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Voyages Between Worlds

JANETTE TURNER HOSPITAL is no stranger to voyaging between worlds. Her first novel, The Ivory Swing (McClelland & Stewart), which was set in India, won the $50,000 Seal First Novel Award in 1982. Her subsequent novels - The Tiger in the Tiger Pit (1983), Borderline (1985), and Charades (1989) -and her short-story collections Dislocations (1986) and Isobars (1990) - journey between geographical hemispheres, swaying hallucinogenically between worlds real and surreal.

Hospital's home in Kingston, Ontario, overlooks the lush, sprawling banks of the St. Lawrence River as it meanders towards Lake Ontario. Shrouded in a green cave of majestic maples in summer, it is a scene that, she admits with a wisp of nostalgia in her voice, is sensually reminiscent of an Australian rainforest grotto.

Hospital's fictional settings reflect her global dislocations.

Born and raised in Queensland, Australia, she has lived in India, England, the United States, and now resides in Kingston, with her husband Clifford, principal of Queen's University's theological college, and their two children. Hospital has just returned home from an exhausting tour of England, where she has been promoting The Last Magician, her latest novel, and from Australia, where she teaches six months of the year at La Trobe University in Melbourne. Hospital discussed her fictional worlds with Cynthia MacGregor on the eve of the Canadian and American release of The Last Magician.

BiC: Most of your novels and short stories have travelled back and forth across the globe. Why did you choose to set The Last Magician entirely in Australia?

Janette Turner Hospital: It was partly a response to midlife. I turned 50 this year and I was returning to the scene of my childhood - both literally and emotionally. The rainforest of Queensland is more or less my natural habitat. Brisbane, the capital of Queensland, where I grew up, is a steamy, languid, slowmoving city of more than a million people. So the landscape of the novel is very much the landscape of the first half of my life.

BiC: What events led to the specific shape and subject matter of this novel?

Hospital: The crucial starting point of it was that while I was a visiting professor at MIT in Boston in the spring of 1987, four men held a knife to my throat and robbed me. That's an event that leaves a lengthy shadow of personal dread and trauma. just three months after that, when I was back in Kingston, the Sunday New York Times Magazine featured a four-page photographic spread on a gold mine in the Brazilian rainforest. The pictures were just visually stunning, electrifying. But what was terrifying about them was that in the middle of the rainforest, which has always been such a potent symbol of home to me, was this pit into hell. They looked like a slave colony on the moon, or a vision of hell. At the time I was living in my own private hell of personal dread. I was still suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder in the wake of the attack, and when I'm in states of shock I comfort myself with visions of the rainforest. The photos had a very profound effect on me, and I knew instantly that my next novel would have to do with them. I pinned them to the wall of my study above my word processor and stared at them every day for the next four years until I finished the novel.

A year later I was a visiting professor and writer-in-residence at the University of Sydney. I was living in Newtown, in inner-city Sydney, one of those areas on the cusp between being semi-slum and being re-gentrified. Newtown abuts on a very high-crime area and is considered the aboriginal ghetto of Sydney. So I felt I was living right at the hub of where, metaphorically speaking, the pit of hell dropped below the respectable side of the city.

Meanwhile that image of hell, the photographs from the New York Times, further reverberated in my mind. Not only did they remind me of my inner landscape at the time, but they kept reminding me of something else. Suddenly it clicked. Academically my field is medieval literature, so I was steeped in Dante. I collect facsimile editions of the medieval Book of Hours and the Book of Common Prayer. I also had a facsimile edition of Botticelli's drawings of Dante's Inferno. I had this growing sense of excitement and so I went to my folio copy and looked through it. Here were 15th-century drawings that looked like sketches of the Salgado photographs of the Brazilian gold mine. My discovery stunned, startled, and excited me. I thought of this image of Hell dropping out of the middle of paradise, and I thought, it's the 13th century and it's Dante, it's the 15th century and it's Botticelli ... it's 20th-century Brazil, it's 20th-century Sydney, it's 20th-century Boston, Toronto ... it's with us all the time. I thought, all these images are metaphors - for Dante it was a metaphor, but they're all only just metaphors ... they're right on the brink of being literal.

The whole thing became very vivid for me - the image that crosses centuries and spans the globe, but also my inner landscape. It was a very intense response to the landscape of personal dread I was still living with in the wake of having the knife at my throat. It just all goes into the mix of the subconscious, and what emerges is a novel. There aren't any direct links after that. It's certainly not in any sense autobiographical - there's nothing of my life in any of the novel. Yet in another way, because of this inner landscape of dread, after having a knife held to my throat, it feels very intensely personal.

I set The Last Magician in Sydney, but I think it is the life of any large city. To me it is about the murky underside of respectability,

it's about living in the invisible pit below the respectable side of the city. That invisible world does exist and it is invisible to affluent, respectable people - wilfully so.

BiC: Your depiction of the world of The Last Magician is visually lurid. How were you able to write so convincingly about the lives of squatters and prostitutes?

Hospital: I cruised King's Cross, the red-light area of Sydney, and talked to street prostitutes. I know several women immensely intelligent, high-achieving people, who, for complex reasons, have spent parts of their lives in King's Cross. I talked to them a lot, and one of them took me into the strip joints and brothels. I talked to the clients, I talked to the prostitutes. I wanted to find out what is like to live in the netherworld below the respectability of the city. I was profoundly affected by the fact that, over and over again, the street kids told me that judges, lawyers, cops, and politicians were among their regular clients. I wanted to explore the meaning of the paradox that the two sides of the city prey off one another - that the lawkeepers, the guardians of law and order, respectability and morality, consort with the lawbreakers.

BiC: Was your novel a way of working through your trauma?

Hospital: Yes, it was a very urgent personal need. There is something intensely personal about four sets of eyes only 12 inches away from yours, holding a very large knife to your throat, and the sense that your own mortality is only an epidermal layer away. In a curious way it's intimate, and something in you demands to know, 'Why did these people do this to me? How could they do such a devastating, intimate, thing to me and then disappear from my life?" There is something in you that insists on an explanation, just to salvage your own sense of meaning and significance. It was partly some kind of inner insistence on finding out what it is like to be the four guys who held a knife to my throat. Why did they do that? Why do they live the way they do? I needed to know that.

BiC: Voicing your ordeal must have taken a great deal of courage. There are so many complicit elements in society sentencing the victim to silence.

Hospital: Yes, and that was the other essential thing for me. Essentially the novel is about two things: the murky underside of respectability and the symbiotic relationship between those two sides of Western life; and silence, the silencing of the individual and the silencing of certain segments in society, specifically women. I meant it to have the wider significance, too, of the silencing of women's voices in the literary world. I feel it has been a hard struggle against a wall of silence and a wall of hostility just to make my way in the literary world and against a critical establishment that has received notions of proper aesthetic.

BiC: Your style has become more experimental with each novel. Do you feel that The Last Magician is your most accomplished novel?

Hospital: Well, I've always felt that with each novel. Each novel demands all one's abilities, energies, and insights up to that point. I'm not someone who covers the same ground again. I have done structurally different things with each novel and will continue to do so. From Borderline on I've done structurally radical things that have been very well received in the United States and England and Australia, but not in Canada. Whether they were well received or not was not going to make any difference ... but it does make it harder if you do not get critical support.

BiC: How do you find shifting from the sensual, illusory rainforest of Queensland to the geographical and emotional stoicism of Canada?

Hospital: This is hardly an unusual experience for a writer. James Joyce said that a writer needs to practise "silence, exile and cunning." I quote that in the novel as [the Chinese-Australian photographer] Charlie Chang's artistic credo ... and it's also mine. I have been writing in a very lonely cocoon in Canada. Canada's aesthetic is one of sparseness and spareness, qualities that are alien to me. It's felt very solitary. Voices of support have been few and far between.

BiC: Critical response to your work has ranged from scathing reviews to being included in the top 16 for the Booker Prize. How do you deal with critics?

Hospital: I've actually had very hostile attacks on my writing in

Canada. When The Tiger in the Tiger Pit came out, the reviews here were so savage I thought I would never write again. A year later the book came out in England to great reviews, and to great reviews in the United States, so I took heart and thought I would write again. The Tiger in the Tiger Pit was listed by the New York Times in the critical choice round-up at the end of 1983. Same with Charades, which got very savage treatment in Canada, and yet made the top 16 for the Booker, was short-listed for the major awards in Australia, and did very well in the United States. A lot of people have said that Seal Award-winners always get slammed on their second novel - it might just have been that.

Both Tiger and Charades taught me that it's just mysterious what will happen to a book when you finish it: the same book can run the gamut from ecstatic praise to scathing dismissal. But it did teach me that writers, and books, can survive scathing reviews. The curious thing is that The Tiger in the Tiger Pit is the book, of all my books, most on courses in Ontario colleges and high schools, and it's the only one in the New Canadian Library series - so there are little ironies in that.

I realized that I would have to live with the fact that I would get attacked in Canada, and I suppose that did push me away from the landscape of Canada. But it did, of course, make me retreat into my private space, which for me means evoking the rainforest.

The advantage of silence, exile, and cunning for the writer is that you're not seduced by the risks of conformity. You stubbornly stick to your own unique voice. Canada has been a tranquil cocoon in which to write, once I abandoned being accepted in a critical sense; it was in Canada and with the Seal Award that I first got recognition for my writing, I will always be deeply grateful for that.

BiC: It seems that in Canada your short stories have been better received than your novels.

Hospital: That's true. Isobars did get good reviews. Curiously, so did Dislocations. But the novels have been panned. Of course, the stories are more traditional in structure because they are shorter texts, although even within the short stories I do unusual things. But I guess they are better received because they are not as far away from received notions. Or maybe it meant that by the time of Isobars people were beginning to be able to slot my style.

BiC: Charades was in the top 16 for the Booker Prize in 1989. Are you working towards a place on the short list?

Hospital: I just got faxed an absolutely rave review in the Times Literary Supplement - in fact I've received a steady barrage of rave reviews from Virago [her British publisher] in England. It would be nice to get a bit closer to the Booker this time, but prizes are always lotteries. It's absolutely not wise to even think about things like that.

BiC: You grew up in a fundamentalist environment, yet your writing is very sensual. Is your work a way of rebelling against your strict childhood?

Hospital: I've been in lengthy rebellion against it since I was a teenager. I'm fascinated by the fact that the prostitutes in King's Cross either had strict Catholic or strict fundamentalist childhoods. The overwhelming majority of the prostitutes and their clients are lapsed Catholics. What Catholicism and fundamentalism seem to have in common is rigid dogma and rigid rules about denying the body. Certainly in a tropical environment the body is instinctively hedonistic, sensual, sexual. You may grow up in a puritanical family, but if you grow up in the tropics you cannot help but be aware of the hedonistic inclinations of your body.

BiC: Was writing your way of escaping the hurts of childhood?

Hospital: Any kid who is subjected to cruelty or ostracism at school learns to develop a rich interior life by way of compensation. I have always told myself stories as a way of mediating the world to myself.

It interests me that whenever I mention my fundamentalist past to anyone in the literary world, they assume that the major problem was fundamentalism and that is what I had to escape from. Fundamentalism wasn't the major problem. Yes, it's restricting, and I wanted to extricate myself from it, but there was no trauma from that. The trauma was from the intolerance of the mainstream world, the hostility towards difference and the cruelty that goes with that.

BiC: People who have been to Australia, and Queensland in particular, describe the rainforest as paradise.

Hospital: Yes, it's nature in the baroque. It is a sensory paradigm, but there are a lot of things that go along with it - conservative politics, and all of the same things as the American South. One of the things that fascinates me is that visual lushness and steamy tropical environments seem to also breed fundamentalist religions and reactionary politics - very like the American South. Perhaps this is why I have always been interpretable and intelligible to an American audience: they have a tradition that I slot into very neatly. And so does Britain, because it has always had Indian writers who have slotted into the U.K. system.

BiC: Music and musicians figured strongly in The Tiger in the Tiger Pit and in Borderline. At one of your readings, you explained that you were intrigued by the rhythm of language. What role does music play in your writing?

Hospital: Certainly the sound of language is of immense importance to me, and that goes back to my fundamentalist childhood, where for the first 21 Iwas steeped in the spoken rhythm of language. It's rather good training for a writer to have - the King James Version being, in fact, very beautiful language, especially the psalms. I'd say the rainforest and the King James Version are the two principal influences on my prose.

BiC: Visual artists figure strongly in your work as well.

Hospital: I have a very vivid visual imagination, which I think anyone who grows up in the tropics has. I have a ChineseAustralian friend who is a photographer. He's another ideal example of the penalties of difference in society. That's another thing that the novel is about. He has a visual imagination that is between Escher and Magritte and Rubik's cube ... so that's bounced off my imagination, and I've found that I could sort of invent photographs in the way that he does. Artists are catalysts for each other, zig-zagging back and forth, like sparks jumping across spark plugs.

BiC: There are distinct parallels between Charades and recent developments in the new physics. Was it a result of being a writer-in-residence at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)?

Hospital: No, it was like Salgado's photographs clicking with my landscape immediately following the mugging. It was like two magnets meeting. It's not that I do these structurally experimental things for the heck of it, or to see what clever new thing I can do now. Rather, it is that I am grappling with giving expression to a very complex philosophical thing that simply cannot be expressed in traditional, linear fiction.

In a sense, the essence of Charades is not so different from the essence of The Last Magician. That is, I am trying to explain and explore the simultaneous coexistence of absolutely contradictory states of being. In The Last Magician it is the underside of the city and its respectable above-ground side - each sort of denying the other. In Charades there were two things I was trying to convey. My childhood was like two contradictory worlds coexisting: the world of fundamentalism, which kind of lived in New Testament times with its very clear, structured view of heaven, hell, miracles, the imminent expectation of the second coming of Christ, and the Bible being the only thing you need to know in life.

I lived in a world at home that was unbelievable and ludicrous to the world at school. I felt I had to voyage between parallel universes every day, and had to try to translate these two world visions to myself each day. Neither could believe the other existed. I felt that the world of my home and the church had no concept of how I was trying to cope with all the new intellectual things I was learning at school, and I knew I wanted to write about that.

When the idea for Charades came to me, the Ernst Zundel trial was going on in Toronto. I thought, here is another example of it -Holocaust victims live permanently in a state of post-traumatic stress disorder. But to Zundel [the Holocaust] never happened. It was a hoax. It was appalling to me that he could appear in court and seem to be the rational one because he was unemotional, and the Holocaust victims were intensely emotional because they had these emotional scars on their lives. That was deeply disturbing to me, for all kinds of intense personal resonances. I was subject to ridicule and bullying at school because I was marked as different, so I have always written about people who are marked out as being different.

While I was teaching at MIT, I was mulling over the Zundel trial and my past. I suddenly realized that my students and colleagues, who are physicists, took for granted, on a scientific level, that the ultimate in rational thinking was the coexistence of contradictory states: Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, wave/particle paradoxes about light. This was wonderful to me. Here were the great rationalists of the world talking about the coexistence of incompatible, contradictory states. I was already looking for a way to write about that, and this dropped into my lap. So it wasn't MIT's influence, it was the other way around. And I feel the same about The Last Magician.

BiC: How do you approach your storytelling? Are your fictional characters based on real life, or do they just appear in your imagination?

Hospital: I think that I explore more cross-sections of life than most writers do. Most seem to me to live in a very narrow middleclass range. I grew up working class and I think I cross wider spectrums - I have talked to street prostitutes, street kids, and refugees. I am always interested in people who do not get a voice in society and I make it my business to listen to them. Then the fictional characters are distilled from several real-life sources.

I have intense information-gathering times, when my mind is very impressionable to everything coming in from newspapers, from my environment. I never know where a novel or even a short story is going when I start it, I never have a plot worked out in advance. It just comes from some deep place. I think about it for months and months, and then I start writing, and what happens, happens.

BiC: You have written a murder mystery, A Very Proper Murder, under the pseudonym Alex juniper. This seems like a parallel move, since most of your novels and stories deal with the unanswerables and the intangibles in hfe. How did you enjoy writing a mystery?

Hospital: That was one of several urgent acts of exorcism to free myself from the nightmare of the knife at my throat. I just had to do lots and lots of things to cope with that. I wrote a whole slew of short stories, which became Isobars, as part of the wider issue of how people negotiate violence in their lives. The thriller was one of the ways - literally. The house being renovated in the novel is the one I was living in when I was assaulted. I have a mugging occur, and four men hold a knife to the person's throat, on the very spot outside the house where I was mugged. But I had that character killed. So in a way that straight murder mystery was externalizing the worst-case scenario and trying to get some distance from it.

And as for mysteries, well, they're all unsolvable mysteries and

I suppose that's because, ultimately, human cruelty is still a great puzzle to me. I haven't solved that puzzle for myself yet, and so my novels never solve it either.

BiC: What challenges or difficulties are presented by the different forms of storytelling?

Hospital: I like doing short stories and novels equally well. Things appear to me either as a short story, or as a story that is going to require a larger amount of work. Very rarely, a short story becomes a draft for a novel. There's a story in Isobars about a young street prostitute and a judge, which I wrote very quickly after I talked to the street kids. It turned out to be a rough draft for The Last Magician, although I didn't realize it at the time.

I find short stories and novels equally demanding in their own quite different ways. The murder mysteries are something quite different and I will do them again. They are light relief, as are travel articles. I wrote the murder mystery in 10 weeks, the novel took me four years, and a short story takes me a month.

My passion is not in these other forms of writing. They're enjoyable enough, but it's like playing ping-pong if you're a tennis player; it's related, but light relief when you're too depleted. I tend to do a couple of short stories while I'm teaching. I certainly can't work on a book in those circumstances, because a book totally consumes my life while I'm working on it.

BiC: What are you working on now?

Hospital: An Australian film director has just asked me to write screenplay of "The Last of the Hapsburgs." a short story in Isobars. I don't know if I can do it or not - it's just such a totally different form of writing from anything I've done before. Everyone is saying it should be a snap for me because I have such a visual imagination. Charades is being filmed in Australia, and I have nothing to do with that, because there is a good screenplay writer doing it. And there are some short stories that I'm itching to find the time to write.

BiC: How do you find travelling between such diverse worlds as Canada and Australia?

Hospital: Difficult. But then I've been doing that all my life. It's less painful than my primary-school years, when I felt like an alien traveller between two planets. It's not as hard as that, but it's complicated and just plain physically wearing. It's getting clear to me that as I get older I cannot keep up this pace. I simply cannot sever myself from either country. My kids are 25 and 23 and have spent their lives here - and my grandchildren are going to be Canadian.

I've been toying with the idea of returning to Australia for several years, but ultimately, for me, children and grandchildren win out over place. But the thought of not being able to see the rainforest every year causes me quite intense grief. And so one does with grief what Dante did with grief, and what writers have always done with grief - one turns it into an artefact as a way of lessening the pain.


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