Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Ten Questions, with Steven Price

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Steven Price (photo credit: Esi Edugyan)

Award-winning poet Steven Price has just published his first novel, Into That Darkness (Thomas Allen Publishers), which imagines the aftermath of the all-too-real possibility of a devastating earthquake hitting Canada's west coast. Here, he talks to Open Book about how this powerful novel evolved over the seven years that he spent working on it.

Open Book:

Tell us about your novel, Into that Darkness.

Steven Price:

A massive earthquake strikes the west coast of Canada. Into that Darkness is set in Victoria, B.C. and chronicles the first three days of the disaster. It tells the story of Arthur Lear, who sets out across the city in search of a missing girl.

OB:

Why did you want to use the form of a novel to explore the consequences of a large-scale natural disaster?

SP:

I suppose the novel always felt like the right fit because of its inclination towards narrative and movement. A collection of linked stories would have zeroed in on particular incidents and characters, building to numerous points of tension rather than a single one. A collection of poems would have found its focus in precise moments and fragmented particulars. Reports from the ground, say. A long poem might have been a possibility, but would probably have been inclined towards language instead of character, description and meditation instead of movement. At least for me.

OB:

What came first for you — the situation that would set the plot in motion, or some of the characters who would follow it through? How did your main character, Arthur Lear, develop as you worked on the manuscript?

SP:

The scale and situation of the disaster came first. But this novel went through numerous drafts, and though the plot and premise remained similar, the characters shifted considerably. Arthur wasn’t originally the main character — a younger man, a doctor, who didn’t make it into the final novel, was at the centre of the first drafts. After a time I began to see his story was a doubling-up of Arthur’s, and one of the two had to go.

Arthur’s character originally was far more inscrutable, far less sympathetic. As he began to speak for himself, though, there seemed to be a deeper sadness to him than I’d at first realized. Something in that intrigued me.

OB:

Into that Darkness opens the morning of the great earthquake, so you were faced with the challenging task of describing the experience in the early chapters. How did you decide how you approach the writing of these scenes?

SP:

I tried many approaches. In early drafts the earthquake didn’t strike until page 75 or so — I was struggling with the challenge of establishing the characters in their lives before the pressure was applied. But this wasn’t working — primarily because the severity of the earthquake simply interrupted and discarded whatever their "normal-life" worries were. If a character was worried about a promotion at work, for instance, this was suddenly made irrelevant by the earthquake. So the challenge became how to coax each character up out of the aftermath, rather than how to establish each one first.

Right up until the very latest drafts, I’d written in some wide-angle descriptions of the earthquake approaching and, region-by-region, devastating the city. But this segment ultimately didn’t make it into the book. The point-of-view made no sense — it wasn’t attached to any of the essential characters, and so seemed a strange breaking in the novel, as if the book were knowing more than it should know. I always liked those pages though.

OB:

Tell us about your research process for Into that Darkness. What books or other resources did you find most useful for your writing?

SP:

I read as many books and watched as many documentaries as I could, both on earthquakes and other disasters. And the news during the last decade was filled with stories of current crises, from the tsunami in Southeast Asia through Hurricane Katrina to the earthquake in Haiti. But I was also reading a lot of books on evil, on natural evil, on human reactions under moments of extreme pressure.

Curiously enough, the most useful moments came from unlikely sources. I’d write all night and then, to clear my head, take long walks in the early mornings through my neighbourhood. The streets were deserted except for solitary walkers. People at that hour avoided each other. Moments like that haunted me.

OB:

Was your reaction to the devastating earthquake in Japan any different as a result of your having spent so much time researching and imagining yourself in such a situation?

SP:

The novel didn’t impact my sense of the horror. It’s natural for us to hear of such disasters and wonder how we would manage, but I don’t like to draw links between the two. I’d been working on the book for seven years by that point, and the disaster in Japan is of such a different order — a genuine tragedy, borne up by real people, facing unimaginable suffering. Their grief is their own.

OB:

Do you think that Canada is prepared enough for the possibility of a massive earthquake or another natural disaster? Can we ever be?

SP:

I don’t know that we can ever be safe. But we can certainly prepare as best we can. It’s a difficult balance, I think, to live in an earthquake zone. Human time is not geological time, and so it’s very difficult for us to comprehend the inevitable and cyclical nature of these events. We can live out entire lifetimes without ever witnessing a major earthquake. But that quake will come, sooner or later, and it will wreak devastation. The question is how do we manage in the aftermath.

OB:

Your previous book is the award-winning collection of poetry Anatomy of Keys (Brick Books, 2006). How did your writing process differ for the two projects?

SP:

It’s been a very different experience. Poetry for me requires an entirely different measure. The usual response here is that the measure of a poem is the word, the measure of prose is the sentence. But there’s a difference of focus, too, especially in fiction, where the characters and situations need to exist in flux, in motion, rather than in stasis. Poetry for me is very much about reducing a thing (or things) to the sudden stilled moment. The act of seeking that out is usually where I find the poem. Sometimes it slows down enough, sometimes it doesn’t. Stillness in fiction is never still.

OB:

What was the biggest challenge of shifting from thinking in terms of poetry to thinking in terms of a novel?

SP:

Scope, for one. Pulling back far enough from the page to see ahead. And because of that, stamina, I guess. And though both fiction and poetry traffic in the image, flattening that imagery out so that the language is less prickly was a major challenge. I don’t know how it is for other writers, but for me poetry can hold a certain wisdom about the connected world that fiction, by its very nature, mistrusts. Even in its uncertainty, poetry is allowed to be certain. Fiction suggests a multitude of possible viewpoints, through its many characters. Empathy is central to fiction, sympathy is central to poetry.

Well, I say all this now, but tomorrow I might as easily say the opposite.

OB:

What are you working on now?

SP:

Poetry again. I have a new collection due out in the Spring of 2012 with Brick Books.


Steven Price's first collection of poems, Anatomy of Keys (Brick Books, 2006), was shortlisted for the Dorothy Livesay Award, won the Gerald Lampert Award and was named a Globe and Mail Book of the Year. His work has been translated into Hungarian, German and French. He teaches writing at the University of Victoria.

For more information about Into that Darkness please visit the Thomas Allen & Son website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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