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Pressed Between the Pages of Balzac - Cherry Clayton speaks with Alice Boissonneau
by Cherry Clayton

Alice Boissonneau is a writer with a great deal to say about post-war Toronto, its past and its people. Born in Walkerton, Ontario, she worked for several years in hospitals in Toronto and Vancouver. Her first novel, Eileen McCullough (1976), was shortlisted for the Books in Canada First Novel Award; it records the everyday life of young people during the Second World War, factory work, and the misery of disappointed love, and alludes to the surrender of Mussolini and other war events. Her second novel, A Sudden Brightness (1994), focuses on a seriously depressed woman awaiting release from a mental hospital in wartime Vancouver. Her memoir, There Will be Gardens (1992), offers vivid evocations of Toronto life and reveals the historical layers of urban spaces. She is currently finishing a collection of short stories which record memories of the town of Walkerton.

This interview was conducted in August 1998 in Guelph, Ontario, where Boissonneau currently lives.

CC: Much of your writing seems to draw on the knowledge of places and people you gained while working as a social worker. How has that occupation influenced your writing, in terms of theme and style?

AB: I didn't really start writing until after I started social work. I came from a Southwest Ontario background-somewhere between Stratford and London, where the land was considered to be about the best in Canada, and people did not really suffer much during the Depression. When I came to Toronto and started my job as a social worker, it was a very shocking, in-your-face experience to observe people with babies living over dusty fur stores on Queen Street, and babies whose milk bottles were kept on windowsills during heat waves. That was how they had to live. I hadn't seen that before. Perhaps what really strikes home to writers is what makes up their subject matter.

CC: Your writing is set in wartime or post-war Canada of the forties and fifties. You use the phrase, "bearing sons away". The crisis of A Sudden Brightness turns on the breakup of a marriage caused partly by the separations and stresses of World War II. The pregnancy and abandonment in Eileen McCullough also relate to wartime departures and absences. Is the mood and the artistic method of your fiction shaped by your experience of World War II?

AB: I think everyone was very affected by what was going on in Europe during the war. The part about "bearing sons away" didn't really have that wartime meaning though. It implied rather the passage of time, of generations, and referred to the walks that I had taken along the streets in southwest Toronto. Some of the characters in Eileen McCullough were working-class people. I learned that workers in large plants like Massey-Harris were mainly British and were just taken off the street.

CC: Who did you learn your craft from?

AB: There was a woman who lived down the street from me in Toronto-Eleanor Godfrey. She was older and connected with The Canadian Forum magazine. We became friends. Although she was very talented herself and skilled at literary judgment, I don't believe that she knew how to help me. But she told me: "You are a writer." No one had told me that before. That was a step up. I had to find what they call, rather tiresomely, "your own voice". I lacked confidence. It took me a long time.

CC: There is quite a time lag between the periods when your novels are set and when they are published.

AB: I loved working in hospitals as a social worker. It was rather like being pressed between the pages of Balzac. Every five minutes, you were talking to someone who was confronted with some horrendous problem: they had only two weeks to live. Or people were coming in off the street wearing rubbers lashed onto their feet with elastics. And your mind was just swimming with impressions.

I began writing in a random way, in reaction to the shocks experienced during my early day-to-day training in social work. I made notes on weekends, often in phone booths and hotel lobbies. These grew later into short sketches or stories. But I didn't have the time in which to really complete that material until later, starting with when I was moving around Northern Ontario in a trailer while my husband was doing land-use research. That's why there are those different lags, here and there.

CC: I think it's contributed to your work, because it gives a sense of a very layered past, a richness, to the memories of the cities you write about.

AB: That idea came to me after I'd spent nearly a year walking around the southwest part of Toronto, near Massey-Harris and the old Queen Street Hospital. I needed to know what the streets were like in different seasons, for background for Eileen McCullough. I talked to people in their houses about their pasts. But in doing so, I realized there were layers of past times I was walking upon. That was how that feeling of the layers of streets came to me.

CC: Your work deals so much with the subjective experience of women's lives-with grief, pain, and loss. You mentioned that you lacked confidence as a writer. Is that because women feel that men should be the storytellers of society? What role do you think gender has played in your work?

AB: There's a simple reason why I wrote about women: you feel closer to your own gender when describing situations. When I was working in the Out-Patients ward at Vancouver General Hospital, I realized that men had a hard time, too. They would have to go out to work and take the bus in the sleet; they could not change their jobs easily; and they needed the reputation that would allow them to keep receiving a steady income. It was easier for women to change jobs, and at the time, I felt, quite incorrectly, I realized later, that women who were in the home had a somewhat easier time, making jelly and looking after children.

CC: I was thinking about women in wartime. In your writing, the things that women often suffer from in ordinary life are intensified by the war. For instance, women are usually socialized to wait for events, but in your novels, they have to wait because there's a war on. There's no option. Also because your focus is often on women who are institutionalized or in dire poverty or in other intolerable circumstances, those characteristics of passivity are intensified.

AB: Women, really, did not have as much a voice as men did.

CC: Was that why you focused on them?

AB: That was one of the reasons. Also I felt that there were divisions, and not only with women. When I was working in the Provincial Mental Hospital, and later as a volunteer in a rural Ontario old age home, I realized that society made other arbitrary divisions that categorized people: oh, these people in this hospital are all stashed away, let's not think about them; they're different from us, and they're very peculiar; and the old people have no interest, a lot of them are senile.

CC: So you were also overcoming the stigma of mental illness?

AB: I found that patients were given more help, not by social workers, who had to do professional, practical things for them, but by the volunteers who would bring peanut butter sandwiches, and take them on drives away from the grounds, and treat them like human beings.

CC: How do you see the relationship between your fiction and the European traditions? You refer to Blake, Goya, Bach, and Van Gogh. You use the beautiful phrase, "childlike images of blinding innocence", which reminded me of Blake.

AB: I just thought that one up. That was mine. But it comes from reading, of course.

CC: Yes, but it's almost a description of Blake's work, too. Your own characters do have a kind of "blinding innocence". And you mention Goya and a "a mirror of murky times". I found your writing has such a detailed realism, but it's wedded to a spiritual or visionary tradition. Have you travelled or lived in Europe, or is your relationship with European traditions more of a literary affinity?

AB: I would say there's a kind of literary affinity. I was very keen on the work of James Agee. Are you familiar with his writing?

CC: No.

AB: In 1941, he wrote Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, about the people in the American South who lived in dreadful houses and suffered a great deal picking cotton. And yet they were individuals. He characterized them in a very poetic and wonderful way.

CC: Your style is such a sensitive barometer. I wondered how anyone could possibly remember in such detail what the fašades or roofs of buildings looked like, and also render them subjectively. Many passages are like grainy photographs of Vancouver and Toronto. Very visual. What shaped this particular impressionistic and detailed vision of place?

AB: I've looked upon that as a bit of a weakness. Plot never seemed to interest me that keenly, and I'm always captured by a particular impression or situation. When I did try plot writing, I never quite succeeded and I wasn't as happy about it.

CC: You seem to defamiliarize the familiar, rendering strange and visionary the urban environments that we take for granted. I think this works with your thumbnail sketches of people, too. In There Will Be Gardens, you speak of "pictures held in the mind like rooms", but you also mix in historical details of Toronto: its houses and past citizens, British imperialism and grand houses. It worked as a foil to the current realities you were describing, but also as a stylistic interweaving of fiction and history. How do you see fiction in relation to that social history?

AB: When I was doing the background work for Eileen McCullough, I did quite a bit of research in the archives, found out who the people were who had lived there. For instance, near Dundas and Shaw, I was walking with an older friend who'd been brought up in that area, and I could see it through his eyes. I learned about the wonderful lore from the streets, from people talking; for instance, the baby brought up from a ravine on Shaw Street was raised as Ravina Shaw.

CC: It also struck me as part of your social commentary because all those grand, old, colonial houses would have had one family in them. The contrast with six or seven people crowded into two rooms becomes part of the social critique. I liked your phrase, "the everyday resistance movement of the human spirit", which you demonstrate in your characters and which also describes the mode of your writing. Your obsession with getting all the details down reminded me of Alice Munro's description of the town of Jubilee in Lives of Girls and Women, where she writes of a need to recapture every detail of the place. You've used the phrase, "a hedge against loss": do you see writing as "a hedge against loss"?

AB: When I was working in the Out-Patients section of Vancouver General Hospital, I was knocked out by the courage of people there in overcoming their obstacles. I think that is true of people in general. I never got over the courage people showed in a day-to-day context.

CC: So your writing is a tribute to those people?

AB: Oh, yes, it certainly is. During the months I spent at a B.C. psychiatric hospital, I became familiar with the attitudes of outside society, which stressed the bizarre nature of the appearance and behaviour of the schizophrenics warehoused in the giant buildings and coming from different parts of Canada. They could not recognize that behind each patient might lie a simple story.

CC: In A Sudden Brightness, do you set up the situation to show that people can get through bad bouts of depression and misery?

AB: I didn't want to write about the true-blue schizophrenic in a hospital. I wouldn't have the temerity to do that. I wanted to show a girl who'd had what they call an ordinary breakdown and was groping in her mind toward the future. The patients were confined to the grounds. Their journey had to be in their minds because their only companions were other patients or doctors. She was trying to cope, to move forward by reviewing her past.

CC: Yes, I see now. That's how you structure that narrative. It starts off in the mental hospital, and she gradually works over the past again. Right at the end, she's released. And then you have the internal narrative of her previous relationships with her family and her husband as a reconstructed memory.

AB: Yes. Although I was driven to record by an image of the environment, A Sudden Brightness called for a different structure. The enormous impact of the experience of working in the rehabilitation department dictated a more complicated structure of stages. These would allow for a longer search for meaning for many characters, for showing the descents and the dark parts.

The main character is divorced from her husband and separated from a teenage daughter. With her discharge imminent, she is struggling to avoid a return to the east and an unsympathetic family. The different setting dictated a special narrative direction. A structure of images was needed to reveal an unfolding designed to take place in short, random periods when the young woman was able to be alone on a bench, sketching views of the mountains. Without planning to, she randomly evaluates her past, from memories of her childhood and marriage, which return slowly, up to her present situation. The insights are slow in coming.

CC: Who are the Canadian writers who have been important for you?

AB: Alastair MacLeod is a wonderful writer. Do you know his work?

CC: Yes, I do. He has the same kind of focus on poverty, on ordinary life. I heard him read a beautiful story about a man in the Salvation Army or some kind of hostel.

AB: He carries a story so beautifully, and includes all the necessary details, and makes it so alive for you. And Austin Clarke is also a wonderful writer.

CC: Clarke is a link to the immigrant world. I noticed that the reason why a lot of the people in There Will be Gardens are living on the fringes is that they're immigrants and often black-or what are now called "visible minorities". They're struggling. You have a good phrase, "the dogged dream of the new country".

AB: I'd just read the report from PEN on imprisoned writers, and I felt very conscious of those situations.

CC: In South Africa, there's a huge tradition of writing either in prison or about prison experiences in retrospect. My imagination is steeped in images of imprisonment.

AB: About a year ago, they had Nelson Mandela and Bishop Tutu on television to discuss how they interviewed people for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The question was, "Can they forgive?" They would show a black man whose face was being pushed into a sink of dirty water and left there till he was nearly choking, then he'd be lifted out and choked again. How could the family forgive actions like that?

CC: I felt an affinity to your phrase, "everyday resistance struggle", because South Africa has been so embroiled in the political resistance to racism and apartheid. What I'm seeing now through your work and Alastair MacLeod's is a sort of social resistance which comes from wanting to register the lives of those who are struggling at the bottom of the social hierarchy. And then, of course, there are historical phases when it's been worse, and your fiction chronicles some of them. I felt that way when I first read Margaret Laurence and Alice Munro: everyday but profound conflicts and experiences were the centre of attention. There was a kind of normality, and the normal became mysterious.

AB: Have you read Mary Jo Leddy's book, At a Border Called Hope? She's an activist nun who has worked with refugees, and she's conscious of the people who've been taken for granted, of the whole process of refugeeism and immigration. They're put on welfare, they're not allowed to work, and then they wait, sometimes for months, not knowing whether they'll be shipped back to the same country they've just fled from. It's a very enlightening book.

CC: As are yours. The topics you deal with are grief, sadness, and loss, but the effect of your work is not depressing at all. Your mastery of a detailed style gives a sense of hope and gaiety. And your narratives move towards a moment of vision. Thank you for speaking with me. 

Cherry Clayton is a lecturer in English and Women's Studies at the University of Guelph. She is currently preparing a book of interviews with Canadian women writers.


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