David Bergen

1. What process did you follow to create Lucille’s voice in “Out of Mind” (given that she doesn’t have a lot of space in the previous companion novel, “The Matter with Morris”) and since the two stories unfold almost a decade and a half apart, what did you have to do to imagine the story world in the latter work?

A reader asked me this: Do we judge Lucille differently than Morris because Morris automatically comes to the table with a certain male privilege? What she meant is that Morris can fuck up and we forgive him even as we dislike what he does, whereas Lucille doesn’t have the same latitude. If she gets ‘messy’, she looks hysterical; if she considers having sex with a younger man, she is irresponsible; if she chases after her youngest daughter, she is overbearing.  Morris loves words and uses them loosely. Lucille loves words too but knows how dangerous they can be. She has to be more careful—psychologically, sexually, emotionally. And then, of course, there is the mother/daughter bond, the push and pull of love and duty and independence, and the prevailing question—one that Morris never had to ask—Am I a good mother?

2. Many of your novels use place in a very important way, and often deal with conflicts arising out of the characters’ sense of place – for instance “The Retreat” is set in a commune in Kenora (a kind of a place) and involves a cult leader as much as conflict within and between cultures. In “The Time In Between” Charles Boatman, and his daughter and her younger brother set out for Vietnam which is central to the novel, and in “Out of Mind” Lucille travels to Thailand to try to rescue her adult daughter; in “Stranger”, the protagonist travels to Guatemala. Could you share your research process in building the story worlds involving very particular places?

It is difficult to write about a place if I haven’t experienced it personally. The preacher in the market in Santiago, Guatemala; the ferry crossing the river to China Beach in Danang; the smell of a 20-horse two-stroke outboard in the Lake of the Woods; the size and shape of the pillows in a hotel in Phuket Thailand—these small details informed each of my stories, and it is the detail that shapes the place. This isn’t research so much as experience, and then recording the texture and smells and sounds, and then having the characters bang up against those details and allowing them to misapprehend what they are experiencing. Paul Bowles does this so well in THE SHELTERING SKY—the misapprehension of a strange place that threatens to overwhelm you. And then does.

3. In a CBC interview, a few years back, you had said “For every book that I’ve written, I’ve done a renovation. I can go around and point at parts of our house and say, ‘Well, that was this novel, that was another novel” Is there perhaps a deeper connection between the two? For instance, has it ever happened that you got insights into structural dilemmas in a novel while trying to shape wood in a certain way?

After I finish writing a novel, I am at loose ends, and so I distract myself by doing renovations. I move from the pen to the hammer. Both keep me quite happy, and both require a certain ‘descent’ into the labour. As with a novel, I would not approach a renovation without a blueprint of what the completed project might look like. Not the small details, but the larger picture, the structure, and how to go about shaping that structure. I don’t use outlines, I don’t write out my ‘plan’, and perhaps the closest I get to that is writing down a word, drawing an arrow, writing down another word, another arrow, and creating an incident or action timeline. Not terribly sophisticated, but it works for me. One other thing: for both my novels and my renovations I am always thinking about what I’m doing, even when I’m not ‘doing’ it. I run up against a problem and I put it aside, and at night I dream and wake up and sometimes the solution is in the dream itself, or in the resting of the brain, and in the waking, I can see the solution, or I am walking down the street and the solution tingles up my spine. There is no willing this kind of solution. It just arrives, by chance, and is happily received.

4. Faith plays an important role in many of your works including your latest story collection “Here the Dark”. What are your views about an aesthetic standard in dealing with faith in literary terms? Is it a “hangover” as Paul Elie describes in an essay for the New York Times Book Review “Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?” What are the most important questions that have been answered? And what questions are not?

I don’t like the word faith, even though I’ve used it in my stories, and will use it now in this response. It is a word that has lost its meaning. I grew up with the Bible and Paul’s admonition to the Corinthians: “And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.” And so, love is more important than faith, even though faith exists. My collection HERE THE DARK was written over a period of twenty years, two decades of me grappling with my past and my upbringing, rejecting it, playing with it, writing about characters who profess faith but have no love, like the missionary girl in ‘Saved’ who dies because she can’t believe that the young boy who adores her is a real person. She sees him as a notch in her Bible. Where is her faith? Certainly not in a God who says that the first shall be last. I love the complications that belief in God, or rejection of belief, bring to a story. Suddenly there are layers, and the story deepens, and the mind and heart become complicit, and there is the fear of death. Because faith is all about death. Maybe that’s why I loved Updike. He was so brilliant at having his characters joyfully sin while looking up to heaven. But who even believes in ‘sin’ anymore? Certainly not the contemporary novelist. Except, I do, in the sense that bad faith, a refusal to confront oneself, is a form of sin. How old-fashioned.

5. How did you come to write your first book?

My first book, a collection of stories, came about by trial and error. I had written stories since the age of twenty-one, and it was only at the age of thirty-three, after I read a Raymond Carver story in the New Yorker, that I figured out how my voice might work. And how to move a character from here to there. And how to write dialogue. And how to use my own background (something I’d always been ashamed of) in my stories. I had no idea how many words to make a story—at that point, a novel was completely foreign to me, and for my first novel, A YEAR OF LESSER, I began with a short story, and then write another, and then they became chapters, and a saw a structure (four seasons of a year in the town of Lesser) and the chapters became less like stories and more like sections in a novel. To go back to my first book, the story collection, I was aware of how long it was taking me to put together a ‘book’, and how arduous the process was, and it was only when living in Thailand for three years that I took the time to sit in front of a typewriter and force myself to get down to the writing. I wrote five stories in that country, insects swooping around my dim lamp. I was desperate. I was getting older. I knew that Updike had published his first story in the New Yorker at the age of eighteen. I carried on. In my mid-thirties I published my first book. I received a two-hundred-dollar advance. I was ecstatic. The cover of the book was a painting, yikes, and literal, and horrific. I was over the moon. I was thirty-six, three years beyond the age Christ died at. We were both carpenters. Sometimes, still, when writing, I feel I am building my own cross. And then the writing flows once again, and I am ecstatic.

6. Could you name a source that served as an inspiration earlier but is no longer an inspiration, rather something you are currently conflicted with or even hostile towards?

I’ve talked some about John Updike in my answers. As a young reader, I fell in love with Updike’s writing, especially the Rabbit tetralogy, and for my first novel I used it as a model for the close third-person voice, his treatment of religion, and his leaping transitions. Last year, I read once again his collected stories and found that there were only two or three that were brilliant. Out of one hundred! I was impatient as I read, and I found his themes redundant, and his sexual obsessions slightly off-putting (this amused me as I have been accused of having my own sexual obsessions in my stories). The stories smelled musty. Brilliantly written, but tired. How could this be? My model, my mentor, my elder, now disappointing me. This is perhaps inevitable, that what we love in the thrall of youth we dismiss in the wisdom of age. Or perhaps I have become jaundiced. Or I am more aware of the nuance of sexual politics, and male heft. That said, I still stand by the utterly voracious voice of Rabbit Angstrom. Love him.

7. Is pleasure an emotion that you would associate with any of the stages of your writing practice? Or is it not pleasure but a different positive emotion? Can you reflect on that?

If there is no pleasure in the writing, I quit it. Writing is like tossing a ball, or playing pickup bb, or throwing a frisbee, tag, or tennis. To play well (not to win, but to play with delight) requires looseness and abandonment and delight. When a story is working well, or a novel is flying along, it is an utter joy. My motto: if you aren’t having fun, you’re not writing a good story.

David Bergen is the author of ten novels and two collections of stories. His novel THE TIME IN BETWEEN won the Giller Prize in 2005. His work has won the Margaret Laurence Award for Fiction and the McNally Robinson Book of the Year. He has been shortlisted for the Governor General Literary Award and the Dublin Literary Prize. He lives in Winnipeg.

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