Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Lucky Seven Interview, with John Terpstra

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John Terpstra

Ideas of family and home are intrinsically linked, and John Terpstra explores that relationship in his newest book, The House with the Parapet Wall (Gaspereau Press). After losing his mother, John was inspired to investigate the history of the houses in his Hamilton neighbourhood. Part elegy, part history and part meditation on loss, family and the ties that bind, The House with the Parapet Wall is a unique response to a universal experience. John manages to approach a discussion of loss with imagination and verve, creating a book that is, in the face of death, full of life.

We speak to John today as part of our Lucky Seven interview series, where we discuss themes, process and more with talented Canadian authors. John tells Open Book about how a book's genesis can be collaborative, the McGarrigle family connection in The House with the Parapet Wall and the long journey to a room of one's own.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book and how it came to be.

John Terpstra:

My new book, which is called The House with the Parapet Wall, began when the editor of Hamilton Arts and Letters, an online literary journal, asked if I had anything in the works to contribute. I told him that I had nothing except a few notes about a brick house down the street and my mother’s slow diminishment due to age. His encouragement was enough to prompt me to work with what I had in front of me. My conclusion is that sometimes it takes a community to nurture a book.


Is there a question that is central to your book, thematically? And if so, did you know the question when you started writing or did it emerge from the writing process?


The title of the three pieces that ultimately were published in Hamilton Arts and Letters was Why Must We Die? which I took from a Kate and Anne McGarrigle song. I was not asking the question so much as writing under its banner. The emotional content within those four words was enough to organize my intent. My intent was a bit of a mystery to me. I was writing for my own, ongoing therapeutic purposes.

Maybe you remember the single panel cartoon Family Circus? More than once it showed the mother standing at open back door, calling her son home. The child is playing under a tree. The cartoon showed the wandering dotted line of his journey home. He looks under a rock, investigates an anthill, rattles the fence with a stick, and circuitously gets there. By the time I got there, to the end of this book, it felt like my writing of it was that dotted line, and that the whole time my mother had been calling me home to her passing.


Did this project change significantly from when you first starting working on it to the final version? How long did the project take from start to finish?


The book took two or three years to write, in total, and it did change in the sense that the working title no longer represented the work as a whole. The present title better reflects the broader range of subject matter, which is largely focused on the neighbourhood we live in, the houses in the neighbourhood, and various other current and historic thematic threads particular to the city of Hamilton, which I consider to be the centre of the universe.


What do you need in order to write — in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?


My wife and I lived in the same house for more than 25 years, and at one time or another every room in that house, including the cold storage room in the basement but excluding the bathroom, served as a writing space. In our “new” home (which was built in 1869) for the first time in my writing life I have a dedicated study. The only room I truly need is the one inside my own head. The only tools I need are pencil, paper & keyboard.


What do you do if you're feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?


When I’m feeling discouraged I complain and mope about and live with a lousy churning feeling in the pit of my gut, trying my best to remember that this malady is old news and will pass and that I will indeed be singing again. The only method I know of to deal with this and other difficult points along the way is to keep moaning and complaining and beating my head against the wall of creative intractability until, thank God, the wall gives up gives way.


What defines a great book, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great books.


A great book is great to me. It can be about anything, if the writing itself and the subject matter and the spirit that drives the writing holds me in its thrall. It can be fiction or non-fiction. It is a book that I would rather be reading than doing practically anything else, one that I will come home early to read and that I lament completing. My most recent great books are Willa Cather’s My Antonia, and David Fischer’s Champlain’s Dream.


What are you working on now?


The question should really be, What is working on you now? I am a poet first, and my subject chooses me. But I can’t answer that question. It’s a secret. If I tell you, it would make a bolt for the deepest part of the woods and go into hiding.

John Terpstra is the author of many books of poetry, most recently Brilliant Falls (2013). He is also the author of three prose projects: Falling Into Place; The Boys, or, Waiting for the Electrician’s Daughter (shortlisted for the Charles Taylor Prize); and Skin Boat. Terpstra lives in Hamilton, Ontario.

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