Sunday, October 16, 2016
"Dispersing the demons of doubt"/ "Hollingshead acts normal with return to short fiction"
Sept. 12, 2016 "Dispersing the demons of doubt": I cut out this article Jamie Portman in the Edmonton Journal on Sept. 18, 2015:
LONDON — Tessa Hadley has finished serving the tea and cookies. But she’s still not quite ready to discuss her late-flowering emergence as one of the English speaking world’s finest writers. She must first apologize for the distant rumble of a washing machine.
“It was stupid to put it on and have it spinning away in the kitchen,” she says with a smile.
In brief, this pleasant, unassuming woman is the picture of quiet domesticity as she sits in her North London apartment and finally begins discussing the mysterious processes of crafting fiction while also going out of her way to explain why Canada’s Alice Munro is one of her heroes.
But she’s also trying to come to terms with something that clearly confounds her — a London critic’s recent conclusion that she now touches greatness as a novelist.
Her newest book, The Past, has just arrived to the customary plaudits. But one review in the Guardian newspaper has gone even further, describing her as “one of the country’s great contemporary novelists.” Indeed, it also suggests Hadley, a late starter who didn’t publish her first novel until she was 46, may yet prove to be the “greatest” among her peers.
So how does she respond to that? “That could really go to my head, couldn’t it?” Hadley, now 59, is comfortable in her laughter. “That’s the kind of review you dream up in your delirium.”
Then common sense takes over. “It’s very lovely to have such supportive reviews. It’s quite liberating. … The demons of doubt are dispersed and you can write better.”
“But as a writer, you must never go around wondering whether you’re great or not. Who could know that? What matters is the work you put on the page and the mystery of writing words that may affect someone you’ve never met.”
Readers of The Past are likely to be affected by a great deal — including the very atmosphere of the old house that, in its own way, constitutes one of the novel’s most important characters.
Hadley gives us four adult siblings — three sisters and their brother — gathering for a traditional summer holiday in their grandparents’ crumbling country house. It’s a place overflowing with childhood memories, having become their second home after their mother left their father and sought sanctuary with her parents. But now, on what could be their last summer here, tensions are simmering.
There’s Alice — whom Hadley describes as “romantic and exuberant but with all kinds of inner fragilities and anxieties.” There’s matter-of fact Fran — “the only one of the sisters who has children.” And there’s Harriet, once of revolutionary bent, now shy and controlling, and soon to be challenged by an unexpected emotional crisis: “Suddenly, horribly, when she’s 50, the great tide of life will sweep her from her moorings.”
Roland the male sibling has brought along his latest wife, Pilar, who proves to be one of the wild cards in the narrative. Another is Kalim, the surly self-absorbed son of Alice’s current boyfriend, who has designs on Roland’s teenage daughter Molly.
Hadley’s previous novel, the highly praised Clever Girl, chronicled the surprising odyssey of lower-middle-class Stella, a character who at times seems to have everything working against her as she navigates her way through the turbulence of the last half of the 20th century.
That novel, ultimately a portrait of human resilience, encompasses one of Hadley’s favourite themes: “The highest test is not what you choose but living with what befalls you.”
My opinion: I'm going to that put that above line into my inspirational quotes.
This new novel, The Past, revisits this thesis. As a novelist and human being, Hadley is sensitive to the accidents of life — “where you were born, who you happen to meet, the mischance or good fortune that befalls you,” she says. “I love the old fashioned humility of that.”
But she risks being dismissed as an author of domestic fiction or, more pejoratively, “a woman’s writer.”
“Most novels are about families,” Hadley says, caustically. “Not all of them, but many. Yet, if a woman writes it, it’s called domestic fiction. If a man writes it, it’s called ‘revolutionary experiment.’ ” She finds reassurance in the observations of John Updike — a favourite writer — about “giving the mundane its beautiful due.”
Hadley, who teaches creative writing at Bath University, urges her students to study Alice Munro closely.
“We can come up with rules of thumb about writing … but she will break all of them,” Hadley says. “She is an extraordinarily innovative formalist. She invents things to do with the story that we are all beneficiaries of.”
Hadley is striking a personal note here.
“Alice Munro changed my life,” she says, “more perhaps than any other writer. She’s a genius.”
"Hollingshead acts normal with return to short fiction": I cut out this article by Michael Hingston in the Edmonton Journal on Sept. 18, 2015:
It’s tempting, when reading any story collection, to look for threads that might tie the individual works together and suggest some kind of larger purpose or intent. With Greg Hollingshead’s new collection, you have to start with the title. Act Normal (House of Anansi) suggests a person desperate to fit in: it’s the kind of thing you might whisper to an unruly significant other just before entering a dinner party, or maybe to a fellow bank robber as the two of you casually stroll past police headquarters. Regardless of the setting, if you need to say it, you aren’t doing it.
Still, I kept an eye out throughout the first story collection in 20 years from Hollingshead, a longtime Edmontonian whose writing has earned him a Governor General’s Award, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, and, in 2012, the Order of Canada, for more potential keys. I didn’t come up with much. In a way it’s a testament to Hollingshead’s reliably off-kilter prose that one of the best contenders I found for an underlying thesis was the following: “One thing led to another. But let me be clear. Any Cheezie I touched I ate. These things are a lot of fun until someone gets hurt.”
So I figured I should ask him directly. While shaping the new book, Hollingshead and his editor, Janice Zawerbny, sat down with a stack of his 21 most recent stories and together whittled them down to the 12 strongest, which are the ones that appear in print. But strength aside, is there anything else the stories have in common?
“Nope,” Hollingshead says, reached by phone from his home in Toronto. “Nothing. Nothing. No, really. Nothing. No.”
Act Normal is Hollingshead’s first book since his 2004 historical novel Bedlam. But it wasn’t supposed to be. Of the intervening 11 years, Hollingshead figures he spent about half that time grappling with an autobiographical novel about his youth and adolescence (or as he puts it, “The novel that people usually write first”). What began as a relatively straightforward story became more and more complicated, until eventually Hollingshead found himself trying, and failing, to thread three separate storylines together.
“It was just an impossible object,” Hollingshead said. “It didn’t resonate, not even to me.”
At first he was reluctant to abandon the idea entirely. So he kept plugging away at the manuscript, polishing a sentence here, a paragraph there, until eventually time made the decision for him. After two years, Hollingshead says, “it’s unthinkable to stop,” because you don’t know for sure whether the novel is doomed.
“After five years,” he adds, “you know for sure.”
Hollingshead hasn’t entirely given up on novels — he’s since written a draft of an entirely new manuscript — but that creative drought allowed him to return to the short form that defined his early career. Hollingshead’s first two books were story collections, and his fourth, 1995’s The Roaring Girl, netted him his first national prize (the Governor General’s Award), and was later published in England, the United States, Germany, and China. But he hadn’t published a story collection since. Until now.
Hollingshead may claim that the stories in Act Normal are simply the best dozen pieces he’s written in the past two decades. (The Drug-Friendly House, for example, was nominated for a National Magazine Award when it first appeared in Edmonton’s Eighteen Bridges magazine.) He also says that several of the pieces detail the ways in which altered states, whether induced by alcohol, drugs, or even just stress, intrude on our everyday lives. Eventually, I found a few more through-lines of my own.
Chief among them is miscommunication — and, more specifically, the fact that even though we routinely misunderstand our fellow humans, our lives and routines keep ticking merrily, and obliviously, along. In The Amazing Insult, a character’s head trauma leads to a total psychological reawakening, as she realizes for the first time “how good people are at accommodating unexpected responses. Mainly they do it by not listening.”
A similar idea crops up in Wing Night, where Hollingshead introduces the concept of a Gettier case. This is a philosophical question about whether knowledge can be considered valid if a person believes it for invalid reasons. “For example,” Hollingshead writes, “you’re correct in believing that your wife is having an affair with Jim, but you’ve got the wrong Jim.” Such faulty information can sustain us for years.
Act Normal is also interested in the relative goodness of humanity. In Sense of an Ending, as a woman struggles to understand her husband’s family, she reflects on living one’s life according to principle. But “what was hers? People are dumb and I hate myself for being one?”
I ask Hollingshead about this line, and he bristles a little. “I mean, you look at the big picture, and it looks pretty hopeless,” he admits. “You take away people’s resources, and we very quickly start killing each other. So there’s that.” But then he recounts a story he heard on CBC Radio, about a man who spent years travelling all around the world, and who declared that, when you get right down to it, nine out of 10 people are decent.
“That’s where I tend to be,” Hollingshead says. “I’m more interested, I guess, in the surprising decency of most people.”
This response, it turns out, is where his character lands, too. “Most people weren’t especially dumb,” Hollingshead writes, “and she wouldn’t have minded being like one of the ones she liked, dumb or not.”