Elisabeth Harvor was born Erica Elisabeth Arendt Deichmann in Saint John, New Brunswick, in 1936. She grew up on the Kingston Peninsula, where her parents, Erica and Kjeld Deichmann, had a pottery studio, and in Saint John. She began training as a nurse at the Saint John General Hospital in 1954, but dropped out of the program nine months before graduation. She married Stig Harvor in 1957; they lived in Europe for a year and half before settling in Ottawa. They had two sons and were divorced in 1977.
Harvor's first collection of stories, Women & Children, was published in 1971 and later re-issued with minor revisions as Our Lady of the Distances. She enrolled at Concordia University in Montreal in 1983 and, after completing a qualifying year, she obtained an M.A. in creative writing in 1986. Her thesis, Hospitals & Night, was published under the title If Only We Could Drive like This Forever (1988).
Her third collection of stories, Let Me Be the One (1996), was nominated for the Governor General's Award. Her first collection of poetry, Fortress of Chairs (1992), won the Canadian League of Poets' Gerald Lampert Memorial Award. Her second, The Long Cold Green Evenings of Spring, was recently published by Signal Editions. She has edited an anthology of new writing called A Room at the Heart of Things.
MK: Before committing yourself to a writing career, you studied nursing, but dropped out nine months before graduation. Why did you leave?
EH: I was very impractical. I was to nursing what James Thurber was to the army. It was a total disaster. Well, I wasn't a total disaster. I was good at the academic stuff. I did well on my exams and so on, but I was always the last one to finish up and people always laughed at the way I starched my cap, because it was always sort of flopping around.
MK: Writing was what you wanted to do all along, though?
EH: I started writing a lot of poetry when I was around eleven. I tried to write like the poets whose work I found hilarious: Ogden Nash, Robert Service.
MK: Were books and writing part of your upbringing?
EH: Yes, they were. My mother used to make little books out of yarn and blue cardboard, and then my brother and sister and I would make up our own stories. So we had the heady experience of making our own little books. Vanity publishing! But I think it was a very good idea, really, to give children the physical experience of producing this object, a book. And we were also surrounded by books to read. My parents had a hard time making ends meet in the early years, but whenever they had a bit of extra money they bought books. My parents were potters and people who came to visit the pottery would also give us books, as Christmas presents, and so we would get things like The Moon & Sixpence and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. But we were given better books too: Out of Africa, The Wind in the Willows. We had some Russian novels; we had Gogol's Dead Souls.
MK: So this is what you were reading as a child?
EH: I was reading some of it. I was picking out books here and there. What did I read? I read Isak Dinesen. When I was twelve I was reading Dinesen's Seven Gothic Tales. And Sherlock Holmes. At fourteen it was A Tale of Two Cities and A Town like Alice.
MK: Who do you read and admire now?
EH: Oddly enough, the two novels that have affected me most powerfully in adulthood were both written by men: Bernard Malamud's The Assistant, and Saul Bellow's Seize the Day. Malamud died while I was teaching at Concordia and two or three months after his death, I invited Clarke Blaise to come to speak to my students, and what I remember best about his visit is that he arrived at the workshop wearing a few articles of clothing that had been given to him by Malamud's widow. And all through his talk all I could think was "I'm sitting beside Bernard Malamud's jacket! I'm sitting beside Bernard Malamud's necktie!"
And then there are so many other writers whose work has been incredibly important to me: Plath, Woolf, Nabokov, Colette. Lots and lots of short story writers. Mary Lavin's "In the Middle of the Fields"; Thomas Mann's "Disorder & Early Sorrow". Among the Canadian story writers I've recently been reading and admiring are Nadine McInnis and Elizabeth Hay.
The New Yorker was another gift that was given to us every year at Christmas, and so I would read it. Or pretend to read it. I loved running out to the mailbox for it, so I could be the one to bring it home. I grew up with a great hunger to be in it, and when I was in my twenties and thirties I kept sending things down to New York even though I kept getting rejection letters year in and year out. For many years I was sending stories only to The New Yorker and if they rejected something, then I no longer liked it either. The editors there had become internalized parent figures. I remember talking about this with another writer, and he was astounded. He said, "You can't just send to them. They aren't even all that great a lot of the time." But I didn't listen to him, I was too obsessed. So that when I finally did sell something to The New Yorker ["Heart Trouble"], I can't even convey the euphoria I felt. It lasted for weeks. I even carried the acceptance letter around with me everywhere I went and then sort of assaulted people with it. And they were of course mystified. I could see them thinking: "What's the big deal? It's only a magazine.." But then I didn't sell to The New Yorker again for another twelve years. And it wasn't a story this time, but a poem: "The Death of the Nurse".
MK: Although you really haven't spent much time in New Brunswick since you left at the age of twenty-one, and you've never been back to the Kingston Peninsula, your childhood and youth there and in Saint John come up in your work all the time. The Kingston Peninsula comes up in a sort of really lyrical way-even though there are all kinds of other memories associated with it, too. What is it about that time and the place that continues to interest you?
EH: It was such an idyllic place when I was a child. And so romantically rural: no doctor, no paved roads, no electricity, no running water. My brother and sister and I grew up drinking raw milk and running around barefoot, but then there was also a darker story: the exposure to the glaze-mixing inside the house. So that was the great paradox of our childhood: in a world of amazing natural beauty, our mother standing at the dining-room table and pouring what looked like poison milk into enamel basins, then dipping her unprotected hands into the filled basins as she tipped bowls and jugs into the glaze batter. With ecological hindsight, we now know that this was an extremely dangerous thing to do, but in those innocent days nothing was thought of it. But when we were away from the toxic atmosphere of the house, we moved in a world almost as pristine as wilderness.
The person who best understood that the magic of that place would draw tourists to the pottery was our mother. She was the one who willed us to become a sort of Trapp Family Singers, pottery division. There are photographs of us all walking hand in hand. It's like The Sound of Music. We're all smiling to beat the band. And this performance just covered so much tension and money worry and all these difficult family things going on. But there was always this other "finer" family we could be, when we had to. Which I think is what made me a writer, really-or one of the things-the dichotomy between the public and the private family. Probably the main thing.
MK: Your first book was published under the name Beth Harvor.
EH: That's right, and I was always called Beth as a child, although Elisabeth is my real name. But I'd actually been wanting (for a long time) to dump the Beth, partly because it always made me think of the saintly Beth in Little Women. For a while I also considered dumping the Harvor and just taking some other name-not my maiden name, which I don't care for either, because it's too much like Eichmann. But it's so strange: to have a name that sounded like Eichmann for my last name, especially when one of my middle names is Arendt.
MK: Deichmann in Jerusalem.
EH: [laughs] Exactly! It's so bizarre to have those two names in my name. The avenging intellectual angel and the banal Nazi devil. But as far as the Elisabeth goes, I'm glad I went back to it, although the change does get some people upset.
MK: It's like the problem people have with The Artist Formerly Known As Prince.
EH: [laughs] Here's a little story that might be relevant: my brother and sister and I used to be taken into Saint John at the end of the summer holidays, to Mr. and Mrs. Wiezel's shoe store, to buy new shoes for school. And it so happened (as they say in fairy-tales) that this Mr. and Mrs. Wiezel had a son named Larry who, when he grew up, changed his name from Larry Wiezel to Lawrence Earl. This was around the time that he became a writer of adventure novels set in exotic places. And I thought then-and still think now-well, why not? If a frog can turn into a prince, why can't a weasel turn into an earl?
MK: I wanted to ask you about biography and fiction and the intersection between the two, because there's repetition of certain elements in your work, both in the fiction and in the poetry. There's a young girl who goes to live with a doctor and his wife-as you did in Saint John-in my favourite story from Let Me Be the One, "Through the Fields of Tall Grasses", and also a girl who lives with a doctor and his wife in "The Dark Clouds between the Ribs", one of the poems that appears in your most recent poetry book, The Long Cold Green Evenings of Spring. A "monster" baby appears in a poem called "In the Hospital Garden" (in Fortress of Chairs) and in a story called "Monster Baby" in Our Lady of All the Distances. Do you revisit material because you're interested in re-examining the content or because it frees you to focus on form?
EH: I think both. I think of them not as repetitions but as obsessions [laughs]. And I'm often fascinated by seeing how you can use similar incidents quite differently in two different forms.
MK: It's almost like you're improvising on the same theme or motif, but getting very different things.
EH: Yeah, I like that. And I do feel that. And I never exactly repeat something I've done before. If I do a variation on a theme, I do it because it interests me. And I feel that you should do what interests you-that you shouldn't feel, "Oh, can you do that?" You can do anything you want. And painters will do variations on a theme, musicians will do variations on a theme.
MK: Yeah, and nobody says, "Oh, another nude," or "Another landscape."
EH: [laughs] No, they don't. And the writers I tend to like best are the obsessed ones.
MK: Because then you know that it's genuine, it isn't just intellectual.
EH: Yes, exactly.
MK: You've said that you don't really fully believe writers who say they don't write from life and people they know.
EH: Yes, I do find it really hard to believe them. And I feel it's a sad project anyway, to write only about invented people, invented events. Perhaps the true originality lies in claiming what's yours. And then elaborating on it to protect the innocent. Which I suppose is another way of saying "to protect the not-so-innocent", i.e., the writer, from the rage of the innocent.
I don't want to hurt people unnecessarily. But of course the people you know best you might have to hurt up to a point. And I think it is one of the things that might keep you humble as a writer: that you can't really say to yourself, "I'm an utterly good person." And I think it's healthy not to be able to say that. To say that I may have caused harm, I may have caused pain and yet, I believe in what I'm doing.
MK: The entry on you in the recently published Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature describes your work as being about women: "Women in marriage and out of marriage, as mothers, as student nurses" and praises your "detached but not uncompassionate eye for human nature and its foibles and credulities." Somehow, I doubt that you yourself would discuss your work in these terms. Do you get tired of being classed as a "woman writer" and as a classic realist?
EH: Well, I'm not all that wild about being called a "woman writer", and I've also never thought of myself as a classic realist. What I always aim for is the surreal within the real. Also for a certain off-the-cuffness, a certain breeziness, but with pathos, even tragedy in it. I want to trust my imagined best reader.
As for the woman-writer part of your question, there's a piece by Mary McCarthy in which she's scathing about the phrase "women writers". She says that calling women who write "women writers" suggests that they are the kind of women who write scenes with a lot of drapery in them.
MK: And you agree?
EH: I do. But I also feel that it's usually women reviewers who will say that your book is a book for women or that it's about women.
MK: But there may be other things going on.
EH: Yes. I mean, I have so many men in my stories. But I think I must have been tarred with this particular brush because I write about physiological processes.
MK: Also, I think maybe what people mean when they say that you write about women, is that your work is more concerned with personal relationships..
EH: That's true.
MK: But there are male writers who write about relationships.
EH: Look at Updike. Or look at Richard Ford. It's also very possible that writers like Jane Urquhart and Carol Shields, who have both recently written novels with male protagonists in them, are writing in resistance, against this. As many women, I feel, now want to do. But I'm not sure this helps. I mean, it might help them; it might help them to feel, "Oh, I can do a man." But I have no desire to write from the point of view of a man, and I don't think I would do it well.
MK: Why is that? Because the male characters in your stories-even though the centre of consciousness is definitely female-are very real.
EH: I'd rather do it that way-do them from the outside but make them real-than do them from the inside and risk creating a sort of feminized male construct that isn't real.
MK: You're known mostly as a short story writer and you've won raves from critics for your work in the short story form. When and why did you start writing poetry? What can you do in a poem that you can't do in a story?
EH: A poem is a narrative of a much closer moment. Much more distilled, and of course very much swifter. A poem's metaphors also work like codes and the codes force the reader to do a lot of the work. And what you have to work for, you tend to love. So that although the audience for poetry is small, it's a passionate audience.
But to go back to the when and why: I started to write poetry not long after I was offered a poetry and prose workshop at York University. To keep up with my students, I was reading poetry much more intensively than I'd ever read it before. I was also discovering that although there were very few really successful complete student poems, there were amazing parts of poems. And as I worked with these poems I could see them getting much better, and so I began to write poetry too. I was also very lonely in Toronto, because except for my oldest son, I hardly knew anyone there. So it was partly the loneliness also.
MK: There's been a change in the style of your poetry, at least from Fortress of Chairs to the new book. In the poems in Fortress of Chairs there's a kind of incredible balance between chaos and control-especially the shifts in the first poem, "Afterbirth". It's just dazzling, they're so quick. And actually your publisher quoted a reviewer on the back of The Long Cold Green Evenings of Spring who said that your style is "akin to synapses firing in the brain; there are no concrete bridges, just jolts of energy linking cliff to cliff, idea to idea." That to me is the first book.
EH: What I remember best about writing "Afterbirth" is that I decided to enter it in The Malahat Long Poem contest when there were only two days left to go to the deadline, and so I stayed up all night for two nights running to finish it. And the day in between those two nights was a teaching day and so I was in a sort of crazed fugue state. Which is perhaps why it ended up being such a weirdly elating poem to write. But that comment about the jolts of energy was actually made about a book of stories, Let Me Be the One. Still, linking cliff to cliff and idea to idea without using concrete bridges is something that it now occurs to me I always aim to do whether I'm writing fiction or poetry.
MK: But in The Long Cold Green Evenings of Spring your style is more linear. Do you think that's true?
EH: I don't know, it's hard for me to look at anything I do really objectively.
MK: The new work seems to me, not more reserved, but maybe more elegant, controlled. There's just a different kind of energy.
EH: The fascinating thing about all this is that it isn't all new work. Some of the poems in the new book are even older than the poems in Fortress of Chairs.
MK: So it's just the way it all works together, maybe. Because there is a more sombre mood to it.
EH: In both books there are poems that more or less do what I hoped they would do. But you're right about the more sombre air. I wanted that. I wanted to put the poem "They've Found a Shadow" at the front of the book because I wanted it to cast a dark light (or bands of light and dark) over the whole book. I wanted it to be like one of those fitful days in late spring or summer when the clouds come and go. And there are more love poems in the new book. More love and loss poems. And more poems about friendship, illness, infatuation, pottery-making. And there are also poems about teaching and adolescence.
MK: And loneliness.
EH: Yes. But also about the positive side of loneliness because even when I was a child I had a huge tolerance (and need) for solitude. I used to hide. Hide and read. She's at that stage, the narrator of some of these poems. And I think the younger poems are also about loneliness or a kind of solitude, the kind where the children feel very alone. Or the girl does, I think.
MK: It's interesting that you talk about the narrator in the third person: "her" "she feels".
EH: It is, isn't it? I'm trying to finish a novel now (The Lowest Place on Earth) and it's written in the first person and a lot of the events are things that really happened to me, but when I make notes about it, I always write: she this, she that.
MK: An editor at The New Yorker once told you that you were a novelist, not a short story writer. Most of your readers and most of your critics obviously would disagree. All three of your story collections have been extremely well received. Yet you did turn to poetry and now you're working on a novel. Do you have a sense yourself that despite your successes with the short story and also with poetry that you haven't found your form? That maybe it's the novel that's your true form?
EH: This novel is so big-over four hundred pages, and I've been working on some version of it ever since 1980-that I'm not able to stand far enough back from it to get an overview. I should confess, though, that in spite of feeling totally worn out from it, I'm already thinking of resuscitating another one. But that one will be incredibly short.
MK: If you had to tell someone what the longer novel is about in a line, what would you say?
EH: It's about how a young woman becomes the person she was meant to be. She becomes a writer.
MK: So it's a Kunstlerroman.
EH: Yeah. And is influenced in some ways by another Kunstlerroman: Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook. And by Plath's Journals too, even more so, even though I didn't read them until I'd written most of the book. So there are a lot of notebook entries and diary entries. A lot about things coming back in the mail and then mailed off again, all of that. But I hasten to add that there are also scenes of passion and sexual betrayal and infatuation in it.
MK: This isn't the first novel that you've finished.
EH: No, I've finished a number, but they either were put away or they branched off and had their own little novelettes [laughs].
MK: But this one is a keeper.
EH: I'm hoping.
Maria Kubacki is associate editor of The New Brunswick Reader, the weekend magazine of the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal.