A short story writer is the Nobel Prize winner in 2013.
Image: Barbara Woodley. Library and Archives Canada. Bibliothèque et Archives Canada.
Two of her stories have already been adapted to film.
I’ve listened to men talking, and they will tell about their lives in terms of times of trial—hunting trips, war experiences, times they told off a policeman. And women… well, of course women will do childbirth, and they will do illnesses, and what it was like with the children. I’m probably talking of women my age, for whom that was the major content of their lives. But they also seem to be looking for some big emotional story. They think about former marriages or love affairs and sort of make them into stories the way men will make the hunting trip into a story. What interests me is how these stories are made—what is put in at different times in your life, what is left out at different times, and how you use the stories to see yourself, or sometimes just to make life bearable for yourself. Very few people seem to want to see their lives in terms of one pointless thing after another.
I don’t mind at all if being a regional writer means being someone like Eudora Welty. To me, the region is important just because I feel it so vividly, but I don’t think I’m writing experiences that are limited to that region. I think if I had grown up somewhere else on the continent, I would be using that as my setting, and perhaps certain things about the characters would be different. In “Family Furnishings,” which is a story that goes back to my childhood and adolescence, certain things that impinge upon that girl are peculiar to the community she lives in. But the story is not. When I read, for instance, Edna O’Brien’s stories of her youth in Ireland, I feel a tremendous connection. I don’t really think the main thing about a story, ever, is to bring a region to life. I think it’s just to bring what you know of life to life. And people have regions everywhere—some regions may not be seen as regions. For instance, another important Canadian writer, Mordecai Richler, who recently died, wrote mainly about Jewish life in Montreal, which is a village. I mean, he was writing about a kind of village, and I think we all have villages.I can tell in a couple of sentences how I feel about a story. Then, I go on reading, and I read frontwards, backwards, all over. It is just like being enclosed in the story and seeing things outside the story in a different way—through the windows of that house. And it’s not at all like following a path to see what happens. Quite often, I know what happens as soon as I start reading it. Maybe not the twists the plot will take, but the real story. In my story “Hateship, Friendship…” the plot is rather important, but often in a story the plot really isn’t the most important element.
I could be writing away one day and think I’ve done very well; I’ve done more pages than I usually do. Then I get up the next morning and realize I don’t want to work on it anymore. When I have a terrible reluctance to go near it, when I would have to push myself to continue, I generally know that something is badly wrong. Often, in about three quarters of what I do, I reach a point somewhere, fairly early on, when I think I’m going to abandon this story. I get myself through a day or two of bad depression, grouching around. And I think of something else I can write. It’s sort of like a love affair: you’re getting out of all the disappointment and misery by going out with some new man you don’t really like at all, but you haven’t noticed that yet. Then, I will suddenly come up with something about the story that I abandoned; I will see how to do it. But that only seems to happen after I’ve said, No, this isn’t going to work, forget it.
My great aunt and my grandmother were very important in our lives. After all, my family lived on this collapsing enterprise of a fox and mink farm, just beyond the most disreputable part of town, and they lived in real town, in a nice house, and they kept up civilization. So there was always tension between their house and ours, but it was very important that I had that. I loved it when I was a little girl. Then, when I was an adolescent, I felt rather burdened by it. My mother was not in the role of the lead female in my life by that time, though she was an enormously important person; she wasn’t there as the person who set the standards anymore. So these older women moved into that role, and though they didn’t set any standards that I was at all interested in, there was a constant tension there that was important to me.
Reading was my life really until I was thirty. I was living in books. The writers of the American South were the first writers who really moved me because they showed me that you could write about small towns, rural people, and that kind of life I knew very well. But the thing about the Southern writers that interested me, without my being really aware of it, was that all the Southern writers whom I really loved were women. I didn’t really like Faulkner that much. I loved Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, Katherine Ann Porter, Carson McCullers. There was a feeling that women could write about the freakish, the marginal. I came to feel that was our territory, whereas the mainstream big novel about real life was men’s territory. I don’t know how I got that feeling of being on the margins, it wasn’t that I was pushed there. Maybe it was because I grew up on a margin. I knew there was something about the great writers I felt shut out from, but I didn’t know quite what it was. I was terribly disturbed when I first read D. H. Lawrence. I was often disturbed by writers’ views of female sexuality.
I got an offer of a job teaching creative writing at York University outside of Toronto. But I didn’t last at that job at all. I hated it, and even though I had no money, I quit. This was 1973. York was one of the more radical Canadian universities, yet my class was all male except for one girl who hardly got to speak. They were doing what was fashionable at the time, which had to do with being both incomprehensible and trite; they seemed intolerant of anything else. It was good for me to learn to shout back and express some ideas about writing that I hadn’t sharpened up before, but I didn’t know how to reach them, how not to be an adversary. Maybe I’d know now. But it didn’t seem to have anything to do with writing—more like good training for going into television or something, getting really comfortable with clichés. I should have been able to change that, but I couldn’t. I had one student who wasn’t in the class, who brought me a story. I remember tears came into my eyes because it was so good, because I hadn’t seen a good piece of student writing in so long. She asked, How can I get into your class? And I said, Don’t! Don’t come near my class, just keep bringing me your work. And she has become a writer. The only one who did.
The writer I adored was Eudora Welty. I still do. I would never try to copy her—she’s too good and too much herself. Her supreme book, I think, is “The Golden Apples.”Read less