TS: I want to ask you about any special questions that were raised for you in the writing of your new novel, The Macken Charm. And I also want to ask you if there were any models that you had in mind, at least on the edge of your consciousness, of novels, possibly of short stories, that seemed successful in doing the kind of thing you wanted to undertake here. There's a delightful passage in your book A Passion for Narrative where you begin with the comment, "The critics call it intertextuality," [laughter] and then say, subversively, "You can think of literature as a conversation that covers the globe and spans all time." I think what I'm really asking is: what questions of technique were on your mind, or emerged in the writing of this book, as important challenges for you, and were there any other writers with whom you found yourself in conversation-unvoiced conversation-as you wrote the book?
JH: I think the initial impulse to structure was an external one-in contradiction to my firm belief that the structure must grow out of the internal needs of the story you're writing, which of course this eventually did. But initially I wanted to see how tight and short a novel I could write, because I have again and again wanted to write one of those beautiful little 150-page novels that do everything so cleanly and clearly and quickly. Of course, once I get started, I discover that there are so many other people who want to get in on the story, and so many other things to say, and life is so complex that I just can't seem to do this kind of thing. Still, I knew I wanted a structure that would force me to be as economical as possible.
TS: And that's why I mentioned short stories, because I was wondering if there might have been any lesson that you learned writing short stories, and continuing to write them, that you brought over into the writing of this book.
JH: Yes. No question. I'm not sure I can be specific in naming influences because I'm still too close to it, and I suspect that at some point I blotted out from memory whatever those were. What I was left with was a strong sense of what the pattern must be, and I tested it by trying it other ways. I backed the story up, started two weeks earlier, and discovered that I gained things by doing that but I lost things I could not afford to lose. I also had the choice of telling the entire story-which covers at least ten years-chronologically, as some novels do of course: When I was ten, this happened, when I was eleven, that happened. Just the relationship between Rusty and Glory from the day she arrived in 1946, the day of the earthquake, until the day of her funeral. But this never seriously tempted me, because it felt loose, it felt sloppy. I had to start on the day of the funeral and I had to do the whole story within twenty-four, twenty-five hours.
Structure is what determines the reader's experience. As much as the language does, the order in which you link events and emotional responses within a story controls the reader's entire experience. I had the choice of putting the reader through an intense twenty-five hours, or allowing the reader to sit back and relax over a ten-year period. Well, that automatically affects distance, intimacy, involvement, and emotional connection between the reader and the characters. And I wanted this story to be intense.
Even though it is a memory story, from somewhere in Rusty's future, I still wanted to have the immediacy of a story that might have been told the day after. Now Rusty wouldn't have been able to tell the story the day after, but I wanted him to be a middle-aged person who could remember being seventeen with that kind of intimacy. So it had to be the story of those twenty-five hours, which, of course, presented me with an incredible problem of somehow fitting in the last ten years, which were important to character understanding, not to mention the last two weeks, which were very important immediately to the plot-all, somehow, without making the story feel as if it had stopped to go back and fill in. It's one of the most common short story devices, of course, to begin as close as possible to the end and then, when you've got your reader interested, go back and fill in.
TS: As you do in "Separating", for example, the opening story of Spit Delaney's Island.
JH: Yes. What it depends upon, I suppose, to work, if it works, is that the opening must be so interesting to the reader that he or she is willing to go back and find out how we got here before getting to where we're going. Now that short story device did not by itself appeal to me for this novel, because, for something as long as that, what it would do is to get you interested only to say, OK, now we're going on this long journey-which wouldn't be all that different from doing the whole story chronologically.
I somehow had to create the illusion that the clock is ticking through these twenty-four or twenty-five hours, even while you are re-experiencing the earlier weeks and the earlier years, which meant I somehow had to use flashbacks that both were and were not flashbacks-they were returning to earlier times and yet you weren't really returning to those times. For a long while this felt impossible. I thought, I'm not sure I can do this but I am going to try. And I tried many different ways, moving things around and re-ordering things and creating new kinds of transitions. It was through trial and error, mostly, that I discovered how the story needed to be told.
TS: How about intuition, a lifetime of reading, and nearly four decades of constant writing?
JH: And a million other things. Yes. It boils down to instinct or to sensitivity. It works because it works, or it doesn't because it doesn't, and you don't need to know why, unless that's going to help find a solution. If it
doesn't work, get rid of it. And I knew this novel was far too important to me for me to be satisfied with something that almost works. I had to believe there was a way of making it flow forward even when I was going into the past. It meant a great deal of hard choices, selection, arrangement, throwing away, re-arranging, just moving a paragraph from here to there, and then re-experiencing it as the reader might, imagining what this would look like to the reader, until at some point I just felt, OK, this is a whole, this is a "thing".
It's impossible for the one doing it ever to know-unless maybe twenty years later-what the finished product looks like to the person who's coming to it fresh. But I wanted to get as close as I could to creating the feeling that this was how this book had to be written. When I read a wonderful novel by somebody I think is a terrific writer, the feeling I get is that it couldn't have been any other way, it's as if this book came as a gift, a package, and I wouldn't be surprised to discover that all the writer had to do was to sit down and record it. Now, you and I both know that this doesn't happen very often, if at all, and I don't expect it to happen to me, but I want somebody else to think, Oh, that was probably an easy book to write because it just looks as it came as a package.
TS: The Macken Charm finishes beautifully, lyrically, yet doesn't end-and so I wanted to ask you where it's going. Is there going to be a sequel?
JH: This feeling that you're identifying here is something that must be resisted by the writer, because I think one of the marks of a good piece of work is that it suggests other lives and continuations and befores and afters and the sense that every single person in this novel could deserve a novel of his or her own. So when suggestions occurred to me during the writing that, Hey, something else could come out of this, I resisted. I said to myself, This book has to be written as if it's the only novel I will ever write, as if this could be my last novel-so that I'm not saving things for something else, so that I'm not tempted to cheat the reader in this one, in order to feed another, later book. All the other dreams that might be triggered by this one in a reader's mind are the reader's and not mine. I've started them, they're between the lines-let the reader write those other novels. Even so, having got to the finishing stages of this one, where there was no question the novel was a completed whole, I began to realize that out of all the possibilities there were two that were still open to me, and that still demanded my attention in the same way that Rusty's story had.
Now they did not turn out to be sequels in the ordinary sense. They turned out to be, or they are turning out to be, companion pieces, with similar roots, geographically, with connections through personal relationships and through an exploration of certain related themes that feel as if they need further exploration. I don't want to talk about them while I'm still working with them, beyond saying that I find myself thinking and writing about Rusty's friend Sonny in middle age.
TS: Is there a specific year in the future when the novel focusing on Sonny is set? Have you chosen a year for it?
JH: At the moment it is vaguely in the early nineties. One of the next jobs I have to do is to be more specific, because Sonny is someone who is aware of what's going on in the world.
TS: And the other novel, the other companion piece, what are you exploring in it?
JH: I find myself interested in the origins of Rusty's and Sonny's community, when the Canadian government gave soldiers returning from the First World War these pieces of land that were impossible to farm. This small bit of history presents me with another of those haunting things I have to deal with-the great forest fire of 1922 that swept through the settlement I later grew up in, but didn't destroy the little community that had already set down its roots.
TS: Is there a focal character for the novel set in 1922?
JH: Yes. There is at least one character who is important to all three and I've just recently discovered that. I won't say any more, because it could all change. If I say any more you'll start writing novels and then be disappointed when they're not what I write.
TS: So you have begun drafting the second and third novel?
JH: I have several drafts of the second right up to the crisis, climax, whatever you want to call that end part where everything comes together. And I go back and take new runs at it, making changes every time. There's still something important I haven't yet discovered.
TS: And the third one? How far are you with it?
JH: For the third one, I've begun listening to the voices and recording the voices and I have a structure and a scheme that is so irresistible that I cannot avoid doing it. I don't want to talk about it because it's fragile and risky, and so different that I can't find a model for it, but everything about it demands that I try this.
TS: How wonderful.
TS: How scary, then.
JH: It's scary but it's exciting as well. I need somebody to lock me in a room until I've done them both. But I also need to be out there with my antennae working because, well, life keeps giving you gifts even once you're committed to something. You don't really know what gifts you need to keep until you know what you're doing, so I need to be open to all kinds of gifts that I haven't yet been given. This is what has been obsessing me. This is what will continue to obsess me.
One of the exciting things in writing The Macken Charm that triggered a lot of this is the thrill of once again working in the idiom of my earliest years. Whenever it was that I found the voice for the novel-I can't remember when-it was like finding Spit Delaney, like finding all those characters in the Spit Delaney stories, it was, Oh my gosh, I'm back in that skin again. I'm not suggesting it was easy, but it was comfortable.
TS: Would there be any examples that would help you find a way towards answering the kinds of questions you are now wrestling with, as you realize you are writing not one book but three? Are there any examples, or are there any lessons that perhaps you have learned and maybe aren't even conscious of at this point, but that you can imagine, if you think back, you might have learned from other works of this kind, works in which writers create a series of three novels, a trilogy?
JH: There are some warnings I take from them. There are some areas where I feel what others have done is not what I want to do. Generally speaking, I think of a trilogy as a story that takes three books to tell completely. Even though the books may be self-contained, you need part two to understand part one fully, etc.
TS: What would you be thinking of there? Faulkner's The Hamlet, The Town, and The Mansion?
JH: That kind of thing. The Hamlet, for me, is a wonderful novel on its own. But if you want the Snopes' story, you read all three books. On the other hand, since we're talking about Faulkner, there are characters in him that wander in and out of a number of his works and for me they're all part of the same story yet the works are completely different and separate. So I take a number of warnings and a number of images or metaphors for myself here to remember.
I must remember that each novel, even if I think of them as companion pieces, must be as individual as humans are. Whatever overlaps are possible must not affect the way I write the novel. I mustn't give in to the temptation to wink at the reader, to reward the reader who may have just read the other novel. I must always write Sonny's novel as Sonny's novel, period, as if that's the only novel I will ever write, as if The Macken Charm had disappeared off the face of the earth and only the Sonny novel will survive. Not because I think that's superior to a traditional trilogy, but because it is more consistent with whatever it is I'm trying to do here. I do feel very strongly that the continuations and the overlaps are an important part of a large pattern, but only in the sense that all things are important as part of a large pattern in the world.
TS: What kind of example does Robertson Davies's Deptford Trilogy offer?
JH: The Deptford Trilogy, I think, is a superb example of each novel's ability to be itself, with its own voice and its own explorations and its own revelations. But even so, that trilogy very brilliantly sets up in the first novel a need to read the other novels. And brilliant as that is, and rewarding as that is, that's just not what I'm trying to do. I don't even think of these as one, two, three. I think of them as triplets, not first child, second child, third child, but three equal partners in some larger scheme.
TS: Or a big altar-piece, a triptych, an immense painting?
JH: Yes. Or fragments of a mural, the rest of which you have to fill in yourself. The fact that I'm discovering some connections is exciting for me but I don't want that to be crucial to the reader.
TS: You speak of filling in the connections. One of the wonderful things for me in reading, as I experience fiction now, is when I feel I've been given an opening for both my memory and my imagination, that the writing of the novel is controlled but open enough to allow all of that.
JH: This is a reading experience which I treasure myself, and which happens when I'm reading things that matter the most to me-where I find myself filling in the gaps or pausing at the end of a chapter to dream my own next chapter or even an alternative novel. It can sometimes actually get in the way if I'm not careful, but I assume that is because I'm reading as a novelist and as an appreciative reader. Certainly the writings I treasure create not only the dream that was intended but other dreams as well.
J. R. (Tim) Struthers is in the Department of English at the University of Guelph. He is the editor of On the Coasts of Eternity: Jack Hodgins' Fictional Universe, which is about to be published by Oolichan Books, and in which appears a longer version of this interview.