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Inside a Good House. An Interview with Bonnie Burnard
by Linda Morra

Bonnie Burnard is a writer, creative writing teacher, and reviewer whose work has been widely anthologized and dramatized. Her collection of short stories, Casino and Other Stories published in 1994, won the Saskatchewan Best Book Award and was shortlisted for the Giller Prize. Women of Influence, her first collection published in 1988, won the Commonwealth Best Book Award. She is also a recipient of the Marian Engel Award and, for two years, was on the Giller jury panel. Linda Morra interviewed Burnard in London, Ontario, where she was recently writer-in-residence at the University of Western Ontario. The interview that follows¨an abridged version¨focuses on A Good House, the winner of the prestigious Giller Prize in 1999. Burnard is currently working on a new novel.

LM: I noticed that you focus on the fracturing of ritual. . . . I am thinking of the story from Women of Influence, "Nice Girls Don't Tell": they do tell, but they're still "nice girls." . . . Or, A Good House: what constitutes a "good house" is always being challenged.

BB: . . . . It does seem to me that each family starts out with the rituals that are common as a kind of guide without even thinking about it, and then, of course, they adapt those to their own temperaments and their own requirements. . . . They see ritual and they think they are honouring it, perhaps, but often there's just a slight twist, or a slight angle, or a slight adaptation to suit the people who need it. . . .

LM: In A Good House, [Charlotte] enters or tries to enter into the family. You were speaking about how there's a certain ritual or pattern that's established. . . . She has a great deal of trouble fitting in. I like the way that Margaret tries to engage with her and tries to help her fit.

BB: . . . It seems to me to be true that many groups [are] exclusive beyond what they feel themselves to be. [Charlotte] isn't given a fair deal by these people: [they] don't adapt to her, they expect her to adapt to them. I meant to expose that, I meant to expose their limitations. . .[They] have an understood language among themselves. Charlotte just walks in and has no idea what anybody is talking about most of the time... Not everyone can move into any circle. . . .It's fine that there's exclusion.

LM: One of the things I thought you might have been doing . . . with this flipping of perspective between Charlotte and Margaret [was also a] broadening of one's sense of vision. So, when we get into Stonebrook, for example, you look at Stonebrook in a particular way, depending on which way you enter.

BB: You can enter [any place] by birth, or by intermittent visits, or by marriage, casually or seriously¨all the different ways of connecting with [a] place. What you said about Margaret and Charlotte¨they aren't unalike. . . . Margaret and Charlotte both know how a life gets built. They're actively in control of their lives. . . .

LM: Back to Stonebrook. . . . The water-tower [shows] "Stone" on one side, and "Brook" on the other, depending on which way you enter Stonebrook. I wondered if that had to do with an altering of one's perspective: see[ing] the other side to a reality?

BB: The tension between the two things. When I was looking for a name for the town, I heard at the time a Japanese saying [about] stones and brooks, and how water runs over stones. . . Water can run over stones, stones do not stop water: they shape it, they change it, they interfere with it, but water carries on. . . It's also for a silly reason, [the word] "Stonebrook Creek." That's a colloquial use of language that I just enjoy. . .

LM: War imagery is also pervasive in the book. . . . When Sylvia is dying, [she] tries to explain her experience through images of the War. . .

BB: Three of my mother's brothers went to War, two came back¨a common story. . . The Second World War was not an idea for the extended members of my family: it was a reality. I had three uncles who were in the Second World War¨it [exerted] a major sociological energy in its time, had an effect on the people I knew growing up, the oldest people around me. . .That is just part of my life. . .

LM: When something traumatic happens, that [War-related] narrative resurfaces and they use it to describe the experience in similar terms. . . It shadows A Good House. . . The War continues [to be] reconfigured in other events.

BB: They use it as metaphor. If it's in the room, they might as well use it.

LM: Okay. It's "a good house," not "a good home." Is there a difference?

BB: I knew I was getting close to dangerous territory dealing with [a clumsy but tenaciously good] family. . . The word "home" is just a little too warm for me, but I love houses.

LM: Yes, I noticed that you dwell upon architecture.

BB: Yes. I never say, "my parents' home"; I say, "my parents' house." . . . It's more structural. . . This generation of people, before they [lived through] the War, they [lived through] the Depression: they did not have much money. . . .There [was] a great celebratory feeling in the fifties¨that people could build their own houses. . . It's disparaged: suburbia, ticky-tacky boxes, Pete Seiger, right? Disparaged. But that's too easy. [These people] had come through something far harder than anything I've been through: the thirties and then the forties. . . When we ridicule the fifties, I don't think we're ridiculing the (actual) people alive in the fifties, I think we're ridiculing television depictions of those people, like Father Knows Best . . .

LM: So, is it a corrective, then, in some ways?

BB: Oh, I don't know¨that's a scary word.

LM: (Laughter) But it's meant to challenge, in some ways, some ideas or notions that people [maintain about] the fifties?

BB: Right. . . .

LM: Let's talk about the actual architecture¨we were talking about houses¨what about the actual structure of the book itself? . . . How did you decide what year you were going to land in? There are some events that are completely passed over that I would have thought [of as] good narrative material. . .

BB: Well, I knew from the beginning that this narration would visit these people intermittently. . . I lived in the West for twenty years, and my extended family and oldest friends and connections were here in Southern Ontario. I would return home intermittently. . . .Sometimes, when I got off the plane, whoever picked me up [would have] to explain to me on the trip home from the airport that so-and-so has done such or¨

LM: (Laughing) This sounds familiar.

BB: Yes, it does. . . Throughout this time I thought, "this is like a play." And everybody else has an ongoing role in this play, the characters stay the same and the setting stays the same. I'm this odd character who is brought in once in a while, so I have to go on stage and figure out my lines quickly and they have to fill me in quickly on what's happened: "You might want to know [this] if you're going over to have coffee with so-and-so. . . ." That's the kind of discussion. [I'd hear about] somebody doing something unusual or out of character¨that's a wonderful Southern Ontario phrase¨

LM: Is that a Southern Ontario phrase?

BB: Well, not [exclusively]. But it's certainly prevalent where I come from . . . If they do something unusual, they're said to be out of character, as if it were a temporary aberration. . . [People are] to behave this way, so that we can behave [in that] way and it will all work out. . . In the end, I was much more interested in the act of coming to changed circumstances, than in watching the circumstances change. . . .

LM: You wanted the reader to experience this sense of dislocation. . . The fact that this is a "good house," rather than a "good home": you've distanced the reader a couple of times over. . . I also wanted to ask more largely about the way that [the book] fits into Canadian literature. Where do you see its place among books in Canada?

BB: I have no idea. . . .

LM: Would you refer to it as a "Canadian book"?

BB: It's a Canadian book to the extent that I'm a Canadian, the place is Canadian, and most of the characters are Canadian. Whether ethically or morally or in some more abstract way it's a Canadian book . . . .

LM: You could have made (A Good House) a series of short stories, rather than a novel. . . .

BB: Well . . . in "Casino" [in Casino and Other Stories], I thought I was examining men, but after the story was finished . . . I don't think [about] structure when I'm writing a [story], I don't think [about] structure at all, I don't care about it. . . I thought that story was about men, but really [it] was about time. . . I wanted to be involved with [my people] over a longer period of time and I [saw that] I had done that, and my agent saw that I had done that, and she said, "Aha, [maybe you're ready to commit to a longer work]." . . . A short story is very . . .

LM: Contained?

BB: And direct. The only metaphor I've come up with . . . is that the short story is like forked lightening, very direct, and quick, and hits specifically and means to hit specifically. The novel is more like sheet lightening. . . Things are lit [more broadly]. You don't get to see and understand everything.

LM: [A Good House] is like a thunder storm?

BB: I guess. . . It's a different muscle, a different way to write entirely.

LM: . . . So, (do) you come, then, to writing with some idea about what it is (in terms of genre)? . . . . What's the impulse?

BB: For this particular novel, it was the unanticipated¨how do people live with the unanticipated? . . We spend a lot of time, it seems to me, being honest with ourselves, and evaluating, and progressing in the direction we think would be best for everybody. . . And that's all useless against Fate because you don't get to control the play: somebody else (is writing) this play. . .

LM: You have a sense that Fate does have a hand in things?

BB: Yes. So the impetus was: how do people get through the unanticipated? . . . I wanted to examine the [integrity] of the group, and [integrity] of the individual. . . .What compromises do we have to make individually to be part of the group? What you said earlier about Charlotte¨that's addressing that question. Charlotte's [strength] as an individual is more important to her than what the others think of her and rightly so. . . .

LM: What it is that you are working on right now? Or do "nice authors" not tell? . . . .

BB: (They do tell, but) in very, very general terms.

LM: There's a danger in talking about (or) giving the plot away? . . . .

BB: Or just making the examination, especially [out loud] with other people. . . The question [addressed by this new novel] seems to me to be: Is being known what we really want, or is being loved what we really want? . . . There are people who know me who don't love me. (Laughter from both.) Amazingly enough. But that's fine¨it's just being able to relax into yourself finally and being what you are and being with people who recognize that. . . A lot of this is something that's earned, or [it] can be played that way. Love is certainly a fine thing. . . But being known should not be diminished (or discounted). A shared experience, or a comprehension of who the other is¨the comfort, I suppose, [of being known]. Maybe A Good House is about comfort. . And this [novel] will also be about comfort: how we get it and how we give it.

LM: Yes. Thank you.

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