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A Flair for Fiction
by Malcolm Page

LINDA SVENDSEN had a dream debut last year, with extraordinary reviews for her short-story collection Marine Life (HarperCollins). The book sold 2,000 in hardcover in Canada, has been optioned for a film, and is already available in German translation as Happy Hour. But, despite superlative reviews, American sales were insignificant and no British publisher has taken the book. Svendsen has been advised in both cases to bring out a novel: only then will her shortstory book be saleable. Has the success of Marine Life changed her life? "I'm often phoned and asked to do readings. I'd like to avoid readings for the next year so that I can concentrate on writing."

We lunch in the Alma Street Cafe between Kitsilano and Point Grey in Vancouver (were this a restaurant column, I'd praise the discreet service). Svendsen is 39: tong dark hair, intense and searching blue eyes, an engaging laugh, a flowing skirt retaining a trace of the hippie look.

Born in Vancouver, Svendsen attended secondary schools in Coquitlam, then went with a circle of friends to the University of British Columbia, where she majored in English and also took courses in theatre and creative writing. Gordon McCall, an MFA student, chose to direct a one-act play she had drafted in grade 12 - "probably written in one evening." They disagreed, and haven't spoken since. She sang in the rock-opera of Macbeth, by Richard Ouzounian and Marek Norman, an extravaganza loaded with Vietnam War content. Svendsen also transferred for one term to Simon Fraser University; I first met her then, when she explained lucidly Wole Soyinka's difficult drama Madmen and Specialists.

Disarmingly, Svendsen explains that she became a writer because she turned against going to law school and failed her audition for the Playhouse Acting School. She told Moyra Mullholland of the UBC theatre department, "I want to be an actress and a writer," and was advised that she would have to choose.

From UBC she went in 1977 to Columbia University in New York City to take an MFA. The students all lived on the respectably middle-class upper West Side within 20 blocks of the campus. "I felt really alive: I was hungry for the community of young writer wannabees." A year at Stanford followed, tutored by John Larue, "who I suppose must have talked structure," and Nancy Packer, "a mentor to this day." Next a year at Radcliffe - together, a thorough and perfect training for an author. John Metcalf published four of Svendsen's stories when he edited Second Impressions for Oberon in 198 1. The prizes came in -one awarded by Clark Blaise, another by Joyce Carol Oates, the Atlantic Prize for "Who He Slept By," judged by Gail Godwin, Bernard Matamud, and John Updike.

And so, in 1982, back to New York City, married, a variety of jobs around the film industry with time off for writing. Twice Svendsen was writer in residence at the Writers' Community in New York. Her new stories, however, were rejected, because, she believes, "the stories weren't in shape."

In 1989, her marriage over, Svendsen returned to Vancouver to become a professor of creative writing at UBC. She had come to see New York as "a dirty, dirty place - politically difficult, with the impoverished people, the sick on the streets." She now lives with Brian McKeown, a television producer, on West Third in Vancouver. Winslow to West Third, via New York, is more than a 25 km east-to-west move; it's from sprawling, unfashionable suburbs to a prosperous, established area.

A private person, Svendsen hates the lecturing part of university teaching. "The students as human beings are really wonderful. I'm frustrated at times with teaching. I remember being in love with writing. As a teacher I'm at war with that memory. I hate to discourage anyone and they don't want to hear that their ending isn't working. I don't want them to go through years of frustration. There is something to be learned about narrative - if you're putting it aside you have to know what you're putting aside. I like sitting down with 12 young people who love books. But it's so emotionally exhausting: I'm responding with the same mental muscle to their work as to my own."

Finally, in 1992, her first book, Marine Life - eight stories, all previously published in magazines from the Atlantic to Prairie Schooner. Does she rank with Alistair MacLeod as Canada's slowest writer? Since the stories were written over more than 10 years, Svendsen is surprised that no critic has observed the changes in her style. Did her career take a wrong turn? Did receiving so much teaching make her too setf-conscious about her art?

Svendsen will only comment on the delay in having a first book published: "I don't feel any regrets."

Every story in Marine Life is so crammed with episodes that it's almost a novel, rigorously pared to minimal information. Each semi-self-contained scene is both intense and under stated. The reader works, rewardingly, to discover connections. The summary of "Who He Slept By" - "It slowly hit me that my brother might be an asshole" - is untypically clear-cut, and even then is not the conclusion. The passage of time, and change in Vancouver, intrudes subtly through fleeting references to the Tijuana Brass and seeing Gigi at a drive-in. Every page has a stylistic flourish: "pale adults with successful ears," "baskets of acutely pink geraniums ... .. Robert chuckled as the trunk lid yawned." The character Irene is placed as prematurely sedate by the way she will "fuss with tulips."

Svendsen's agent sent all her published stories to Farrar, Strauss, who chose only the sequence narrated by Adele for the book. Svendsen suggested "about 300" titles: the publisher decided on Marine Life.

The stories are narrated by Adele Nordstrom, who lives in the lower mainland of B.C., is the youngest of four children, has studied at Columbia, and has been married. Some readers will naively see all this as autobiography, others will theorize about unreliable narrators, others will feel teased by what is factual and what is not (Erica Jong and Audrey Thomas unlikely pairing! - are others who tease their readers with the close resemblances between their fiction and themselves). So is Linda Adele? First, she points out that Adele has children and she does not; that Adele visits the Arctic and she has not. She goes on to admit that "we share a certain sensibility; she is not that far away. At first I was just trying to write stories for me. Then it became more of a tightrope act. I was aware what was happening and was not too comfortable."

Svendsen herself finds the autobiographical element in the work of other authors irrelevant: "I don't want to know if this is Margaret Drabble or Graeme Gibson. In a Woody Allen film I don't want to know if he and Mia had a fight the day before." The work is what matters. "A writer's material is their life. Their morality is in the work - I'm convinced of this. And I'd hate Updike or Munro not to have written." Yet a problem exists, for the writer has to find a way of using life without hurting other people. The use of the first person is a key technique: " 'I' is very strong. You can trust that voice: someone is telling you something personally."

Just after I had first read Marine Life, I went to a New Democrat Christmas party in Coquitlam - and was introduced to Svendsen's parents. I tried not to wonder how far the couple were models for the parents in the stories. "I'm a musician," said Linda's mother. "Linda was good at the piano, but told me decisively in her teens that she was going to concentrate on being a writer."

Is Linda Adele? Yes; no; up to a point; does it matter?; it doesn't matter.

THE FORM of linked short stories was devised by Turgenev in A Sportsman's Sketches, popularized by Sherwood Anderson in Winesburg, Ohio, and is known in Canada through Alice Munro's Lives of Girls and Women. Svendsen exploits all the possibilities of connecting stories - in developing settings, revealing characters, and in the recurrent water imagery. The title story, she explains, is "the work of a young student writer. I would say now to that student, 'Lighten up on the water."' While aware of this undercurrent, Svendsen was "not necessarily pleased, or wanting to accentuate it. I was always going to have Jill in 'White Shoulders' drowning, but perhaps by driving a car into the river. I knew I needed water on the dustjacket, either a car-wash scene or the Alex Colville Woman on a Diving Board that was actually chosen."

Much of Marine Life swirls around the lower mainland of B.C., though most of the stories were written in New York. Lion's Gate, White Spot, Queen's Park: all have connotations for Vancouverites. When we read that "it was gorgeous, sunny, so of course it was impossible to park at Jericho, Locarno, or Spanish Banks," we have shared the experience. Questioned on her use of such specifics, Svendsen replies: "You don't have to know every Paris reference to like Mavis Gallant ... .. But," I argued, "many others have made Paris part of our world in a way Vancouver is not." She shifted ground: "I like the sound of 'Queen's Park."' Her story, "Esso" (in Oberon's 80: Best Canadian Stories) begins: "I thought the North Road Esso was the centre of the earth." North Road separates her childhood homes in Burnaby and Coquitlam. I pass that Esso every week, and constantly try to see it as being as close to the centre of the Earth as Lion's Gate - or the Eiffel Tower.

In the Globe and Mail, Oakland Ross described Marine Life as "mainly what might be thought of as New Yorker-ish stories." John Metcalf, on the other hand, packaged her writing with Rohinton Mistry, Don Dickinson, and six others as a "new story writer" in an anthology that came out last year from Quarry. Though Svendsen sees her work as very different from that of a writer like Diane Schoemperlen, she praises Metcalf- "He is encouraging people to read up-and-coming writers, taking on the hard task of keeping short fiction in the public eye."

The two-hour CBC-TV adaptation of Margaret Laurence's The Diviners, for which Svendsen wrote the script, was screened in January, and has been sold to Britain's Channel 4. Her regret is that the budget was only $2.8 million, so many comers were cut - there was too little snow, and prolonged uncertainty about whether they could afford a train. She also felt that such a long novel really should be a mini-series. "I had to find a particular line, which meant leaving out Scotland, and there wasn't enough of Vancouver." Yet Anne Wheeler, the director, and Kim Todd, the co-producer, "worked miractes." Though the low budget and the brevity dictated many compromises, and though she notes "in sections I cringed at my own choices in writing," essentially Svendsen was satisfied. "The story of Morag is there, and I think it was moving by the end."

What is Svendsen reading? "I read Russell Bariks's Affliction in a day: is it good! Ian MacEwan's A Child in Time impressed me, and I also like his Black Dogs. And I'm reading Low-Risk Investing!"

In film, she admires Mike Leigh (Life Is Sweet) and Jane Campion (An Angel at My Table and Sweetie) - "those wonderful dysfunctional families: I love them." What does she do when she's not reading and writing? "I'm trying to team to cook, and going to Peter Gabriel's concert."

Svendsen has a sabbatical for 1993-94. Her first project is a screenplay of Laurence's The Stone Angel. The big challenge is the use of voice-over, essential for Hagar but a suspect device in movies. "The novel reminds me of Ishiguro's Remains of the Day -another of those 'how I fucked up my life 'books." She has plans for a TV-movie for CBC, an idea for another script, the beginning of a novel that will provide the chance to research in Asia, probably the Philippines.

While Svendsen chats animatedly about schooldays and the film industry, it's writing that is truly vital for her (though directing a film some time also appeals). She is one of those fortunate authors who actually enjoys writing. "I like it when I'm still trying to figure out where I'm going with it - though I believe in outlines. I think my writing is very accessible, but if I'm writing well I'm doing it to please myself."


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