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The Plot of Your Life
by Stephen Stamp

JOAN BARFOOT is the author of five novels: Abra (McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1978), which won the W H. Smith/Books in Canada First Novel Award; and Dancing in the Dark (1982), Duet for Three (1985), Family News (1989), and Plain Jane (1992), all of which were published by Macmillan. She lives in London, Ontario, where she spoke with Stephen Stamp.

Books in Canada: When did you start writing fiction and what first made you want to write?

Joan Barfoot: I started writing, trying to do it seriously, when I was about 27 or 28. I was working at the Toronto Sunday Sun and by then I had been at a few newspapers and had realized that there wasn't enduring satisfaction on a day-to-day basis. So I thought I would try writing a novel. I quit my job because I thought that was the proper way to do it, to pay proper attention, and also to make it a sufficient risk that I would be really committed to it, because otherwise my tendency is to screw around and not be wholly committed. I'm not sure about the reasons, except that newspapers are so fleeting, I guess, and I did want to do something that would last a bit, hopefully. And I also was somewhat frustrated by the stories that you work on in a newspaper. You go into somebody's life and then you come out; it's not a continuing relationship, and of course you have no control whatever over the characters and plot, so that the stories don't turn out the way you want them to. I wanted to use some of the experiences I had encountered in journalism but be able to interpret them in my own way.

BiC: In the time leading up to when you quit your job, had you been thinking about Abra and her story or did that come when you decided to write a novel?

Barfoot: Well, in fact, Abra wasn't the first novel I wrote; it was the first one that got published. So, no, I think what I had in my head was writing a novel. I didn't have a very good idea of what I was doing. So I quit my job and contrived a novel; contrived is really the word. Neither the plot nor the characters - nor the theme for that matter - had any great relationship to reality. It was an entirely devised kind of work and it was hopeless - I call it my learner's-permit manuscript. Actually, it wasn't hopeless; I read bits of it a few years ago and it's not badly written, but the point of it is absent.

So then I started writing Abra. I was living in a sort of communal co-op house with six or seven people, and under those circumstances solitude becomes quite important and alluring. So I took that kind of longing for solitude to an extreme.

BiC: Did you try to get that first novel published?

Barfoot: No. But I learned a fair amount about the importance of character, about the importance of letting the heart do things instead of making the mind control them. One of the flaws in that manuscript was that 'it was so controlled by my brain that there was no heart and no great emotion in it. It was very peculiar, though. I'm kind of proud of how peculiar it was. It just wasn't peculiar in the right way.

BiC: By the sounds of it you are pretty much self-taught. Did you have any other training and influences?

Barfoot: Influences, yes. Training, no.

BiC: Just writing and reading?

Barfoot: Reading is extremely useful. So, in fact, is journalism. To write a fairly lengthy feature or examination of some issue or person requires you to think about structure. Structure, it seems to me, is the key to both journalism and fiction-writing. Once you have a structure that reflects the content you've done three-quarters of the work.

BiC: We touched on influences. Who do you like to read, what types of book?

Barfoot: Frankly, I like to read murder mysteries.

BiC: Do you have a desire to write one?

Barfoot: No no no. They're my recreation. There are quite literary murder mysteries that make fine reading. But I've always read since I was a little kid, just voraciously, so it's really difficult to pick out influences. I think Alice Munro is probably my favourite writer in the universe right now. When I was a teenager I read Margaret Laurence; until then I suppose I had been reading mostly men. And I went through a phase of reading all the Russian novelists: Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy. I was quite the smart-ass adolescent. It was a great relief to read Margaret Laurence. She was the first person I read who made it obvious that you could write about the ordinary lives of women - women specifically - and be a great writer, that you didn't have to have blood on the snow to be a great writer.

BiC: Although blood on the snow certainly can come into a Canadian novel.

Barfoot: Oh yes, there's nothing wrong with blood on the snow, but it's nice to know that you can have tea in the kitchen and still have good literature.

BiC: Why do you think that, without formal fiction training, you have been able to stick with your writing so well and become as successful as you have?

Barfoot: I'm not sure there's much of a correlation between training and writing.

BiC: I didn't mean to put too much emphasis on it, I just meant, what is the reason?

Barfoot: That's just stubbornness. Those are personality traits that just make me dogged about it. Maybe it would have been useful to take creative-writing courses, because a lot of tricks in writing I have kind of blundered onto instead of just knowing them to start with; that might have made it easier. And there are tricks to doing some things. But instead I've just relied on reworking everything a million times until I'm ... not exactly satisfied, because you're never satisfied, but prepared to let it go, at least.

BiC: How do you organize your writing time?

Barfoot: I'm not very organized. The two weeks that I'm working at the [London] Free Press I do no writing at alt. The two weeks that I spend on my own work, I work in the morning. I try not to let myself go out of the house before I've done MY work, because once I'm out of the house I'm off the leash and I have great difficulty getting back. What I've always done from the start is set myself a goat of 10 pages a day and just go ripping through things. Then I spend a certain amount of time editing. I have a fairly short work day. I'm a quite liberal employer. I don't concentrate very well on fiction after three or four hours - I'm bagging out. So, it's merely a matter of stoking up on coffee and cigarettes and drifting to my office. I can often tell now if what I'm doing is gibberish and will end up getting thrown out, but I'm not bothered by that. Something will come out of it even if the words aren't right; it's steering in some direction that will probably be useful.

BiC: How important is that -just being able to throw things out and knowing what to keep and what not to?

Barfoot: I guess you have to be able to do that if, like me, you don't do things right the first draft, and I don't expect too many people do it right the first draft. There are always surprises, then you have to go back because something at the beginning has lost consistency with something further down the road, either in terms of plot or character. I don't find it difficult just to chuck things. Again that's part of journalism: if it's not right you do it again. No big deal. It relieves the pressure in a way. If you screw up it'll be history next time around.

BiC: You once told me you don't write short stories because you don't have that many good ideas and when you do have an idea it takes you a few thousand words to get started. So where have the ideas or inspiration for your novels come from?

Barfoot: Most of them are not plot ideas initially. I think most of them are theme ideas. Abra was a kind of exploration of solitude. Dancing in the Dark ... I mean, each one has multiple themes - or aspirations at least - but one of the things that interested me before I worked on Dancing in the Dark was that it was my belief - I'm not sure that I think this any longer - that anyone can kill, the most unlikely person can commit murder if the right button is pushed. Then I started thinking, Who would be the most unlikely person? Well, someone very, very passive like Edna. Duet for Three was mothers and daughters. I stilt think that it's probably the most intense relationship for a lot of women that they're ever going to have. Family News was more political. That was a time - I suppose we're going through one now, too - when the definition of family was up in the air and all those right-wingers were babbling on about what a family was. To me family is a much larger thing than what the family-values people were talking about. So I wanted to explore that. I only wish that Dan Quayle had read my book instead of watching "Murphy Brown," because it would have been such a help if he'd condemned my book. Murphy Brown doesn't need this kind of help, I do! And Plain Jane, among other things, is about the effect of appearance on one's life or how you perceive yourself to be perceived. It makes an enormous difference in the plot of your life. So it starts with themes, then it comes to characters and then plot for me.

Bic: You come up with a theme and characters that interest you, and a plot is developing. As you're starting to write the early drafts, do you have in mind what you are trying to achieve with that book?

Barfoot: Perfection. For all the moments leading up to when I actually put my fingers down on the keys there is a sort of picture in my head of perfection, that this will be the one where the words are exactly right. Of course as soon as I put my fingers down on the keyboard that begins not happening.

Bic: It seems impossible to achieve perfection in a book, but how close do you feet that you come to doing what you're trying to do?

Barfoot: That's really hard to gauge, what I'm trying to do with a book. One of the first things, I suppose, is that at some point you have to learn to let it go, because you could spend your entire lifetime polishing to a pure sheen and stilt not get it perfect. So you have to be able at some point to say, "This is the best I can do."

Bic: You could spend all your mornings putting commas in and all your afternoons taking them back out.

Barfoot: Yeah. The other thing that happens, once you've let it go, is that it then goes out into the world. First it goes through the publishing process, which involves a great many voices giving their responses. Then it goes out into the real world and with luck a whole pile of people read it. With no tuck, not so many. And then it becomes a different book, because everyone who reads it brings their own experience and their own point of view to it, so it becomes partly what I did and partly what they received. And that often adds dimensions I had not considered or had not intended. I find that quite exciting.

Bic: Could you put your finger on a number of drafts that you'll go through with a novel?

Barfoot: It has varied from about six for Plain Jane to, I think, 13 for Duet for Three. The rewritings are really substantial; they involve tearing apart the structure, changing the characters when somehow the characters evolve differently from what I had thought. It's like somebody building a house, getting to the roof and saying, "Ah, I don't like the porch" and starting again. For instance, in Duet for Three the daughter, June, is to me someone who is very unpleasant; I would not want her in my house. I kept rewriting and rewriting until, although I don't like her, I feet great empathy and sympathy for her. So, my own feelings change and that lets me write better.

Bic: At what stage do editors become involved?

Barfoot: When I think that it's okay to go. Then it goes to my agent and she sends it off to the publisher, and so on. It's way down the line. I don't consult. I suppose one reason I've never taken a creative writing course is that I'm not consultative about my work. While I'm doing it I don't actually care what anybody else thinks about it. It's mine. I have a strong sense of ownership about it at that stage. So, until I'm willing or ready to share it, nobody sees it and I don't talk about it.

Bic: What do you think about the future of reading and writing?

Barfoot: I really don't know. Sometimes on a bleak day I think I have managed to choose two careers that are going to be completely defunct within the next decade. The circulation of newspapers is plummeting and certainly the publishing industry is always in a state of crisis, but it really does seem to be in a state of crisis this time. Presumably fewer and fewer people are reading. I don't feel that personally, because I'm an information junkie. I gobble up newspapers, magazines, and books: anything I can get my hands on. I've always done that since I was a kid, so I can't imagine life without information and literature. I guess I worry that life becomes so narrow. Most of us go through a fairly limited set of experiences in our lives, because of time and space and situation. Our experiences are limited by all sorts of things - by class and by race and by gender. So we have a fairly narrow view of the world individually, and if you don't read, how do you learn about other ways of being? And if you don't know anything about other ways of being, how do you remain civilized? How do you remain tolerant or understanding even if you think a point of view is appalling or destructive? Reading probably gives you enough vision of the world that you can at least see where it came from and you can see your opponents as fellow human beings, even if you think they're full of shit.

Bic: In terms of perceiving and being perceived, which you brought up in relation to Plain Jane, clearly some people have been reading your books. You won the W H. Smith/Books in Canada First Novel Award for Abra and now you have received the Marian Angel Award. How do you feel about your work and the acclaim you have received for it?

Barfoot: Oh, I don't think it's a great deal of acclaim. As we all know, awards don't necessarily have to do with pure virtue. I've been a judge for different awards. It's a very uncomfortable concept and practice. It doesn't mean that you are actually the cat's ass; it merely means that someone right now thinks you're not so bad. What I like best, I think, about the results of writing is getting letters from people in all the countries where the books are, talking about how they've touched them or how they relate to their lives or, in some cases, how they've actually changed their lives, which is quite unnerving. It still strikes me as kind of eerie to think that in some country where I don't even speak the language someone is reading this book and being affected by it sufficiently to write. I'm affected by books all the time, but I don't think I've ever written to a writer to say so.

Bic: In terms of characters, Jane Smith seems to be quite different from Abra and Edna and your other characters. Is this a change in perspective or is it just a different theme?

Barfoot: I think it's just a different theme, different character. I hope they're all different. I guess if I were relating her to anyone it would be to Edna in Dancing in the Dark. They're both very enclosed people, very shy and frightened. There is a way in which some of the characters relate. The next one that I'm working on now is, again, a little different. I would like to think that you keep improving, that each one is a step past the previous one. I'm not sure that's true. With a lot of writers it seems to be that their early work is what endures. You think of W, 0. Mitchell. The poor bloke's been writing for 50 years and Who Has Seen the Wind? is still the one that everyone thinks of. I think that must be somewhat depressing.

Bic: It seems not surprising in some ways to me that an early work would stand out because that is one of the first things that really inspired the writer, gave you the passion to do it.

Barfoot: Yes, exactly. I can see it now, too. I wasn't always able to see it, now I can. And because I still get a big response to Abra from people who encounter it for the first time. It touches people in ways I don't understand. There are later books that I think are better written, but that seems to be the one that just grabs some kind of heart....

Bic: There are a lot of people, I'm sure, who are living in cities and aren't thrilled with it but don't really see an alternative. Obviously, what Abra does isn't an alternative for most people, but it's nice to think about.

Barfoot: Yeah. Everybody has escape fantasies, I think, and it's a kind of allegory for that. It's not meant to be realistic. I'm actually a little unhappy with a couple of letters I have received about Abra from people who were viewing it as some kind of recipe and were at least threatening - I don't know if they ever went through with it, I suppose if they went through with it I'd never hear from them again - to follow her path, and that's really unnerving. She is, like Murphy Brown, fiction.

Bic: Although the blurring of the line between fiction and reality tends to grow all the time.

Barfoot: Yeah, but if you can make people feel so strongly about a character that they think she is real, that's a wonderful thing.

Bic: Abra is written in the first person, and the voice I find very important to the book. It seems that the rhythm and the pace of the sentences reflect the rhythm and the pace of the character's shift from the city to the country. In Plain Jane, your most recent novel, there is a third-person narrator and the voice is very different. Can you tell us a bit about that voice and what it means to the novel?

Barfoot: I had a really good time writing Plain Jane. I think one of the reasons I enjoyed myself was because of something I learned from writing Dancing in the Dark, which was that with Edna -although people would say that she was a compelling character and would get absorbed in her pain and her life - no one would admit to identifying with her. They would say, "My sister's like that" or "The woman down the street is like that." No one said, "I'm like Edna." I suppose because anyone who was like Edna would be far too busy to read the book, and far too self-absorbed. So when I was writing about Jane I thought, This is another case in which people will very likely not identify with her. Which is very tricky, if you have a main character that people will not admit to, or will only admit to snippets of. So I had some fun writing the voice of the observer. For the most part that observer is my voice. It's that, "Gee, this is an annoying woman. How can she stand to be like this, if I could just get my hands on her and give her a good shake maybe I could fix her." And when I would get to a part in which Jane was annoying me and I wanted to shake her then that's what I would write. It has been somewhat controversial, though not as controversial as I expected it to be....

Bic: Or hoped it would be?

Barfoot: Um, I don't know. It's not unheard of to have an intrusive voice, a commentator's voice. It's a bit 19th century, but certainly it's been tried more recently. But people either feel quite jolted by it and taken out of the book or they find it speaking for them. It spoke for me and that's why I had a good time. It's the first time I've let my own voice be in a book.

Bic: Did that make you nervous at all?

Barfoot: No. Well, I have a rather mean voice personally. My own self is a bit crisp and perhaps somewhat judgemental and certainly exaggerated. I do hyperbole very easily. So it was actually kind of a relief. Much as in life, people are free to either like or not like my voice.


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