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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

Rewriting our sense of self

Globe and Mail
Tuesday, Jun. 27, 2003

AG: Could you guys ever see leaving Canada and not coming back?

SH: No, my family's here. I would feel bad about leaving them.

ES: Yes. I see Canada as being a very big country that's very small. I'd like to leave, but it would be mostly because I'm hungry for experience. I'd like to try Europe, possibly France because they had an excellent transit system the last time I went. And because in high school I read Maria Chapdelaine and Jacques Prevert, even though now I can only order coffee and eggs in French. Sorry Mr. Trudeau!

KC: I wrote my first novel in grad school in NYC. My second's been hard for me to write in Vancouver. Too much email and dog-walking. I did a residency in Spain this February and appreciated the time away.

AG: Do you feel like you're part of a community?

LH: I like my community. I've become closer friends with some of the different types of people in my city, and I feel better for it. There's a difference between, you know, sort of living in a city or place and become a part of its shape and how it creates itself, and I'm finding lately that having a book published is leverage to enjoy being part of my community here. Like, I have friends with this record shop, and we put on little events, kind of semi-literary events, and they go really well, and that feels like I'm sort of adding something to my life and to the lives of —

ES: I find it interesting, though, that you would say that you use your book as leverage.

LH: I was much too shy to approach people to do this kind of thing before.

ES: Now it's like you're legitimate?

LH: Yeah, in the eyes of myself. . . . Don't you think you use being a writer as leverage?

ES: I think it's unfortunate, though, don't you? I mean, I think that it's unfortunate that we start to view people differently once they have something like a book.

SH: Of course it makes a difference. You're here.

ES: I know it makes a difference. I think it's a little bit unfortunate that it has to make a difference. I think we all should have somehow found someone and started hanging out, or talking through the CBC or Globe & Mail before we had books.

SH: Well, we did. You and I became friends before all this.

ES: We did.

SH: We're pure of heart!

ES: There need to be more of us! Where are the other Sheilas?

KC: Lee's going to make a strategic alliance. He's a friend of convenience.

LH: It's very mercenary over here. I only hang out with Kevin for what I can get from him. He uses his book as leverage to hang out with me all the time. I'm like, "I don't want to hang out with you today, Kevin." He's like, "But I wrote Baroque-a-Nova!"

AG: Do unpublished writers resent you — people who are trying to get published, your age?

ES: I have a lot of unpublished friends. I hope they don't hate me.

SH: Well, one's friends don't, but — I don't know, people are snarky sometimes. I mean, it's not all the time, and most people are quite nice, but sometimes people write mean stuff about me on their Web site and then I cry for a few days.

LH: I think there's a really — people look at me and I say, "Yeah, I wrote a book," and they're, like, "Oh, my goodness! You wrote a book?" and suddenly it's kind of exciting. And I don't know, people seem to be very excited about creating stuff. I don't think there's anything to be ashamed of, having . . .

ES: . . . published a book?

LH: Yeah, it's really very cool. I'm totally stoked about it.

SH: What was the question again?

ES: Do unpublished people resent . . .

SH: If they do, that's good. If you're unpublished you should definitely resent people that are published. Because, you know, they're taking up the space that you want for yourself. A publishing house can only publish so many books.

AG: You're saying jealousy is healthy?

SH: I think it's natural, and I think it probably makes you work harder.

AG: That might be true.

SH: Yeah, I was full of rage before I got published. Now my rage is seeping onto the people who haven't gotten published.

LH: You've given it to them.

SH: I think it's only right. One should be generous.

LH: Also, some unpublished people are very, very good writers, and those are the people that, when I meet them, I want to help them get published.

AG: Do you?

SH: Yeah, if you like somebody's writing then you do what you can.

AG: Have you guys been helped by other writers?

KC: Oh, definitely.

LH: I mean, one of my closest friends, and a person that I revere as a kind of hero is a write named Zsuzsi Gartner, who wrote a book called All the Anxious Girls on Earth, and she's just like . . .

ES: She's the blurb queen.

SH: Did she blurb your book, Emily?

ES: No, but she used to blurb a lot of books.

SH: That's helpful.

LH: She's an incredibly supportive woman.

ES: You'll notice I didn't call her "the blurb whore." I called her "the blurb queen."

LH: No, I accept that. I think she's a phenomenal writer, and her generosity and her energy for unpublished writing and published writing is, like, unparalleled. And I've learned a lot from her. I've learned that the best and most sort of happy thing you can do is find that next person who needs to be published and somehow help them. She doesn't have to go around helping a bunch of dumb people like me, but she did, and so it's like, "Whoah, that was great!" Why wouldn't I do that for somebody else? It's like, this is a good tradition. The other ones you get, older writers are like, "Well, I'm not going to help you get published. I don't want you stealing my thunder."

SH: Most people aren't like that.

LH: No.

SH: If you come across somebody who's a good writer then that's very exciting, and you want to do all you can to help them find readers. It's pretty natural.

LH: So if they resent me I would hope they keep it themselves because I'm going to try to help them get published.

AG: What's the number one thing you'd like to see changed in Canadian literature in your lifetime.

KC: I feel as though there's still some lingering insecurity about our literature, and I think — I hope — in the next several decades that pass that we won't care about what Canadian literature is, we'll just have a sense of it. But maybe that's just part of being Canadian, I don't know.

SH: I think it would be nice if in the schools they taught more interesting writers. I certainly didn't read anybody interesting in school, and I think that's kind a shame. And I think that makes for a culture of readers who aren't very open and aren't very excited by literature.

ES: I think we need a lot more poetry readers. And I think it's unfortunate how little we're read in the U.S. You have to have a film made out of your book to get read in the U.S.

LH: The problem for me is that they don't publish my book in the U.S. It's really hard for them to read my book in the U.S.

KC: My book was published in the U.S. and people still found a way not to read it.

AG: Why does it matter to you to be read in the U.S.?

ES: Well, why shouldn't we? We buy a lot of American books.

SH: They don't need to read us.

LH: They're better writers than we are.

AG: They're better writers, did you say?

LH: Yeah.

SH: I mostly prefer it. American writing may not be better than Canadian writing, but it is generally bigger. Bigger ideas, bigger heart, bigger ambition, and so on. Canadian writing tends to be more timid. The first time I went to London, England, all of a sudden Canada made so much more sense. I hadn't before realized quite how restrained we are, and that our politeness is a way of holding other people at a distance. I think these traits make for art that is quieter, a little more afraid of the world, a little receding into the shadows. We have one tenth of the people. There's a provincial attitude. You're afraid of what your neighbour might say. You equivocate. You muddle the language, pretty it up. American literature is more like Americans; spontaneous, vain, flag-in-the-moon. The results are more exciting.

KC: You know, many of my favourite writers are American, and until recently I might have agreed with both of you. American writing has so many built-in themes. It was the first country founded on a set of ideas. The legacy of slavery still lingers — I wonder why so few Canadian writers, aside from Guy Vanderhaege, have tried to address Canada's own dishonourable treatment of its native peoples. But American literature can be so pompous and, because so many American novelists are Don Delillo heads, still recovering from Moby Dick, it results in big, baggy, monster novels that try to cram in every big theme ever stumbled on. Wishing you were an entitled American writer — middle-class, from an Ivy League university, white, or maybe Indian, the current acceptable exotic — is like wishing you were the quarterback or cheerleader.

SH: I'm with you, Kevin, in loathing these novels. Lee may be a big David Foster Wallace fan but I much prefer the elegant, strange, evocative simplicity of Paula Fox and Paul Bowles and Flannery O'Connor and Henry James. American writing was much better 50, 100 years ago, before America became a superpower. That country's writing has become oppressive and domineering, in step with their nation.

KC: Kazuo Ishiguro states it really well in an Atlantic interview: "A writer describing what it's like to grow up in a particular neighborhood of New York automatically gains a kind of global significance simply by virtue of American culture's current dominance in the world. The trouble is that you can get a certain inward-looking society. You can start to feel that you don't have to look further." As Canadian writers we must insist on our relevance, and I think this effort enriches us. Look at how Irish writing flourished in the shadow of the British Empire, or Czech writing while under Austro-Hungarian, German, and Soviet occupation throughout the 20th century.

SH: If you're living in a superpower you must feel like the world has either just begun or is ending. You feel you ought to write a work which takes in everything. Whereas here we know it's just another day. We can deal with one thing at a time. We know there'll be a future and that there's a past. If you're a writer in the States right now I think the burden of the present is overwhelming.

ES: In Canada you can be a very small author and still start to get a big head. I worry about that, and I've only written one book! The U.S. also has had a longer independent cultural history than Canada and because of its population its regions are less shaped by geography and more shaped by pride or shared ideology. I think all of this lends itself to their writing. I just can't imagine why any Canadian wouldn't want to be read in the U.S. Our marketplace is flooded with American writing. I would like to think that the ego of Canadian literature is becoming more secure. Secure enough to travel, not just internationally, but also to knock next door. I should state that I am both Canadian and American and hold citizenship in both countries. I grew up on the border and have lived in both countries.

SH: I just don't think that it matters if it's an American who's reading your book or, like, a German who's reading your book.

LH: I'd really like it if a Canadian would ready my book. I just want to start with a Canadian. If I can convince a Canadian to read my book then I might move on, but right now that's like a challenge enough.

KC: That should be our goal for Canada Day, make a Canadian read our books. Just one.

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