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Hollingsview - John Ayre speaks with Greg Hollingshead
by John Ayre

When Greg Hollingshead received advance notice by phone at his home in Edmonton that he'd won the Governor General's Award for his story collection The Roaring Girl, he acted with the slow deliberation of one of his own characters. He remembers walking up the stairs in a state of "stunned disbelief", to announce the news to his wife Rosa and son David. He then spent the next few days sleeping extra hours "to process the information." "I was happy," he recently admitted, "to be shortlisted because it was a story collection and once I saw the list I assumed it would be Barbara Gowdy or Richard Wright. I thought that between them I would get lost."
For the official award ceremony in November, he revived sufficiently that his long leonine face flashed across the country on CBC-TV with a smile that was grand, though strained. He was now known as "the surprise winner", the author of what the jury called "nearly perfect stories". The coronation of course has had its wondrous effects. Hollingshead's collection captured a solid place in January on the Globe and Mail's national bestseller list and by late April had risen to second place. With the work of his agent Anne McDermid, the book will now appear in 1997 from Bloomsbury in Britain and from Putnam's in the States. On the basis of those, McDermid is seriously talking with publishers in Germany, France, and Italy. "The Governor General's was a door-opener, an attention-getter," she admits, "but the foreign publishers have been extremely impressed with the quality of the writing."
Those who have followed his stories in literary magazines, which have been collected in two previous books, Famous Players of 1982 and White Buick in 1992, wonder why it has taken so very long. From the beginning, though, Hollingshead's writing career has suffered many false starts. At Victoria College, where he majored in English literature in the late sixties, he was known for his poetry, which had the lean style, craft, and quirky irony of his later fiction. Characterized by surrealism like the early Bob Dylan's, his poetry led off a 1968 House of Anansi anthology T.O. Now, edited by Dennis Lee, but at twenty-one Hollingshead seemed to have peaked. The poetry wasn't getting better and when he submitted new work to Lee, Lee wasn't impressed.
When Hollingshead graduated in 1969, he took off for a year to Europe and North Africa and stayed briefly with David Godfrey and his family in Provence. Godfrey had recently published The New Ancestors, which would soon win the Governor General's for fiction. While Godfrey didn't particularly urge him to try fiction, Hollingshead was impressed by the meridional glamour of Godfrey's life, which seemed to derive more from his success in creative writing than his academic or publishing career. When Hollingshead got to Greece he started his first novel. "It was a young person's novel, written in comic surrealism. I don't think the two go together. It was set in the future. The earth tilts on its axis and the climate changes and monsters leak into materiality and go on a rampage." It was, he says without regret, rejected by everyone.
In the meantime he attended to the beginnings of a scholarly career. He studied for a Ph.D. for five years at the University of London writing his thesis on the work of the eighteenth-century philosopher George Berkeley. In retrospect, he found he hadn't lost the narrative interest at all. The parts that really buoyed him as he wrote his thesis were short sections of biographical narrative. Work in the British Museum landed curious gems like "The Mary Dunbar Letter", a first-person narrative about witchcraft in Ulster which he published verbatim in White Buick.
The impetus to start seriously writing again was during his first year teaching at the University of Alberta in Edmonton in 1975, when he had to cover several courses in which he had little background himself, including Canadian literature. After the years in Britain he admitted that the work of George Grant and Morley Callaghan amounted to somewhat unpleasant mysteries. Against this was the presence of that year's writer-in-residence, Matt Cohen, who hung out with Hollingshead and drove back to Ontario with him when the spring term was over. Hollingshead was particularly impressed with Cohen's 1973 short story collection Columbus and the Fat Lady. "I was interested in the liberties he was taking with history, how the imagination could go into ostensible history and play like that."
Sensing his own potential, Cohen started pestering Hollingshead for stories and kept it up for years. When he got back home that first year he wrote a couple of stories, one of which, "The Revenge of Eddie Reeser", was soon published in Descant. There followed a steady output of over forty stories which appeared in most of the literary journals in Canada.
Although it didn't seem to discourage Hollingshead, this was not an enticingly accumulative process. The publishers of his two story collections and his one novel, Spin Dry, were all small literary presses and none of them begged Hollingshead for more. He received a break when Barbara Gowdy positively reviewed his second story collection (White Buick) from the small Vancouver Island publisher Oolichan Books, for the Globe and Mail. Gowdy recommended Hollingshead to Patrick Crean, her own editor at the small but ambitious Somerville House. Crean wanted a novel but Hollingshead could only offer stories, new and uncollected, so Crean went with that.
Crean is not picky about fine detail, but does let his authors know unequivocally when a story or novel is not working. Certainly in editing the collection, he could rely on Hollingshead's obsessive need to revise. Hollingshead has been quoted saying that he will revise paragraphs endlessly to "excavate" the clichés. How many times does it take? He's mentioned arbitrary numbers, thirty-six times, seventy-five times for a single paragraph. This is the endurance and compulsion of a poet but there can, after all, be so many endless amendable paragraphs in even a short story, let alone a novel. In most cases, he manages to do this without losing the freshness of detail and event in a story. The brilliant title story of The Roaring Girl started off as "Fina Jim", published in 1992 in the Fiddlehead, about an eight-year-old boy with parents who own a failing gas station and are at the same time grappling with an uncertain pregnancy.
The original is a sombre story in which the boy protagonist is remote from his parents and eventually suffers some low-key sexual abuse-a French kiss-by a vagrant male boarder who works pumping gas at the station. In the new version, Hollingshead changes the sex of the vagrant and this eradicates the darker and irrelevant question of abuse. He also changes the narrative from first to third person and brightens the tone to allow for an insinuating magical sense that is often based on physicality. Rather than depressive, the boy now feels wonder about his parents and his dead brother whose name he carries. He stands in curious awe of his parents for their good looks but discomfiting peculiarities. A new line summarizes the whole character of the parents in the natures of their feet: "his father's broad like a duck's, so high-arched as to appear to be recoiling from the earth; his mother's narrow, bony, long and flat, heavily bunioned." Rather than plain working-class types, the parents are now presented as giants in time. With the change from male to female the coarse vagrant now becomes a figure of near-reverence: "He could hardly believe that as she reached for her toothbrush she witnessed the flying fish decal on the wall under the bathroom mirror, a scene that was part of himself-he had been riding those fish over that decal sea for as long as he could remember-and he wanted to know exactly how she saw them, because he wanted to know in what way it would be possible for himself to be known by her...."
Likewise his story that is a failed attempt at a novel, "The Death of Brûlé", went through a long refining-and generally improving-process to eradicate what Crean termed "too much childhood furniture and not enough storyline." The process doesn't invariably work. At Crean's insistence, Hollingshead tried to revise one story, "A Night at the Palace", over a three-month period while he was on sabbatical in Paris. Though he may have transformed a long story into a tighter more publishable narrative, it's hardly the shining jewel of the collection.
While the stories in The Roaring Girl focus on a variety of things, Hollingshead emphasized in interviews that he thought it was fundamentally the child's perspective that bound the collection together. As much as Alice Munro was originally so deeply focused on the figure of her mother, it could really be said that Hollingshead has been on the trail of his father, a remote and unsuccessful man. Like the father in "The Roaring Girl", Ab Hollingshead was a complicated man who took most of a lifetime to emerge in strength. With only a grade eight education, he became a worker in a cotton mill in Woodbridge, a small town just to the northwest of Toronto. Against his own easily attained Ph.D. and academic position, Hollingshead wonders about his father's own slow but insistent ambition.
It's obvious that when he focuses on his father, Hollingshead's writing becomes both explanation and expiation. "In his late thirties he woke up. I remember him sleeping Dagwood-style through much of my early life. Then he lost his job at the cotton mill and started to do these different jobs: selling cars, running the gas station, a bowling alley, a drug store, and finally a clothing store." He sat on the municipal council and even wrote a political column, "Hollingsview", for local weeklies. Ab had his own strange father, a fiercely proud though illiterate labourer, to make sense of. Ab wrote a memoir about his past, which Hollingshead's mother found after he died and passed on to her son. Hollingshead rewrote it in non-fiction form as "Your God is Finished" in White Buick. "I was unable to read it for four years after he died. His death was unexpected: he was sixty-six. Eventually I did read it. It was public writing. That generation tries to put a positive cast on history, present models for emulation. But the more I read it, I noted the details were very good. He used the phrase `his sparse hair rather long and flowing.' I would never have come up with that image."
This hall-of-mirrors process, son regarding father, regarding grandfather, gives Hollingshead's short fiction a sensibility of the rural borderland which derives ultimately from Faulkner and is rarely seen today outside Alice Munro or Raymond Carver. Here characters are stripped down to basics, often to damaged wills and eccentricity. The process can go overboard as in Hollingshead's horrific portrait, "When She was Gone" in White Buick, of the necrophiliac fetishist Ed Gein, a Wisconsin farmer who used to dress up in the flayed skins of female cadavers.
Excessive focus on debilitating eccentricity can also impede extended narrative. As he tries to finish a new novel, Hollingshead has, after all, to come to terms with his many failures at novel-writing. Over twenty-five years he's written large parts of six novels and seen just one published. He doesn't want to spook the process of the new novel he's writing but does offer one reason why his short fiction is so much more successful. "I have this idea that the novel requires the kind of characters who carry readers smoothly through in a forceful way. The character has to be after something which is clear and recognizable. There has to be a sense of obstacles faced, the test of the obstacles bringing forth the real issues for that character. My characters tend to be so impacted, their neuroses are so layered, that they don't behave in that way. They move crabwise. My fiction tends to be about the oblique way they come at their problems or fail to."
While this doesn't often shine the way to bestselling novels, or easy Hollywood and TV adaptations, it puts Hollingshead in the more uncompromising area of the writers he most admires himself, Alice Munro, Cormac McCarthy, Flannery O'Connor, and Raymond Carver. Clearly it's now a improving process. While perhaps a third of White Buick is exceptional, a good two-thirds of The Roaring Girl is first-rate. The new book, in whatever form, is going to be the matter of unusual hope and attention.

John Ayre is author of Northrop Frye: A Biography, published by Random House of Canada.


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