox. We can use magic realism to explore themes in a way that is both more direct and, surprisingly, more subtle than in straight realism. For example, if a character is wrestling with her family’s past, as Hannah does in The Spawning Grounds, then instead of diving into character history and a whole lot of flashback to explore that past, I might simply have her mother’s ghost follow her. Or instead of having a character rant about environmental damage inflicted to the river, I elected to have the river—or the landscape itself—take on flesh and become a character in The Spawning Grounds, one who will do whatever it takes to protect his own. Using magic realism, we see that conflict between nature and man played out in scene, in real time, right in front of the reader, rather than in a history lesson or lecture.
KW: My favourite magical realist moments in your novels involve the natural world: thousands of ladybugs in an unused dresser or attic, purple swallows that follow Bertha Moses and her daughters, violet flax raining down on a farm, covering the earth in flowers, and a bird that drops from the sky into a character’s lap. Are these kinds of incidents inspired by actual events or phenomena? Or do you embellish, tell “tall tales”?
GAD: These strange, magical natural moments are generally inspired by real events that either I or someone I know has experienced. I then use magical realism to draw them out further. I have experienced a ladybug invasion, and my mother witnessed a rain of flowers following a storm. In The Spawning Grounds, a salmon falls from the sky to land on Jesse’s truck windshield. This might seem like a magic realism element, but it’s a fairly common occurrence in the Shuswap during spawning season. An eagle will carry a salmon off, into the sky, lose its grip on the fish, and drop it. My own husband experienced this once while driving down the highway. In fact, it is so common that eagles actually fertilize mountain forests in this way. I witnessed the cartwheeling eagles that open The Spawning Grounds, an event that, in part, inspired me to write the book.
KW: Instead of cities, you write about rural places and characters, especially those of British Columbia. Could you tell me a little about this choice? Why is it important to tell these stories?
GAD While I enjoy cities and everything they have to offer, I choose to write about rural landscapes because when you step off the concrete and into the bush, anything can happen, as I suggest above. It’s also the case that in rural communities and small towns, you are much more likely to know everyone else. In both the community I live in, in the Shuswap, and on Manitoulin Island, ON, where I host the Providence Bay Writers’ Camp, I wave and say hello to everyone I encounter in a day. We just can’t say that about city living. There are just too many people. We need to keep our distance otherwise it becomes overwhelming. So in rural communities everyone knows your business, and most people actually care. That means that when something goes wrong, so much more is at stake. From a narrative perspective, that’s a very good thing.
K.W.: In one scene in The Cure for Death by Lightning, Bertha Moses, who is from the local reservation tells the Weeks family that she thinks young Sarah Kemp wasn’t killed by a bear but by a man possessed by Coyote, the trickster spirit; John Weeks, the white farmer, laughs at her. But John’s daughter Beth Weeks, who witnesses the disturbed individual “Coyote Jack” shape-shifting from man to coyote towards the end of the novel, comes to appreciate Bertha’s perspective on events. How significant is Beth’s acknowledgement of the Native/First Nation worldview for the book?
G.A.D.: If there is one theme or idea that marks my writing, I think it is the exploration of our given worldview and its relationship to both mental illness and the natural world. If we view mental illness through a western lens, then we treat it as just that, an illness that must be hospitalized, very often isolated, and medicated. If, instead, that same psychic event is treated as sacred, a spiritual journey, and is supported within a cultural tradition and community as such, then it becomes something very different. If we view the natural world as a series of objects at our disposal, as we do in the western worldview, then we are free to use and abuse it. If we view the natural world as sacred, a spirit to be both revered and feared, then we will treat that same natural world with respect and care.
I want readers to question their own worldviews and consider that we have a lot to learn from other cultures when it comes to how we view and treat mental illness and the natural world. I’m not saying either worldview is right. Obviously we need to medicate mental illness where appropriate and make use of the resources at our disposal. I just think we should open our minds to other ways of interpreting the world and pick up a thing or two. So you’ll see a blending of worldviews in my novels. I believe it’s important to never fully answer that question, What is really happening here? I leave that to the reader.
I’ve explored the issue of working with stories from other cultures at length in this blog on my site.
K.W.: In what ways was The Spawning Grounds inspired by the stories of the Secwepemc and the Shuswap?
G.A.D.: I was inspired in part by the Shuswap story, recorded by 19th century ethnographer James Teit, of the last salmon boy who lives among the colonists as a slave and takes revenge on them for killing off the salmon. But that’s just one of many inspirations. I was also inspired by similar stories of water spirits and salmon from other cultures, mainly English and Celtic. Water spirits and stories of the salmon turn up again and again in world stories. They are a heritage we all share.
At the heart of the novel, though, is the ancient story of the Fisher King, where the environment is at risk because the ruling king, or overriding worldview, is exhausted and no longer fruitful and must be replaced. Most of us realize that is certainly the case when it comes to how we view and use the environment.
K.W.: The Spawning Grounds centres round the environmental crisis of a dying river and a Native protest against the development further threatening this river. Do you think writers have a responsibility to engage with the critical issues of their day? Or did you choose this subject more in the interests of telling a compelling story?
G.A.D.: I think it’s a mistake to write a novel because you have a message to get across. Our first duty as fiction writers is to entertain. So my focus in writing The Spawning Grounds was on creating a good story, one that would pull the reader in and keep them reading and engaged. I also chose to write about a salmon bearing river and, as a result, I had to explore the environmental crisis we’re facing there—and everywhere—as that is very much a part of this landscape. That conflict was certainly useful in creating a compelling narrative.
It’s also the case that our worldview and concerns find their way into our writing. I have four kids. I want them and their children to live in a healthy, thriving environment, in a world where we still have wilderness. And I’m angry and shamed by how our institutions and culture has treated our First Nations communities. These concerns and others have informed this narrative, but I have no interest in thumping the pulpit. I just want to tell a good story, one that readers will enjoy, but perhaps on a deeper level.
K.W.: Some of your novels explore characters in challenging domestic situations: Job, the (lovely!) misfit loner with synaesthesia, grows up on a tough rural Canadian farm (A Rhinestone Button), or Beth Weeks, the lonely teenager who struggles with a disturbed and abusive father on a 1940s Canadian homestead (The Cure for Death by Lightning). What draws you to these kinds of characters?
G.A.D.: I start with situation first, rather than character. What is a good soup to throw a character into? Once I have my “soup,” I see what the character does there. So it’s not that I’m drawn to any one kind of character—I think you’ll see many different kinds of characters in my narratives—rather, I’m drawn to writing about people living in rural settings, to their concerns, to what matters to them. The story unfolds from there, and through that story, character develops.
K.W.: Before each chapter of Turtle Valley there is a different photo, a black and white close up of ordinary objects (an old compact, a broken teacup, an old shaving brush, keys), shot in a way that gives them a mysterious atmosphere. I love the photos and they made me think of your writing, which is very rooted in concrete things and events, yet hints at the mystery that can lurk just beyond the everyday. Was that intentional? How do the photographs relate to the story?
G.A.D.: My husband, Mitch Krupp, is a photographer, and the photographs you see in Turtle Valley—as well as those on my website and videos for The Spawning Grounds—are his. As I was researching for Turtle Valley, I interviewed many people who had lived through the fire storm that engulfed the valley near my home town, the fire that inspired me to write this novel. What became apparent in those interviews was how important it was for the people to salvage a few family objects from the wreckage of the fire. None of these objects had monetary value. Rather, each carried memory. In the novel, each of the objects photographed carried memory and story for my characters. When I chose to include the photos in the book, the narrative changed hugely. So Turtle Valley is really a collaboration between my husband and I. I did all the writing, of course, but as we worked together on which objects to use, we brainstormed over how I would use the object in the narrative. As a result, the story evolved with each object.
K.W.: Canada is outside the Spanish-speaking world, but in terms of what might be called “magical realism,” it has one of the strongest traditions. As well as your own novels, there are those by, for instance, Jack Hodgins, Robert Kroetsch, Yann Martel, Nalo Hopkinson, and WP Kinsella. Why do you think magical realism has flourished in Canada? Do you feel an affinity with any of these writers in particular?
G.A.D.: Jack Hodgins was, and continues to be, my mentor. I was very likely influenced by his writing, though I feel I was much more influenced by his approach to the writing life, and to mentoring other writers. I continue to use his excellent guide A Passion for Narrative with my own students. Like Jack, I also spent a great many years living on Vancouver Island. Both Vancouver Island and the Shuswap contain temperate rainforests, lush, magical landscapes that foster a sense of magic and spirit. But so many of our Canadian landscapes do. I’m equally inspired to write magic realism by the landscape surrounding Manitoulin Island, the same landscape that inspired much of the art of the Group of Seven.
I think, again, that it’s not only our First Nations stories that inspire magic realism in this country, but how those stories blend with European and other world story traditions, and how, even now, we live on the boundary line between the urban world and wilderness. When we step off the concrete and into the bush, we meet something other there, as well as the dark recesses of our own psyches, projected onto the natural world. Magic realism is born there, on these boundary lines between cultures and the urban and natural worlds.
Katy Wimhurst studied social anthropology before doing a PhD on Mexican Surrealism. She has worked in publishing and for the UK’s online magical realism magazine, Serendipity. She writes fiction and non-fiction and has been published in various magazines and anthologies, including Cafe Irreal, Serendipity, theguardian.com, Black Pear Press and Breath and Shadow. She won the Tate Modern short story competition TH 2058. She interviews short story writers for www.theshortstory.co.uk.