Brave Souls

232 pages,
ISBN: 0773758321

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Likes & Dislikes & Gods
by Helen Hacksel

If you are looking for deep philosophical or psychological insights from this collection of interviews with twenty-eight writers and other artists, you probably won't find them. Such expectations could well be raised by the cover, which declares: "Writers and artists wrestle with God, love, death, and the things that matter." Names like Mordecai Richler, Carol Shields, Robertson Davies, and Alex Colville, which jump out from the list of interviewees, tend to reinforce such expectations. If you adjust your sights, however, you may still find things to enjoy.
Rather than a spiritual quest, this is a collection of informal, cosy chats with some interesting and gifted people. It's not surprising to learn that some of the pieces originated as newspaper profiles, for they have a folksy flavour and a lot of human interest content. They strain to show the "ordinary" side of each artist: Richler is "a regular guy searching for a moral code to live by"; W. P. Kinsella "is not a phony"; and Shields, who is interviewed at her son's wedding, is "gushing over" her daughter-in-law to be, and couldn't have been distinguished "from any other somewhat romantic, middle-class mom in a summery beige dress." True, each participant is asked, "Do you believe in God?"-however that person may interpret the term-and each piece is woven around the various answers. But the profiles also elaborate on some of the personal likes and dislikes of the subjects, their modes of dress or habitation, and although these details are referred back to their owners' spiritual or ethical values, there are no profound revelations and more than a few glimpses of lifestyle and personality quirks.
The author, Douglas Todd, has been with the Vancouver Sun since 1983, and for the last few years has been the paper's ethics and religion writer. For two years, he travelled across the country to interview "some of the most inspiring people on the continent," adding to the profiles already published in a weekly column, and, with the help of the Canada Council, producing them in book form. Most of the participants are Canadians, but a few are from south of the border. Although three-quarters are writers, there are also several visual artists, three popular music perfomers, a cartoonist, and a film-maker. There is a wide variety of writers ranging, for example, from the poet Evelyn Lau to the mystery writer Tony Hillerman, from the editor and writer Peter C. Newman to the children's author Robert Munsch. The Americans are as diverse as John Irving and Robert Bly. One constant, as Todd points out in his introduction, is that almost all participants, including the native artists Bill Reid and Susan Aglukark, had been exposed to Christianity or Judaism as children, and it is with the orthodoxy of either one of these religions as backdrop that personal belief (or disbelief) is highlighted. Some notable artists apparently declined to be interviewed, so that absence from the list has no special significance. (For some reason, women are lightly represented, at eight out of twenty-eight.)
The least successful of these pieces are those where Todd interprets the conversation and its setting in his own words, and reports little direct speech. These tend to take on the flavour of a tribute, and any traits that could seem negative are quickly given a positive spin. The language is often a bit flowery: breezes "waft", and "rolling green hills" surround Colville's Nova Scotian home. As to the beliefs, or disbelief, of his subjects, Todd is entirely objective and open. He puts himself appropriately in the background-but doesn't pass up the odd opportunity to show himself to be benign, diplomatic, and sensitive in his dealings.
Some direct quotes from Mordecai Richler spice up that particular conversation: Reform Judaism is for him "sort of like being a Reader's Digest Jew." But too much of the interview is uninspired commentary such as "Richler is not of the how-to-win-friends-and-influence-people school," or that Richler "is not exactly ready to spill his emotional guts." As for the Evelyn Lau piece, it seems mostly to conjure up a sense of her personal charm, and a touching vulnerability. Again, much of it comes to us through the reporter's voice, on the conversation itself, on details of physical appearance, on life history. At the end of the interview, Lau makes a small, personal confession that touches on loneliness, love, and rejection. It's an authentic moment.
To my mind, the most successful interview is the one done with Robertson Davies, a year before his death. It's mainly in the interviewee's own words, which in this case are characteristically whimsical, interesting, and lively. He talks of the feminine side of God, saying that "when the whole generation and continuity of life relies on two sexes," it's a "crazy notion.to suppose that God manages on his own"; of ancient gnosticism and its belief that salvation was not free but that "you had to have some brains.. Salvation.could be achieved only through an inner journey"; of an "evil principle" at work in the world. He throws in Greek principles and Jungian concepts, to boot. There's even an incident to rival the famous meeting between Freud and Jung in Jung's library, when their argument about the possibility of synchronicity was interrupted by a loud explosion from the bookcase; when Todd asks Davies why Satan pops up so often in his novels: "The sky thunders. The Vancouver Hotel shakes for a few seconds. Then silence." Robertson Davies smiles.
The organizing principle of the collection is type of belief-or its absence. The categories Todd has set up are The Atheists, The Doubters, The New Ancients, and The Emerging Mystics. The first two are straightforward, the third are those who identify themselves as Christians but have strong personal interpretations of what that means, for example, Bruce Cockburn with his militant attitude to injustice, or the ex-nun Ann Copeland's non-doctrinaire views. The last category is for those who don't fit any of the other three. Individuals such as Farley Mowat, Timothy Findley, Alex Colville, and Loreena McKennitt look to nature as a spiritual source. They are less human-centred than most, often giving other creatures equal importance. For Findley, "everything is holy." Others are influenced by New Age ideas, or by Eastern religions. Sylvia Fraser talks of karma and reincarnation, Nick Bantock of Zen Buddhism.
If you would like to listen in on some intimate conversations with some well-known, highly creative people, Brave Souls will give you that opportunity. These snapshots provide small glimpses of their values, their personalities, and sometimes their lifestyles. But if you want to know how they "wrestle with God, love, death, and the things that matter," it would be better to read their books, look at their paintings, listen to their songs. 

Helen Hacksel is a Toronto writer and editor.


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