ISSUE 28: Winter 2015

Use It as Your Own Story: An Interview with Christine Fischer Guy

To be honest, I think my journalism background meant that I did what was most familiar and comfortable—I hit the research road.

Christine Fischer Guy is a writer from Toronto. A Journey Prize nominee and National Magazine Award winner, her work has appeared across North America in places like Descant, The Millions, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. After finishing her MA in English Language and Literature, she spent time working in London, England, and, a decade later, embarked on her doctorate. She was finishing the first term of her course work when the memoirs that inspired her first novel came into her possession. The Umbrella Mender was published by Wolsak & Wynn in September 2014.

The following interview took place by email during the winter of 2014.

 Jared Young: The traditional knock on first novels is that they tend to be familiar, contemporary, and nakedly autobiographical. Your debut, The Umbrella Mender, is rooted in some pretty arcane subject matter (tuberculosis medicine) and takes place a half-century ago in a location that, before beginning to work on the book, you’d never visited. Did your background in journalism give you the confidence to take on this rather ambitious task?

Christine Fischer Guy: Thanks for that. I've heard a few compliments about the research. To be honest, I think my journalism background meant that I did what was most familiar and comfortable—I hit the research road. I’ve always loved digging into something I know nothing about, so it wasn't a hardship. On the contrary, the factual scaffolding energizes me. When I first read the memoirs that inspired this book, I knew it was the idea I'd been waiting for because I could see that I'd have to master a mountain of research to do it. In a novel, though, I could no longer hide behind other people's stories. That was the high-wire act for me.

JY: Tell me more about the memoirs that inspired the book. How did it come into your possession?

CFG: The first memoirs that inspired my novel were written by Dr. Barclay McKone, a pioneer in tuberculosis medicine in Canada. He was the Chief Superintendent of the hospital in Moose Factory, Ontario, from the time it opened in 1950 until 1953, and after he retired, he wrote all about it.

Dr. McKone became family to me through marriage (he is my mother-in-law's uncle), and after we'd met for the first time, and he found out that I was the family writer, he wanted to give me the memoirs. At first I wasn't sure what he wanted me to do with them. Did he want an edit or help finding a publisher? But he wanted none of those things. Practicing medicine in the North was the great adventure of his life. He just wanted to share it with someone.

I had embarked on doctoral studies at the time and was mid-way through the first term when I sat down to read them. The heavens opened, choirs of angels sang, that sort of thing. This was the idea I'd been waiting for—one big enough to sustain my interest over what I knew would be years of work. I did the most prudent thing (ha!) and dropped my PhD studies. I wanted a novel, not a dissertation, at the end of seven years of work.

JY: So you had this excellent source material: the memoirs of this modern-day Canadian adventurer. Did you require a deeper foundation of research before you felt comfortable putting words on the page? Or did you immediately begin writing your story, filling in the blanks (so to speak) as you went?

CFG: Ha, if only it were that easy! There's that golden moment when the idea first arrives, and then there's the one when you write the last word, and then there are the many, ahem, other kinds of moments between. There were three years of blind corners and false starts before my main characters arrived and I could finally start writing in earnest. I’d been hamstrung by the thought that someone might think my novel was my great-uncle's story, which it emphatically was not, so it finally lifted off when a young nurse started telling the story.

“It’s frequently true for me that I don't understand something, or I don't know how I really feel about something, until I’ve written about it.”

I continued to research as I wrote through seven drafts over six years, and I was the recipient of the generosity and the expertise of many: several medical people (doctors, nurses), a nickel carver, a master falconer, some librarians. Research feeds the writing for me, and I continue to do it as I work. Many years of journalism made me comfortable asking for that help, right down to asking an infectious disease expert to show me how to read a lung x-ray.

JY: I’m curious to know about some of those false starts. What other points of view did you explore before Hazel declared herself the protagonist? And why, in the end, was it her (and not your great-uncle's) story that you wanted to tell?

CFG: I loved my great-uncle’s story. He was a natural storyteller, and his enthusiasm for the work he was doing made me want to learn everything I could about it.

But it was trickier when it came to creating a fiction to wrap around that historical backdrop, ethically. As writers, we know we have something we want to say, and I felt I could find a place to say it inside that time and place and situation, but I became tongue-tied when I tried to write from a male doctor’s point of view (first false start). I felt very strongly that my great uncle’s story belonged to him alone, and I couldn’t bear the idea that someone might assume my fiction was his story. Same problem with the POV of the doctor’s wife (second false start); I have much admiration and respect for my great aunt. We can't control what happens to a story once it goes out into the world, but to have the creative freedom to do what I needed to do with this story when I was writing it, I needed a character that couldn’t possibly be mistaken for either one of those two people.

“They became people I knew, rather than people I’d invented.”

Dr. McKone was a generous and unassuming man. When I took an interest, he was happy to know that someone else was excited about that place and time, and he sent me regular packages in the mail with photographs and videotapes and papers and letters that he wrote in an ornate, old-fashioned hand. “Don’t use my name,” he wrote, in one. “Use it as your own story.” So I did.

JY: When you guest-edited the National Post’s Afterword section, you wrote an essay in which you explained, “I’m not any of the characters in my novel and I am all of them.” At the start of the novel, as an elderly Hazel reflects on her time in Moose Factory, she says, “My mind starts down a known pathway. He is always there.” Did you have the same experience writing as Hazel does in recollecting, the experience that you were following a known pathway? And, if so, despite not being any of the characters in your novel (but also being all of them), did that act of uncovering reveal to you something about yourself that you hadn’t previously known?

CFG: We do learn about ourselves as we write, and I think we choose this medium because, for us, it offers the clearest view of ourselves and the best point of access to our deepest selves. For me, it’s frequently true that I don't understand something or I don't know how I really feel about something until I’ve written about it. I spend so much of my time writing that it has become a trusted way to process the world, a way that I must process it if I want to understand it to any worthwhile depth.

I also understood my characters with greater clarity as I wrote through the drafts. The first draft was written out of sequence—I just wrote the scenes as they came to me. I didn’t write a timeline until after I felt I’d reached the end of those scenes, and then I arranged them in a sequence that made sense—I need the energy of discovery to get that first draft down on the page. If I know everything that's going to happen, all of the air goes out of it, and I can’t write anything.

“I was standing there close to the edge but not quite close enough. I needed to put my toes over it and let the wind push me into the canyon to see if my wings would hold.”

I wrote Gideon's last scene long before I’d written the majority of his story, and I realized at some point that I'd done that instinctively because I needed to know how he’d deal with that major life event (I’m trying to avoid spoilers here) to know how he'd conduct himself in the rest of the book.

All of the characters became clearer as the drafts progressed. I could see them with sharper focus and correct missteps I’d made in earlier drafts that I came to know were out of character for them. They became people I knew, rather than people I’d invented. I knew as much about them as I know about my close friends, which is to say that there’s always something of them left in shadow that I can’t access.

Bringing a book through many drafts also, at some point, gives you an intimate acquaintance with the risk inherent in trying to write something true, something that pulses with life. Miriam Toews put it this way: “Leave your blood on the page. Every page!” I’d been playing it safe in various ways until the fourth draft, but that was the precipice moment for me: I was standing there close to the edge but not quite close enough. I needed to put my toes over it and let the wind push me into the canyon to see if my wings would hold.

JY: While on the surface The Umbrella Mender might seem like it’s written in a pretty traditional narrative style, there's some really interesting, nuanced stuff happening with point of view and tense. We get Hazel’s story in both the first- and third-person. We get a bit of Gideon’s perspective. We even briefly live inside the mind of a falcon. How important was it for you to have this sort of expansive angle on the story you were telling?

CFG: Thanks for that. It was important to me, from very early on, to have multiple perspectives on the story. At many points in the process, I wondered if I was telling the right part of the story, so in some way, offering several points of view was an attempt to address that anxiety. Some of the most masterful storytellers I know (Alissa YorkGuy Gavriel KayJennifer Egan, Helen Oyeyemi) show the richness that lives in the disconnections between multiple accounts of the same event. The story itself, perhaps, the real story, lives in those gaps.

Gideon’s point of view came through early and clearly. He’s an outsider not only to that northern community but to society at large, and I knew I wanted that perspective on the conservative world of 1950s medicine. I was also very sure from almost the beginning that I wanted the friction of young Hazel’s voice against old Hazel’s voice. Narrating young Hazel in third person and old Hazel in first person was a decision that reflected that interest and the conviction that many of us are (necessarily, maybe) less acquainted with our authentic selves as young people. Third person subjective offered that little bit of distance from the self I wanted to show. I’m very interested in the ways the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves change with wisdom and experience and time.

JY: Of the masterful storytellers you reference (or beyond them), was there a single writer or piece of work that you found yourself returning to throughout the writing of The Umbrella Mender? A sort of North Star by which you course-corrected?

CFG: I couldn’t name a North Star, but if I could change the metaphor and name ports of shelter along the way, there were several I called at: Guy Gavriel Kay for masterful storytelling. Alissa York for richness of narrative voice. Per Petterson (specifically, Out Stealing Horses) for the slow reveal. Alice Munro and Ursula Le Guin for what was allowed women writers and female characters—well, specifically, for their rejection of the idea that such a thing exists.

JY: That reminds me of a line from late in the book: “She’d never wanted the white-picket dream, not ever before and not now. The sticky-sweet thought of it was suffocating.” Did you feel, in writing a novel that embraces such a broad range of subjects and styles and genre conceits, that you were similarly rejecting the notion that there are distinctly masculine/feminine literary sensibilities?

CFG: That’s a good question. I was thinking about masculine/feminine narrative styles and whether, over the years, such things could even be said to exist. I think you and I may have even discussed it at some point. Hazel rejects the “white-picket dream” in all of its incarnations; it’s one of the things that drew her north. As for my own aims, I suppose you could see it that way, but I can’t claim it was intentional. My first obligation, at all times, was to the story I was telling. If there was a philosophical rejection of literary norms, it emerged organically.

JY: The setting is vital in your novel—it’s almost another character. There are these great evocations such as “spent bushes of wild rose, their petals curled and dry, scratched her legs” that bring it to life in a very visceral way. It’s very clear that you’ve spent some time there. 

CFG: I spent a week in Moose Factory in 2008 talking to everyone who would talk to me about life in the hospital in the 1950s, paddling the Moose River, and walking the roads and forest paths. I wanted to learn the place with my feet. Through the miracle of Google Earth, I could also be looking at the island as I wrote, even the parts I’d forgotten to photograph while I was there. It was often open on my desktop. When I went back in September of this year, it was a kind of homecoming.

The remote northern setting was vital to this story for the ways it both constrained and freed Hazel, and the North in general has been that kind of fascinating presence in our collective psyches. We fear it and we’re drawn to it; it stands in for the unknowable depths of ourselves. Hazel is young and looking for something, and she thinks she’ll find it there.

JY: Who are the people you hope or imagine will read this book?

CFG: Funny, my astute daughter posed the same question when I was working on the title. Ideal readers for any writer, I think, are curious, intelligent, and open to new ideas, willing to be dropped off somewhere other than where we found them, maybe even actively seeking that. I’d like to think that my readers expect to be discomfited a bit along the way to gain that shift in perspective.

One of my favourite compliments to date is from my agent after she’d read my book for the first time and reached the epigraph at the end, a poem by Catullus that she'd studied and known. After reading my novel, she said she arrived at a different understanding of it. What more can a writer ask?

JY: Some writers are very protective of their raw, embryonic stuff. But you seem to have a much more collaborative attitude towards the writing process. Did you find value in sharing your work with readers before it was finished?

CFG: I think that both tougher skin and willingness to collaborate come from years of journalism: you can only be so protective of your own prose if you expect to survive as a journalist. It helps keep you sane if you can see a piece of journalism as the result of a series of negotiations between writer and editor.

Having said that, a piece of fiction is in no way the same as a piece of journalism, neither in terms of level of emotional exposure, as we’ve discussed, nor in the length of time we invest in it. A novel is such a long road. I was writing The Umbrella Mender over a period of six years, and I did reach points at which I felt I had no remaining objectivity, if ever I had any in the first place. I did need others to read and to tell me what they saw so I could keep moving forward. I gave a handful of public readings of the work in progress, too, and it was gratifying to have listeners respond in various positive ways. It was also a chance to try things out in supportive settings. There’s a reading series here in Toronto called Draft that’s specifically for works in progress, and I think the organizers recognize the value of that literary hothouse to help the budding stories grow.

JY: Did you find that your process evolved over the course of those six years? (This is my sneaky way of asking that typical writer's interview question: Where do you write, at what time of day, with what implements, accompanied by what hot/cold beverage?)

CFG: The process itself didn’t change. For me, the best time for first drafts is early morning, straight from bed to desk. That space between dreaming and fully waking is fertile. Nothing to eat, just a cup of decaf for the first couple of hours. I was away at an artist’s residency for two weeks during the summer I started edits (of what would become the final draft), and I would do that ritual every day. The other artists in the house didn’t start moving around until at least nine a.m., often later, but by seven a.m., I was usually at my desk. The farmhouse was completely quiet, and I was alone with my book. That period of intense re-immersion—the book had been acquired and then sat for a year, during which I’d started on a new one—was invaluable. Editing is less vulnerable to time of day than drafting, but I still prefer the early-morning silence and dreaminess whenever I can get it.

“That space between dreaming and fully waking is fertile.”

I drafted The Umbrella Mender on a keyboard but began to experiment with longhand drafting on the new work. Since I found a pen that moved fluidly across the page, I’ve found that particular change to the process fruitful. It keeps the morning even quieter, and forces me to keep going forward. Editing happens as I type what will become the second draft, and the work continues on the screen from that point.

JY: In what ways are you approaching the daunting task of a second novel differently? Besides writing in longhand, I mean.

CFG: I’m not sure I’m approaching it differently, but I do have the experience of all of the stages of novel-writing now, so I think I’m slightly more patient with the wandering in the wilderness that goes on in the early days. That period of discovery seems essential to my own process, and so while there are days that I despair of finding a path at all, most of the time I can give myself a stern lecture on patience and keep breaking new trail. I think I also have more trust in the way my research diversions that appear unconnected can lead somewhere useful.

Having said that, I’m grateful for this advice, given to a friend who wrote to Alice Munro: “You must love writing, because the angst will never go away. It will never get easier.” It makes my struggles seem connected to a larger whole, somehow, and it also reminds me that I choose this, every day.