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On Belonging and the Beehive - Interview with Gail-Anderson-Dargatz
by Eva Tihanyi

Born in 1963, Gail Anderson-Dargatz grew up near Salmon Arm, B.C., in the lush lake country known as the Shuswap. While attending the University of Victoria, where she is completing a degree in creative writing this year, she met Floyd Dargatz, a farmer, whom she married in 1989. In 1997, the couple moved to Alberta.

Anderson-Dargatz has won critical acclaim, beginning with the publication of her first book, The Miss Hereford Stories (1995), which was shortlisted for the Leacock Medal for Humour. Her debut novel, The Cure for Death by Lightning (Knopf Canada, 1996), was awarded the VanCity Book Award, the Betty Trask Prize (Britain), and the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize. It was also shortlisted for the Chapters/Books in Canada First Novel Award and the Giller Prize for Fiction. A Recipe for Bees (Knopf Canada, 1998), Anderson-Dargatz's latest novel, has also been shortlisted for the Giller Prize and was just about to be published when the following conversation-at the Toronto offices of her publisher-took place.

ET: What can readers of The Cure for Death by Lightning expect from your new novel, A Recipe for Bees?

GA: This is the tell-me-about-your-novel question that writers rarely know how to answer as it's hard to condense a novel into a few words. That's why there are publicity people, among other reasons! While it is in no way a sequel to The Cure, Bees comes from this brain and is set, in part, in the same area, so the reader will see connections. There's also a fair amount of magic in Bees. The novel is rich in beekeeping descriptions and love and that is all so wonderful. It was a great novel to write; I think it will be a great novel to read. I hope so, anyway!

ET: How far into Bees were you when The Cure was published in 1996?

GA: I had started it before I finished The Cure, so I would've been working on it for probably a year before The Cure was published. I tend to do that anyway. I have many projects on the go at the same time. The first book, my collection of short stories, I wrote while working on The Cure. The stories were like brain candy, like popcorn.

ET: I have a vision of you writing in between milking the cows and feeding the chickens. [Laughter]

GA: My husband, Floyd, was working for a dairy while I was writing The Cure. He was getting sicker and sicker-he had developed a brain tumour though we didn't know it then-and I was helping him do his job. Writing became a relief, a release for me. I was working obsessively on the writing because it was the one sane thing during a crazy time.

ET: Were you surprised by the incredibly positive response to The Cure?

GA: Well, the Canadian thing to say is, Yes, of course I was. I'd been working hard to be a writer since my late teens-I started writing early, worked for a small-town newspaper-so I'd been preparing for this for a long time. I don't think you do this kind of thing without having some faith in yourself. If you don't have that, why would you do it? And you really have to love the process. Otherwise, it's just not going to work. So yes, I had some sense The Cure would take off. It was a powerful book to write. A Recipe for Bees has a different element. It was a sweet book to write. I've already started the next novel-I refer to it as The Texas Project because it's partly set in Texas-and that one is overwhelmingly powerful. It feels like it's going to blow up inside of me. It has a quality that I can already feel, a lot more power than The Cure. So we'll see how it comes out when I write it. But it feels much bigger, much broader.

ET: Do you ever suffer from writer's block?

GA: I work in such a way that I have several things cooking at once, which is a good way to work. If you work on one thing only, that's when writer's block can happen. Writer's block happens because you simply need a break from the writing or you're worried about debts or you need a little nooky. [Laughter] There's always a reason behind writer's block. It's not like tennis elbow, some symptom. We think of it that way, though. I think lack of research is the biggest cause of writer's block for young writers. They reach a point at which they don't know what to write. Well, they haven't done the research. Most of the research thing for me is interview, and that's a social thing. I love doing interviews!

ET: What kind did you do in connection with Bees?

GA: All kinds. And this is where Floyd has become a literary partner. He also conducts interviews for me, especially when they're relevant to his knowledge base. He's a beekeeper, for instance. So when it came to this book-there's a lot of bee stuff in it-I watched him to start with, and he took me through, step by step. Then he talked to the provincial beekeeper in Alberta-with the great name of Kenn Tuckey-who's really been involved with this book. He's seen the manuscript as it's progressed. He's seen the relevant passages about beekeeping, checked them.

ET: Did you interview your parents at all for Bees?

GA: Yes, I did. I started with family stories. I was keenly interested in farm marriages because they have a quality unlike any other marriage I've ever seen, and I was fascinated with this. I'm in a farm marriage. My in-laws are in a farm marriage. Many of our friends are in farm marriages. And so what I did was start with my own parents' marriage as a sort of template, but then I looked deeply into my own, deeply into all the farm marriages around us. I read about other farm marriages and tried to define the quality. Because they're durable in ways that are often unexpected. These marriages are more than the sum of their parts. There are so many elements that go into a farm marriage. Yes, there's a romantic quality, there's certainly companionship, and there's the added quality of a business relationship. And there's a survival element, too. But it goes beyond that because farm marriages include a third partner, the land. There's a continuity with the landscape that most people now have no concept of.

ET: Very different from an urban existence-

GA: Which is transient. Friends come and go, lovers come and go, and we don't think twice about it. When you've got the kind of relationship with the landscape that goes on not just in your generation, but when you can look back two or three generations, you look at relationships very differently. They're there for keeps. Now having said that, I have to say that my own parents were divorced in 1981. Yet they remained involved in each other's lives because they have children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren. And they stayed involved together. Even when they weren't a romantic couple, they were there with each other, participating in a really deep way. And there's a further story with this. When I started interviewing my parents for Bees, they started talking to each other about some very old problems. They started seeing them from the perspective of my writing. They ended up remarried last Christmas, fifty-one years after their first wedding. There were a lot of reasons for their remarrying, but certainly my process of writing this book contributed in a big way. It's every child's dream, isn't it?

ET: So how did you make use of the parent interviews when you were writing Bees?

GA: I started with the family stories and then let imagination take over. It's not autobiography. But as far as the emotions in the book are concerned-and maybe that's what a lot of people pick up on-when I write about something, it comes from some place I know intimately. It may not be how things happened, but the emotions involved are very much there. For example, there's a lot of isolation in Bees, and I went through a lot of isolation during Floyd's illness. I didn't go through the kind of isolation that Augusta did and I didn't go through it for the same reasons, but the emotions involved with isolation were there. And I certainly know what it feels like to be so isolated that I can no longer remember names or words, that I lose my sense of self, that I become afraid. Many farm women do. At the turn of the century, ninety-nine percent of our population was rural, and they lived miles from anything. Some of these poor women would go for months without ever seeing another woman. I think it was easier on the men simply because they didn't have much time to think about it. They were working all the time. Of course women were too, but women were in the house.

ET: Was your writing about Gabe, Augusta's son-in-law, having brain surgery a way to exorcise what you had gone through?

GA: I worked very hard not to write about that stuff because I generally don't like autobiographical novels. They tend to be very embarrassing to read. After we had gone through the whole experience of Floyd's illness, surgery, and recovery process-after we had come to terms with it-it bubbled up. But it's on the periphery of the novel.

ET: Lots of things bubble in your novels. [Laughter] For instance, the way you juxtapose the supernatural with the mundane. I understand your mother was actually hit by lightning when she was a girl-an event you use in The Cure. And in Bees Augusta has a premonition of her brother's drowning, an experience your mother also had. So what's the most bizarre thing that's ever happened to you?

GA: People assume that I have a belief system of one kind or another, and usually they will project their own onto my work. I am a skeptic, a complete and utter skeptic. I have no belief in anything. That's the surface. Now, under that is a deep desire to believe. And I'm a writer. Writers love symbol, metaphor, the strange, the odd, the bizarre, the dream world. So for me this whole world of belief is tremendously important, and I have great respect for it. Right now I'm taking a comparative religion course because I'm deeply interested in what people believe and why. That interest in belief systems is going to find its way into my writing. In fact, The Texas Project is largely about a loss of faith. What I believe is often very different from what I write about. So, to go back to your question, I haven't really had any strange things happen to me.

ET: What about your proposing to Floyd in the university cafeteria? You were dressed in a cow suit for the occasion, I understand. [Laughter]

GA: Yes, that might qualify! [Laughter]

ET: Another thing The Cure and Bees have in common is your sensual treatment of the natural world. A quote from Bees: "She had to believe God was a sensualist who enjoyed a good tomato." Does this at all reflect your own religious viewpoint?

GA: No. But I do spend most of my time working on a farm. We think of the city as an exciting place, and it is. But things are packaged, contained, paved over-and expected. Even the things we think of as surprising, accidents or what not, are somewhat expected. You step off the pavement, out of the city, and things do not work as they're supposed to in textbooks. You get freaks of nature everywhere. Magic happens, things explode. There's so much magic out there. By magic, I mean the truly unexpected, the truly strange. That sensual world is very much part of who I am as a writer. People think of the blue flax scene from The Cure as magic realism. But that happens on farms. Storms can whip up flowering crops and toss the flowers into the air.

ET: You've talked often in the past of your mother as a storyteller. When did you yourself begin to tell stories?

GA: In grade six I wrote a Social Studies essay. I made the whole thing up! It didn't occur to me that there was a problem. And instead of the teacher saying how wrong I was, she said, You know, you're probably a fiction writer. And she guided me along, told me the difference-though even as I was working at the local paper later on I'm not sure I knew the difference. [Laughter] There was always that urge to elaborate. I came by it naturally. I don't think my mother ever tells the same story the same way twice. I'm probably guilty of that too. It's not purposeful lying, it's just that the story is the point. The truth comes out in the story.

ET: How has your life changed since the success of The Cure? Has it enabled you to write full-time?

GA: I started writing full-time at twenty-five, and I never stopped. I was absolutely driven, and I don't think you do this kind of thing unless you're half nuts! It's the one place where obsessive behaviour maybe has some usefulness. But it's not easy to live with. It certainly hasn't been for Floyd. He wanted to become involved in my writing life so he could participate because as a writer-and most writers will do this-there were periods of time when I'd simply lock him out. I wasn't trying to, but I was focused right in on the writing. So he became involved. For most couples, that wouldn't work. But because we both come from farm backgrounds, it does work. A lot of people say, Isn't that claustrophobic? No, for us it isn't.

ET: The men in your books are an interesting bunch. They seem to have a violent streak, and they repress and control the women around them.

GA: There's an urban idea that farm men are big assholes. I don't believe that. The characters in my books need to be who they are for the purpose of the narrative. The men in my life are committed, kind, loving, generous people who really care about the women in their lives.

ET: But they're not the ones you write about.

GA: In A Recipe for Bees, Karl is, in fact, a committed, kind, and loving man who simply didn't have an education about how to treat women. But he eventually does realize how to treat them. My father was the model for the Karl character. He started out life really not understanding women and eventually, after five daughters, figured it out. [Laughter]

ET: Where do you see the turning-point happening for Karl and Augusta in their marriage?

GA: We use terms like "turning-point" but I don't think life goes like that. Things creep up on you. They change very, very slowly. We get the impression that there are turning-points because that's the nature of dramatic action. And this book does have dramatic action or it wouldn't be a novel, but maybe it's a little closer to real life in that things happen slowly and progressively-they evolve. Every marriage will go through evolutions. Marriages usually fall apart not because of anything that's going on between the two individuals but because of outside stresses. And we're very poor at identifying these, at identifying why we feel the way we do. We tend to project our stresses onto the people closest to us.

ET: Friendship with other women-Native women especially-seems to be one way that your female protagonists cope with these stresses. I'm thinking in particular of Beth's friendship with Nora in The Cure and Augusta's friendship with Esther in Bees.

GA: I grew up next to the Shuswap reserve, and many of my women friends are from the reserve. Many of the women friends my mother had were also from there. Because I'm a white writer and I have Native characters in my books, interviewers tend to glom onto the Native element. But why wouldn't I have women from the reserve in my books when that is my community? I'm not writing about something that isn't my own.

ET: Have you been accused of stereotyping?

GA: No, I haven't, which I'm happy about. But stereotype is the writer's tool. We all use stereotypes. We evaluate people by how they dress, how they carry themselves. We think of stereotypes as a bad thing, but it's a useful construct that helps get us through the day.

But there's still this notion of misappropriation of voice out there. It's there among young writers or people who aren't very experienced as writers. I think it was a useful argument to go through because it got people thinking about how they view other cultures. But take Eden Robinson as an example. She's a Native writer, someone I went to university with. If I walked up to her and said, You can't write about white individuals, I would be doing such an injustice. And she often does write about white characters. Many Native writers do. And we get to see mainstream culture from a different point of view, and that can only be useful. What we need to be doing is not censoring what people write about but encouraging people from cultures other than the mainstream to write more. And to write about cultures that aren't their own. It can only get better if we listen to each other's viewpoints.

ET: "The stories I write are in praise of commitment, community, and perseverance." Your own words. Is the novel you're currently working on also about these things?

GA: Yes. It's about finding a place in community. Belonging. I'm quite interested in community dynamics, how communities are formed, how they fall apart, how the individual players within them contribute to or ruin them. Community arises out of need or necessity. It's not there for no reason. We are very sociable creatures. We find community where we can. In urban centres, the community is the workplace.

ET: So what do you consider your strongest suit as a writer? Do you feel you have one?

GA: I'm a primo bullshitter, I think. [Laughter] I thoroughly enjoy bullshitting people.

ET: A gift from your mom? [Laughter]

GA: Yes! Yes, it is. I like to make people believe things. Make them believe my stories. Maybe that's a strong suit in writing, I don't know.

ET: Reviewers had a hard time trying to pin down your style in The Cure. One said you were in the "Latin American realist tradition".

GA: Any time you put in a ghost they say that!

ET: Another said that The Cure was "a potpourri of genres with gothic, horror, mystery, and realist elements".

GA: [Laughter] Do you know what I went around calling it at first? A horror cookbook!

ET: Another one said it was more "poetic exploration than social realism". So the question is: How the heck do you see it?

GA: I think maybe reviewers get caught up in their own phrases. I'm a storyteller. People get too caught up in genres, literary pretenses, and whatnot. I'm just not caught up in that. I draw wholesale from everybody. I read Stephen King. There's a whole world of writing to draw from, and I just draw from it. I read all kinds of stuff, and I don't think it falls into any category. I want to interest people. I want to keep their interest. I want to make them think. Sometimes I want to educate. That's an obnoxious thing to say at thirty-four: that you have something to teach people. I guess the obnoxiousness is part of being a writer. [Laughter] I don't get caught up in any particular literary style. I certainly know about them, I went to university to understand them, and maybe that's a good thing: to understand them, then throw them out the window. A story's a story. Learn how to tell a good story, and you can say all kinds of things within that structure.

ET: Readers will be more likely to follow along with you.

GA: Exactly. If people don't want to read your book, then what's the point? Why are you bothering?


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