Community & Current Events

Interview with author Gail Anderson-Dargatz

Photo by Mitch Krupp Image by: Photo by Mitch Krupp Author: Canadian Living

Community & Current Events

Interview with author Gail Anderson-Dargatz

Canadian Living: What was your inspiration for the book?

Gail Anderson-Dargatz:
I helped to evacuate my own parents from the Salmon Arm fire of 1998, a fire that precipitated the largest peacetime evacuation in B.C.'s history up to that point. I knew I would write about it someday, even as we lived through it. It was a horrific, but at times visually stunning event. Fire literally rained down from the sky. We were all put on 10- minute evacuation alert, so our focus was on our possessions, what to take and what to leave behind.

In our own case, and in the case of almost everyone I interviewed who had lived through the fireball event that swept through the Salmon Valley, the choices over what to take were not monetary. Rather the objects we all salvaged were the ones that held memory for us: family heirlooms, children's drawings, photographs. I remember arguing with my mother over her basket collection. She was determined to take them. I understand now. It was a hard-won treasure gleaned over the years.

The focus of the book is in part on possessions, those objects that define us, and remind us of who we are. To that end I included photos of my own treasured family heirlooms, taken by photographer Mitch Krupp (who is also my husband). We worked for a year on those photos, deciding which objects to use, doing photo shoots with them and retaking them. As I did this, I told him about the family stories connected to those objects and new plot lines and details arose from that process. In the end the novel changed profoundly through that collaboration.

CL: Kat has a child, parents and a husband to care for. Do you think she's representative of the average Canadian woman of her age in this way? What does this say about our society? Are women destined to be caregivers?

GA:
I've just hit my middle years and man, is there a lot going on! I've got young children and teenagers, and as I wrote this novel I helped to nurse my father and then my mother during their final years. My father passed away as I began this book. My mother had a stroke and passed away as I completed it. As I went through all that with my sisters, I talked to a great many other women and sometimes men who were caring for their spouses and parents. It's a hard time for many of us in that "sandwich generation" who are pulled one way by our children, another by our aging parents, and by our work as well. It is most often women in this role, but not always.

My initial goal in writing this book was to give a unflinching portrait of the caregiver, how very hard it is on the caregiver and on all family relationships. A long-term illness of almost any kind and particularly one like stroke turns relationships on their heads. A husband becomes a parent to his wife, a daughter a mother to her own mother. I remember the moment when I realized this had occurred with my mom. She was upset and to comfort her I stroked her hair as I would my three-year-old, as I would not have allowed myself to otherwise. I went out into the hallway and cried.

CL: Do you believe in true love? Or is love really about being needed?

GA:
Oh, I so believe in true love. I experience it each day in my own marriage, if by true love you mean that give and take between equal partners. When, as I said above, a marriage loses that quality of equality, when one partner becomes parent to another, then you're in real trouble. So no, I don't believe true love is about "being needed." It's about mutual respect between two adults, among a great many other things. Compatibility. A willingness to engage. A shared commitment to work through problems. And va-va-voom: Passion!

Page 1 of 2CL: Are any of the characters in the book particularly close to your heart?

GA:
Beth is, of course, closest to my heart. She's travelled with me for many years now. When I returned to the Shuswap-Thompson to write this book, I had no intention of writing a sequel to The Cure for Death by Lightning, and this book isn't really that. But Beth turned up and tapped me on the shoulder. I fought it for a while, but she wouldn't go away. She had more to say. And I'm so glad I let her come back to tell her story.

CL: What is your favourite part of the book and why?

GA:
I have so many favourite parts, but the passage I read most often at readings is the "hat full of butterflies" section near the end of the book as it sums up the feelings of nostalgia, of loss, and the themes of memory that I wrote of in this book. Also, the very end of the novel, that last car ride with Beth, makes me cry each time I read it, because I wrote this section as nonfiction first, after a car ride with my own mother, when she started to show real signs of mental decline, and I knew I was losing her.

CL: Can you describe your writing process?

GA:
I teach a year-long program at UBC that describes my writing process! But to sum it up, to this point at least, I've taken family stories or personal stories as a starting place. Then I've interviewed as many people as I can find who have been through something similar, looking for patterns, behaviours we'd all share if put in that particular set of circumstances. Here, in the interviews, is where I find characters, plot lines and those details that make the writing authentic. So while I start with the personal, I use interviews and research to move that small story into something larger, into the universal, into fiction.

CL: What books and authors are you inspired by?

GA:
There are so many! Probably my all-time favorite book is Joyce Cary's The Horse's Mouth. I love Toni Morrison's writing and often use her novel Beloved in the courses I teach at UBC. My list of favourite Canadian novels reads like a Can Lit course so I won't repeat it here other than to say reading Alice Munro's Lives of Girls and Women was a revelation. I read it when I was quite young and remember thinking, "This book is about me! So I can write about my own stories!" In other words, my own life as a young Canadian woman was not only worth writing about, but worth celebrating.

CL: If you were leading a book club discussion of this book, what are some questions you'd like to see discussed?

GA:
The first question that comes to mind is: "If you had 10 minutes to flee a forest fire, what would you take?" And then, "What would you leave behind?" We don't think about that often, but when we do it has the effect of making us very aware of where our priorities are, and what we can live without.

Then I might suggest the women ask themselves, honestly, "If you were at the fork in the road that Kat is at, what decision would you make? Would you stay? Leave? Run away with Jude? Or do something completely different?" The answer to this question wasn't at first evident to me, the author. I have several alternate endings.

And then: "Are there caregivers in your life? Do they always behave as they 'should'? Do they behave badly at times? If so, why? What do they go through? How can you help? What have you gone through as a caregiver?"

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Interview with author Gail Anderson-Dargatz

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