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Engendering Myth
by John Ayre

Susan Swan wants to `give women images oftheir beauty, their power, their intelligence` SUSAN SWAN is a fiction writer andjournalist who currently teaches in the humanities department of YorkUniversity in Toronto. She has published a collection of short fiction --Unfit for Paradise (Dingle Editions, 1982) --and three novels: The Biggest ModernWoman of the World (1983)and The Last of the Golden Girls (1989), both published by Lester & OrpenDennys, and The Wives of Bath (Knopf, 1993), which wasshort-listed for Ontario`s Trillium Award and the Guardian Prize inBritain. Swan spoke with John Ayre in her midtown flat just west of the Universityof Toronto. BiC: Your irritation over the Canadianreviews of your previous novel, The Last ofthe Golden Girls, is well known. How haveyou fared this time? Susan Swan: The coverage was really broadand, by and large, extremely generous. There were some raves and some negativereviews -- mostly in Toronto, my home town. But had reviews arepart of the territory for a writer. They hurt like a sunburn, and then youforget about them. I seem to he an author whose work people either love orhate; there`s no middle ground. I`m not unhappy with that. I do write in partto unsettle some traditional assumptions. And maybe the fact that I`ve beenwriting quite explicitly about sexuality invites a more punitive reaction fromsome people. Anyway, I don`t have a bone to pick with the critics this timearound, if that`s what you`re getting at with your question. I went after somecritics about The Last of the GoldenGirls becausethey were being literal-minded, not because they gave me a bad review. Inthe Globe and Mail, the critic Bill French,now retired, said the novel`s apocalyptic ending was unrealistic. Thisinfuriated me at the time because literature has no obligation to be realistic.It`s an act of the imagination, for one thing, and its only obligation, if youlike, is to evoke life. It`s not like non-fiction, it doesn`t have to befactually true. Walt Disney dresses Mickey Mouse in shoes and shorts when weall know real mice don`t talk or wear clothes. French had a certain credibilityit) those days mid it bothered me that one of our leading critics wouldapproach fiction so carelessly. So I challenged him. I went on TV and talkedabout the problems with literal-minded reviewing. At the end of mycritique, I asked him to "give it up, Bill." Later we joked about it,and lie said everybody was going to say he gave up reviewing because I told himto. He was a gentleman and I respected him for the early years, when he did alot to put Canadian literature on the map, although our views about contemporaryliterature were different. I wish more writers would talk back to critics whodo sloppy reviewing. It would enrich Our literary culture, which at the momentis long on good writers and short on good critics. BiC: The Wives of Bath got significantattention outside Canada: it was short-listed for the Guardian Prize inBritain, and the American edition is in its second printing. Has there been anarea of the United States that has been most receptive? Swan: I went to Chicago and NewYork City with the "Sexual Gothic" show, and we had large,enthusiastic audiences in both places. Barbara Gowdy and I also read in Bostonand did publicity for our books in Washington. I went to Seattle and Portlandon my own. I found the audiences in the bookstores on the West Coast moreempathetic. In Boston, some of the audience ate their lunches, got up and wentto the washroom in the middle of the reading, or left. Itfelt as if they thought readingswere bad TV On the other hand, there is a huge writing and reading community inSeattle and in Portland, and they really respect writers there. Nobody I metout west behaved like that. BiC: How do you feel about New York publishing? Swan: New York is the heart of the electronic bazaar. People there live in aworld of constant hype and offinancial risk- taking that boggles Canadians. Writers in Canada thinkthat getting an $18,000 arts grant is fantastic. Some of the writers I knowdown there, especially those writing non-fiction, are getting deals of$250,000 for just one non-fiction book. Before it`s even written. It`s anentirely different value system and rate of exchange. Having lived in bothplaces, I don`t think that the quality of work is better in New York than inToronto. There`s some criticism here that our publishing grants encouragemediocrity, because our publishers will kick out some obligatory stuff so theycan have the right number of books to qualify for a block grant. There`s a bit of truth in that, but there`salso a lot of schlock writing that comes out of American houses that are justthinking about profit and the lowest common denominator. I`m talking aboutthinly researched how-to books that aren`t well thought out, and a lot ofschlocky non-fiction and novels. American fiction is no better justbecause there`s more money involved. We have a pretty impressive literaryculture in Canada but we don`t have their economies of scale. BiC:Why were you so personally active inpromoting TheWives of Bath? Swan: After a writer finishes a book, thepower passes out of your hands into the hands of the publisher, whose job it isto market the hook. But you know, nobody cares quite as much about the book asthe author, and I`m all for writers doing what they can to maximize the waytheir work is offered to the reading public. There is a way to do it with thepublisher so you don`t drive each other crazy. And if you have a background injournalism and PR as I do, why not use it to help the book overcome theobstacles every manuscript faces before it gets into the hands of the readerwho likes it. I used to do performance in the 1970s, and we always did our ownpublicity for the shows we wrote and performed in. I also worked for a year anda half at TVOntario as a broadcast publicist. I jobshared with two otherwriters while I was working on The BiggestModern Woman of the World. So I understandwhat interests the media, but I have no illusions about PR selling a bad book.It won`t work unless you have an extraordinary, rich publisher who is spending thousandsand thousands of dollars on promotion, and I haven`t got anybody spending thatkind of money on me. BiC: Youwere most active in promotion in the United States Why? Swan: The United States is a self-absorbedsociety based on a media culture, and most American publishers don`t do much topresent foreign authors in a way that contextualizes them. (A notable exceptionis Margaret Atwood, but in the United States she`s seen as an American,anyway.) I think initially we were receptive to foreign authors here in Canadabecause we`ve been colonized by Britain and then by the United States. Now thatreception is part of our literary tradition, and we have institutions such asHarbourfront [in Toronto], whose goal is to bring writers from around the worldto Canadians. No such tradition exists in the United States, as far as I know.Unless you are a household name like Anne Rice you are just one of an endlesslist of literary authors. So I hired a Canadian who lives down there now towork on the promotion of The Wives ofBath inconjunction with Knopf. Her name is Judith Keenan; she was my publicist forRandom House`s mass- market paperback of The Last of the Golden Girls here in Canada, and she did an excellent job.Because our market is so small, Canadian publicists have learned to heinventive in a way I don`t see south of the border. The New York producerIsaiah Sheffer wanted to do an evening of my work, so Judith helped him develop"Sexual Gothic." It`s interesting, though, that the best foreignpublicity for the novel was in England, where I wasn`t involved in themarketing, but which Granta did, very capably. British culture continues to beinterested in literature as a discussion of ideas. Novels, along with films andtelevision, are very much in the forefront of what I think is still a printculture. For instance, every Sunday, there are at least seven London papersthat review books. In the United States, like Canada, the number of papers thatreview books is getting smaller. The American book world seems to rely on the New York Times to pick up the slack.It`s the major reviewer now in America because of the dwindling interest at theother papers, and I think that`s a shame. The Times isnot infallible; in fact, its sensibility is middle of the road. I suspect theemergence of television has something to do with this; TV makes it possible tobypass metaphor. Look at the Bobbitt case. American society doesn`t need anovel about a couple like the Bobbitts -- people can see them liveon CNN and decide for themselves who the real victim is. Thank God there`s aliterary renaissance going on in North America, so it looks like novels will bearound for a while, but TV is still the great folk-theatre of our time,and nowhere is that more true than in the United States. One way or another,all of us in the literary world will have to come to terms with these culturalshifts. I suspect that in five years publishers, for example, will be sendingout videos of their authors instead of press releases. Don`t snicker. You and Iwill have to do it. Just look at the amount of work writers are expected to putinto promotion now. Virginia Woolf never went through this. BiC: You attended an elite girls` boarding school, Havergal, in North Toronto in the early `60s. I rememberyou`d always wanted to write a novel about your experiences there. Swan: Yes, I started a novel aboutHavergal in 1977 based on letters between myself and a friend of mine inNewfoundland about a girt who broke the rules and a girl who was afraid tobreak the rules. I realized when we were writing it that it couldn`t possiblyWork, we were too wedded to our own experience. I put the project aside, andthen later I did a Chatelaine piece, "Are Girls`Schools Good for Girls?" I was fascinated with that all-female worldand with my own kind of fear and awe of the women who ran it. BiC: Akey element of TheWives of Bath is borrowed from a quitehorrific murder committed by a male impersonator in Toronto. This murder hadnothing at all to do with Havergal. Why did you mate the two stories! Swan: Because a gender ghetto like an all-girlsschool is a good place to explain and explore my fascination with gender andits relationship to the ways we develop our identity. I believe that characteris more important than gender, but where one ends and the other begins is acomplex matter. Anyway, at boarding school, we were very intrigued with men. Wedidn`t understand them. They were these important creatures who lived in theworld outside the school. Some of the lucky girls got letters from them. Iremember one of my roommates got a photo of her father when he was young, whenhe`d been a football hero, and put it up on her bureau. She pretended he washer boyfriend so she could impress us. We also acted out parodies ofheterosexual relationships to some extent. The younger girls always developedcrushes on the girls who were more masculine- looking. There was a lot ofSexual tension, but I didn`t see it get overtly expressed. I didn`t have alesbian experience at boarding school, but I did go through some of thesecrushes, wanting to impress, all the feelings to do with sexual attraction.There are a lot of unexpressed sensual feelings in Young women`s friendships,as I remember them. There was also an event at Havergal thatinfluenced me at the time. A girl had drawn a picture of herself as King Kong,carrying another girl off in her arms. This girl was sent to a psychiatrist;and I remember thinking, She`s not crazy, there`s nothing wrong with her. Sothere were these three things -- the real murder in Toronto, theschool drawing, and my own background in that Gothic female kingdom. It allmerged into a book. BiC: Wheredid you do most of the writing? Swan: Some of it in Toronto, some in NewYork, some in Greece, and some in England. At one time I was going to set it ina British boarding school. English society does have a lot of bizarre crimes,and I thought my characters, my two Canadian girls, Would feel even more like Outsiders,like aliens, if they were shipped off to a British school. So I stayed for fourmonths in an apartment in Earl`s Court in London and went LIP toCheltenham Ladies` School and interviewed the head mistress, who told me thestory of the former head mistress who used to ride a tricycle through Cheltenhamto get her exercise. But I couldn`t write the British setting veryconvincingly. I knew I`d have to research it more, maybe go to teach at aBritish school the way John Irving taught at Bishop Strachan School in Torontowhen he was researching Owen Meany. Then my editor here,Louise Dennys, said, Why not set it in your Canadian school? It`s what youknow, and we haven`t had any stories about it, so it will be very interesting.And I thought, Why don`t I? In some ways, these Canadian Girls` Schools aremore British than the British, because they are aping a model in anothercountry. I also stayed a couple of months inAthens to work on it, but found I Couldn`t write in a place where English isnot the spoken language. I needed to hear the music of my own tongue. I had aGreek friend who used to come to visit and he`d sit and laugh at all the Gothicnovels tined up on my bookshelf. I was reading my way through all the greatGothic classics: The Castle of Otranto,The Mysteries of Udolpho, The Monk, Northanger Abbey, Wuthering Heights, JaneEwe, The Collector, someAnne Rice. We were sipping retsina and he`d ask, "Why on earth would youwant to write a Gothic novel?" It did seem like a goofy idea in ahedonistic place like Greece. And I thought, God, wherever I am, I`m still apuritanical North American, sipping my wine and reading about Heathcliff! [laughs] BiC: Dothe Havergal "old girls" still talk to you? Swan: I`ve been asked by the head oftheir board of governors to come and speak at a conference there this month. Iexpected them to be very upset by TheWives of Bath, becauseI thought they would take it literally and think it was Havergal. In Canada, asI`ve said, many people tend to confuse non- fiction with fiction. Butthey didn`t do that. They even put two copies of the novel in their library. BiC: I remember you used to encourage your daughter`s interest in Wonder Womanwhen she was small. Your novels are full ofreferences to mighty women like the ancient queen of Britain, Boadicea. Thisseems almost like a Robert Bly approach to feminism. What do you think you`redoing with this? Swan: I`m certainty not writing fictionin which the women I`m trying to portray are all good or better than men. Ithink it`s untrue anyway. I am interested, though, infemale figures who are powerful in that mythic sense. In Western culture wehave Superman and we have Wonder Woman, but she`s not nearly as glamorous or aswell known. I suppose I`m interested in that female entity who flies upalongside Superman. I may be trying to define that creature one way or another.It seems like so much of our literature and culture doesn`t give women imagesof their beauty, their power, their intelligence, in an exciting way. I`mnervous saying this to you because it`s going to sound like I want to writecartoon figures of women who never do anything wrong. I am interested inliterature as myth. If it doesn`t have a mythic quality, it doesn`t work sowell for me. I find literature that just reports on life dull. I don`tunderstand the excitement over it. BiC: I get a strong sense of myth-making from The Biggest Modem Womanof the World. But The Last of the GoldenGirls is ironic and The Wives of Bath tragic. So what are you working on now? Swan: [laughs]Rightnow I`m trying to find my female narrator. I know she`s a woman on a sexualodyssey, journeying into the country of men. But I don`t know who she is yet.Only that she`s looking at men in a different way than she ever has before. Shestarted off seeing them as these very remote, very powerful, godlike figures,the way Mouse in The Wives of Bath admires PresidentKennedy, for instance. Then this narrator goes through a period --and this very much reflects my own journey -- of seeing men as abig, onedimensional entity out to oppress her, to make it hard for her, a groupwho don`t understand her; she goes through all this to a new place where shesees men as individuals, as people. When I hear some of my women friends talkabout men right now, I want to cringe. The genders still talk about each otherin stereotypical ways even after all the political changes we`ve been throughtogether. To answer your question, this narrator is the woman who flies besideSuperman. Even though I don`t know her name, I know she`s powerful, a kind ofgoddess, but she`s not perfect. As a young woman, she is somebody who can`t seemen; later she learns to look at them less symbolically.

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