BC writer Rhonda Waterfall talks to AW’s Debbie Bateman about her newest novel

DB: Your novel, Sombrio, tells the story of three men: a painter of some renown, his apprentice who happens to be enjoying more recognition, and their friend who is a poet/bank robber. The characters are written so large their exploits feel like Greek mythology. As with mythology, from the onset I sensed I was being given an opportunity to gain problematic insight into the human condition. How did this approach come to you? What came first: the shape of the story or the monumental egos of the protagonists?

RW: I wanted to build a world around these men, driven to ruin by their egos. Egos came first. To give the work aspects of a classic tragedy, I read the plays of Sophocles and Shakespeare. I also watched modern retellings of Greek tragedy: the Korean film Oldboy, a loose adaption of Oedipus Rex, and The Killing of a Sacred Deer based on Euripides’ tragedy Iphigenia at Aulis. I wanted an understanding of different interpretations and ways of presenting these themes. In Sombrio, the appearances of the adult children take on an otherworldly quality. Charles’ three daughters and Thomas’s daughter act as the chorus. Not only do they sing, but they also hold the men to account for their sufferings and provide the reader some clarity on who these men really are.

DB: There is an irresistibly strong narrative drive throughout the novel, yet it is not held in place by the usual mechanisms. A person might expect the upcoming end-of-civilization-as-we-know-it to be the strongest source of conflict in the novel and yet it isn’t. The inner turmoil within each character is far more potent. Would you like to share your thoughts on narrative drive?

RW: Man versus self drives the story and creates conflict. My approach was to use first-person narratives, enabling the story to be told through the men’s point-of-view. The reader can judge the men, or not, through the direct display of what they do and say. Then there are the adult children, and Fern who is Roy’s girlfriend; together they act as a foil to the men’s behaviours. Fern especially comes into the situation the most clear-headed. She is the most able to provide an unaffected view of what is going on with the men at the squatter’s shack. Also, at times there are overlaps in the narrative, which provides an opportunity to get several points-of-view on a singular event. This enables a 360-degrees perspective of events and greater clarity on incidents recounted by unreliable narrators.

DB: The novel alternates point-of-view without always relying on a rigid pattern or even the continuation of points of action. The connective tissue is more subliminal and powerful. I’d love to hear about how this alchemy worked. Did you write each character’s story separately, did they come onto the page in tandem, or was it a combination of these things?

RW: Finding a narrative and structural flow that felt right was definitely achieved by a combination of tactics. I tried writing in a linear fashion at first and got a rough set-up for how events would be paced throughout the novel. However, eventually I reached a place where I felt I needed to rip it apart and write full stories separately for each character. Then, from there I ripped it apart again and reshuffled the pieces, building whatever bridging was needed between shifts in point-of-view and events. At times, I took creative leaps, such as where I placed a letter instead of a straightforward narrative chapter. I left myself open to whatever exploration felt necessary.

DB: The characters are tormented in part by their failure as fathers. Their children show up as wood fairies, a serpent, a devil, and more. You use magical realism to capture the power of neglected children to haunt their absent parents. Although magical realism is also part of the male characters, it is more consistently used on females. When did you begin using magical realism in your fiction? How did you learn to do it well? Do you have any suggestions for other writers who would like to explore this imaginative tool?

RW: Some of my earliest stories were heavy with magical realism. I love it as a tool to express hard emotions and micro-emotions. I find in particular the micro-emotions, such as the sensation of a threat even when the threat cannot be articulated or proven with any visual evidence, is best illustrated through magical realism. All I can say about learning to write magical realism is to read lots of it and experiment. I started with writing short 500-word stories where I could really take some unusual ideas and play with them, such as what it feels like to work in a toxic corporate environment. On the surface, nothing appears to be wrong, but when the fibres of the carpet release and stick in the flesh of your throat, the emotions are given physicality and sensation.

DB: The three men abandon city life to squat in the old-growth forest of Sombrio Beach on the wild coast of Vancouver Island near Port Renfrew. The setting is a character more powerful than any other character in the novel, as the ending shows. I sensed that you have spent considerable time on that beach. How did that setting affect the writing of this novel?

RW: I grew up on Vancouver Island and we would hike in and camp on the beaches between Sooke and Port Renfrew. The squatter community that is referenced in the novel existed at Sombrio Beach up until the late ’90s when the government came in and kicked everyone out and tore down the shelters. Then the government built trails to the beach and charged for camping.  

The temperate rainforest of the west coast just has an atmosphere that is hard to match. There is a specific smell and the light is special. There is a wildness that lends itself to the magical. Vancouver Island is full of people just trying to find their own personal untouched spot in the woods where the world cannot get to them.

DB: Was there a specific incident that inspired this piece of work?

RW: A confluence of two situations inspired the idea for this novel. One was Y2K. Many people believed the bank machines would stop working, air traffic control would be thrown into chaos, and all computer systems would crash. It was an interesting time to witness. It got me thinking about what happens to people when they believe society is going to collapse. At this time, I was living in Victoria, BC and was close to a group of artists. I spent time observing how they interacted with each other and their children. They were obsessed with obtaining patronage from wealthy investors and reaching the top echelons of artistic fame—neither of which did they acquire or achieve. At the time, I could not understand what prevented these men from achieving their goals, but now I can see how they were addled with depression, drug dependencies, and mental health struggles.

DB: If this book were optioned for film, what aspect of the original work would you be most conscious of preserving? Why?

RW: There are two aspects I would hope to hold on to: the references to colonization, and separately the theme of sexual assault. Fern muses about when Captain Vancouver first arrived on the west coast. In 1792, he stated that all the place needed was to be enriched by the industry of man, completely dismissing what might have been achieved by the Indigenous men who were already there. Then Fern talks about how the land might have absorbed past sadness and tragedy. This speaks heavily to the history of the soil we live on in Canada. It speaks to displacement and what actually makes a home. Can a peaceful existence be built on the ruins of a crushed people?

Secondly, a very important aspect of Roy and Thomas is that they were sexually molested as children. This cannot be discounted as a major building block to who these men have become.

DB: Were there any other endings that you considered?

RW: The original manuscript had a last chapter from Fern’s point-of-view that was cut. Fern is a counterweight to the other characters. She is the only one not addled by addiction or childhood trauma. She is also the youngest and her thoughts about the world around her are different than the men’s. In the cut chapter, Fern wakes on the beach New Year’s Day and walks through the forest toward the main road. Along the way, she discovers the smouldering ruins of the squatter’s shack and finds Roy’s dead body. She leaves the woods as the only survivor. Then the narrative skips ahead to when Fern is older and a mother, and she says that sometimes she thinks back on her time at Sombrio but not very often. The men thought they were mythic and believed that all their ideas and accomplishments would be legendary. However, as it turns out, they were easily forgotten.

DB: What were you most conscious about in dealing with the backstory?

RW: With the backstories of the three men, I felt it had to be handled with a light touch. The history could not overwhelm the present situation, which the men found themselves in. The backstory is there only to bolster what is currently at hand. Backstory is used to create a more robust picture of who these men were and how they arrived at their current situation. However, this is reversed for the adult children, they are illustrated almost entirely through backstory. They are essentially still mired in the past, never having been able to lift themselves free of it. The past has essentially drowned them.

DB: In thinking of this work, could you name a source that served as an inspiration during the earlier stages, but is no longer an inspiration because you came into conflict with the source and may even have begun to feel hostile towards it?

RW: This is a surprising question because I have an exact response for it. When I started forming Sombrio, I referenced work that centred male artists of the 20th century who were known as womanizers or had substance abuse issues. This meant I read biographies on Picasso and Salvador Dali amongst others. I also reread the novel Beautiful Losers by Leonard Cohen. I once adored this book, but on rereading, I instantly loathed it. The book drips with misogyny, not to mention all the other problematic themes of the story. Leonard Cohen himself is the perfect archetype for who I was interested in capturing: a notorious womanizer and misogynist who dated women half his age and yet was and still is lionized. But that verges into a whole other debate—can we love the art even though the artist is unsavoury?

Rhonda Waterfall studied creative writing at Simon Fraser University with The Writer’s Studio, and has had fiction and non-fiction published in several literary journals. She is the author of the short story collection, The Only Thing I Have (Arsenal Pulp Press), and the novels The Strait of Anian (Now or Never Press), and Sombrio (Gordon Hill Press, 2022). She is a BC writer based in Toronto.

Take a listen to Rhonda Waterfall reading from Sombrio