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The Only Skin She Was Given - Eva Tihanyi speaks with Margaret Gibson
by Eva Tihanyi

Margaret Gibson, born in 1948, grew up in Toronto. She received instant acclaim on the publication of her first collection of stories, The Butterfly Ward (1976). One of the stories from that collection , "Making It", was made into the movie Outrageous, starring Craig Russell. Another, "Ada", was made into a CBC-TV movie directed by Claude Jutra. The Butterfly Ward, which shared the 1976 Toronto Book Award with Margaret Atwood's Lady Oracle, was followed by three more story collections: Considering Her Condition (1978), Sweet Poison (1993), and The Fear Room (1996). The story of her custody battle for her son was the basis for the TV movie For the Love of Aaron. Gibson's first novel, Opium Dreams, was published this year by McClelland & Stewart. I spoke with her at the Toronto home she shares with her long-time partner, Juris Rasa, whom she had just married two days before.

ET: All five of your books are so consistent in theme and voice, so directly from your own experience. I'm curious about how you see the relationship between art and life.

MG: I think they're one and the same. Art is a distillation of life. Life is mirrored in art. If it is good art, then it is a clearly reflecting mirror. The image comes back all the more vividly, sharply.

ET: Do you feel vulnerable because you write so obviously about your own life?

MG: Yes, I do. I've been criticized for it. But I never write anything exactly as it was. Opium Dreams is the most autobiographical book I've ever written and will remain so. I'll never write one as autobiographical as that again. I guess it [the autobiographical aspect] makes me feel more vulnerable to attacks by reviewers but more vulnerable in my personal life? No. It's like Joan Didion says: "Play it as it lays," and I do. I play it exactly as it lays. So sure I'm a lot more vulnerable than other writers-

ET: But you do it anyway, and that's courageous.

MG: I do it because I feel there's a whole group out there, the lost, the disinherited, that nobody cares about, that nobody gives a goddamn about, that nobody writes about. So I write for them. I write for myself too. The words are my only human skin.

ET: Who do you think reads your work?

MG: I have an eclectic kind of fan club. I can break them into groups easily for you: intellectuals, gay people, and the crazies. Psychiatrists. And some of the homeless too, when they can steal the books from the library.

ET: Why do you think your work appeals to these groups in particular? Why are intellectuals, for instance, drawn to it?

MG: I'm not a stupid writer, for one thing. I think the way I play with words, the language. The way I have my own private language. I think intellectuals are also drawn to my work because they've never come across anything quite like it before. It's not been easy street for me, and I guess that's why I do write what I write. If I'd lived an easier life, I would write about the easier things in life. All writers write about what they know. I wrote Considering Her Condition when I was going through a crack-up, and I wish it had never been published. It is a very poor book, in my estimation. Do you know what I do when I find it in used book bins? I buy it up, and I burn it. I throw it away. I'm not kidding.

ET: Do you realize what that's going to do? Make it seem more valuable to the people who find it. [Laughter] On a more serious note: In Opium Dreams, Maggie Glass says, "I do not need many things to be happy, only magic things." What is your idea of magic?

MG: I really do believe in magic although Dr. T., my psychiatrist, has been trying to talk me out of it for seventeen years! [Laughter] After all, when God has failed you, when medicine has failed you, when science has failed you, what is left? Magic.

ET: Do you have any writing rituals?

MG: I don't know if this would be considered a ritual, but I sometimes write forty to seventy hours at a time. To me, when I write, it's a champagne party. It's like Lawrence Welk is playing in the background, and there are balloons going up and champagne corks being popped. [Laughter] I love the act of the words. I can actually feel them in my fingertips and moving along my arms. I've never heard any other writer describe it that way. They are my human skin, and they're the only skin I was ever given. I'd be defenceless without the words. I think I've always known that. They're a way of processing my life, processing why it had to be so goddamn hard-and it has been goddamn hard! But I have the strangest feeling that it hasn't been for nothing, that nothing happens by accident. Maybe it's so I can write for the disinherited, maybe that's exactly why these things have happened. There's my magic coming in again.

ET: In Opium Dreams, Maggie's mother, referring to the family history, practically orders Maggie to "make it nice" when talking about it-which is something, as we've already established, you certainly don't do in your books. You don't shy away from the terrible, the frightening. Do you feel your vision has changed? Has it evolved since you began writing?

MG: For sure. There's more light in my writing than there used to be. I think you can see that. You know what? I think I'm always looking for God in my books. I know I am. I'm constantly looking for God. "Like, heh, are you out there or what?" I'll always be asking that question. Whether I find him or not isn't the point. The point is in the trying to find him.

ET: If you ever felt that you had found God, would you stop writing?

MG: No. I'd just say, "You S.O.B.! You gave me one hell of a life! Are you ever going to lay off?" [Laughter]

ET: If you had to choose a story that shows the lighter side of Margaret Gibson, which one would it be?

MG: "Christmas Gifts". I had a lot of fun writing that one.

ET: Is there an author you particularly admire?

MG: Joyce Carol Oates has got to be Number One. I'm always looking for her books in used bookstores.

ET: How does your family react to your writing?

MG: I have no family. None. Both my parents are dead, physically dead. My sisters, the "Sisters Three", although they walk around, as far as I'm concerned, are dead. I haven't talked to them in years.

ET: What about your son, Aaron? How does he react to being written about?

MG: He never knew a mother who didn't write. The first sound he ever heard in his basinette was typewriter keys going. He doesn't think it's unusual, in other words. He thinks it's great to be written about.

ET: He sounds like he's a very supportive kid.

MG: Personally, I think Aaron raised me. [Laughter] He was my best friend.

ET: Do you feel anger at all when you write?

MG: When I wrote the title story to The Fear Room I felt tremendous rage, and I could almost not finish that story. I would have to say that "The Fear Room" is the most difficult story I've ever written.

ET: One reviewer of Opium Dreams called you "an exquisite chronicler of hell". Are you?

MG: I disagree with that. I think my stories show a dark sense of humour, and I also think there's a lot of beauty in my writing. I may chronicle hell in some stories-"The Fear Room" is a chronicle of hell, no doubt about it-but Opium Dreams is not a chronicle of hell. It's a search for God.

ET: In The Butterfly Ward there's a story called "Considering Her Condition", in which Clare says to her husband, who's a writer, "Since I did not write it, I do not own it." I thought this was perhaps a way of describing what you do, ownership of experience through writing?

MG: When I write things, they're mine. The words are the only things in my life that have truly been mine. When I write about something, it becomes more fully real. When I live my life every day, going through the daily routine of life, it's not quite real to me. I don't know how to explain that. I don't mean I'm a phony, but it's like I'm acting out a part. I feel like I'm moving through a play somehow. But when I write it, that's my life. It takes on more vividness when I write it. Until then, it's not worth as much.

ET: After your sixteen-year silence, what got you started writing again?

MG: A couple of things. I never stopped trying to get the words back, for one thing. For sixteen years, I sat in a room and typed and typed and typed. I'm single-minded. One day I was typing-I had been at it for seven or eight hours-and my fingertips were bleeding. I went to Juris's door-he was a neighbour, but I didn't know him at all-I held up my hands and said, "Can I borrow some bandaids?" That's how we met. And Juris started helping me with the stories. Not telling me how to write them but helping with past tense, present tense, spelling. Just coaching me day after day. That's how our friendship grew. And when I say in the dedication to Opium Dreams that he taught me the art of the novel, he really did. Opium Dreams started out as a short story, "The Fly Boy". When Juris read it-he reads all my writing-he said, "There's a lot more here than a short story. There's a novel in here." I've now gone on to complete a second novel, Living on Planet Limberlost, and am working on a third, The Dreamkeeper, about a multiple personality. It will probably be my next book published. I wanted the next one to be totally non-autobiographical. I'm also working on a new story collection, Desert Thirst.

ET: That's amazing. All these books in what, three years?

MG: Look, Eva, all I do is drink coffee, smoke cigarettes, and write. [Laughter] There's hardly any room for sex in my life!

ET: May I quote you on that? [Laughter]

MG: Yes, you may!

ET: Timothy Findley and June Callwood are both ardent supporters of your work. How did you meet them?

MG: I met Tiff before my big crack-up at a writers' autograph party. I was signing copies of The Butterfly Ward, and Tiff was signing The Wars, I think. I went over to him because I had read his very first book, The Last of the Crazy People, and guess where I had read it. The Clarke Institute of Psychiatry. Someone had left it in the Day Room there. I went up to Tiff, and I said, "Timothy Findley, I think you're absolutely brilliant." That's exactly what I said to him. And he said, "Margaret Gibson, I think you're absolutely brilliant." After that, we became pen pals.
June and I have known each other for twelve years. I've never known a person with a kinder heart than June. How we met was she came to do a newspaper article on me. That's how the movie For the Love of Aaron was born. A producer, Steven Cheikes, on the West Coast saw the newspaper article and thought it would make a good movie.

ET: When did you first feel you wanted to be a writer?

MG: I don't ever remember not wanting to be one. My grandmother Gibson gave me a portable typewriter when I was nine years old. When I was nine, I had a bit of a quandary working in my mind: I wanted to be a psychiatrist, a writer, or an actress. When I told Dr. T. this, he said, "So you grew up and became all three." But damn it, I wish I'd become a psychiatrist. I'd be earning a lot more money. [Laughter]

ET: Speaking of money-or the lack of it-in "Miss Alice Ellis in Wonderland", the tables are turned on a welfare worker-

MG: I like that story. It's a story of karma.

ET: The message seems to be that no-one should get too smug because bad fortune can happen to anyone. It struck me as I was reading this story that there is a strong moral element in your work.

MG: There is: one, a search for God. And two, that you don't just dump, you try to treat everyone kindly. It doesn't matter if they're cripples or half-brains. You don't dump.

ET: In "Out-takes", the narrator says, "All I ever wanted from any man was the humanness that I know most of us carry delicate and fragile as an eggshell inside us. Forget the macho garbage and the strutting." Are men and women different in regard to this "humanness"?

MG: When I was a teenager I used to think definitely not. But, after all, all my friends were gay. [Laughter] I was hanging out with drag queens and lesbians. I thought men and women were exactly the same. Now I've come to think that the majority of men are different from women. Their chances to be gentle and tender are slender. These chances for gentleness and tenderness are severed at birth by many parents. Men don't say if they hurt inside or out even if they are just little boys. This creates a big gulf between men and women right from the start.

ET: How would you like to be remembered? What would you most want people to say about you?

MG: That I was a damn good writer, that I always tried my damnedest, that I never gave up.


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