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with Dorothy Speak

photo: Paul LaBarge

Dorothy SpeakCanadian author Dorothy Speak first hit the literary scene with her critically acclaimed short story collection, The Counsel of the Moon (presently out of print). It wasn’t until 1996 that we on the other side of the ocean finally caught up with this major new talent when her second collection, Object of Your Love, made it our way. We haven’t stopped talking about it since. This is one of those rare pieces of fiction that cuts straight to the bone of the female psyche. Her area of exploration: the crisis.  It is with much pleasure that we publish one of the stories from the collection, "The View From Here," in this issue of the BR.  We were also fortunate to catch Ms Speak during her busy schedule for the following e-mail interview in which she sheds light on the method of her writing and speaks knowingly and with passion of her female characters - "women doing whatever is necessary to 'stay alive' in this world."

Dorothy Speak was born in Seaforth, Ontario, a small town near Lake Huron.  She lives with her husband and two children in Ottawa and is presently writing a novel.

. BR: Your latest collection, Object of Your Love, focuses on women in relationships that have gone awry for one reason or another - often involving a husband or lover who can’t return the woman’s love - and follows the way the women deal with the situation, which often involves major life changes and invariably reveals the essence of the woman herself. Was this theme planned from the beginning or did the stories create the direction themselves?
DS:  I didn’t set out to write a group of stories centred on one theme. These pieces were written, with many others, over a five-year period. When it came time to create a collection, I was somewhat surprised to see the connections between this group -- that I’d dealt with one theme from multiple viewpoints. What most interested me when I was writing these stories was the pragmatic choices I saw mature women in mid-life making with respect to relationships: to have, for example, an affair with a married man or to carry on a sexually liberated lifestyle -- even if this meant violating society’s taboos in pursuit of personal happiness, however brief it might be. What I suppose I was trying to show is that these choices are not simple intellectual ones, but are driven by powerful emotional forces stemming from our profound need for love and its physical pleasures. Perhaps the stories also indirectly ask the questions: how supportable are monogamous partnerships and why is adultery such an unforgivable crime?

BR: Your women characters - each and every one is so shockingly familiar! I found myself in each story saying, "I know this woman." And yet they and their circumstances are utterly unique. This profound empathy intrigues me. I don’t know whenever I’ve encountered female characters who struck home so deeply. Does this have to do in part with the fact that we’ve all loved and lost and been self-destructive in one way or another in the process? But then half of all literature revolves around love and loss, so something else is going on here. One feels like layers and layers of superfluity have been stripped away from the characters and we’re right down to the essence of the person. The crisis situation is going to bring that out, of course, but one can rarely make sense of it in real life, and I don’t know whenever in fiction I’ve confronted such real and honest female characters. It’s not always pretty. I can’t help wondering how you do it, how you get the scalpel right down to the bone.
DS: I think there are a number of things at work here. The first is methodology. In conceptualizing a story and in approaching each scene within it, I do extensive pre-writing (what W.O. Mitchell, who taught at the Banff School of Fine Arts, used to call "freefall") wherein I develop dialogue, setting, motives. From this loose exploration, I extract the "meat," which may be as little as a few phrases lifted from pages and pages of notes. This requires patience: waiting for the valuable insights to float to the surface. I like to compare it to the making of jam: you have to keep boiling it down until you get the good thick stuff. The short story form, of course, requires economy, and this approach, I find, gives more bang for your buck. A second factor is voice. I have always been strongly attracted to the first person narrative, because of its immediacy and emotional power and because it enables me to bare the soul of the character, however uncomfortable that might be for the protagonist or the reader. As you say, sometimes it’s not a pretty picture. In that respect, I tend to write very much from the gut. The third force is, I suppose, personality. I’ve been accused of being "direct," of cutting through decor to the basic structure or issue. I believe I acquired this straightforward approach to the world in part from my working-class parents, who grew up in hardship on farms in Ontario and Saskatchewan during the Depression, the prairie dustbowl and the Second World War.

BR: Mental illness comes up in more than one story: the female manic-depressive in "A River Landscape"; and to a lesser extent Eric in "Summer Sky: White Ship" and Mariah’s father in "The Sum of its Parts." Does it go hand in hand with the book’s theme - most all of the female characters experience a period of mental instability at some point - or were you here specifically placing mentally ill characters in difficult situations to follow their reactions? May I ask, too, if there was a model for the extraordinary Hedda in "River"?
DS: Other than Hedda, of "A River Landscape," it never occurred to me that my characters might be interpreted as mentally ill. Eric ("Summer Sky - White Ship"), who held his family hostage by pressing a gun to his own head, and Mariah’s father, an amoral simpleton who condones his son’s petty crimes ("The Sum of its Parts") were simply convenient foils for the self-destructive sanity and conservatism of Anne and Mariah. In other words, they might be seen as happier and freer than the rigid protagonists. Yes, I did initially have a model for Hedda, but as the story developed she grew in my mind to represent the fragility of the creative soul, the artist, who walks "that fine line between invention and annihilation."

BR: In "Eagle’s Bride," Stella has gone to a remote Inuit settlement where she becomes involved with the handsome but cold Egan, separated but still strongly attached to his wife. The desolate atmosphere of the village with its own rare surrounding beauty of snow and ice is the perfect setting to reflect the inner self of the characters. What was the inspiration for the story? Did you know the direction the story would take when you began? Do you usually?
DS: Immediately following my graduation from university, I spent five years in government, working with Inuit art. I was lucky enough to travel twice to Cape Dorset, Baffin Island, which is the most successful art-making community in the Canadian North. That brutally beautiful landscape, the painful and destructive acculturation of the Inuit people and the uncomfortable fit in northern communities between the white and the native residents all seemed important -- and very Canadian -- realities to capture. I wrote this story in two installments, separated by several years. The first half, terminating in Stella’s expulsion by Egan and her smashing of the greenhouse, was published as a self-contained story. Some time later, I wondered: what happened when Ruth came back? How did Stella deal with it? So I wrote the second half. (Similarly, "Summer Sky -- White Ship" evolved in two episodes, separated in their writing by several years.) Usually, but not always, I know where a story will go when I start it. But where it’s going is not as important to me as how and why. Finding the answers to those questions makes writing an exciting process of discovery.

BR:  Your females never apologize for their acts. I found that so refreshing. Most of us do when we've acted the bad girl in some way, even if we know we've been the victim. That's the scalpel at work, isn't it?
DS: Your question takes me somewhat by surprise because apology by my characters was not something I ever contemplated or considered remotely desirable or necessary. I don’t see any of the female characters in these stories as "bad girls." Rather, I see them as women doing whatever is necessary to "stay alive" in this world. So what I’m talking about here is emotional survival. Whether that involves sleeping with your married boss ("Object of Your Love," "Eagle’s Bride") , with multiple partners ("Memorabilia"), with your ex-husband’s brother ("Summer Sky -- White Ship"), or with your cousin’s husband ("The View from Here"), these characters operate on individual and strongly held convictions. Their perspective on "appropriate" sex is not defined by society’s widely held notions of monogamy, fidelity and marriage. These characters are tough-minded and ready to take the consequences of their risks without wallowing in self-pity or bowing to conventional mores.

BR:  Adultery appears quite often in the stories. It takes its toll, but often serves to clear the air, too, by helping people confront themselves and each other. It can be cathartic, then. Could it even be recommended?
DS: In these stories I’m not advocating or recommending adultery, but merely trying to expose its complexity. Why do people have affairs? Are they ever justified? Why is adultery considered the ultimate betrayal, when so many other abuses within a marriage go unquestioned? One Canadian journalist, in reviewing my book, hit the nail on the head when he made the observation that the sins of the spirit are sometimes greater than the sins of the flesh.

BR: In terms of literature, how can we define Canadian literature besides coming from writers in Canada who may utilize local settings? I have a hard time getting at its identity. It seems so inextricably a part of the broader area of North American literature, but there are no standard anthologies as such. It has always struck me as unfortunate that a Canadian author rarely makes it into standard anthologies of American (which isn’t North American) or British literature (even though they are eligible for the Booker Award), which is most unfortunate in terms of academic studies, particularly here in Europe where so many institutes tend to rely on American or British anthologies only for the curriculum. There is the Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature, not nearly so available, and interestingly it itself seems to be struggling over what qualifies as Canadian writing, as it attempts to incorporate writers born outside Canada who do not write about Canada - Rohinton Mistry, Michael Ondaatje, M.G. Vassanji - under the special heading "Novels in English 1983-1996." Then, of course, there is the necessity of incorporating French into the canon as well as the problem of how to incorporate the numerous ethnic cultures.
DS: This is a big question and one that’s difficult to answer without making sweeping generalizations. I’m not sure there is such a thing as a Canadian literary identity. But I do believe that our cold climate, our landscape, which is vast, rugged and sparsely populated, and our strong social conscience have played a big role in shaping the texture, space and voice of Canadian literature. In what specific ways these differ from American and British writing I cannot say. One would hope that, with the recent surge of international interest in Canadian literature, you and others like you will see more and more Canadian work represented in anthologies of English language writing.

BR: We speak of Americans as being open and the British as reserved and we have all sorts of stereotypes that go with that, but what is a Canadian anyway? I don’t even know the stereotype.
DS:  If Americans are open and the British reserved, Canadians are polite, apologetic, modest.

BR: Who are your main influences as a writer? Do you read much contemporary fiction?
DS: Alice Munro has been a model for me since the day I began writing. Her focus on women in small towns and her mastery of the short story form have been important teachers for me. I also greatly admire the work of another Canadian short story writer, Mavis Gallant, who lives in Paris. I read principally contemporary fiction, and that mainly by women. International authors whom I’ve thoroughly read are Edna O’Brien, Clare Boylan, Rose Tremain, Muriel Spark, Jane Gardam, Beryl Bainbridge, Doris Lessing, Jean Rhys, Katherine Mansfield, Nadine Gordimer, Lorrie Moore, Amy Hempel, Joy Williams, Elizabeth Spencer, Jamaica Kincaid.

You’ll note in this list the absence of male authors. For the first 23 years of my life, I read almost exclusively the dead white males. Now I’m taking a refreshing break from male authors, few of whom interest me anywhere nearly as deeply as do women, in terms of both subject matter and style. The exceptions at the moment are John Updike (his stories, not his novels), Andre Dubus, a brilliant and sensitive American writer. Others in the past have been Patrick White and E.L. Doctorow. Another male writer I’d like to point out is Canadian Alistair MacLeod.

BR: Do you write every day on a routine schedule? Is all your writing done on a computer?
DS: I write five days a week, from seven a.m. to two or three in the afternoon. It’s a long day for a writer. All my work is done on computer and now that I’m writing a novel, I can’t imagine how anyone managed longer works of fiction before the age of computers.

BR:  What’s your idea of a night out? Dinner? Film? Theater? A hockey match? (I believe I’ve hit a stereotype!)
DS:  I’m something of a cinephile -- mainly art and foreign film, and some Hollywood if it’s good. I find going to movies artistically nourishing -- it replenishes my creative juices.

BR: You’re presently at work on a novel. Can you give us a hint as to what we might expect?
DS: The novel on which I’m working takes its inspiration from the last piece in Object of Your Love, which is called "Stroke." It’s tells the story of an elderly woman, Mrs. Hazzard, whose husband suffers a stroke. The novel casts back to her past life, and also carries her through the contemporary crisis to liberation.

Interview by Jill Adams

©Barcelona Review 1998

short story | spanish translation | french translation | interview in spanish

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