I was lucky to run into Anne Sorbie at a recent book launch and then again at a reading. She was kind enough to re-answer some of the questions I had for her on those occasions.
FFF — I was really impressed by the representation of the Bow River in your book, both as a metaphor, and the literal descriptions. You chose a river to tell your story. Why?
I’ve always believed that women’s lives are demonstrative of fluidity, and I wanted to include a physical aspect of the local landscape that would allow my narrative to show that. On a critical level I connect the idea of fluidity and women based on Irigiray’s chapter on that subject in “Speculum.” On a narrative level the river is a character and like its female counterparts, is a source of life.
FFF — The relationships between the different women in the story are fascinating. Rhegan and Sarah have a complicated relationship, but the lines between the other women in the story are also strong. These are not cardboard characters. I would like to know more about Rhegan’s friend Nemit and her role in the story.
Nemit has been Rhegan’s friend since childhood. She’s gay and she and her partner Joy adopt a son, Adam. Like Rhegan she has split from her partner so there is a direct parallel between them in that sense. Her role in the story as a secondary character is to offer readers another opportunity to consider and understand Rhegan’s outlook.
FFF — I’ve stayed away from discussing the theme of death, it seems, but it’s obviously an important one. Tell me about the different deaths in the book: actual, near, metaphorical.
As your question implies, there are a number of deaths in Memoir. My intent is that readers consider those, the literal, the metaphorical, and the near and decide for themselves which one is “good!”
FFF — At Wordfest, you read Rhegan’s death scene. It is a very powerful scene, but one might think you are giving away the ending by reading it first. Why did you read it, and are you glad you did?
I read the climactic scene at WordFest after being asked by Noah Richler to do so. This was prior to an event that included myself, Emma Donoghue, Drew Hayden Taylor, and Katherine Govier. Richler also asked each of them to read a particular scene…as in he asked all of us to forget about what we had prepared and to read excepts of his choice as a part of an interview style “chat.” When he asked me to do that I immediately said no! However, he asked me to think about it, and I had a deja vu moment. I had suggested the same thing to a writer friend. Long story short, I read the scene and it was extraordinarily well received. Since then I’ve read it a number of times and the audience reaction has been consistently positive. I decided that if the scene was as strong as Richler said it was, people attending events like WordFest, the Galiano Literary Festival and local readings would still pick up the book to find out how Rhegan got to that point in her life. Just under half of the first print run sold between October, when the book was launched, and the end of December. That confirms for me that the scene is strong, intriguing and that it engages readers.
FFF — I mention in the review that, like Kroetsch and van Herk, your depiction of the land is brilliant. I am still struck by the way the various places were described. I have been many of the places you wrote about and your descriptions of Longview, or Carseland or Banff — they are anchored in truth. Long after reading What Crow Said or A Likely Story (Kroetsch), or The Tent Peg (van Herk) one is left with a clear sense of place. Memoir of a Good Death evokes similar feelings. Do you believe landscape can be a character in a novel?
Absolutely. And. I believe that the Bow Valley is one of the places in this land, this Alberta, in which our connection to the landscape is so profound. Our environment, especially our weather extremes for example, often affect our moods and our ways of doing things. These ‘truths’ if you will, offered fantastic opportunities on a number of narrative levels. I recognized that in particular works by my mentors Robert Kroetsch’s What Crow Said, and The Studhorse Man; and Aritha van Herk’s The Tent Peg, and No Fixed Address. In Aritha’s work the female characters are strong, able, and infected by what I think of as a particular brand of movement mechanics. In Robert’s novels the characters are overtaken by their environments. Think about Vera Lang and the bees or the Hazzard character and his stallion. In the four aforementioned novels there are various degrees of magic realism and surrealism at work. Couple these influences with my love of Marquez, Lorca and Neruda and you’ll get a sense of the degree to which I think connections between character and landscape provide limitless possibilities.
FFF — Who do you like better, Rhegan or Sarah?
Originally Rhegan was my favourite! In the earliest versions of the novel, I insisted that she was the protagonist. But Aritha van Herk, who supervised my Master’s thesis, Altar Ego, believed the opposite! She tried to tell me numerous times how strong Sarah’s voice was and that I should consider working with that. Being the resistant and stubborn student that I was, I ‘refused’ her excellent advice until AFTER my thesis was complete! It wasn’t until a couple of years later that I ‘let’ the Sarah character ‘speak’ if you will. I am endeared to both these female characters. Each represents unique elements of the female persona. I will say though that narratively Sarah and I still have a way to go: she has already made a significant appearance in the novel I am working on now!
FFF — You write of communities and areas along the Bow River. Is there a place you wish you’d had more space or time to explore more fully, both in real life and in the book?
No…I’m happy with the narrative explorations of places along the Bow in Memoir. As for personal journeys on the Bow, I’ve spent some wonderful blocks of time canoeing and hiking areas from Bow Summit to Carseland. I have a fondness for moving water and the Bow in particular and I know I will do more of the same in the future!
FFF — What is the next project you are working on?
I am currently at work on another novel. It too is set in Western Canada and involves interactions between the landscape west of Turner Valley, and, man reincarnated as a bear, a lost dog, and a host of other characters. All are searching for various things as they negotiate the Sheep River trails on foot and on horseback. Most significantly perhaps is the idea that this particular place is akin to a cold heaven in which anything can happen!
FFF – Thanks Anne!