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

This was written on March 31, 2014. 6 years later I am anticipating the publication (in a month or so) of a novella written in homage to the novellas of Sheila Watson and Ethel Wilson. They were the compass and the maps I had in my mind and on my desk as I wrote The Weight of the Heart.

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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.”

redux: “neatly chiseled”

Note: 5 years ago, and I’m still thinking about novellas (I was up in the night, working on The Occasions, my novella-in-progress); I still keep Swamp Angel on my desk. (A year ago I had the pleasure of talking to Michael Enright on CBC’s Sunday Edition about Ethel Wilson’s book.)

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I’ve been rereading my favourite novellas lately, trying to fix in my mind what it is that makes the form so attractive. (Someone, somewhere, wrote that a novella is a bit like a recit in opera but I’d argue against that, I think. Some of them are full of arias, lyrical and serving exactly the same function as, say, an aria in a Handel opera: to balance and contrast the narrative work of the recit.) This afternoon I was reading Ethel Wilson’s Swamp Angel and came to this beautiful passage:

The sound of the cranes’ silver music approaching in all that silence would take her at once out of a cabin with her broom, and into the open, to look up, to listen, and when they had passed over, to recapture the sight and the silver sound which moved on over other lakes and hills. She would walk up the long overgrown trail to the far end of the lake and, in the evening, approach softly, and stand, waiting to see the heads and backs of beaver in the water, leaving their lodge and returning again. She would hear the gunshot sound of the beaver’s tail upon the water as, startled, he dived. She would examine the stumps of the birches, neatly chiseled to clean points by the sharp teeth…

Swamp Angel is set mostly on Three Loon Lake which I believe is a fictional stand-in for Lac Le Jeune, near Kamloops. We often take the Lac Le Jeune Road when we’re in that area, an old route leading past the Jocko Creek Ranch and past small lakes and the larger Lac Le Jeune. Years ago I camped there with Forrest while on a research trip on the Thompson Plateau and we watched a wood duck hen lead her ducklings down from their nest hole in a tree by the marshy end of the lake. And south of Lac Le Jeune, near Nicola Lake, I once heard the sandhill cranes before I saw them, their singing like creaking wooden wheels across the sky. But what I loved about this passage of Swamp Angel is the bit about the beavers. In a marsh on our route from home to the mailboxes, there’s a small marsh where we hear red-winged blackbirds every spring and occasionally ducks in the more watery areas. But there are two alders on the edge of the marsh and a beaver has been chiseling them for the past week. Every day we say, “It won’t be long now!” and today I asked John to take a photograph when he went alone for the mail. (I was busy getting things ready for a birthday party for him tomorrow!) The photographs are blurry because it’s raining and because, well, it was nearly sunset (just before 4). But it won’t be long!

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novellas for a rainy day

rainy day friends

It’s raining, a lovely soft sound on the roof. A perfect day to curl up with a novella, or three. In that spirit, I’m offering my three novellas—Inishbream, Patrin, and Winter Wren—for $45. (That’s a paltry $15 per title! But I’m only offering them as a trio.) I’ll ship for free in Canada. Other places? We can talk!

On my Books page, you can read about the individual titles. And here’s a little sample of rainy writing from each of them:

Listen. There were weeks when the sun refused us. At first I thought I could never live in such a place, but then I learned the sweetness of the Irish mist, how it enveloped you and numbed you to any real action or consequence. And you wandered in it, your hair jewelled, and you let yourself drift in great imaginings, where the ruined castle on the coast was made whole and you lived there, where the beached hooker* was yours and you mended it.

—from Inishbream (Goose Lane Editions, 2001)

My grandmother told me once that her father had worn a cloak, a loden cloak, given him by a man who’d bought some of the copper pots. It repelled both wind and rain. Sometimes he’d open it to allow two or three of his children to shelter within, she said. We sat under trees while the rain poured down, and it was our own tent, warmed by our father’s body.

—from Patrin (Mother Tongue Publishing, 2015)

Where am I, where am I? Again, she woke and tried to orient herself in the new room. Curtains, no—the fogginess was because it was raining outside and she couldn’t see farther than the window. Her room was a cube of wood and glass. In the bed she had been born in, she leaned forward and watched drops of water slowly find their way down the glass to the sill. The trees dripped. The cabin was cold and she put off the moment when she would push away the eiderdown and rush to the woodstove to start the morning’s fire.

Winter Wren (Fish Gotta Swim Editions, 2016)

*The Galway hooker (Irish: húicéir) is a traditional fishing boat used in Galway Bay off the west coast of Ireland.

September song

But the days grow short when you reach September
And the autumn weather turns the leaves to flame
And I haven’t got time for the waiting game

And the days dwindle down to a precious few
September, November
And these few precious days I’ll spend with you

                         (Kurt Weill, Maxwell Anderson)
A sweet time at our house with a visiting grandson (and his parents), a visiting daughter (minus her cats this time around), and a scattering of bright days among the rainy ones. The other morning I noticed that the bigleaf maples are turning and the air has that cool tang of autumn. Apples, stardust, the knowledge that chanterelles are out there if we just hunt carefully enough.
A perfect time to offer a sale! So I am. Three novellas — Inishbream, Patrin, and Winter Wren — for $45, shipping included. Here’s what reviewers have said about the books:
Inishbream is a story imbued with the rhythms of speech and of the natural world, of dying and living, of flight and change. It holds the same fundamental truths as a sung air, as the hanging notes of a tin whistle, of the resonance of pipes.” — Quill and Quire
“In Patrin, Kishkan skilfully weaves together several complementary threads, each one illustrating a different aspect of longing. One thread expresses the nostalgia for a personal past (Patrin’s first loves, and her early days of independence as a young woman just coming into her own); another illustrates Patrin’s desire to connect to an ancestral past, to feel part of something larger than herself.” — Vancouver Sun
“Kishkan’s new novella, Winter Wren, is a phenomenal read, and the latest evidence that there’s no accounting for which artists are the ones who get famous.” — Book Addiction
Each of them is the ideal length for an afternoon’s read by the fire (or the memory of one), each one of them will take you to unexpected places — an island off the west coast of Ireland, Czechoslovakia before the Velvet Revolution, a wild beach on Vancouver Island. And they make beautiful gifts. (Is it too early to think about Christmas? No.)
Here’s my grandson Arthur enjoying novellas on a rocking chair by the fire.
novellas!.jpg
And the days dwindle down to a precious few
September, November
And these few precious days I’ll spend with you