Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Ten Questions With Terrence Rundle West

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Ten Questions With Terrence Rundle West

Terrence Rundle West is the author of Run of the Town (General Store Publishing, 2006) and Ripe for the Picking (General Store Publishing, 2004). He is currently working on his third book, a novel set in Canada and Spain in the 1930s.

OB:

Tell us about your book, Run of the Town: Stories of an Unfettered Youth.

TRW:

The two pictures on the jacket of Run of the Town — a little boy playing hockey on a street (front cover) and a young adult holding a stubby beer (back cover) — represent R.J. Martin and the twenty-five year time frame in which the 17 short-stories take place. It’s 1940-65 and R.J. happens to be growing up in Hearst, Northern Ontario, although it could be any of hundreds of small communities across the country.

Canada in the mid-twentieth century was neither better nor worse than the Canada of today. But it certainly was different — mothers stayed home, few people had cars, radio was king, a holiday meant a couple of weeks at the lake, childhood diseases could be fatal, teachers gave the strap, condoms were hard to obtain (only at the local poolroom in Hearst, because the druggist was Catholic). It was a time when families were large and kids expected to do chores. Children were loved but unencumbered by parents micro-managing their lives or hovering over them every minute of their waking day. Result? Kids had the run of the town. In short, it was a golden age for growing up.

This is the world R.J. observes from the apartment over his dad’s hardware store on the main corner of town, as he grows from youth to manhood. The stories in Run of the Town chart his progress in three phases — preteen, adolescent, young man.

The preteen stories show R.J. and pals — Rusty, Veiko and Normie — roaming the town. The scrapes they get into, the people they encounter and the events of their day — German prisoners of War, tragic telegrams from Europe, displaced Japanese students, French kids with whom they share the town but not their loyalties, hobos in the jungle by the tracks — mold their sense of tolerance, fair play and compassion. These early stories beg the question: what of today’s youth living in modern suburbia? Will their environment — sheltered from society’s casualties — or their experiences — chaperoned from one parentally controlled event to the next in Mom’s taxi —give them the skills needed to handle the human condition in all its manifestations?

In the middle stories R.J. is a teenager coming to grips with emotions that will shape him as a man — bonding, jealousy, insensitivity, humiliation, face saving, first love.

The last stories show R.J. returning to the community after university. He’s changed and so have his friends. Fitting back in is a struggle. Feeling more and more like an outsider he finds himself trying to please others, rather than following his own instincts — hunting in spite of his aversion to killing, struggling to make the local hockey team, hiding intimate pleasures from his friends (newfound love for birding, relationship with a married woman). It takes the Cuban Missile Crisis and wise counsel from his father for R.J. to finally reconcile his future with his roots.

OB:

Did you have a specific readership in mind when you wrote your book?

TRW:

While written for readers 16 and up I expected reactions to differ depending on age. In younger readers I hoped to arouse curiosity for the values of their parents and grandparents who grew up in the 1940-65 period. (Could a glimpse of the conventions governing mid-twentieth century Canadian child-rearing explain why gram and gramps roll their eyes at the way modern kids are being raised?)

In older readers (fifty and up) I hoped the stories would be a trip down memory lane; an affirmation of the principles and standards that have governed their lives.

OB:

Can you explain how you integrate your personal memories with your research?

TRW:

My ultimate objective was to capture the way we lived and thought in the 1940-65 period. This I felt to be more important than accuracy in sequencing events or attributing stories to the correct person. At the same time the stories (based on actual events) had to reflect those national and world events that defined every day life - WWII, German prisoners moving through town, Japanese families arriving from British Columbia, the Korean War, the Cuban Missile Crisis. To be accurate, to get the context right I research many of these events.

OB:

How has your former career in education, both as a teacher and as an administrator, influenced your writing?

TRW:

Each student I’ve encountered over the years, and I’ve known thousands, has been unique; a treasure trove from which to select personalities, traits and foibles for my stories.

Exposure to youth has helped me bridge the gap between my own age and the age of my characters in Run of the Town.

OB:

Describe your ideal writing environment.

TRW:

Quiet, no distractions, coffee. Having said this, my most memorable experiences have been unplanned moments away from my desk. Usually when they occur I’ve been either walking or in the car alone with a scene growing so intense in my mind that it demands recording. However, with neither laptop nor computer at hand I’m forced to take whatever is available - a pub in downtown Montreal, a picnic table on a dock in Temogami, a railway station in Zaragoza, Spain.

OB:

What is the best advice you ever received?

TRW:

Research before writing; never wing a place or event. Nothing drives a reader away faster than holes in your work.

OB:

Is there one book you think everyone should read?

TRW:

It keeps changing, depending on where my interests take me. Generally, I prefer novels with an historical context: Alan Cumyn, The Sojourn; Jane Urquhart, Stone Carvers and Underpainter; Frances Itani, Deafening; George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia; James Jones, Trilogy of World War Two.

Books I keep coming back to include: John Irving, A Prayer For Owen Meany and anything by Anne Tyler.

OB:

What are you reading right now?

TRW:

October, Richard B. Wright.

OB:

Describe the most memorable response you’ve received from a reader?

TRW:

A letter from a Japanese Canadian woman in Vancouver. This woman was a young girl when her family was rounded up in 1942 and sent to a camp in the interior of British Columbia. Later they moved to Northern Ontario. She was responding to the story in Run of the Town entitled, “So Long Tojo: Hello Junichi.” She wrote: “Thank you. This story is also my story ... those difficult times are still reflected in our lives, we will continue on our healing journey it seems forever.”

OB:

What is your next project?

TRW:

I’m currently working on a third book (novel) set in Montreal and Spain in the 1930s. The story revolves around two young men, one upper crust French Canadian the other Jewish, who leave Montreal to enlist in the Spanish Civil War, but on opposite sides. My focus is on the religious, economic, political and social forces that drive both men out of their native city and into a foreign conflict.

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