“I pressed a pencil hard by the Deadman River”

For a few months now, I’ve been busy with some essays and also with work associated with the micro-press I run with my friend Anik See. (The second novella on our list is at the printer! For more information, visit www.fishgottaswimeditions.com) Hovering in the back of my consciousness has been my own novella-in-progress, though that progress has been stalled. Why is that, I’ve been wondering. Every time I open the file to work on it again, I am transported to its time (the 1970s), its locus (Lytton, the Thompson Plateau, and the area west of Clinton), and its explorations into the women who wrote those landscapes and whom we seldom hear referenced in the literary conversations. I mean of course Ethel Wilson and Sheila Watson. The protagonist of the novella is a young woman writing a thesis on their work, using their novels to map a very specific terrain. Or at least this is part of what she is doing. She is also coming to terms with the death by drowning of her brother and in this respect there are other texts that travel under the surface of the narrative: mostly these are ancient Egyptian funerary texts—the Books of Breathing and the Book of the Dead.

I want to talk a little about the use of secondary material in a creative work. It’s problematic. It seems to me that it wasn’t always quite so difficult to think about including other texts in one’s own work as long as the writing was properly acknowledged and cited. OF COURSE I don’t mean pretending that the material is your own. Of course not. But I’ve always thought of writing, or at least most of the writing I do, as a kind of conversation, an extension of thinking, and also an act of homage to the work that I’ve loved  and that has shaped who I am and what I do. Am I wrong in remembering that it used to be common to include passages (again, properly cited) and epigraphs (ditto), without there being the difficult dance we call Permissions? Here’s a letter I received from Seamus Heaney in 1977 after I’d written to him to ask for permission to use some lines from a poem in North as an epigraph for my book, Ikons of the Hunt.

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I sent him the book when it came out and he in turn sent me a card congratulating me. “There is no need to go Fabers.” (In my query, I’d wondered.)

One reason I am thinking about this in relation to this novella is because so much of what I want to write depends on being able to include passages of several novels in my own. Sometimes the author is directly referred to in my text and sometimes, like the passage I’ll show here, I quote the passage in the context of how it’s being used, in this case to annotate a map the narrator is using as background for her thesis as she travels in search of the places mentioned in the books she is writing about. I’ve always planned to include a bibliography and have kept careful notes.

…He could not fault my writing, he admitted, but said he remained unconvinced by the material I’d quoted. I wouldn’t waste my time, he said, on this sort of thing. It’s barely coherent.

I thought of him as I made my marks on my map. His bristly moustache, there. I pressed a pencil hard by the Deadman River. His sneer, there, as I sketched some trees—“…such trees as these marched in thin armies up the runnels of the hills which were strangely coloured in places by outcroppings of rose red rock.”—on the west side of the Thompson just before Ashcroft.

But yesterday, after writing a short section, I suddenly knew what was holding me back from this book. And the fact I’ve called it a “book” is part of what I understand to be the problem. Although I don’t usually write with the thought of publishing what I am currently working on, I guess I know that’s the final step in my working process. I write. I revise. I revise some more. And then I find a publisher. I don’t have an agent. I had one briefly in the early 2000s but she was reluctant to actually place the book I’d finished—A Man In A Distant Fieldso we parted company. I tried other agents, in part because there’d been little flutters of interest for film rights for two of my books, but no agent in this country (or any other) would take me on. And that’s fine. I know that I am mostly a literary writer and that there’s a limited market for what I do. I wanted to make sure my books had their best chance and I can say I’ve done that. So yes, a book. That’s what I expect what I’m writing to be when I’m finished. But knowing how difficult it is now to actually include secondary material without paying large sums to do so has me wondering why on earth I should complete this and who on earth would publish it.

When I wrote my memoir-in-essays, Mnemonic: A Book of Trees, I spent years reading and researching and remembering. There’s masses of source material cited and acknowledged After the manuscript was accepted, we spent some time deciding exactly how to shape it. Abandon some of the material? Footnote it? Endnote it? Use it as indirect quote? Paraphrase? I wanted every text I’d read and consulted to be obvious because I felt so many of the writers I’d read were guides, mentors, friends. I spent ages figuring out how to prepare the framework and the bibliography (it’s 6 1/2 pages) because it turns out that citation styles have changed from the last century when I was a student and in any case my publisher’s house-style is Chicago rather than MLA. But then I was told I had to start securing permissions. And that became something I’ll never forget because oh, how things had changed from the days when Seamus Heaney said, “There is no need to go to Faber.” I wrote to authors and in most cases they were so gracious. Translator of Dante, and an extraordinary poet in his own right? “Absolutely.” Translator of Odysseus Elytis? Yup, by all means. But then I was told (by my publisher), no, you must also secure permission from the publisher and that’s when it got expensive. There are seven pages of endnotes and I paid about half of my advance in order to be allowed to use quite a lot of the material cited. Sometimes it was 100 pounds for ten words. (In that case, I paraphrased.) The big publishers were the most aggressive and I understand, I guess, why my own (smaller) publisher insisted we track down every one of them. Though seriously? Someone is going to go after an author for quoting and citing a sentence from a book in her own book which, let’s face it, is never going to be a best seller and make her millions? Or even thousands? What times we live in. There were a lot of sleepless nights and I watched my modest advance trickle away, 50 bucks here, 75 there. If I knew the authors would see that money, I’d feel a little less grim about it. (When people write to me to ask if they can use something I’ve written, I always say Yes! Just remember to cite the source.)

None of this should be in my mind and heart as I follow a young woman in search of two women authors in the last century, wanting to insist on a feminine cartography in a landscape claimed and settled by men. Men I read and love, I hasten to add, but I don’t want the women forgotten. I don’t want their books forgotten. None of it should be in my mind but it is. That we can no longer have a conversation in our books with authors who’ve taught us, shaped us, guided us, without paying, is something I have a hard time reckoning with.

 

 

Notes from the past: from a work-in-progress

I’ve been in the past, and in the Interior, for the last week, working away on a novella. I’ve posted little snippets here before. This comes from about the middle-point of the narrative, when the main character recalls a road-trip with her brother in the mid-1970s. I didn’t have a date to begin with but then as phrases of songs began to sing their way into the novella, I realized that it had to be after 1975 when Joan Baez first released “Diamonds and Rust”. (Another song, Emmylou Harris’s “Boulder to Birmingham”, was also released that year, and it echoes through the first part of the book.) As for the other sacred texts that form what I think of as calls and responses in the novella, they range from Hetty Dorval (1947), Swamp Angel (1954), The Double Hook (1959), to the much older Egyptian funerary texts — The Book of the Dead and The Books of Breathing. Is this too much literary weight for a small story to carry? Time will tell, as it always does. Here’s a photograph of the road to Pavilion so you can imagine the wind, the grass, the prospect of horses.

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from The Marriage of Rivers, a work-in-progress….

Once we were driving to a wedding in Clinton – a guy James went to university with was marrying the daughter of a local rancher – and we’d taken the Duffy Lake Road, through Lillooet, then to Pavilion where we stopped for ice-cream. Our plan had been to continue on 99 until it met 97 at the Hat Creek Ranch north of Cache Creek. We were looking forward to taking some photographs at Marble Canyon. A Shuswap guy James knew said that the high white pinnacle everyone called Chimney Rock was really Coyote’s Penis and James couldn’t resist. –I’ll have postcards made, he said. While we were leaning on one of the poles holding up the roof overhanging the entrance to the store, James suddenly said, I’ve changed my mind. Forget Marble Canyon and that penis. Let’s drive up over the mountain and go past Kelly Lake. Remember the time Dad took us camping there and all he wanted to do with fish until finally Mum said she was on strike so we had slices of bread with ham and nothing else and we thought it was a feast?

Did I remember? I’ve never forgotten how we camped on what I thought was the most beautiful lake in the world and how good those ham sandwiches were. We dipped our tin cups into the lake and drank its mineral water. And how we drove back to the coast with our windows open as we came down off Pavilion Mountain, down the crazy road (“Count the switchbacks, kids, and the one’s who’s right gets ice-cream at the store.” Then, “Who got 8? All of you? (None of us even knew what a switchback was or when we were on one.) That’s ice-cream all around!”).

–Have you got the map?

–We don’t need a map, James. It’s that road there – look, you can see the switchbacks from here. Remember when we didn’t even know what a switchback was?

We always argued about maps. James liked them to be folded just so and he liked to know distances. –How far, how far? And I’d try to estimate by using the scale but it was easier to wing it. –Oh, as far as Vancouver to Hope. Or, about the same as Kamloops to Salmon Arm.

I decided it was more about gender than temperament. I knew how to find our way by landmarks. It was hard to explain but I felt them more than I saw them. I knew how it felt in my body to drive up and get out of the car at what our father had called Carson’s Kingdom, explaining to us that a man called Carson had acquired the land in 1866 and his family had owned it until Colonel Spencer bought it in the 1940s, bought a few ranches both up the mountains and down in the valleys and on the lower benches. Spencer like the department store on Government Street, he reminded us; the store where our mother took us for back-to-school clothing, preferring it to other stores because of the quality and because she knew, slightly, a painter who lived out on Ardmore Drive, also a Spencer. Same family. We all got out of the car to watch how he opened the gate across the road while some cattle watched and we walked along a bit while he drove through, then closed the gate again. Country etiquette, he told us. So we were taking that same route, but backwards; we were driving up Pavilion Mountain rather than down and we were heading north to Kelly Lake, then east to Clinton. But my body felt the road’s contours, the rich feathery growth of the pines, the tickle of those soft grasses. I could relate these things to a map but I didn’t use the map to see how to get from one place to another. I used it as a literary text of its own. I used it to remind me how my body responded to the hills, the low-lying lakes to one of the road, the sight of a hawk gliding along the shoulder, another on a fencepost, and wind, sunlight on my arm resting on the car-door. My shoulders ached for the dry air, a few ripe Saskatoon berries in my palm. That was my map.

Roads went from this to that. But the hill led up to the pines and on to the rock rise which flattened out and fell off to nowhere on the other side. (DH, 33)

Up and up, the grass waving, the finished heads of balsamroot rustling. Crack me a beer, my brother requested, and I did, taking a long pull myself before handing him the bottle. When James was too involved with his beer and keeping us from leaving the edge of the road (the long fall to the far green valley), I let the map drop from the window on my side of the car to the ground where it floated away. Later, I thought, later I could explain that I would never forget a single contour of this landscape, not a single blade of grass, not a square inch of the blue sky above; my body was the map with its wild topography, its legends of distance and scale. In my throat, the bitter taste of hops. Speaking strictly for me, we both could have died then and there.