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Home and Away - Elaine Kalman Naves speaks with Jane Urquhart
by Elaine Naves

Jane Urquhart walks the landscapes of her past and her imagination and turns them into compelling fiction

JANE URQUHART BEGAN HER LITERARY career as a poet, publishing three collections: I Am Walking in the Garden of His Imaginary Palace (Aya, 1982), False Shuffles (Press Porcepic, 1982), and The Little Flowers of Madame de Montespan (The Porcupine's Quill, 1983). She has also written a book of short stories -- Storm Glass (The Porcupine's Quill, 1987) -- but she is best known for her novels, all published by McClelland & Stewart: The Whirlpool (1986), Changing Heaven (1990), and Away (1993), which was a co-winner of Ontario's Trillium Award.

This interview has been fused together out of two separate conversations with Jane Urquhart, one by phone on February 7, 1995 and the other in person on March 2 in Ottawa, the day after her husband had received the Order of Canada.

Books in Canada: This has been quite a year for you, winning the Marian Engel Award last fall and sort of taking up permanent residence on the Globe's best-seller list, not to mention invitations to read in Australia and being published in Germany. What's this all doing to your life and writing?

Jane Urquhart: It's made me schizophrenic, in a way. Because obviously the events that you take part in that are outside of your writing room are outerlife events. I sort of divide my life into inner life and outer life. And fortunately I've had a fair amount of practice doing that most of my life as a result of my ability to be distanced, shall we say, in certain situations. Like schoolrooms and places like that.

BiC: Meaning?

Urquhart: Meaning that I was a terrible daydreamer as a child, as any one of my report cards would attest to.

BiC: So you've had experience in what they call splitting?

Urquhart: Yes, I think that must be it! Undoubtedly I should be undergoing severe psychiatric treatment.

BiC: Seriously, do you have time to write?

Urquhart: Yes, because the nature of my life has changed quite dramatically since I started writing. When I began to write, I was looking after two stepchildren full time, Tony [Urquhart, her husband]'s two daughters were living with us and they were about 14 and 16. And also I had a small baby, a little girt called Emily, whom Tony and I had shortly after we got married. And Tony's other two children, two boys, came to visit us almost every weekend. And so my domestic life was very, very full. But since then, everyone has grown up. Including me. As a result, the house is a lot calmer and I have great open periods of time that just never existed 10 years ago. I can remember a period when I was doing six loads of laundry a day. But, in fact, the necessity of me being at home actually contributed to my writing. I think it was a good situation.

BiC: That's an interesting spin on the lot of the woman writer, which is something I wanted to ask you about.

Urquhart: I still think it's difficult for some women writers. I was fortunate in that my husband was very supportive of what I was doing, financially as well as emotionally. Which may or may not be a good thing in the eyes of certain feminist groups. But the real truth is it provided me with a little time and security, and that was what I needed to really be able to get into my inner life. Had I been a single woman it might have been a whole different story, in the sense that the big issue is the financial issue. How do you combine the need to write novels -- which take an enormous amount of time and an enormous amount of space within that time -- with the need to eat? It's not going to support you financially, and even if it eventually does, it's certainly not going to do that in the beginning.

BiC: But you have received grants, too, haven't you?

Urquhart: Oh, yes, over the years. Which is another thing that I've learned as a side effect of travelling as an author. The discovery of just how lucky we really are as Canadians. I know that we have a tendency to complain and carry on about cut in grants, but I've been to many countries where there are no grants, where people are astonished that here the government will give certain authors a subsistence level income for a year.

BiC: What countries are you speaking about now?

Urquhart: Well, France for instance. It does have certain programs that support the arts and obviously they're terribly interested in the arts. Which is always wonderful and encouraging and perhaps -- I'm not sure about this -- it might be easier to make a living in France as a writer. Because one of the things I noticed in France is that when you walk into a cafe, everyone is either reading something or writing something. [laughing] And there are wonderful bookstores everywhere. But from what I understand from French authors, the kind of government support that exists in Canada does not exist there.

BiC: To change the subject a bit, I'm going to be a bit of a devil's advocate with this question. The Whirlpool, Changing Heaven, and Away: why always the 19th century?

Urquhart: I think there are a number of reasons for that. One of the most important ones is that I feel in a way as if I grew up in the 19th century. I think that had to do with the fact that my extended family, the Quinn family, my mother's side, the side of the family that I knew best as a child, were mostly agricultural people and they really did live on farms. With woodstoves. And they had horses. They didn't have buggies, obviously they were driving cars, but life had not changed that much since the 19th century. And also when I was a child, and even now, though less and less, sadly, the landscape is the landscape that was created in the 19th century. For better or worse. That's what we had: rail fences and farms and barns and houses, all of which had been constructed in the 19th century. So that the world that I remember most vividly as a child was a sort of 19th-century world that had been adapted to deal with the 20th century.

Another reason was that as a child I spent huge amounts of time reading 19th-century novels, so that there were two realities at work. There was the reality of my extended family operating in the way that their ancestors in Canada had, and the reality of even the books that I read: The Secret Garden, The Little Prince, all of Dickens, L. M. Montgomery. And that was a l9th-century world. Another thing, I think, is that it's over, so that you can look back at it and see it. Perhaps incorrectly, but at least you can pretend to see it in a state of completion.

BiC: I think that that's the attraction about writing about the past for me. I find it so hard to figure out what's going on today. I marvel at people who can write fiction about contemporary life.

Urquhart: I do, too, I think it's a great gift. But I personally don't have it. I think it's partly because I feel a bit cut off from what's going on today.

BiC: Because you live in the country? [in a small village in southern Ontario.]

Urquhart: Partly, and also because of the way I live. I'm fortunate enough, to my mind anyway, that I'm not out there in an office dealing with contemporary life as it seems to exist.

BiC: I don't think you've ever had a day job, or have you?

Urquhart: Oh, yes, I have! I used to be the assistant to the information officer for the Royal Canadian Navy! [laughter] This was shortly after I'd graduated from university and when I was living with my first husband, who died -- I only add that because if I don't people assume that I was divorced.

BiC: You were married at 19 and widowed when you were 24, 1 think.

Urquhart: Yes. My husband was attending the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design and I had already graduated, so I had to get a job and so there it was. I had attended the University of Guelph and graduated with a general degree in English and then we went off to Halifax. That was just a fabulous job. And I've had other day jobs -- I was a waitress once, that was a night job in fact, shortly before I married Tony. I think that was the way I made the money for our honeymoon.

BiC: Michel Tremblay once told me that his training as a writer consisted in listening to the women who lived in his household.His mother and aunts and so on. I have the impression that you also were a great listener as a child.

Urquhart: Oh, yes, and under perfect conditions -- with thousands of female relatives around. It is true, the women are the people who pass the stories down through the generations in any family. Occasionally, one of the men would tell a story. When they did, it was a very exciting event, and it was often war-related. But the women were constantly gossiping. I've always been a great believer that gossip is not an evil thing. I see it as an investigation of human nature and I think it's absolutely lovely, as long as it's not malicious.

As a child, I learned so much listening to my mother and my aunt talk about what was happening, not only to them but to people around them. They were talking out of real interest and emotional engagement. And then there were the stories that I wasn't supposed to listen to. But that was not a big problem because there was a hot-air grate in my grandmother's house. And when you were sent upstairs -- the grate was right over the kitchen table -- you could hear everything that was going on in the kitchen.

BiC: Now tell me, was this up in Little Long Lac, in Northern Ontario, where you were born, or in Loughbreeze Beach where Away is partially set?

Urquhart: This was in Northumberland County where Loughbreeze Beach is situated. And all of that side of the family, the Quinns, lived in that area on Ontario farms. I would go there every summer, for the whole summer.

BiC: It must be wonderful to have that connection to the land. Although I've read that it's changing very rapidly.

Urquhart: Yes. In fact right at this very moment I'm beginning to be involved in a debate with a developer. I just see the southern Ontario landscape, the agricultural landscape, disappearing. It's terribly sad because it's the second rape of the land as far as I'm concerned. The first being of course the cutting of all of the trees and the clearing of the land to change it from forest to agricultural land. And now we're going to pave all of Ontario! It's very disturbing. It's also disturbing given how little agricultural land there is. The Canadian Shield comes down so far. Mississauga exists on what is some of the best agricultural land in Ontario. It's upsetting to see it disappearing at the rate that it is.

BiC: Away very definitely conveys the sense of loss of that countryside. But where do the Celtic legends come into it, and the sense of the occult? Was there a tradition of that in your own family?

Urquhart: There was a tradition of a kind of prescience, particularly among the women of the family, but I was not told Celtic legends as a child or anything like that. There were legends associated with the family and a lot of generational tale-telling. For instance, we would be told stories about our great-grandparents or great-aunts and -uncles as if those people were somehow still with us and alive and functioning. These were almost morality tales in some cases and so I think that was very similar to the Irish experience in the section of the book set in Ireland. These were basically part of the family myth. But as far as Irish folk-tales are concerned, that folkloric side didn't surface in my family. I heard about the history of Ireland and how dreadful the British were. And we were certainly instructed in the evil ways of the Orange Lodge. [laughing]

BiC: So it was a Catholic family?

Urquhart: Well, in fact, no. They were Catholics in the beginning. I was told over and over again when I visited Ireland that Quinn is a Gaelic name and there's no possibility that the family could have been anything but Catholic. But what seems to have happened -- for all I know this may be myth, too -- is that when they came to Canada, they changed their religion because they settled in a tiny village called Castleton, which is still there. And there was only one church, so if they wanted to be part of the community, there it was. But all the rest of it stayed in place. All the other children, for instance, were able to go to the Orange Parade, but not the Quinn kids. That was highly disapproved of. And there was great suspicion of the Family Compact and monarchy and all that. It's fascinating to see what does hang on in a family and what disappears.

BiC: The figure of Mary-Moira, the great-grandmother with the demon lover, she's all creation, isn't she?

Urquhart: She is completely fictional. I knew that I wanted to write a book about Ireland and the Irish experience, partly from the point of view of Canadians who are of Irish descent and because of my own family's obsession with things Irish. I found it fascinating that they were so many generations removed from the old country and yet so emotionally attached to a place they'd never seen. So I wanted to explore that. But the opening of the book came to me after I'd spent some time in that landscape. I'd been to Rathlin Island and I'd spent a lot of time on the northern coast because my family came from County Antrim. It's one of the most gorgeous landscapes in the world, just stunning and moving and rough. There's a kind of toughness about it, it's not a sentimental landscape, not Wordsworth's "Daffodils" at all. It's very solid and threatening in some ways and very powerful. And after I came back, I was just daydreaming and suddenly the image of the almost completely drowned man floating in on the waves came into my mind and then I knew that I had the opening of the book.

BiC: And had you heard of the concept of "away"?

Urquhart: I had, when I was in Northern Ireland.

BiC: So this was not something that was in the family?

Urquhart: No, it wasn't. It was an idea that I had as a result of hearing about the concept and wanting to explore "awayness" in terms of both immigration and the idea of being separated from the self. And then the book sort of unfolded from the narrative point of view, like a road that rose to meet me. It was quite lovely.

BiC: So how much of this stuff do you actually believe?

Urquhart: I believe it in a fictional sense. When I'm writing it I believe it.

BiC: So it came to you and then you had to explore what it would be like to be this woman --

Urquhart: Not even so much as what it would be like to be her, but to be able to be conscious in that world. I don't think I ever confuse my own identity with the identity of any of my characters. But that world is very real to me when I'm working on it, which is probably why it's fairly depressing to finish a book, because you have to let that world go.

BiC: What were you trying to do with the character of Exodus Crow in the story?

Urquhart: Exodus Crow is a mixed Native character who is very important to the book in ways that are difficult to describe. One of the things that I learned by creating him -- he may or may not be accurate (who's ever to say what an accurate example of any particular race is?) -- was how similar the Ojibway systems of belief were and are to the Celtic systems of belief. There's an incredible commonality of spiritual experience there. I found that pretty exciting.

BiC: I'm curious about your decision not to use dialect in the story.

Urquhart: I made a conscious choice about that. First of all, I wouldn't have had the skill to pull it off. But I also felt that I didn't want it to be one of those "Faith and Begorrah" cute little quaint Irish books. Because it's really a Canadian book, it's about Canada and not Ireland as such. And even when I say it's about Canada, I hope it's much more than that, too. I also think that one of the last stereotypes that appears to have not yet died is that of the staggering, brogue-riven, drunken, cute, funny Irishman. If someone such as myself started to use Irish dialect, it just wouldn't work.

BiC: Tell me about your reading habits as a child.

Urquhart: Well, I would say compulsive. I read every word that L. M. Montgomery wrote at least three and maybe four times. But I was also reading Louisa May Alcott and Dickens to a great extent. And Wuthering Heights, of course.

BiC: When did your great interest in the Victorian poets begin?

Urquhart: That began fairly early because my mother had been quite interested in Victorian poetry as a young woman as a result of studying it in high school. She wasn't able to go to university because in her time, of course, if anyone was going to university in a farm family, it certainly wasn't going to be a girl and there were six boys in her family. This was just not an alternative for her. She introduced me to Browning, in particular, when I was 10 or 11. When she was being educated, children were required to memorize poetry and so she knew an awful lot. She could recite all of "My Last Duchess" for instance. Or "Andrea del Sarto." And [laughing] she did. I think that was partly what led me to Victorian poets. And of course later on in university I studied them.

BiC: Isn't there a story about how your mother wanted to be a novelist when she was a child?

Urquhart: When she was a child, she and her friend decided to collaborate on a novel. So they borrowed the only typewriter in the village, which was at the bank. And the bank manager actually allowed them to take it home for the weekend. They were going to write the novel on the weekend! They had to walk about two miles with this great huge heavy Underwood from the village to the farm. I don't know what happened to that novel. She has never divulged the exact subject of it.

BiC: She didn't become a writer, she --

Urquhart: Became a reader. A really serious reader. Shortly after she married my father and they moved to Little Long Lac, where a gold mine was opening. My father had just graduated from mining engineering school at the University of Toronto in 1934 and there were no roads in there at that time and very little getting in and out, except by bushplane. Nevertheless, my mother was able to get the New Yorker and the Book-of-the-Month-Club selections. I was telling some people in Australia when I was there that my mother had actually read the novels of Eleanor Dark, whose house I was staying in. (Eleanor Dark has recently been re-released from Virago, a wonderful rediscovered Australian writer.) And my mother was reading works of that nature in Little Long Lac!

BiC: At what time did you realize that you wanted to be a writer?

Urquhart: Oh, at about the same time as I realized that I wanted to be a ballet dancer and a star of the Broadway stage. Those three came together at the age of about seven. I think I started to take myself seriously after my daughter was born and I think that's because I lost my child status. One can no longer pretend to be a child when one has a child. This, as I mentioned before, was when things were domestically rather wild with two full-time and two part-time stepchildren and one baby. But it also organized me in a way, I think, to have a baby who was on a certain schedule and who later went to school and came home at certain times. So that I was able to carve out a period of time to myself. For instance, when she was napping. I think I was able to get two hours a day at that time. And I was fierce about it. I took the two hours regardless of circumstances.

BiC: I think you have said that when you were writing The Whirlpool you never expected it to be published?

Urquhart: I couldn't have written it, I think, if I had allowed myself to believe that it would be published, because it was based on two very real stories. One was the story of Julia Cruikshank, who was the wife of Ernest Cruikshank, the first president of the Ontario Historical Society and a military historian. And the other one was based on my husband's grandmother, who ran the oldest funeral home in Niagara Falls. I never met her personally -- she was dead before I met Tony. Nevertheless, I was dealing with his family history. It was so fascinating, I just couldn't help myself. And his parents were alive! I think had I admitted to myself that I was going to try to get the book published, I would have felt terribly inhibited. So I convinced myself that the book was far too weird, no one would ever publish it anyway, so I could just ... I had to write it really, it was a story that had to be written.

BiC: It was about your husband's grandmother, I know, but she was a young widow in the story. And you had been a young widow, too.

Urquhart: Yes, that's true. I hadn't thought about any of that until long after the book was finished. I think what's interesting about autobiography and fiction for me is that they're so often unconscious. In fact, people will bring things to my attention and I will go "Of course! That's where it came from." Not long ago, my mother was talking about a schoolhouse in Northumberland County that she and several other members of the family gave to one of my uncles as a Christmas present, if you can believe it, because it was for sale for $100 and it was the schoolhouse where he began to teach. And I suddenly remembered going up to that schoolhouse as a child about the time that they were going to buy it, and I realized when my mother told me that story that the schoolhouse that I was describing in Away, the schoolhouse that existed in Canada, was that schoolhouse. I hadn't thought about it until my mother mentioned it, and she hadn't thought about it either. And then I realized, "That's right. That's where it came from."

I think a lot of writing comes from the unconscious and in my case usually the best of my writing comes out of the unconscious. I'm not too aware of what I'm doing and I try to somehow remain unaware. It works better for me, especially in the first draft, than if I were to sit down and become very conscious of where the narrative was going, what kind of imagery I wanted to use.



BiC: I guess also writing in this fey, sometimes supernatural way that you --

Urquhart: I think it would be very self-conscious if I were too aware of what I was doing. Too manipulative somehow.

BiC: What do you mean by that?

Urquhart: Formula. I think a formula exists to manipulate the reader and I'm not interested in doing that. I'm more interested in, I suppose, selfishly entertaining myself. [laughing]

BiC: You've spoken in the past of how art history helped teach you to see. Can you talk a little bit about visual memory -- for instance, when you went to Northern Ireland to do research for Away, how did you store away the landscape in your mind so that you could write about it in Canada? Or did it just stay there?

Urquhart: Well, if I'm very fortunate, it will stay there. For me the best way to remember a landscape is to walk it. When I was in Yorkshire, for instance, before I wrote Changing Heaven, I began to do some serious walking. It had nothing to do with any interest in physical health -- I'm not really a very athletic person. But with a five-mile distance from the little cottage where I lived to the alleged site of Wuthering Heights, I was required to walk because there was no other way of getting there. And I discovered that I just loved it. The experience of walking a landscape is very, very important. And also it's essential that I do it alone. Because if someone else is with me, I'm going to be talking.

So I've done an awful lot of walking in various landscapes, alone. Now, that applies to landscapes I'm not already familiar with. The landscapes of my childhood seem to be just there, I can call I them up almost at any time. I can pretty well do almost stone by stone the whole walk home from school. But it's really essential for me to know the landscape that I'm going to be writing about. I have to be able to see where I am when I am writing.


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