“…stories belong on maps too…”

under the bridge

This morning I’m working on the (final) edits of my novella The Weight of the Heart, due out from Palimpsest Press in spring. It’s about several things, maybe even many, but at its heart is a young woman searching for the terroir of books she has loved: Ethel Wilson’s Swamp Angel and Hetty Dorval; Sheila Watson’s The Double Hook (and the rumour of Deep Hollow Creek, because my novella is set in the 1970s and DHC wasn’t published until 1992, though it was written before The Double Hook…). The young woman, who is Izzy, drives up the Fraser Canyon and over to Lac LeJeune and all the way to Dog Creek, and she marks a map—this is before gps, before Google—with textual notes. She is making a feminine (even feminist) cartography, though she wouldn’t have phrased it that way.

By association, stories belong on maps too, even the ones that were too quiet to be heard or else refuted the popular narratives. Stories have their own geography and need a scale bar that allows them to express location, relationships, emotions, weather effects on riverbanks, and the erosion of delicate landforms. Or they have their own gender and no one understands the legend.

When I was writing this novella, I didn’t think it would be published. Yet it will be, and I am so grateful. But more than that, I’m grateful to the women who wrote books that helped me to realize that our landscape has been lovingly commemorated by women who aren’t exactly household names in the great literary canon. I had the opportunity this time last year to remember one of them as part of CBC Radio’s The Backlist and with The Weight of the Heart, I have another opportunity to showcase their books.

The other week, on a little road trip, John and I stopped at Lytton to look at the Thompson River, greeny blue and somehow lithe, entering the brown Fraser River. The rabbitbrush had lost its yellow and gone to seed, sumac along the riverbank was brilliant red, and you could hear the thin voices of ospreys fishing. Always always always.

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It’s almost time for bed. I’ve been working at my desk on the first edits for my novella about rivers and women writers and maps (it’s in the process of trying to find a new title for itself because the publisher suggested the one I’d been using wasn’t quite right and her comment rang true), due out next spring from Palimpsest Press. The night is very quiet. So far. Last week the barred owls were hooting up a storm, two of them at least, and every few nights I hear coyotes or loons. Sometimes I wake, thinking I’ve heard a coyote just to the south of the house and realize it’s a loon down on Sakinaw Lake. Or vice versa. A long trembling sound in the dark. There are loons in this book, in the form of a name: Three Loon Lake, the name Ethel Wilson gives to Lac Le Jeune in her Swamp Angel. And there are plenty of coyotes because Sheila Watson’s The Double Hook has a part in the narrative too. I love it when I’m reading a passage and am interrupted by the sounds of the night. Maybe they even influence the rhythms of my writing, long unbroken sentences, then silence. Maybe. I think of what happens when I write about water, how my sentences surge and then slow down, how they whirl and gather, how they pull and retreat. Could it be any other way? If you truly listen, what you write will be full of the world.

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Lately there’s been a brown rabbit hanging around (avoiding somehow the coyotes). It was nibbling the tops of dandelions up by the copper beech planted in memory of my parents. Last evening, when I was in the vegetable garden, I heard a loud clanging on one part of the fence but couldn’t see anything. This morning I saw the rabbit crouched by the one spot where a little animal might be able to scoot under the fence, carefully chosen because its mesh is supposed to be too small for anything really to be able to get through. Anything but birds. The robins pass through. So do towhees. So was the rabbit in the garden and did it make the noise going out in a hurry because it saw me? I thought something had been eating the lettuce and it turns out I was right. This morning we put some boards up along the bottom where the gap is and tomorrow we’ll do something a little more permanent. Years ago, decades ago, there were rabbits here, offspring of someone’s domestic bunnies, either escapees or else ones released because of abundance. But then the coyotes arrived and we haven’t seen rabbits for years. I love watching the jackrabbits in Brendan and Cristen’s Edmonton neighbourhood; some mornings you look out and see them crouching on the boulevard. An area with plenty of places for a species to hide and thrive is called a predator shadow and apparently Edmonton is just that. Maybe this particular rabbit has been thinking of my garden as a predator shadow because a coyote could never get through the fence. Thinking of my garden as an easy lunch. But not for long.  The beans are in flower and so are the squash. Let the rabbit eat dandelions.

Oh! Just now, a loon. It’s one of the most beautiful sounds I know, lonely and tremulous. Every now and then when we go for our morning swim, we’ll see loons on Ruby Lake. Sometimes a single bird but once, memorably, a mother and her two young. She was teaching them to call and I swam back and forth along the shore listening to her hoot and then the young ones trying to imitate. It was too early for boats so the loon three-part song was the only sound, apart from my splashes as I back-stroked along the shore.

So now I’ll go to bed full of the sound of loons, hoping that the right title will come to me, that I’ll wake early with a phrase sounding itself in my head, wanting to be written down on the scraps of paper I keep by my bed for just those moments. I’m listening, listening.

Wish me luck?

redux: “I have always taken the compass as a thing to be held.”

5A

Note: This post is from March, 2014. I was thinking my way into a novella and I was reading, in some cases re-reading, the novels (and novellas) of Ethel Wilson and Sheila Watson. They are the muses of the novella I eventually wrote, The Marriage of Rivers, and I am so delighted to tell you that Palimpsest Press will publish it next spring (2020). The contract has been signed, sealed, and delivered! This press, like Mother Tongue Publishing, is devoted to “…poetry, fiction, and select nonfiction titles that deal with poetics, the writing life, aesthetics, cultural criticism, and literary biography.” And their books are objects of beauty in themselves.

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I’ve never been to Dog Creek though I’ve thought of it many times as we’ve driven Highway 97 from Cache Creek north. In 1934 (one account says 1935) the young Sheila Doherty went to teach school in Dog Creek, then (as now) a remote community on the west side of the Fraser River. She lived in Dog Creek for two years and wrote of this time in her first novel, Deep Hollow Creek, though it was published much later in her life, after she’d achieved a kind of fame after the publication of her second novel, The Double Hook, in 1959. By then she’d married Wilfred Watson and taken his surname.

I read The Double Hook as many of us did, as an undergraduate (in the last century), and it changed the way I thought about novels. Its language, both lean and mythic, led the reader into a hermetic world from which one emerged, dazed and somehow enlightened. Its structure was (is) perfectly balanced between darkness and illumination, between violence and redemption. As Sheila Watson wrote in The Double Hook, “…when you fish for the glory you catch the darkness too.”

But it was many years later before I found Deep Hollow Creek — and no surprise there because it wasn’t published until 1992. I read it later in the 1990s, a chance discovery on the shelves of the Sechelt Public Library. It’s a brief perfect book. 111 pages in the New Canadian Library edition I bought at Russell Books in early March. I’d call it a novella, that enigmatic form beloved by maybe too few of us these days (or so the publishing world would have us believe. We can’t market them, they say. We can’t sell them!). Every word counts in Deep Hollow Creek and there are just enough of them for the young school teacher Stella to enter the place  that is Dog Creek and tangle herself in the dense stories of the few who live there.  “If I hadn’t come here, I doubt whether I should ever have seen through the shroud of printers’ ink, through to the embalmed silence. The word is a flame burning in a dark glass.”

Deep Hollow Creek anticipates The Double Hook but to my mind it’s more satisfying. This is personal, of course. I think both books are works of sheer genius but somehow the symbolism of The Double Hook is used with a lighter hand in the earlier book. The place — Dog Creek — seems first of all to be a real place. Stella unravels the water-rights, the systems of hay crops, the genealogies of horses and dogs, the bitter disputes between families. And it all rings so true, even those grouse among the jack-pines: “…red-eyed, speckle-coated fool-hens…unconcerned, waiting for their necks to be wrung without the trouble of a shot.”

I am trying to find a way to write lean essential stories myself and it’s a gift to have this book to serve as a talisman, a compass. “I have always taken the compass as a thing to be held. Yet the hand falters measuring the fleeting body of flame.”

Ethel Wilson on Sunday Morning

lac lejeune

Earlier this fall, I had a lovely conversation  with Michael  Enright (of CBC Radio’s Sunday Edition) about Ethel Wilson’s beautiful Swamp Angel. Readers of this blog know that she is one of my foundational writers. She brought a feminine, perhaps even feminist,  attention to the places and stories of British Columbia, and few writers attended to the landscape as lovingly as she did.

Our interview will air this Sunday morning and I hope you’ll listen. When I have a link to it, I’ll post it in my News and Events area.

“Is the heart still light?” (from a work-in-progress)

lac lejeune

In certain parts of the lake shore there is tulé grass growing out into the water, thick at the shore, thin and sparse as it stretches into the lake. Where the tulé grass – which is a tall reedlike grass – is sparse, its angled reflections fall into the water and form engaging patterns.” (SA, 86)

Turned off again on the road to Lac le Jeune because I wanted to see Three Loon Lake after all, what Ethel Wilson called it in Swamp Angel, though she had other names for it in another stories: Nimpish, Blue, and before it was renamed in the 1930s, in honour of Father Le Jeune, it was Fish Lake. Before that, for thousands of years, it was Chuhwels. She and Wallace loved the lake and took a cabin on the hill above the water, fishing daily for Kamloops trout.

Is the heart still light, does it balance in the scale as light as the feather?

In Swamp Angel, Ethel Wilson describes Maggie’s relationship with the lake as a union, like a happy marriage. And the Wilsons were happy. Casting their flies, from a row-boat, in deep water or among the tulé reeds; sharing drinks on the verandah afterwards, the water shimmering with sky. So to give Maggie the lake, with its rich presence, the birds, warm rocks, the pines, and even a gun, the Swamp Angel itself, to drop finally into the water, was to give a woman an everlasting place in a landscape. As horses ran through the grass of the Jocko Creek Ranch, the Two-Bit, and others unknown to me, women loved lakes also unknown to me, but Maggie’s was on any map if you knew the code. Knew the legend.

The lake was gun-metal, rippled, as I approached. No loons but what was that? A moose in the shallows eating reeds. Lily pads glittering, a chill in the air I hadn’t felt at the Two-Bit. But low cabins on one shore, drifting ducks, a dock pushed out into the lake and weathered grey. At the very far end, almost out of sight, a man in a small boat casting. One of those moments. It could have Wallace, it could have been. Ethel on the small deck of the cabin, reading. Ice in a bucket for cocktails late afternoon and a warm fire waiting.

“And all the lives we ever lived”

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“And all the lives we ever lived and all the lives to be are full of trees
and changing leaves.” — Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse
Yesterday I surprised myself and finished the novella I’ve been working on. I knew I was somewhere near the conclusion but as I didn’t know what would ultimately happen, I didn’t see the end coming until I was actually there.
(When I say I “finished”, what I mean is that I completed a first draft. The next step is to print it out because I can never do a substantial edit before I see what the work looks like as a physical text. Some people can scroll through pages on a screen and understand where they are in the work as a whole and how each chapter (or section, in my case) relates to the others. But I can’t. I like to sit with an actual draft and a pen and scribble on paper as I read.)
I’ve noted before that this is probably a novella that will not be published. It’s a strange sort of meta thing. The narrator is writing a thesis on the work of Sheila Watson and Ethel Wilson and she frequently refers to their writing. She is notating a map with places and moments in their fiction and the reader imagines a map with actual passages from various books. A scholar writing a thesis wouldn’t have to worry (I don’t think) about securing permission to use the quoted material because it’s considered fair use for critical purposes. But as this is a work of fiction, the situation is a bit more complicated. And potentially prohibitively expensive. That’s what I mean by “meta”. Or maybe I don’t. This novella is a strange sort of hybrid. And I loved every minute of its creation.

Last week I met with the Special Collections librarian and archivist at the University of Victoria about papers (mine, and John’s) and they showed me one of the Margaret Peterson works held by the Legacy Gallery at UVic. It’s a huge tempera on panel and when I saw it, I thought two things. One is that Margaret Peterson belongs in this novella and so now she’s there. (There’s that meta idea again: in my own life, I met her and her husband Howard O’Hagan once. The narrator of the novella is, in a way, the person I would have been if I’d pursued a degree in Canadian Literature instead of becoming a writer.) The other is that the painting would make a perfect cover image.

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At this point in my life, I am grateful to be able to sit at my desk and construct a work in which worlds are superimposed on one another, the real and the imagined. Grateful to spend time in the grace and beauty of language and rivers, bluebunch wheatgrass and Ponderosa pines. Where coyotes appear out of folds in the hills and history glosses the landscape like a weathered homestead where someone still makes a daily fire and tends to the animals.
“So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say.” — Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own
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yesterday

yesterday

We caught the early ferry from Earls Cove to Saltery Bay so we could poke around in Powell River, then continue on for lunch to the Laughing Oyster at Okeover Inlet. Forrest, Manon, and their children leave tomorrow so we all wanted to do something we’ve done in the past, and loved; a chance to immerse ourselves in the old coast, a place of weathered wood and low storefronts, winding roads leading past stump farms, and everywhere the smell of the sea.

It was a lovely day, the inlets—Jervis and Okeover—soft with mist. Last night, in my bed, I kept remembering a certain turn of the road, the sound of kingfishers, and as I put my book aside, I felt somehow returned to myself, the way a change can do that, or a perfect book, or a combination of both. The book, in this instance, was Deep Hollow Creek, Sheila Watson’s first novella, though it was published long after her iconic The Double Hook. The latter is one of the texts at the heart of my novella-in-progress, which I’ve almost finished writing. (The first draft, at least.) Along with Ethel Wilson’s fine Swamp Angel and Hetty Dorval, it is such an excellent example of how women often write out of a deep engagement with landscape. Their maps are not the maps we usually think of when we explore literary cartography and my book tries to fill in these gaps, enter the contours of their language and attention. In a week or two I will have a draft and then I will know if I’ve done what I’d hoped to do. Sometimes I was lost in the pages of what I was writing, sometimes distracted from them, fearful of them. In the meantime, last night, I read these lines:

For the time being she had lost her bearings, she felt, and been engulfed in the vast rolling waves of the folding and unfolding earth.

And I knew again that Deep Hollow Creek is both a map and a guide, a book that opens a place in the body and says, This is also you, this is also what you know. The unfolding earth, the calm water seen out the window at Okeover Inlet, the islands of Jervis Inlet moving in and out of the mist.