Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Ten Questions with Linda Rogers

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Linda

October 24, 2008 -

OB:

What was your first publication and where was it published?

LR:

My first publication was in the University Hill School Annual, The Praecursor, in grade two. We had been asked to present the teacher with our best poem. I thought she meant “favourite,” so I transcribed Robert Louis Stevenson’s “At the Seaside” and handed it in. She duly turned it over to the annual editors as a fine example of seven-year-old writing.

One of my astute fellow classmates pointed out her error and mine. “Plagiarism!” Damn. I should have given him the neutered doughnut man he’d been needling me to trade for his overripe banana in the lunch room.

It all came full circle when my CanLit prof at UBC published an essay I had written under his own byline in The Dalhousie Review. Having been given a reprieve in grade two, I let him off the hook, but I do have a dim view of plagiarism. It is so pathetic.

I still love “At the Seaside,” which has all the ingenuous clarity of Leonard Cohen’s “As the Mist Leaves No Scar.” Ha ha.

My holes were empty like a cup,
In every hole the sea came up,
Till it could come no more.

My cup runneth on…

OB:

Describe a recent Canadian cultural experience that influenced your writing.


LR:

My writing is influenced by every Canadian cultural event I experience, from watching one of my most memorable creative writing students dance a pas de deux to Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” with Victoria Ballet to singing with the Victoria Soul Gospel Choir;

How about anti-cultural events? The new Victoria pub, The Bard and Banker has forbidden a house band from performing “that slow song from Shrek,” Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” in its new ten million dollar premises! Bard?

Right now Canadian cultural workers are experiencing the blitzkrieg of our essential services as the Philistines in Ottograd recklessly dismember programs that nourish Canadian performers and creators. We need to fight back and defend our right to defend the truth. I am going to use whatever breath I have to remind my fellow citizens that we don’t have to be part of the Bushocracy, that Canadians are peacekeepers not warriors, that Cuba is not in the axis of evil as recently parroted on the CBC, and that fear is the enemy of hope, even in Canada.

You can’t shut us up, Mr. Harper. Don’t even try.

OB:

If you had to choose three books as a “Welcome to Canada” gift, what would those books be?


LR:

If you were to arrive in Canada from the planet Zatria, the alleged provenance of painter and poet bill bissett, I would give you:

Selected Poems by Al Purdy

There was only one Al Purdy and he was Canadian to his core, a heart guarded by the Canadian Shield. Al had a voice as mighty as the Great Lakes and a stride as long as the prairies. His poetry will always remind us of who we are and where we come from. It is reverent, irreverent, funny, tragic and uniquely Canadian.

As For Me and My House, by Sinclair Ross

Written in the colloquial language of the new Promised Land, this story of hope and despair in the dustbowl of the depression is Biblical in its message and inspiring writing. Ross wrote very little, but his every word was as well placed as the markers on a sundial and is still as fresh as the day it was written.

Being Brown, by Rosemary Brown.

This is the life story of a Jamaican immigrant who fought for human rights in this country and almost became the leader of the New Democratic Party. Twenty years before Barach Obama, she could (in my dreams) have been the first Black and the first woman Prime Minister of Canada. Her reach exceeded everyone’s grasp. Rosemary had a great heart, which gave out too soon. We could use her now.

OB:

Describe your ideal writing environment.

LR:

I know writers who go to the library or a favourite café to work. Others need to get away to retreats or exotic locations. I love to travel and bring the riches home in my mental suitcase, but I am too social to focus in a public place, or away from home.

My ideal writing environment is a room with a view over a beautiful garden with a park and the Pacific Ocean in the background. This room is painted a calming rose colour. My favourite reference books are in it, as are photographs, paintings by friends and family, a bottle of absinthe, the spoon and the sugar bowl, and an old velvet chaise longue for inspirational naps. This is my room, my other kitchen, and it is perfect.

OB:

William Faulkner was once asked what book he wished he had written; he chose Moby Dick (with Winnie the Pooh as a close second). Is there a book that you wish you had written?

LR:

You might have got the drift by now that I really abhor envy in writers. It is so last year, not attractive at all.

I’m glad I wrote all the things I have actually written, because my heart went into every word, however clumsy or inappropriate.

Instead of descending to book envy, I will tell you about books that I feel totally comfy with.

The first is The Wind in the Willows. I will love no man as much as I love Toadie. He is a reckless and adorable being and his friends are all remarkable. I relish the anarchy and the wit of these English gentle creatures, their agile social commentary and hysterical celebration.

The second is The Tale of Genji by Lady Murasaki, Heian courtesan and the first novelist as far as we know. Murasaki Shikibu lived on the edge of a Japanese sword. As easily as a knife cuts silk, her life at court could have been ended by the slightest lapse in protocol. Nevertheless, she managed to make a life in art and art in life. Her record of her amazing period surpasses anything written by her male contemporaries, who spoke and wrote in fashionable Chinese, denied to women. To me, Lady Murasaki is a timeless metaphor for a woman’s strength and vulnerability, the original iron butterfly.

OB:

Is there a book that you think you should have read by now but haven’t?

LR:

Every time I buy or borrow a book, I think it might be the one, the story that will change my life. And the amazing thing is that I am rarely disappointed. The reason I read and write is to find community in the recognition of common ideas and experiences. Most writers have something to tell me.

If there is a book I should have read and have not, then I haven’t yet recognized the deficit. I am a greedy person. If I want to eat the whole cheese, I do. If there is a book that calls to me, I will sit down and read it no matter what else is going on in the world. One of my kids says, “Earth calling Mother,” when I have my face in the pages. It’s true. I am gone. It is that bad.

OB:

What are you reading right now?

LR:

Every day starts with the newspapers. My mother says that is a symptom of early onset, desperately seeking to keep the brain and the world in order, but what does she know?

I just finished The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. This story of love and loss in Nazi Germany, as told by the weary narrator Death, stands beside Speigelman’s Maus or Bettelman’s Holocaust memoir. (I can’t mention the despicable Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum in the same breath with these books.) Choosing to paint with shadow as opposed to light, so that the “cracks the light comes through” are profoundly moving, Zusak is a master of the literary woodcut.

At the same time, (light reading), I indulged in A.N. Wilson’s biography of his friend Iris Murdoch, Iris Murdoch As I Knew Her. Wilson has a bone to pick with his old Oxford Mentor John Bayley, whose memoirs about life with Murdoch in the shadow of dementia, he believes, diminish her as a writer and as a human being. Wilson was a friend and a fan, but he doesn’t airbrush the frumpy but reputedly randy scholar either. Murdoch was neither a great philosopher nor a writer of the first order, but she was heroic in her flawed effort to reconcile Plato with Aristotle in the modern world. I adored her novels and was dismayed when they started coming unraveled (The Sea,The Sea).

To my delight, I found out my Welsh designer friend Patricia Lester was Murdoch’s amanuensis while she was at Oxford; and she too has many stories about this life affirming bluestocking.

Next on my book list is Isabel Allende’s Daughter of Fortune. I always get lost in her vibrant world of invention.

I will sleep well tonight after the Guardian fuels my righteous indignation about the state of the world, the National Enquirer satisfies my need to know John Edward’s mistresses’ story, the Star fills me in about Jen turning to Brad after her recent heartbreak, and Hello tells me why Angelina is the uber yummy mummy.

OB:

Do you have a specific readership in mind when you write?

LR:

I can’t imagine a target group apart from that increasingly alien subspecies “the reader,” which is a euphemism for “book nerd.” How many of us are there left? I suppose we fall into categories, mostly by genre, but by and large readers like writers who write well. That is what I aspire to do. If I do my job well and someone has a eureka moment because of something I wrote, I am thrilled.

I recently had someone living with cancer tell me that reading my novel Friday Water had changed her approach to dying. That gave me goose bumps, and we cried and kissed a lot. However, I did not address the story to a cancer audience. My character, a ballerina, surprised the hell out of both of us with her illness. Malignancies have a way of doing that.

I would not like to believe that good writers are marketers, or marketeers. Can you imagine having your dinner interrupted by Margaret Atwood, asking if you had a few moments for a survey of her writing because she wanted to make sure she hit platinum with the next one? Yoiks. I don’t like this scenario one bit.

We all have our talents and our lack of them. We do our best writing about what we love or care about, in my case the interrupted lives of children. I spend a lot of time on children because I think if we (the collective “we”) cared more about them, the planet would be healthier.

Which brings me back to your question: I guess children have been a target audience for me, because I adore them and hate to see them twisted by circumstances beyond their control. However, writing for kids has not been all sweetness and light. There are some people who believe that I am an anarchist and that independent thought and expression are not childhood prerogatives. I have gone underground. More subversion is needed. I was hoping to lead a generation to peace and harmony. Sigh. We shouldn’t have written the nose picking song. That were just fun, sir! I can sleep at night.

OB:

What are you working on right now?

LR:

I am married to a polymath with a big mouth. He never stops talking about this and that and how I should write about it. Why do I take him seriously? Why do I always follow through on even the smallest suggestion? Last summer his New Orleans’ jazz/ blues band, Sweet Papa Lowdown, went to Turkey. “Why don’t you come along and write about the tour?” he suggested. Now I am writing a quasi-philosophical novel about modern Turkey called “Bozuk,” which means broken in Turkish, because our vehicle kept breaking down.

I also paraglided off (Mount) Baba Daji at Olu Denis (meaning Dead Sea, why didn’t I translate before I accepted the challenge?).

At the same time, I am completing the second and third books in a trilogy that began with The Empress Letters, a novel about a Victoria family in the opium trade, which was published by Cormorant Books last year. This family has been living in my head for so long I call my family by their names.

Every month I write an article about an artist for Focus Magazine, a Victoria publication about art and culture. I love this job because it satisfies my anthropological urges. I love to know what makes people do what they do. My friend Carol Shields used to say how annoyed she got when characters in books didn’t have work they were passionate about. The first time she met my, then, new husband (the talker) she spent hours picking his brain about the relationship between telegraphy and music. I am also aware that many painters, dancers, actors, film-makers and musicians get overlooked; and it is my privilege to expose them.

I have several song writing partners and I really enjoy the shift to lyrics and the thrill of hearing them evolve into music. Yesterday, I spent the afternoon with my husband, Rick van Krugel and singer Chris Trygg working on a hockey song for the anthem challenge. Why not; it’s a lottery? Boy, if we get shortlisted, my youngest son, the hockey fanatic, won’t believe it, “MY MUM ? NOT!!!!” Rick wrote a killer riff, the hook in the song. I may be the third richest writer in Canada by the time you read this, but don’t hold your breath.

Finally, I am writing poems. For me poetry is prayer, a sacred practice. It is my way, apart from supporting Obama and wishing Stephen Harper would fall off the planet, of asking for change.

Some things come to me as stories, some as songs and others as poems. I live comfortably with all these calls.

OB:

Do you have any advice for writers who are trying to get published?

LR:

In three words, I’d advise any young writer to “get a life.” There is such a temptation to dream ourselves into a persona, “The Writer,” preferably in black, somewhere between Dracula, New Look and Punk. The bad news is, the persona is a dream.

The good news is that writing is a richly rewarding vocation. It just can’t be measured along the lines of fame and fortune, the path that leads so many writers assailed by rejection or perceived rejection to Bitterness. Bitterness is a very bad town, and I can’t imagine anyone wanting to live there. Writing is a sacred calling because words have the power to change our realities. That is an awesome and thrilling responsibility, but it doesn’t come with a dental plan.

The first thing a young writer should do is read, read, read, for several reasons. Humans learn by assimilation. That’s how we absorbed grammar in the first place. That’s where we pick up intonation, dialect, language and syntax. I read everything from the tabloids to the Bible. If you look at my website, there is a running gag about newspapers, photos of me reading the papers in Havana, San Francisco, London, Frankfurt and Istanbul. My husband complains that the newspaper is my “other man.” I love to read.

I used to tell students to go out and gather experiences they could write about. Writers are always mining even the most heartbreaking moments. You know, the cat dies, and even as the first tear is rolling down your cheek, you are thinking, “Oh never mind, that will make a good poem.” In any case, I thought I gave good advice until one of my students told me she though I meant she should have an affair when I had recommended she fall in love with the world. Now, what was I going to do about the baby she was carrying?

Next, any kind of writing is good practice. Even the net newspeak, which some antediluvians deplore, is part of the evolution of language. (R U OK w’ that?) I had my kids, who were all creative non-spellers, make a family newspaper, to snare them into writing for fun. Their Red Baron News became an underground hit, which bankrupted me because as subscriptions, hence costs, grew, they had more candy money and I was still buying the paper and stamps.

My kids were part of a great tradition. Many of the flourishing publishing houses begin as coterie presses with hand made books given away or sold for pennies. Many of them are now legit. Young writers should not be afraid to be innovative about getting the message out, whether it is on the net or in little magazines and chapbooks. And what about grafitti? That is poetry too.

Cream rises. Good writing will eventually get attention. No real writer or editor is going to ignore excellence in our craft. At the best of times, we celebrate one another. Word gets out. The great ones shout. An emerging writer can become antsy waiting for the milk to settle. Instead of being frustrated, she/he should get out to open mikes, enter competitions and find those journals that seek new talent.

Good cheese takes a while to ripen. In the meantime, the clock is ticking and there is loving and dancing and eating and all those good things to do which will make their writing more informed when they go back to our caves to paint the walls.

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