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The Golden Threads
by Bradd Burningham

ANN COPELAND is the author of three collections of short fiction published by Oberon Press - At Peace (I978), The Back Room (I979), and Earthen Vessels (I984) - and a novel, The Golden Thread (HarperCollins, I989), which was short-listed for the Governor General's Award for fiction. She spoke with Bradd BurnIngham at her home in Sackville, New Brunswick.

BIC: You were an Ursuline nun. You have a Ph.D. in literature. You have taught and you are the mother of two boys. Where does the writing come in that varied career?

Ann Copeland: It starts here in Sackville. When I came to Sackville in I97I I had one child. He was I8 months old. I had the expectation of a teaching job, but no guarantee. I had the Ph.D. in hand and was supposed to write this scholarly book on Wallace Stevens, or so my committee had told me from Cornell. So I walked around for about two years here trying to generate that book. But somehow or other I couldn't do it. I can't explain that. I think there were a number of reasons. No teaching job arose and the supposed book I was going to produce didn't come through. I was casting about for how I could use my talents and training to produce something And so, with my husband's support, in fact he may have suggested it, I decided I'd try to write fiction. I felt that I had a good beginning point - the experience I'd had in the convent - which I saw as a kind of laboratory of human emotion. Obviously, it's missing certain things. But is it really? I mean all the passions were there, all the conflicts. I saw the convent experience as a marvellous kind of bowl that I could look into and see the basic drives of human nature played out. So I decided I'd start with that.

BIC: Can you tell us anything else about that initial experience?

Copeland: I wanted to try my hand at fiction, but I had a four year-old in the house and that meant constant interruptions.

Although my husband and I shared a study at home, that wasn't ideal because I really needed some quiet place away from the house. We couldn't afford a full-time housekeeper, but we figured we could afford help two mornings a week. So I advertised in our local paper. I still didn't know where I might be able to work. One evening the chaplain from Mount Allison, Bob MacKay, was visiting our house and I was explaining this to him and his wife and he said, "I have a broom closet I'll give you if you want it. It's under the chapel." I said, "I'll take it." So I went over to this closet under the chapel, and the metaphoric implications of the move delighted me, since I was going to begin writing about nuns. I could hear the organ pipes above me when people came in to practise. I set myself up in the broom closet, which means I opened a card table and I brought over a little lamp. I was in heaven. I had my key to this broom closet, and the janitor and I became good friends. I still don't know what he thought I was doing down there. On Tuesday and Thursday mornings, from nine until I2, I went to that broom closet during the academic year of I974-75. And that's where I wrote several of the stories in At Peace, the first stories of mine that were published.

BIC: What about the academic training? Was that a hindrance to writing when you started?

Copeland: I had to learn a lot. You don't need higher degrees in order to write fiction. And you also have to get past certain rather formulaic ways of seeing experience. You have to learn to trust your instincts. I had to get past certain blocks that may have been rather subtle, but were there because of academic training. One would be a rather analytical habit, and another might be the tendency not to trust my own intuition about writing. A third would be that I had already done a Masters thesis and Ph.D. thesis. They were long, they were taxing, demanding. I really wanted to write novels, but I was hesitant because of the size of that undertaking, not being young and naive about it, so I started with short stories; which is its own form of naivete, of course, because short stories are terribly hard to do.

BIC: In a story like "Border Crossing, " you use national boundaries as a metaphor for other kinds of frontier. How does your own double identity come into your writing?

Copeland: I've thought a lot about this. I think it's come into my writing more in some of the stories that aren't in the published collections. It seems to me certainly a major experience in my life to have lived in two countries. And I've lived longer here in Canada than I've ever lived anywhere in my life, so there is a kind of rootedness and extension to my experience here that I don't have anywhere else, even in the convent. I moved around there. We were usually two years in a place and then out. So, the cross-border experience, or the doubleness of this experience, I think is important. I wish I could tell you exactly how. One way is that you feel simultaneously connected and not connected. I feel very connected to this place in ways that really count. I have raised my children here. I've lived 20 years here. I know people in the community in a variety of ways.

BIC: But you'll never be from here?

Copeland: No. I'll never be from here. And I see my own country in a different way from having lived away from it all these years, and having read Canadian newspapers and having Canadian friends and understanding the Canadian hang-ups about America. So, that's important. What I like to get at now and then in my writing is how this works metaphorically for a larger human experience. I think it's common today for people to feel ambivalent about their connection to a place, or disconnected from the place. That seems a much more common experience, at least among people to whom I've spoken, than feeling deeply rooted forever in one spot.

BIC: One thing I find intriguing in The Golden Thread stories and elsewhere is the value placed on intelligence. Intelligent people who behave stupidly or meanly are given an especially rough ride. Do "smart" people have a greater moral burden on them than others?

Copeland: well, calculated ignorance is a way of manipulating your environment. If you're ignorant and wish to sustain that ignorance, it's a way of determining just how intelligent an exchange can be with another person. So, I don't have a lot of patience with people who cherish ignorance - "I don't know it, and I don't want to know it, and I'm not going to try to know it, and that's it." So very limiting. And it limits as well the person on the other side who may be trying to understand something. That's something I react very negatively to, if I perceive it. Also, I think figuring out what is a wise choice in a given situation is very often connected with how intelligent you are. Obviously there is a correlation between the level of intelligence of the given character and the complexity that that character perceives. And fiction deals with human choices. That's my prejudice. Whatever you're choosing will be more difficult the more that you see surrounding it.

BIC: Cloisters, labyrinths, backrooms, prisons - enclosures of many kinds. Is life in the Copeland universe a more or less successful attempt to escape?

Copeland: Somebody read a number of my stories a few years ago who is quite a discerning reader as well as a poet. At the end he said: you are really hooked on traps. I said, that's right, I recognize that as true. My husband kids me that, for me, heaven is tickets in the drawer that say we're going somewhere. I don't know what profound vulnerability in my psyche this points to, but yes, I think that there is some drive to try to understand where the deepest freedom lies. So if I'm going to manifest that drive, it could be through writing stories about people in rooms, or looking out windows, or walking through doors. I do know that metaphors for doors and windows come up again and again and again, but I didn't think about it. It's there.

BIC: There's often humour in your stories, wordplay, sometimes just playfulness. What role does humour play?

Copeland: Oh, I think that God has a sense of humour. And if we didn't have one, why wouldn't we just slit our wrists? The humour I respond to in reading stories is a mirth that is so profound and so radical that if you just tipped it one little bit you would have the most despairing kind of irony. Do you know what I mean? But that's the humour I really respond to - in people, and in reading.

BIC: I sometimes found the humour almost camouflaged. I would go past it, then do a double take and find some of the best spots. Are you up to mischief? Are you sticking your tongue out at inattentive readers?

Copeland: No, I don't think so. Though I have had the experience of reading a story aloud and cracking people up, where I have to think that it might easily have been missed on the page. It's not that I'm consciously trying to expose the ignorant reader at all. What can I say? I like implication. It seems to me that very strong writing does leave something up to the reader, but it's all there to be found. And sloppy writing just makes spaces, but hasn't furnished you with enough context to fill in those spaces in order to render the story complete. To try to work with implication is not to be a lazy writer, but to he strenuous.

BIC: Most of the stories are told by a third-person narrator. Some are in the first person. What is involved in making that kind of choice?

Copeland: Sometimes, writing the story two or three times. I do revise maniacally. Sometimes I've written a whole story, we'll say, in the third person. And then it seems to me that if I just turn it around and try it in the first person it would be better. So it's trial and error. In any story that's primarily autobiographical - and ultimately all fiction is centred in some experience or begins from a spark that's been in your own life - I've always had the tendency to start writing in the third person. For some funny reason it makes me feel freer.

BIC: A number of stories explore - with great delicacy, humanity, and insight - the territory of forbidden relationships: nuns and priests, fathers and daughters, homosexuality; one story deals with a priest and a young boy.

Copeland: Well, I hope I have insights into these kinds of situation, but I do have limited experience with them. The story about the priest and the young boy came about as a challenge from an interviewer. He said to me - he was interviewing me the year I was up for the Governor General's Award, 1989 "Would you write about the situation in Newfoundland?" So I said, "Sure. What's the point of your question?" "Because," he said, "somebody's going to get their hands on it, and it's going to be just a lousy journalist." And I thought about it and I thought, well, he's asking me a real question. So I said, "Yes. But I'd only write about that if I could find some way to illumine the pain on both sides. Which must be extreme. I wouldn't be interested in writing it exploitatively." But the end of the tale is that shortly thereafter I found myself in Fredericton in a hotel alone for a day and that story, "Sin," came to me. I really felt challenged by his question, so I got up and started at nine in the morning and I finished that story at something like six o'clock. Wrote it in a day. But basically that story arose not from my own experience, but from an immediate challenge that sparked me to find a way to beat it.

BIC: In the convent most relationships of any kind are forbidden. I wondered if that gave you more sympathy for lay people who are wrestling with these things.

Copeland: I never thought of it, but that is a good point. There was such a neurotic and distorted emphasis on the danger of relationships. Ordinary human relationships. And in my own experience, I was sometimes rather severely penalized for being friends with the students, or generally trying to help them, and I would get warnings about this. And that always did seem to be so counter to any Christian understanding of human life, and so counter to common sense, that maybe you're right, going through a number of years of it did make me more sensitive. I don't know. Or more aware of the pain that anyone, any thinking being, goes through in those situations.

BIC: How does music figure in your work?

Copeland: I don't know how music figures in my work, but it figures in my life, and that filters through to my work. Actually, in the novel I'm working on now, it's going to figure quite a bit. But for me it's been important to have a non-verbal outlet. I find music immediately gratifying, unlike writing. I like the exercise of writing once I'm into it, but like most writers I have my struggles with it. With music I don't. To sit down at a piano and start to play is for me instantly gratifying, a wonderful balance to writing.

BIC: Many characters seem to live for the future, for paradise, or something better, anyway. Some seem to live in memory or the past. I don't find many truly rooted in their present lives. Where is the present in your stories?

Copeland: It's hard to generalize because I think the stories have changed quite a bit over the last few years. I'd have to go through story after story and see if that rings true. Though I have a clue that might touch upon it. But it doesn't seem to work in terms of past, present, and future. It works in terms of whether a given character believes in the possibility of transcendence, that may be the problem you're talking about in temporal terms. I personally believe in moments that are transcendent, that are different from the quotidian. Experiences of transcendence, for me, have certainly been connected with music. Such moments can be connected with sexual experiences. So, it may be that the question you're asking is somehow connected with that. If you read certain writers of short stories today, there is very clearly a denial of any possibility of transcendence in human life, no doubt about it.

BIC: Postmodernism?

Copeland: That just doesn't speak to me, and it would be a phoney trendiness to claim that I can write that way. I think that this is connected to minimalism and postmodernism, but I'm not comfortable with those words because l was never too sure what postmodernism is. I know the kind of story in which when you finish it you say, what happened? Nothing. Well, what did it say about human life? Nothing. Well, what were the characters doing? Well, they were moving through their little tiny movements of lighting a cigarette, putting a cigarette in an ashtray, exchanging a few words - which never did connect with the audience - and then grinding out the cigarette, and paying the cashier and walking out of the restaurant door. Well, forget it. For me, that just doesn't hold enough. I don't want to write that kind of story. Though I recognize the technical control it takes even to describe lighting a cigarette, having a cup of coffee, and leaving the restaurant. I've had to work over it many times myself so I respect that as a writer's task. But as a reader or a writer myself, I'm not really interested in seeing it stop there.

BIC: Reviewers have commented on your sophisticated use of metaphor. In a couple of stories, such as "Golden Thread" and "Jubilee, " the rich patterning of images is truly beautiful. Is there anything to be said about that?

Copeland: Well, you know, writers don't always consciously put everything into a story, and sometimes you then discover afterward that there is what I call a metaphoric underpinning. It's very exciting when you discover that that happened. And so, if it's there, good.

BIC: Are you a closet poet?

Copeland: I've never really written poetry. Though I do have a pseudonym, which I will not reveal to you, which has a few little poems in its name that I have never sent out anywhere. I'm not a closet poet, no. I've never really wanted to be a poet. Nor have I felt that I've had that talent. But I play around with words a little and I am fascinated by metaphor. I mean, metaphor in human situations, ordinary human situations apart from the printed page. Looking at lives around you and trying to understand what might be the operating metaphors in them, I think that's fun.

BIC: Real, grown-up fiction writers write novels, not stories. Where's yours?

Copeland: That's absurd. You know it. Real, grown-up fiction writers, if they can produce one excellent story, have done a good thing. However, I'm really, at heart, a novelist and I think that the reason I say this is because what fascinates me is not so much the wonderful little crystallizing moment in a life, but the curve of a life. And that's one of the advantages I've had in living in Sackville. I have been able to see, stretched out over time, the curves of lives around me. And that's quite a boon. Now, where is my novel? I wrote one novel. I spent around five years on it in the late '70s, early '80s, and mid-'80s. That novel was never accepted. It is in a box. When I wrote stories to complete the pattern of The Golden Thread, I raided that novel. So, as such, that novel is finished. But there is still quite a lot of stuff in it that's useful. Then I worked on stories and a second novel. I thought I had finished one last year, and that has not yet been accepted. I put it aside to rest and breathe because I think it really needs it. So, that's sitting there. And there's the third novel I'm working on right now. In the meantime, I've put together two collections of stories. There's been a lot published that the world, the waiting world, has never seen. I mean published in journals. What will happen with either of those collections remains to be seen. Where I am now is sitting on two collections, one resting novel, and I'm in the middle of another, which really would be my third novel.

BIC: Was The Golden Thread consciously a bridge between short-story form and novel form?

Copeland: No. When I had completed all the stories that I thought should go into that, and sat down to work out the chronology and the geography and those details, I felt that I was working with a whole structure that was very much like a novel. There are certain ways in which it isn't, though. Other characters would have to be more highly developed to make it a satisfying novel. I wanted the theme of friendship, for example, to appear, and it does, here and there. But there's one figure who goes through along with Sister Claire, her name is Hilary and I think she's a nebbish. I mean, there's nothing inherently interesting about her as a character. If this were a full-scale novel, I would have had to pay more attention to that. So it's novelistic, I think, in its conception, structure, and movement. But I wasn't thinking of my own development from short-story writer to novelist. I was thinking: how do I make this thing work?

BIC: What subjects most draw you in?

Copeland: Well, I've thought about this a little bit. I wrote stories about the convent, and the convent is a closed world to most readers, to outsiders. I wrote stories about my experience teaching in Dorchester Penitentiary. And that too has been an experience that has haunted me. Another closed world. I'm working right now with the world of the deaf. A very closed world. And so I ask myself: is there a thread running through these interests? I am always interested in identifying continuities, both in my life and in the areas that I want to write about. I seem drawn to exploring fairly closed worlds. I think that may be because I am persuaded that for the most part people are closed worlds, and that part of intelligent living and intelligent writing is to try to penetrate and illumine those closed worlds.


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