Community & Current Events

Interview with author Beth Powning

By: Kat Tancock

Author: Canadian Living

Community & Current Events

Interview with author Beth Powning

By: Kat Tancock

Learn more about the Canadian Living Book Club.

Our November pick for the Canadian Living Book Club is Edge Seasons, by New Brunswick author Beth Powning. (Click here to read an excerpt.) Edge Seasons is described as "a year-long journey of shattering and ultimately strengthening change," one which we can all relate to as we make our way through life. We chatted with Powning about her book and her inspiration.

Canadian Living: What inspired you to write this book?

Beth Powning: This book began as two separate projects. The first project was called Weather Walks, originally titled Animal Tracks. I began writing short essays about walks I took in our woods, pondering the way in which so much of nature ("the others") is found as faint smudges, leavings, tracks; and how I, as a human, felt like an outsider, privy only to the remains of the feast. I published these essays in our weekly provincial newspaper's insert, The N.B. Reader. My understanding of what I was pondering deepened, and broadened, and lengthened, and became a small book called Edge Seasons. This was composed of five long essays, ponderings about midlife. I combined all these writings into a manuscript, thinking to publish a collection of nature writing. My wonderful editors at Knopf, Diane Martin and Angelika Glover, encouraged me to weave a narrative thread into the essays. I realized that the essays were about the need for renewal, especially at points in a life when some things seemed to be ending, and so I thought of the story of renovating the sauna bath. This, I realized, would add human interest to the nature writing, and make the forward motion that every book needs.

CL: There has been quite a bit of controversy of late on the nature of the memoir and whether its content is fact, fiction or somewhere in between. Where does your book fit?

BP: This book is factual. The only thing I changed was the chronology of my son's life. I wrote so openly about my family in my memoir "Shadow Child" that I felt I could not put my son through any more public scrutiny. While everything I wrote about him is true, some of it did not happen in quite the sequence as it is represented in the book, and much is omitted.

CL: Quite a bit of the book's content is journal excerpts. Are these from the actual journal you were writing in during this period of your life?

BP: Yes, these excerpts are taken directly from diaries and journals I was keeping during those years.

CL: How important is journal writing in your life?

BP: For me, journal writing is essential. It varies in amount and kind. When I am deeply involved in the actual writing of a book, my journal writing drops off, since I am spending four to five hours a day putting words to paper, and have no energy left. At such times, my journal is filled with working notes, reminders to myself of what I need to do, insights about the book I am writing as it progresses. When I am between books, my journals become vehicles for a kind of ongoing discussion with myself about what I am feeling, thinking, reading about. I talk to myself about what I might write next. I celebrate the moment by describing, in a totally free and unselfconscious manner, the texture of the moment: frost, smell of the wind, dryness of leaves, animal sightings, river sounds. Sometimes I make an appointment with myself to write about exactly where I am in this stage of my life, since I know how valuable and fascinating it will be to read this 10 years hence. Journal writing is my way of dealing with the brief flame of life, a kind of stoking, like leaning forward and setting new sticks of wood on a bonfire.

CL: I love the cover image (of snowdrops breaking through snow). Were you involved in choosing the cover? How well do you think it evokes the content?

BP: I did not choose the cover, but as always, my publishers ask me what I think. The cover is the inspired work of Kelly Hill. It is so perfect and poignant, the thrust of new life through the snow. Edge Seasons is very dark in the winter months, like a bulb frozen in soil. The breaking through into spring light is the point.

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CL: I was struck by this quote on page 51, which I think many women can relate to: "Peter suggests that I give up some of the things that I do. I'm offended and incredulous. Everything's under control. No one else can do these things as competently as I can." Have you learned to let go? How?

BP: Yes, I have learned to "let go," although I have to keep reminding myself to leave space in my life, not to do too much, not to "care" in that obsessive way that is less caring than imposing. I no longer make lists. If I can't keep it in my head, then it's not worth doing. This way of working and living is how I create my gardens. I make no plans, write nothing down. I take my tools and go there. I do one thing, and then let it lead to the next. This is how I cook, as well, using recipes only for baking. (Start with cilantro and buttercup squash, see where it leads...) I still do a great deal; my husband complains that I'm a whirling dervish. But there is so much I love; granddaughters, ponies, gardens, writing, singing, harvesting, walking. If I find myself doing something in the wrong way, however (working without seeing, my mind only on the next task), then I stop, breathe, make myself see. Walking, yesterday, with my granddaughter, she said, "Let's sit down." We sat in the grass. "Blue," she said, looking at the sky. "Blue, with white, and then grey." We lay and watched the clouds. Remember this, I said to myself.

CL: What is your favourite part of this book?

BP: There are certain sentences, or phrases, or paragraphs, that come into my mind like gifts; they make my scalp prickle. They are like keys to unlock a box of treasures. One is on page 25: "...I'm the bear who can lumber into the forest seeking her own berries. I'm the goose who can fly south, unfettered. I'm any woman whose arms and hands remember the shape of a small body, pressed close."

These words were gifts, risen from my subconscious, and as such are like my gardens, whose beauty I take no credit for.

I don't have a favourite part of the book. That is why it is so hard to select readings. To me, a book is the sum of its parts, although a bit of the whole is in every part. A book has a kind of aura, something that emanates from it when you have put it down, like the silence after music.

CL: If you were organizing a book club meeting about your book, what are some things you would ask readers to discuss?

BP: I might ask: what is the role of the sauna bath? What is the role of the river? How does the narrator's concept of time change over the course of the book? Discuss the uses and importance of ritual. Discuss the relationship of humans and nature: in what ways is it comforting and sustaining, in what ways terrifying? Discuss the need for woman to believe in themselves. Discuss ways in which not believing in oneself is subverted into anger, overwork, frustration, a sense of emptiness. Discuss the desire for permanence, the fear of change.

CL: What books and authors are you inspired by?

BP: I am inspired by poetry, and by poetic prose, wherever it might be found. I love books that are deeply informed by specific places. Writers that I read hungrily as a young reader (in my 20s) were Tolstoy, Lawrence, the Brontes, Virginia Woolf, Dickens, Dylan Thomas, Gary Snyder, Tolkien, Hemingway, George Eliot, Jane Austen. I return to many of these books, as touchstones: Anna Karenina, for example, and To the Lighthouse. Lately, I read mostly Canadian literature, especially the wonderful novels that have come in the last 20 years, too many to list. I studied with E. L. Doctorow in the early 1970s, and so was influenced by both his teachings and his works. I have recently discovered Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, a beautiful book. I love books of nonfiction, memoirs of place, such as Out of Africa, by Isak Dinesen, or Cider with Rosie, by Laurie Lee. I have to acknowledge the profound influence of childhood reading. I did not have a television as a child, and do not have one now. Sometimes I recognize certain rhythms in one of my own sentences, and pause, realizing that it came from a children's book that I may have read 40 times as a child: the books of E. C. Spykman, L. M. Boston, Edith Nesbit, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Mary Norton or Kenneth Graeme, whole pages of which I have unwittingly committed to memory. I recommend life without television, especially for children. Nothing to lose, much to gain.

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Community & Current Events

Interview with author Beth Powning