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Monthly Archives: May 2011

The Canterbury Trail – Interview with Angie Abdou

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Angie Abdou answers a few questions about her latest novel The Canterbury Trail and writing in general. Thanks Angie!

FFF: I am going to start off by asking the c-word question. When your book first came out, there was a lot of discussion about “polite” society’s acceptance, or non-acceptance, as it were, of such a word. Tell me about that.

Germaine Greer says “cunt” is the only word left with true power to shock.  I suspect she’s right.  I never used it to shock, though.  To be honest, I never thought about it all that much or worried about what readers’ reaction to it might be, and I was, therefore, caught a bit off guard by people who objected to its inclusion in this novel. Mainly, I included it because it seemed real: that’s what these mountain-lovers would end up calling this trail. 

Also, while I was writing this novel, one of my students was reading a book called Cunt.  She was quite taken with it.  The premise was that we need to reclaim the word and that it’s only been made dirty and vulgar by misogyny and a patriarchal medical system.  While I don’t agree with everything the author has to say, the book and my student’s enthusiasm for it did influence my work on this novel. 

 Finally, I wanted to feminize the landscape. I needed to have the characters heading up the cunt and into the womb for the weekend, so that I could deconstruct some of our more naïve and romantic notions about nature as mother. 

 I haven’t really answered your question about politeness, have I?  To be honest, I haven’t given much thought to manners. I guess I’m not a very polite person.

FFF: I won’t ask you to pick just one favourite character, as there are so many, but which characters did you most enjoy creating and why?

I identified most with Loco, and if I had to pick a main character (other than the landscape), I would pick him.  I’m not sure why since he’s so different than me.  In my mind, though, he best captures that ambivalence about place that all the characters feel as well as the ever-present struggle with community. 

 In terms of most fun to write, Alison wins.  How could I not have fun writing a sex-crazed, voyeuristic journalist GORB?  I loved thinking about various modern manifestations of the lusty Wife of Bath.

 FFF: You’ve mentioned that you had other characters, other tales, that you had to cut to keep the length of the manuscript manageable. (I am sure we talked about this, but it may have been a dream. If so, ignore…) If you could have kept just one more of those characters in the novel, who would it have been?

 Believe it or not, I didn’t cut any characters. I fought and revised like crazy to keep them all in.  I did cut backstories to keep momentum moving relentlessly up the mountain.  The material I most resisted cutting was Loco’s backstory.  Maybe I’ll use it for a short story someday.  Maybe, though, that’s why I identified most strongly with him – because I actually took the time to write out his full backstory.

FFF:  Besides teaching at the College of the Rockies, in the past five-ish years you’ve written two novels, had two babies and finished your doctorate. Add in Canada Reads appearances and publicity tours for the new book. It’s hard to whine about having no time to write when you seem to be doing just fine. How do you fit it all in? Any advice?

 You know the saying – if you want something done, ask a busy person. I do find that when I get a bit of momentum going, I can really accomplish a lot in a day.   The other trick is simply: do not let writing be optional.  I put my daily writing task in my day timer along with the rest of my to-do list, and then it has to get done. If it’s optional, I won’t do it. 

 If I make sure to write at least a bit every day, then my brain is always working on my current project – so even when I’m busy with other things, my mind puzzles away on the novel.  In that way, I probably require less time sitting and staring at the computer than you might think.

 My main advice is: marry well.  You have to be surrounded by people who believe in and respect your goals.  Anything else would make writing impossible.

 FFF: I think many writers take teaching jobs to pay the bills, but having had you as a writing instructor, it’s obvious you enjoy teaching creative writing. What is your favourite part about passing on your knowledge of this crazy craft? What’s your least favourite part?

I love teaching. I’m too social to write full-time.  The contact with students energizes me. 

 Teaching is also good for my own work because I have to sit and think about what works and doesn’t work. I have to be able to articulate the details of my own writing process.  Once I do that, it saves me time – I don’t have to relearn to write with each project.  Teaching has taken some of the guess work out of writing for me (and along with it, the anxiety and doubt – some of it). 

 I also like carefully examining poems, stories, and novels that I love, figuring out how they “work” and what exactly the author is “doing.”  That’s the best way to learn to write, and teaching makes me take the time to do it well. 

 My least favourite part of teaching is the extent to which students focus on getting published as if that will solve all of their problems and catapult them into a state of ever-lasting happiness and confidence.  It won’t. 

FFF: Will your next project focus on extreme sports, or are you heading in an entirely new direction? (You can also just say you are working on a new novel, and I will change the question to reflect your answer…in case you don’t want to share!)

I’m working on a novel about foreign nannies, but Bikram Yoga plays a big role in the story.  The physical keeps coming up in my work, which makes sense since I’m a physical person as are the people with whom I share my life.  Also the physical (in many different ways) influences my understanding of what it is to be human – and isn’t that what fiction is always about?

The Canterbury Trail by Angie Abdou

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Full disclosure: I have known Angie since 2007 when she was my instructor at the Fernie Writers’ Conference. Because of this, I have been in the unique position of hearing bits and pieces about The Canterbury Trail as Angie wrote it. She held her cards close, but every so often she would drop hints about this pilgrimage tale she was penning. 

The Canterbury Trail is loosely based on that old, dusty, high-school tome The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. Remember how all the boys in class perked up and giggled during the Wife of Bath’s tale? If they thought the Wife of Bath was a lascivious lass, they should spend some time with The Canterbury Trail’s Alison, the gap-toothed, wine-swilling, sex-crazed reporter from out East.

If you do recall your Chaucer, you will no doubt recognize this and other references to his timeless work. I’m a bit of a lit geek, so I enjoyed the little in-jokes in The Canterbury Trail that I actually got. The ones I missed, well, I’ll never know the difference, will I? It says something about strength of narrative that you don’t need to know the original story in order to follow the travails of this group of travellers to their Camelot. Camelot in this case is a back-country cabin set in the mountains above the fictional town of Coalton.

The book opens with Heinz, the town hermit and former English teacher. He spends his time carving signs that name all the beauteous spots of nature that surround his home on the mountain. He curses the very people who he knows are already making plans to invade his tranquil world.

Then we are off! With boisterous abandon, the pilgrims from the town of Coalton begin their journey up Canterbury Trail to indulge in some back-country playtime.  Fresh snow spews from the heavens as the diverse groups make their way via various means of transportation to the coveted cabin. Along the way to paradise, the reader experiences snowmobile trips, a hilarious mushroom trip, skiing UP a mountain and, upon arrival, buckets and buckets of puke – without the buckets.

As these outdoor enthusiasts are forced together within the tight confines of Camelot, allegiances are made and broken. The stakes are raised again and again until people and relationships start to unravel and suddenly, things aren’t quite so funny anymore.

On the last morning, the pilgrims wake to perfect conditions on the mountain. But perfect for what? The tension amps up as we watch skier, snowboarder and snowmobiler race to get the face shots and highmarks they’ve come for.

Angie’s strengths as a writer shine through not only in her dialogue, but also in her descriptions. The characters are spot-on. I will only name a few: Janet, the pregnant wife; Cosmos, the hippy; F-Bomb (best name in the book and my favourite character) the First Nations skier with a heart of gold; Loco the local who knows the land better than anyone; Michael, the real estate developer who sees green in all that white. Angie purposely and purposefully takes her characters right up to the line of being stereotypes – she gives us exactly what we expect to see, always with the express intent of turning those very expectations on their heads as the story progresses.

Angie makes the outdoors and the experience of the outdoors tangible. I have never back-country skied, but after reading this book, I, Queen of the Green Run, found myself pontificating to my bored ski-mates on the type of snow beneath my ancient pair of former rental skis. “Ah yes, this would be cream cheese snow. And over there, on that difficult run beneath the Deer Chair, well, that is known as elephant snot.”

I no longer have to clench my teeth in an uncomprehending smile when someone says something about skin tracks. I now know they have nothing to do with heroin. I’m now able to properly eavesdrop on all those cool kids at the coffee shop in Fernie when they talk about “telemarking” and “transceivers” and “pot cookies.” Not that I’ve ever heard anything about pot cookies. No sir. Not ever.

As a card-carrying GORB — oh, read the book if you don’t know what that means — I may not seem like The Canterbury Trail’s ideal reader, but the trip up the C—t* was nothing short of a rocking, shocking good time.  (And if the C-word at the end of this review surprised you, that’s nothing compared to the end of the book. You’ll see.)

*Look, Ma! I wrote this whole review and only mentioned the C-word once. Which is about eighteen times less than it is spoken, mentioned and referenced in The Canterbury Trail. Stay tuned for Angie’s interview when she will discuss this very subject.