The Virgin Cure by Ami McKay

The Virgin Cure was Ami McKay’s second novel, after The Birth House.  I’m still looking forward to reading The Witches of New York.

I would include the book, The Virgin Cure, in a list of beach reads.  Let’s face it, Ami McKay is a fabulous writer and she certainly does a fantastic job of consistently representing female characters and their challenges in her writing.  So, why read this on the beach?  This book reads seamlessly, apart from the use of margins and abrupt breaks in pages, every now and again, to insert Dr. Sadie’s notations, quotes and memories.  This book didn’t challenge me and it did not cause me to connect so deeply with the protagonist, Moth, that I would cry at any point.  The Virgin Cure was a good book, but not a strong book, in my opinion.

I’m not giving anything away in regards to the story.  The inside book jacket did a disservice to Ami McKay when it says way too much!

So, what were the book’s endearing qualities?

There were certainly elements in the writing that kept me connected with the novel.  I loved the protagonist, Moth.  Her story is endearing, particularly in the opening chapters.  At some point it feels like the story abandons Moth/Ava and I felt a real disconnect between the events she was living and her emotional self.  The most tragic moment in the book happens with a lesser developed character, Alice, and for that moment, I took pause to feel revulsion.  Would the story have been better had these circumstances happened  to Moth?

The setting was certainly interesting…late 1800s in New York City.  Having read so many books recently, set during World War II, this book provided a different, rich and many-layered world, describing, in depth, the scenes and life on the streets of New York.  We are very familiar with the streets of east London from this same period, in many literary works, but to be transported to New York City was refreshing and well-done.

I love Ami McKay’s attention to objects and detail in her writing.  For example, I was really curious about the tear catcher.  Such a tiny element as this seemed to create an important thread through the handling of grief, power and relationship. McKay’s descriptions of period costumes and of the vaudevillian characters was superb.

So, what was not to like?

Doctor Sadie is telling this story and her relationships with the girls is handled, but not to the depth that I would like.  I wanted to dig deeper into her character.  Instead, I felt that her life was reported, not lived.

The narrative, while a very intriguing tale, does not go far enough.  I was appalled, but not emotional.  I didn’t feel the injustice in my bones and I think that is what is necessary for this to be a truly successful book.  It feels to be spreading out onto the surface of things.

This book can be read easily in three sittings.  It has very beautiful moments.  I love Ami McKay’s writing.  While this is a weaker novel, I am looking forward to working my way through her list.





What Elephants Know by Eric Dinerstein

This was another one for the throne room…this does not mean that books in the bathroom are any less interesting than ones on my bedside table or ones next to the red couch, it just means that I choose a different genre and always something a little less cerebral than my preferred reading, fiction or non-fiction.

Another second-hand-book-find, What Elephants Know ended up next to my other books about elephants.  I liked that Jane Goodall wrote a quick recommendation.  “You will be fascinated, angered, and charmed in turn by this beautifully written story.”

Dr. Eric Dinerstein is the Director of the Biodiversity and Wildlife Solutions Program at RESOLVE and so I was very interested in the fact that he wrote a novel and I anticipated that the book would be written from a unique and knowledgeable perspective.

This was a lovely book that I’d recommend for students grade five to grade seven.  It was a quick read that left me thinking about the vulnerability of our wildlife and ecosystems.  The protagonist, Nandu, is a beautiful character who, through his young life, teaches about the numerous impacts made upon these, while exposing the reader to the vulnerability of humanity, as well.

I think this would be a wonderful book to read aloud to students.  It is refreshing to find a book that is culturally diverse and can open eyes and hearts to a different human experience.  Grade three students, in their study of India, may really benefit from this story.  Nandu’s relationships with his female elephant, Devi Kali and with the plants and other animals of the Borderlands are described beautifully.

This is a two evening (10 potty visits) read for an adult.  I recommend doing a quick review of the book before sharing with your students/children so that you know the sensitive topics that will come along.  Give it a go.

What Elephants Know



Birds Art Life by Kyo Maclear

I was down at Shelf Life books, listening to a wonderful double book launch by  German Rodrigues and J. Pablo Ortiz.  It was a very unique evening of spanish language literature, celebrating the launch of German Rodriguez’s The Time Between His Eyes (El tiempo entre sus ojos) and J. Pablo Ortiz’s Open Sea (De mar abierto). It was an excellent event and I was happy to reconnect with Pablo and to hang with his partner and my longtime friend, Brian. After the reading, I set about looking for the book, Birds Art Life because I had heard an interview about it and knew that it would affirm my experience of the pond, the discovery of birds and the resulting experience of art-making.

It was a bit of a search, but before I left, a copy of the book fell into my hands.

Very linear in my approach to books, I finished the McCullers title, before snapping up this beautiful object of my obsession.

I rushed through my earlier two reviews, books I’ve read in the past month, so that I could get to this recommendation, Birds Art Life by Kyo Maclear.  In this book, I found something kindred to everything I have become in retirement and in the past six years of loving a single ecosystem, a pond environment within the boundaries of the City of Calgary.

I kept putting the book down, and lifting off of the sofa or my bed or the bench out in the back yard, in order to pace and whoot and say, out loud, “YES!”  Since reading The Diviners so many years ago, I have not had such physical reactions to what I am reading.

Here is an extract from the book that speaks of my philosophy and experience, very clearly.

I discovered, through the book, that my ‘SPARK’ bird, was a sparrow, more precise, Mr. and Mrs. Sparrow, some eight years ago.  Hardly romantic or colourful, strange that my true attraction to birds was discovered looking out from my kitchen window, across at the open vent of my neighbour’s kitchen…several nesting seasons…widowing…lost youngsters…and determination through all sorts of weather conditions.  I began to watch. I took out the camera, for the first time, to take photographs of sparrows.

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From that kitchen place, my exploring began at a pond environment that I call Frank’s Flats, named after a homeless man who most evenings, watched me gather up litter into a bag a day for several years.  He drank six beer in the time it took me to fill a bag with plastics, straws, newspaper flyers and other human garbage.  He chatted with me, thanked me and visited at the end of most evenings, as I put my collection into the bin, near his viewing spot.

I think that the first time I really noticed the birds, I was drawn to the red winged black birds because of their determined mating calls.

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My experience of the pond has, since discovering birds, coyotes and little field mice, become magical.  The lessons I have learned about compassion, care, art and writing, have been many and profound.  I am so grateful for the number of stories and discoveries that come my way because I am always looking for the little miracles.

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If you are looking for a way to deepen your experience of life and living, pick up this book.  It is a treasure and my new favourite!  It contains countless references to other writers, thinkers and artists…book titles…and the author’s connections with her own story.  I hope that my readers will discover urban nature and hold on to the power of that experience.

Today at the pond…




The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

The summer of 2013, I was also staying with my father.  That is the summer that India swooped into my hands and I read her.  Grieving for my mother, I went deep into a couple of epic narratives, Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts and A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry.  I immersed myself, much as I am this summer, in a lot of Al Purdy poetry and George Bowering poetry, as a way of dealing with loss and feelings that not only bubbled onto the surface, but became like open boils on my heart.  To go back further, to the summer of 2011,  I became captivated by Belleville and picked up everything I could that was written by Gerry Boyce, local historian (who happens to now live in my father’s building), and began stalking Susanna Moodie; visiting her house on Bridge Street west, visiting her resting place, even locating original marble at Campbell’s monuments and of course, read her writing and what others wrote about her and her sister, Catherine Parr Trail.  Summers with my father have proved to be interesting literary events, every time.

This summer, I brought along The Goldfinch by Donna Tarttt, a novel that every one was talking about, but one that I had not taken the time to read.  In retrospect, I regret that I did not previously read The Secret History.  In most reviews I find that there are comparisons being drawn between the two books and typically, The Secret History surpasses the other for its construction, originality and popularity.  It’s now on my ‘to do’ list.

So…my thoughts on a book that is likened, in part, to Rowling’s Harry Potter, Dickens and Breaking Bad?  I guess I can only review this one through my own eyes and that’s why literary reviews can be very interesting…they are so personal.  Dr. Joan Macleod’s words come to mind. “You notice what you know.”  Anything you do, see or understand is coming from a prior knowledge and experience, without any intention to do so.  While I may perceive some Goodreads reviews to be desperately arrogant where this novel is concerned, I can’t fault those authors because they may have been looking for something very different where a ‘good book’ is concerned.

I have no choice but to break this one down…

First and foremost, for me, is that ‘THE GOLDFINCH’ (the 1654 painting done by  Carel Pietersz. Fabritius ) was the element (yes, it became a character for me) that I would not lose sight of throughout the novel.  I fell in love with the painting at the first moment that Theo saw it through his mother’s eyes.  Once described by the author, I was captivated.  I would be concerned from that point forward until the end, about what was to happen to the painting, but also, what the painting had to say to me, the reader.

Now, not every one would be captivated by the painting and its symbolism.  I would propose that readers who have adored a piece of art in a dusty art textbook or on an art card or reproduction for years and then see it for the first time ‘in the flesh’, know what I’m talking about, here.  Edgar Degas’s sculpture, The Little Dancer, is that for me.  I saw the sculpture in so many forms, but until I saw it in three dimensions in the center of a room at the National Art Gallery, the first exhibit to be showcased in the new building the summer of 1988, I did not realize just how much a person can be left breathless by art.

I remembered weeping when I saw her. (but enough of that)

The point being that, while others are annoyed by the last fifteen pages of the novel, I was engrossed in them.  An examination of the subject of the painting and its treatment was crucial to me.  While many readers found the high keyed description annoying, excessive and boring, I lavished in it, likely because I’m that sort of writer. (this makes me laugh)  To be honest, though, there were sections in Las Vegas where I tuned out…also, places where I found myself skimming.  Did that happen for you?

Some critics describe the portion of the book set in Las Vegas to be the strongest portion, but this was the section I had the most difficulty with.  Not to draw comparisons, but it was the drug culture and experience in Shantaram that I found the least interesting.  I find that ‘druggies’ quickly become treated as stereotypical mono-faceted characters.  There isn’t anything that surprises me in the writing of their habits, their related bad choices or the consequences of those.  I really didn’t care ‘how many’ pills Boris or Theo were taking…or how much vodka they were drinking.  So, can you tell?  This section rubbed me the wrong way.  (Note that I’m trying not to ruin the story for others here, by being rather vague.)  I guess we needed Vegas because we needed to know Theo’s father.  Boris just rubbed me the wrong way…throughout.  I wasn’t all that taken by his character, the way he was written or the seamless way that he managed to undo his past mistake.  Oh my!  That was all too easy and a disappointment.  (no spoiler alert required…see!)  READ THE BOOK.

What I loved…apart from the Goldfinch…the painting…the symbolism there…Welty’s love for the painting, Theo’s mother…

I relished everything and anything to do with the old house, the writing of Hobie and his life in the downstairs wood shop.  Pour on the detail!  Would this engage every reader? No.  But, moi???  YES!  Antiques, wood, bric-a-brac, trades, recuperation, recreation and the interesting characters who came and went in Hobie’s life.  This was the ‘stuff’ of life and I think that Theo had stability in this setting.  It was a relief whenever and however he landed there.  Pippa was a beautiful maiden…a disappointment that the relationship didn’t feel resolved, but interesting none-the-less.

Andy and the Barbour family…another layer of story, a setting, somehow separate from the number of others.  The Barbour family becomes a microcosm, each character struggling in a unique way.  One can get wrapped up in their world, as well.  Written as a separate, but somehow connected, passage to the larger narrative, the ‘endings’ for each of these characters become concerning and the reader is left asking, “How does any of this impact Theo, after all?”

My readers, here, may have already wondered about the multiple settings and the long litany of characters…well, I suppose that this is where Tartt receives most of her criticism.  In the end, however, I view the book, in culmination, as a fanciful narrative about everything that is ‘us’…the traumas, the celebration, the consequences and the histories within one life.

I am staying in an apartment building that overlooks a very Victorian landscape, well manicured lawns and beautifully constructed, if not ornamental, homes.  I’ve met so many individuals who live here and each one comes with their own complex story.  This book is like that, oodles of tales within a single character’s life time.  They enter and they depart and at the end of it, we are left with the tale of a single image, an object of affection and the fact that it was something that remained, however ephemeral.

A Goldfinch bound by a small tether…for a lifetime…to its own life.

I recommend the book and will be looking for The Secret History.

I liked this review/analysis.  You might also.


goldfinch-donna-tarttMy Shantaram Review





Carli’s Classroom: An Inspiring Day

There was such soft light flowing in the classroom, when I arrived.  The students and I didn’t end up closing the blinds until the sun started pouring into the classroom, during late morning.  When I arrived, I knew it was going to be a great day.

I am passionate about teaching in the role of guest teacher.  I have only a short while with the children and I want to be the very best that I can be to influence empathy, peace and learning.  I was excited to be working in Carli’s Grade three classroom and she’s given me permission to share this post with you, in the case that you want to extend off of any of these ideas and explore some alternatives.  It’s funny that we run to Pinterest for ideas when right across the hall from us, are a whole number of masters who can mentor us and inspire us with new ‘ideas’.

To begin my morning, I read over, for myself, the posted Pedagogy for teaching.  I remembered this from another visit, but wanted to remind myself.

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The community group tables allow for easy access to materials and tools that might be needed.  There is shared responsibility for their organization and upkeep.

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Student notebooks/workbooks are stored in those little white bins on the shelves…they are stored throughout the classroom in order to avoid traffic jams.  The students know where each of their items is located.

I love love love the books and really enjoyed looking at the book, Where Children Sleep by James Mollison.  I need to get myself a copy of this.  Instead of circulating and having the children read aloud to me during our individual reading time, I had several students come to me and read from this book as I sat in a comfy chair.  It wasn’t long before one of the children came to me with a student-made book on the same topic, created last year, by the Grade twos.  I think this is a beautiful idea.

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Books can be a discovered throughout the classroom, linking up visions with concepts and making learning real and rooted in literacy.

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Students created, in science, their own Rock Museum.  They enjoy using their vocabulary.

They had done lots of research and study!


When students have a guest teacher, they get to wear the mantle of the expert and spill over with conversations about the things they have learned.  Our birthday girl brought in crystals and minerals for her sharing from the comfy chair.  The kids were overcome with excitement by the ‘rare’ stones.

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I appreciated the student-made posters illustrating the Rights of Every Child.  Those are three D models of the structure of the ear done in partner work…made out of modelling clay.  The students have left rocks and minerals and have begun their study of sound, hearing and the ear.  I have to say, as an adult, I had forgotten the various physiological components, but these guys could give it to me rote.  I LOVE THESE MODELS!

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I felt this cold coming on and felt a bit of a headache.  I asked the students, if later, I could try out their Peace tent.  They enthusiastically told me, YES!  I have to confess, when they went out for recess, I climbed in and just chilled, exploring their posters, their sayings and their origami paper folding.

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Math centers were tons of fun, with the kids, getting up and rotating through the four stations every 15 minutes.  This gives the students opportunity to move and to shift focus.  Awesome.  I discovered that I’m not very good with Tangrams.

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For those of my readers who follow me, you know that I enjoy engaging nature where and when I can…getting out daily, with my border collie, Max.  Well, if you can’t get out there, then try to bring bits of it inside!

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And never ever forget that you are always learning…and that it’s a treasure to others that you share what you learn.  Thank you, Carli Molnar!  Thank you, Grade Threes!

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More on Carli’s classroom HERE.







Famous Last Words: Timothy Findley

My Daughter Dances

This IS a VERY wordy post…a huge exerpt from a beautiful publication coming out of UBC in 1981.  I encourage you to read the interview from beginning-to-end, especially if you are interested in writing, reading, art, dance, theater…it all connects.  Once finished, you may wish to pour over the entire pdf document.  Very ‘heady’ stuff.

Famous Last Words was a difficult book for me, likely because I didn’t have an adequate knowledge of WWII 1940-1945 and the Fascist role in that context.  I did much better with Findley’s book The Wars because I had done family research for the same period/locations just prior to reading it.  I had also read Pierre Berton’s Vimy some time before that.  Of the Findley list, these remain for me: The Last of the Crazy People, The Butterfly Plague, The Telling of Lies, Stones, Headhunter, The Stillborn Lover and Elizabeth Rex.  If I manage my way through these works, then I really want to read  From Stone Orchard: A Collection of Memories, an exploration of how his writing evolved.  Classified by many as neo-realism OR magic realism, Timothy Findley’s writing transcends that of most of the authors I have read.

The Last of the Crazy People (1967)
The Butterfly Plague (1970)
The Wars (1977)
Famous Last Words (1981)
Not Wanted on the Voyage (1985)
The Telling of Lies (1987)
Stones (1988)
Headhunter (1993)
The Stillborn Lover (1993)
The Piano Man’s Daughter (1995)
Pilgrim (1998)
Elizabeth Rex (2001)
Spadework (2002)

( William Whitehead looking over Timothy Findley’s shoulder)

Timothy Findley:

THE HARDEST THING OF ALL to write about is yourself. For one thing — if you’re a fiction writer — most of you is already out there, somewhere; chopped up in little bits and hidden (or not hidden) in your books. Fragments. Not that you’ve put yourself there consciously. But your energy is there. Something of your own character — something of your own makeup goes into the character and makeup of everyone you write. And the rest of you is private. Mostly. So obliquely private that it’s very hard to get at. Especially if you yourself are the questioner. The thing is, everything you ask yourself — or very nearly everything — already has an answer that doesn’t interest you. It would interest you about someone else — but not about yourself. “When were you born?”



“Toronto. What a stupid question. . . . I mean, you already know all this.”

“Are you happy?”

“Don’t be silly. If I was happy, would I be sitting here worried to death about how to write this article? It’s already two months overdue and you’re asking me when I was born. What a twit you are.”

So it goes.

In the end, you lose your respect: both for yourself as a character worthy of interest and as an interviewer. And who needs that? No one. But when I put the problem to my friend Bill Whitehead, his answer was both succinct and a godsend.

“You don’t know how to ask yourself the right questions,” he said. “Let me do it for you.”

“You mean the way Gertrude Stein wrote the Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas?”

 “No,” he said. “I mean the way you write all your books. Iwill be you — and ask the questions : and you will be a character — and give the answers.”


Which is how I discovered the Art of Writing Fiction. You ask the right questions. But, in order to ask the right questions, you have to be asking them of someone who inherently interests you more than you can possibly interest yourself.

And thus — what follows.

 THE INTERVIEW TOOK PLACE in a sunny room on a cold, bright autumn afternoon.

The Interviewer was William Whitehead — a documentary writer for television. The person being interviewed was Timothy Findley — a fiction writer and playwright. The Interviewer had a touch of the ‘flu — so the questions were interspersed with coughs and wheezes. Out in the larger world beyond the room, the President of Egypt had been shot : and in the smaller world beyond the room, the fiction writer was about to publish the fourth of his novels.

As a consequence of both these events — and of the ‘flu and of the golden leaves that blew across the fading lawn, there was an over-riding sense of tension in the room and an undercurrent of wonder that horror and discomfort are always walking hand-in-hand through a beautiful landscape.

w.w. Somewhere up in a cupboard, locked away, we have a number of your paintings. This is something you’ve dabbled with from time to time : something you seem to be drawn to. How is it, then, you’ve never tried to be a professional painter?

T.F. Because I’m not accomplished enough to do with painting what I would like to do with painting. And I haven’t the facility — even with a great deal of study — to do that.

w.w. What is it you would like to do with painting?

T.F. Something enormous. I have visions of huge canvases — not murals — but Stanley Spencer’s type of stuff — where there are masses of people in the picture. And they’re very colourful. They would be stylized. They would be recordings of events. Or of moments. The visions in my mind are very graphic in that sense. And, when I sit down to paint, I inevitably paint something that is in my mind, rather than something out the window. I’m not inclined to sit down and paint that which is right in front of me. Maybe because what’s in front of me satisfies my curiosity : satisfies my sense of wonder in itself. The only time I would paint that which is in front of me would be when I wanted to catch a person in a particular moment of their life — or their day : an attitude.  I’ve tried to paint my mother — I’ve tried to paint my brother — I’ve tried to paint you. Lots of people.  And each of these paintings shows the person in repose of some kind : occupied with something private. And, in each of the paintings, it was not the person’s face that attracted my attention — but the attitude of the person who was sitting there. But I’m really not accomplished in this area. Perhaps I have a talent to see — but I haven’t the talent to translate what I see into something on canvas. Or whatever.

w.w. Would you say it was “character” — your interest in character — that drew you to the theatre as an actor?

T.F. Yes. Interest in attitude. And by that I mean the physical attitude as much as the intellectual attitude. That’s why I got to the theatre through dance : through the gesture: through the way people present themselves. The thing that always moves me most — whether you see a person by himself or people in huge groups — is the concentration of emotion : or lack of it. The attitude.  And, in the theatre, that has as much to do with what you see as with what you hear. I guess that’s why I like Chekhov : because of the famous pauses — which he provides so that people can fill out or complete what has been begun with words.

w.w. Is this why you find it so hard to resist the creation of stage directions when you write a play? Because you see so vividly?

T.F. Yes. Even though I know it’s dangerous to write too many stage directions : because they can be very limiting so far as the director and the actors are concerned. The first thing Robin Phillips does, for instance, is remove every single stage direction. Nonetheless, I provide them. Because I am always seeing what the people are doing, when I write : as well as hearing what they’re saying. I see and hear in tandem. Whereas, a lot of playwrights — and a lot of novelists, too — really only seem to hear their people. The answer, of course, with plays is to put it down for yourself — you know — put down all the stage directions as you write and then excise them from the final draft. Which leaves the movement inherent in the body of the dialogue. This way, the actors will be impelled to move, without knowing why. And, also, be impelled to the moments of stillness. But, in novels, when I’m reading — I find so often the curious sense that what is seen has been written after what has been heard and sort of “tacked on” or pasted into the fabric of the book. As if the writer couldn’t see and hear at the same time.

w.w. But how do you sort it out? I mean — if it’s simultaneous. Come on, Tiff. You can only put one set of words on paper at a time. . . .

T.F. Well. All right. Look at it this way. In a sense, the writer is a voyeur : while, in another sense, he’s eavesdropping. He is watching with fascination and — equally — listening or overhearing with fascination. Yes? Now — imagine a scene with a number of people in it and there you are watching it unfold. Watching and listening. And your eyes are sweeping over the whole roomful of people. . . .Yes? You keep track of everyone who is in the scene. Let’s say the scene is set at a table and the people are eating a meal. And — you know what it’s like when you’re at a dinner party and everyone leans out toward the person who is leading the conversation when suddenly . . .(SNAP) . . . someone at the other end of the table will do something that draws your attention to them. Maybe all they’ve done is take a sip of wine : but you catch it and you see it from the corner of your eye and the sipping of the wine is there as part of the conversation. So this is what writing is like : for me. Your eye and your ear — your inner eye and your inner ear — are always poised upon the moment. So that whenever there is speech, you hear it and whenever there is gesture, you see it: no matter where it occurs in the room : no matter who it comes from — even if it comes from the mice in the wall or the spider up in the corner over the plate rail. . . .

w.w. Now there’s a plate rail. Where did the plate rail come from?

T.F. Well — it’s in the scene. But how weird ! You seize upon the plate rail when I thought — because you’re an entomologist — you’d seize upon the spider.

w.w. What — and throw it out the window?

T.F. No. And talk about it. . . .

w.w. No. I gave all that up years ago.

T.F. Now — you see? We all know a little more about you.

w.w. What about this scene we were in?

T.F. What scene?

w.w. Weren’t we at a dinner party?

T.F. Well : we were — but they’ve gone, now. What were we talking about? Plate rails?

w.w. You — as a writer — being able to see and hear at the same time. Be specific.

T.F. Well : specifically — when I’m writing a scene in which there is more than one person — however many more there may be — I will find myself . . . let us say when George and Brenda are talking : having a terrible argument. . . . I find myself sitting there watching them : listening to them — trying not to interrupt them — fascinated . . . when, all at once, Alice drops her cigarette on the floor. But the focus of the scene — the point of the scene — is the argument between George and Brenda. Now — I don’t know how it is that I witnessed Alice dropping her cigarette on the floor. And I don’t know why I did. I only know I saw  it fall and I saw when she let it go — so I make a record of it : ALICE DROPS HER CIGARETTE ON THE FLOOR. Does it matter? Is it an important gesture? Does it tell us anything? Was it a comment on the fact that George was right in the middle of telling Brenda about that thing he’s found in the drawer upstairs . . . ? I don’t know. All I know is — the gesture was there and I saw it and I put it down on the paper. But only time and more writing : only the continuation of the writing process is going to tell me whether Alice dropping her cigarette is meaningful. I mean — you know — it could turn out (LAUGHTER ) that Alice doesn’t even smoke, for God’s sake. So what’s she doing with this cigarette in the first place?

w.w. Could I ask you something?

T.F. Fire away.

w.w. Who the hell are George and Brenda and Alice?

T.F. I don’t know.


T.F. Well, I don’t. They just arrived. I don’t even know their last names. George, Brenda, Alice — this is Bill Whitehead.

w.w. How come you assume they don’t need an introduction to you?

T.F. Yes. A very good question, (SILENCE)  Uhmmm. . . . The only answer that occurs to me is that — they were in my mind. Sort of like houseguests. So, I assume we know each other. Unless, of course, they’re burglars. People very often are, you know — and you have to kick them out.

w.w. Have they gone yet?

T.F. Yes.

w.w. May I continue?

T.F. Yes.

w.w. You don’t want to mislead people, you know, about the process of eavesdropping. You make it all sound as if it’s terribly easy. As if the process of writing fiction were easy, whereas . . .

T.F. It’s not.

w.w. I mean: how do you explain — in terms of “eavesdropping” and voyeurism — having to re-write scenes — having to discard chapters — having to create whole new passages? A minute ago you were talking as if all you had to do was “take notes” — and as if the characters were in control of everything. But don’t you have to exert some control over them?

T.F. Oh, indeed.

w.w. Well — give me a sense of this : as effort. Because I know how hard you work — and I know how much you re-write — and I know how dissatisfied you always seem to be with what you do. So how do you account for this, in the face of the other : of the characters being in control?

T.F. Well — the effort : the effort on the writer’s part is to fulfill the character: to fulfill the story. You know — to do it justice and to get it all right. For instance, the writing of the play, “Can You See Me, Yet?”   I wrote it all first as a straightforward  play about a family : the family of Cassandra Wakelin. And the play all took place in the garden of the Wakelin home. And the family were all there — and the people came and went and the story unfolded and, to some degree, the play succeeded. On the other hand — in the mode of the conversation we’re having — the character inside my head, to whom I had been listening : the character of Cassandra Wakelin was unhappy with the way I’d handled her story. It was as if I had not provided the means by which she could tell it all. I had not resolved her situation. So I thought and thought and thought — and I tried this and that and the other — and, finally, I hit on the idea that Cassandra’s story somehow needed to unfold backwards.  Well… in the original version, Cass ends up in an insane asylum : driven there by her perception of the real world being a madhouse. . . . But — what if I were to begin the play in the asylum? What if I were to show the “madhouse” as the world? Then the perceptions of Cassandra Wakelin would be crystal clear to everyone. Her view of the world would fall into place for the rest of us, and her story could unfold in a way that made it easier for her to tell and for us to receive. She pretended the garden of the asylum was the garden in which she had grown — turned the inmates of the asylum into the “inmates” of her home — added to which, an asylum is the perfect place to act out a story whose parts are joined by emotional chronology, rather than timeology. . . .

w.w. There’s no such word as “timeology. . . .”

T.F. There is now. Don’t you see what I mean? In asylums — time flashes on and off — and, in between the flashes, there’s nothing : greyness, stillness, silence. Waiting. But the things that are seen in the flashes are astonishing. Riveting: vivid and stark and absolutely unadorned with the grace of soft edges. All this, to say nothing of the fact that Cass’s life needed to be set in a frame of fire. Every episode is a kind of burning. . . .

w.w. She sounds like Robert Ross in The Wars

T.F. Well : they have a lot in common.

w.w. Outside of fire?

T.F. Yes. Photographs, for one thing. I think that maybe the photographs in Cass’s album may have been the basis for the photographic technique of TheWars.

w.w. Cassandra Wakelin enters the asylum with nothing but a photo-album.

т.F. Yes. And The Wars unfolds as a series of pictures. Pictures and interviews. (Margaret Laurence uses this technique well in one of my favourite novels, The Diviners) Anyway — I think the subject of this part of the conversation had to do with the effort involved with writing and finding Cass’s place was the effort in her case.

w.w. And The Wars?

T.F. The effort there was to find the right pictures and find the right characters to interview. Also —as with everything —to pay attention to what it is the character really wants to tell you. What the character requires of you. And you don’t know any of that until after the fact. Before the fact, you’re lost. And — you know, that, too, is a good analogy for the work, for the effort involved. Being lost. What you have to do is go with your characters into the void — and help them find their way home. Does this make you think of lost animals? It does me. And the first thing you have to do with a lost animal is discover a mutual language. After the language — the problem can be revealed — after the revelation, the search can begin and after the search: maybe the solution. Maybe. Maybe. Only maybe. But that’s what it is. You try to get the character all the way home.

w.w. What about your last book? You had so many people to get home. How many was it? Twenty? Thirty major characters?

T.F. Something like that. Yes. Famous Last Words . . . good heavens . . . writing Famous Last Words I went through five whole modes before I hit upon the character of Mauberley. Ezra Pound’s Hugh Selwyn Mauberley. Five whole modes. I don’t mean drafts. The draft work was endless : on each of them . . .but, in the end, I came upon Mauberley and realized I had found the perfect voice to narrate the story. And it was really through him — through Mauberley — that all the other characters found their way home. For which I was profoundly grateful. Believe me. I never fancied myself as a Tour Guide. And I think he maybe got me home, too. (LAUGHTER)

w.w. Yes. I’ve noticed you’ve been around a little more, recently.

T.F. Maybe that’s where George and Brenda come from. And Alice. . . . You know : maybe they sort of tagged along on the return trip.

w.w. Well — I’m here to tell you, you’d better do something about that Alice. Dropping cigarettes on the floor . . . burning up the rugs. . . . Can’t she learn to use an ashtray, like anyone else?

T.F. I’m sure it was an accident.

w.w. Didn’t sound like an accident to me. Not the way you’ve got it written in there : ALICE DROPS HER CIGARETTE ON THE FLOOR.  What does she do about it? Leave it there — watching it eat its way through to the floor boards?

T.F. Maybe it’s a stone floor. . . .

w.w. Somehow, I doubt it. Given the fires in all your books. Oh, God — I hope that Alice leaves !

T.F. Maybe in a puff of smoke?

w.w. It would be a great relief.

T.F. I take it you and Alice don’t get along. . . .

w.w. You’re damned right we don’t.

T.F. What about George and Brenda?

w.w. It remains to be seen. Are they loud? Do they argue all the time? And what are they arguing about?

T.F. Something George has found in a drawer upstairs. . . .

w.w. What?

T.F. I don’t know. Something rather sinister, I should think.

w.w. Maybe one of Alice’s cigarette butts.

T.F. Kept in an old lacquer box from Japan. . . .


w.w. One of the themes that is threaded through your work more than any other is a particular view of insanity — be it insanity by itself or drug or alcohol induced insanity. . . . You do have all these people who either see and deal with the world as if it were insane : or as if they were insane. Can you tell me why this is and where it comes from?

T.F. Yes. It comes from a perception of insanity which was introduced to me very early on in my life through someone close to me who had to be placed in a mental institution. And the effect that had — primarily, of course, on the person involved — but also on all the people who surrounded her — the effect of this was the first truly profound experience of my consciousness. By which I mean, I was old enough to watch and listen and see what was happening and to make concise deductions and come to precise conclusions. I was seven. Maybe six. I know it was about that age because of the house we lived in and the rooms where some of the scenes I remember took place. And my perception of this person was that she was brilliant — that she had incredible insights into what was really going on in the world around us : but that she was . . .odd.  This is to say that the conversations I had with her as a child were basically not “conversations” — but they were monologues : monologues of hers. . . not unlike this monologue of mine. And, in the course of delivering one of these monologues, (These monologues were very prevalent in the novels Pilgrim and The Wars) she would reveal things about reality and portray things in a way that the so-called “sane” people around me — and around her — did not understand. Which is only to say — they did not or could not see the aspects of reality that she saw and could deliver to other people, if only they would listen. And it struck me — or, I should say, it must have struck me — because, of course, I didn’t have the . . . what? What is it you have as a child? You have the intelligence as a child to perceive things and take things in — but you haven’t the intellect  — yet — to deal with whatever it is you’re receiving. Nonetheless, whatever you’re receiving is going down into the makings of the ultimate person you’re going to be : the person who will have the intellect to deal with these things. Anyway . . . it struck me that I should listen. To this person who was close to me, who was sitting in the room with me. And everything I heard — all of my experience with this person went down very deep into me. And I remember that one of the most vivid things was that she saw things very sharply. Her perception of the world was clarified through a route of her own that was special : that was unique . . . and maybe dangerous to other people. No. Not physically dangerous. But — you see — her clarity of vision was something that endangered the unclarified — perhaps the muddied — or the muddled perceptions of other people. She could see the heart of things. Of hurt, for instance. Of where the hurt truly lay : and of what had caused the hurt. And, sometimes, the hard core hurt of an accusation might issue from her mind, you see. And once it had reached her mind — how could she prevent it from reaching her lips? And this was dangerous. Because i t . . . well, it tampered with the protective walls thrown up by other people to keep the hurt of reality out. So this was dangerous. Very dangerous. How do we live with reality? Once all the walls are in place. . . . And now, I turn to thinking of someone else : much later in my life. And with this other person — the accusations became unbearably harsh. Unbearably harsh. And the harshness — with this other person — could be violent : the truth! The truth! The truth! And, of course, the truth! The truth! The truth! became unendurable for other people to bear. So . . . do you see? When these people exist — when there are these people — then other people must look across the room and say : “that person over there is mad.” You see? ” That person over there is crazy.” Because it is too disturbing to be told the truth, the truth, the truth. And this is not to lay blame at any particular doorstep : because — I mean, — there’s nothing more exhausting a person can think of than the truth. So — what can you do? You turn it off — like a radio.

w.w. Yes.

T.F. Or . . . you hide it in a drawer somewhere. In a lacquer box from Japan.

w.w. Called “asylum”?

T.F. Precisely.

w.w. Well : now we know about George and Brenda. Any clues about Alice yet?

T.F. Nope. But I’d like to say one more thing about the so-called “mad.” I hope you understand I’m not in any way talking about the truth with a capital Τ  when I talk about these people. I only mean the truth about matters as perceived in a given situation. One thing about the “mad,” you see, is they don’t like lies. So this is why I seize so often upon these people as the heroes of my work. It’s only because they have this straight — flung out connection through the mind to some kind of absolute clarity. And this is what fiction is all about : achieving the clarity obscured by facts. (I think this is critical to Findley’s writing.)

w.w. So what are facts?

T.F. Walls.

w.w. All right. Talk about the writer as “madman.” And writing as therapy : something of value for the rest of us to eavesdrop on, from time to time.

T.F. Writing isn’t therapy. Writing may be cathartic, but it certainly isn’t therapy. On the other hand, if you’re talking about the reader — and only about the reader -— maybe the “therapeutic” value for those of us who read lies in the fact that we don’t have to pass through whatever it is in a particular book, or play or whatever — we don’t have to pass through whatever territory it explores, except vicariously. This has been said — and best said — by Adele Wiseman. Adele Wiseman said the writer goes down into the other world of hell for a few years and comes back up and tries to articulate the experience for everyone else.

w.w. It sort of saves you the busfare.

T.F. Sort of. But the main thing to remember is that the writer has a round-trip ticket. The writer comes back. Do you see? And this information — the information that everyone doesn’t have to perish down there is marvellous. Marvellous. And so maybe this is the therapeutic value : the therapeutic spin-off for the reader. Hell can be survived. And since everyone, at some point, goes through hell — this news is extremely valuable . But everyone can’t articulate this news. Everyone can’t tell what it is they’ve survived — and how it is they’re still alive. But a good writer can. Have you read Old Woman At Play?

w.w. Yes, of course. The book about Adele Wiseman’s mother. . . .

T.F. Then you know what I mean. Here was a woman living in hell who was telling us it didn’t have to be hell at all. So Adele Wiseman went down in there, where her mother was living, and she asked the right questions and she got terrific answers and she came back up and she passed the answers on to us. And the answer was: to make of hell a better place. Dear God! This book should be handed out with every birth certificate. (I haven’t read this book…now, I must.)

w.w. Talk about genius, now. Is genius a kind of “madness”?

T.F. No. I don’t think so. No. Though I see why you’re asking. People think it has to be a kind of madness the same way they think the people I talked about before are “mad.” Put it this way. A genius is someone you cannot avoid seeing. I mean — how could you walk into a room and not see Margot Fonteyn? If Margot Fonteyn is there — there’s no way she can hide. Is there (LAUGHTER). . . . Even if you’ve never seen her before. Even if she’s wearing the most ordinary, everyday dress — even if she’s standing behind a man who’s six feet tall : you’re going to see her. And what you see is really the thing that drove her to be a genius of dance . . . the unavoidable : the ultimate. The clarity of gesture. Bam ! And Mozart must have been the same. Can you hear him and avoid him? Never. . . .

w.w. But you may not like him.

T.F. No. But that’s not the point here, is it. The point is — you cannot remain unaware that something extraordinary is happening through that person. Something that no one can explain. And yet — if you’re reading Shakespeare — listening to Mozart or watching Margot Fonteyn — there doesn’t have to be an “explanation.” The thing is — you come away different. Changed. Put it this way: the audience that sits down to Lear is not the audience that rises at the end. And that is Shakespeare’s genius. If this is “madness” — more ! More !

w.w. All right. Here we are back, more or less where we began. In the theatre. And you’ve just been talking about Margot Fonteyn and you, yourself, began as a dancer. So — what you wanted to express as a dancer — as an actor — as a painter — you now express as a writer. Words. Words on paper . . . which is a little different from these other forms of expression you began with. . . .

T.F. Yes. Yes. Words. Well, now. . . . Take dance. What the dancer does is make a series of statements. And the statements are made up of gestures : gestures in a sequence. So words — words are the vocabulary of literate gesture. And the combinations of your words have to be as precise as the combinations of gestures used by a dancer to make an articulate statement in dance. And there’s something else, I think, to be said about this. You know, when you learn to dance — when you learn to move — you learn to move — you learn to make each gesture from the centre of your body :  from the solar plexus — from the diaphragm. You learn that everything must originate there and grow outward towards the conclusion of the gesture : the formation of the statement. And, as an actor, when you learn how to “speak”— you learn to speak from there : from the centre — from the diaphragm. And, oddly enough — and here we come to writing — when a sentence hits — or when a paragraph hits — that’s where it hits. In the  solar plexus.

w.w. But —

T.F. Now, wait a minute. Be patient. I’m making a point. You know how you and I, in the theatre, will so often say : “Isn’t it strange. Isn’t it really too bad. . . .Everything about that person is right — except : they don’t know how to use their hands.” Or — they carry their heads too high. Or the shoulders are stiff. Okay? Now: think of that marvellous, wonderful moment when Lynn Seymour dances onto the stage. Yes? Glorious. Because the whole of her presence is unfolding from the centre. Toller Cranston is the same. Every single gesture is totally fulfilled. Their fingertips — you know? — they flick the last cadence from the ends of their fingers. And you cannot breathe until it is over. They hold you enthralled to the very last nuance. Yes?

w.w. Yes.

T.F. Well : words are the same. Words in a sentence are a written gesture. And if the cadence is wrong — if the rhythm is wrong — if a single syllable is out of place — the sentence fails. And if the sentence fails : the paragraph fails. And if the paragraph fails . . . the book fails. Why? Because you have failed to impel the reader forward with every gesture . . . right to the “fingertips” — all the way from the solar plexus. That’s where books are written. That’s where readers read.

w.w. You know what?

T.F. No. What?

w.w. I think our friend Alice just dropped another cigarette. . . .

T.F. Aren’t you going to pick it up?

w.w. No. (A PAUSE)  I want to see what happens.

I’m writing a book. I’ve got the page numbers done. — Steven Wright