In conversation with Linda Spalding

Credit: Linda Spalding

Linda Spalding is, at seventy-three, among Canada’s best-known and best-loved national writers. She won the Governor-General’s Literary Prize for her 2012 bestseller The Purchase, bringing the total number of Canada’s highest literary award sitting on the house’s mantle-piece to six: her husband, Michael Ondaatje, has written numerous enormously popular novels including The English Patient. Now living in Toronto, having been brought up in Kansas and having spent time in Hawaii during her first marriage, Spalding is also the editor of Brick magazine, one of Canada’s leading literary magazines, which she co-edits with Ondaatje. She sat down with The Saint to discuss her approach to writing, anachronisms in historical fiction, her advice, and much more.

How long have you been writing for?

Hmm, well, it depends on what you mean. I think, like lots of people, I started when I was a kid. I had those diaries with little locks and keys in –do they still make those?—I still have all my old ones; so that was interesting, because I kept on doing that and I… sort of took it seriously. I don’t know why, exactly, because it never occurred to me that I would go public, but on the other hand I started writing a novel. I was living in Hawaii, I lived there for a long time, and in Hawaii you don’t think about getting published much, because you’re pretty far away from everything, and anyway I didn’t even know- how to do that. But I was writing a novel. I was being very secretive about it, because it was a novel –is a novel—that takes place in Hawaii, and people there are very fussy about whether –you know— you have a right to write about that place. So I was very careful, and very secretive, and I kept writing, and then I met a writer from Canada, who shall probably go unnamed (I think you can probablyguess). And I eventually moved to Toronto, where it seemed much more likely that one could send a manuscript to an agent, you know, and actually maybe it would get read. So I don’t know when I started writing; when I was a kid— but I didn’t get published until I was forty-something. Forty-three, maybe?

So when did you first make the transition between writing for pleasure and actually pursuing it?

I suppose it was just before I left Hawaii. And actually, I had started a novel when I was in my early thirties, and then it was all handwritten. Somebody gave me a book by- oh, God, what’s his name? –John Brayne, who wrote ‘How to Write a Novel.’ And his theory –the only part of it that I  remember— was, write a thousand words a day. And you know, you can do that; you just can. I mean, it’s not that hard— four typed pages, right? Just, blah blah blah. So, I spent a summer doing that. And suddenly I had a manuscript. And so that was when I was in my early thirties, and then I thought it was crap and I put it in a drawer, and I didn’t look at it again for several years. And then I thought, maybe I should… So then I started typing it –this was before computers—and then I met Michael [Ondaatje], and then I came to Canada, and then I gave it to an agent; so I don’t know. It was like that. It was mainly to do it—to do it; to actually have that manuscript. It wasn’t even about getting published, it was about having that thing.

So was it something quite personal? Something intrinsically— yourself, then?

Yes. And I think, because I wrote in a journal (and I hate the verb journaling! But that’s now a verb), and I did it so much and so passionately that I got pretty used to my own voice, and to being vaguely confessional in print; or on the page, let’s say. And so I sort of learned how to do that, and then to turn that into fiction was very interesting. Because you still want to be— or at least I did, I wanted to be confessional, but in the third person.

What do you mean by ‘vaguely’ confessional?

Well, you want that inner voice, and if you’ve practised it and practised it in a journal, it’s not too hard to find, because you’ve let it all out. If you can do that in a journal, which some people can’t do. I remember finding my mother’s after she died, and it was like, ‘Rainy today,’ you know, whatever—‘had this lunch, had—’ you know, it wasn’t very interesting. No inner thoughts. No confessions. But mine was full— mine was full of it.

What makes a subject compelling enough to write about it?

I don’t know; I don’t know. I think—hm, well, I do sort of know. Um. I’m very interested in tribalism versus modernism. It sounds very simple, but it really fascinates me. That sort of stuff just— I love it. And I’ve lived in Hawaii, I’ve lived in Mexico, I’ve lived very briefly in Japan; I’ve been to places where people are still very tribal, like Borneo, and that— mindset really interests me. So I think I’m always kind of tinkering with that, even though my books aren’t specifically about that, but they sort of are. My last book is based on what I know about my ancestors, who were slave owners. And, that sort of upset me, as a child, and confused me, because my family were very liberal. And so I thought  about that a lot, and I wanted to— and they were Quaker. And the Quakers, as you know, were abolitionists. So how did that happen? Well, he left— the great-great-great-grandfather left Pennsylvania, which was Quaker, and went to Virginia, and I thought ‘OK, so what was that like?’ So I actually went down there and I lived there, and I thought ‘What was this like in 1798?’ It was bare as bones, except for trees, and it was scary, and if you wanted to start a farm how did you do it, if you didn’t have a grown up son and— you couldn’t hire labour in those days, in that part of the world. And then I sort of got into his mindset. So, I guess that was a book about the dichotomy of being a decent person and a slave owner, and what goes on in your brain, truly. You know, that kind of confessional self, of— how do you live with yourself? So, it’s that kind of thing, that kind of idea that I like to fiddle around with.

Is it in the same sort of way that Who Named the Knife is about how somebody gets to that situation?

[A situation, that is, of murder. Who Named the Knife is a book Spalding wrote in 2006, inspired by her role as a juror in the trial of a pair of newlyweds who committed several homicides in Hawaii in 1978; Spalding had moved to Hawaii herself after her marriage. The book used extensive conversations to explore the life and especially the childhood of Maryann Acker, one of the couple, and in so doing weaves into her story Spalding’s account of her own childhood and failed marriage.]

Exactly. And also Who Named the Knife is interesting –by the way, I just sent Maryann an email this morning— because I saw us as two women from the same part of the world, in this other part of the world, which was Hawaii. We’d both come there sort of as brides, although I was fourteen years older than she, but anyway— I was sitting in the courtroom, and I thought ‘We are kind of alike, and nobody in this big room is like us. They’re all local, and we’re not. They’re going to look at her, and they’re not going to get her.’ Because Maryann had blonde hair and so on, and I thought, ‘this jury’s not going to get her. And they’re not going to believe her.’ And it was sort of rigged against her; I sound like Trump, but it was. And so I got very interested in, sort of, ‘Where does she come from, where do I come from, how did we end up so different, you know— what were her parents like?’ Then I got into her Mormon background, which sort of gave me the creeps, and again, it was just a sort of mental process of trying to get into her brain and also understand my own.

I think it’s fascinating how you go to a place and try to imagine how it was at a certain time. How do you manage this?

I don’t know. I’ve done it ever since I was little. I remember driving around in Kansas, which is where I grew up, with my parents and looking out the window and making little binoculars with my hands and trying to make it look like it must have looked before there were any white people there. Like, no phone lines, no hydro lines, no— like, trying to put it back the way it was, in my brain. I was obsessed with that. And I knew that my family had come out there in a covered wagon, so that made it sort of intrinsically fun. Even when I’m going to sleep at night, I just— totally go back in time.

Why do you think you are so influenced by the past?

I don’t know. Don’t you think that could just be—I don’t know. That’s interesting. I like it. It’s fun. I mean I’ve always been sort of obsessed about, you know, what was it like when he was alive, and she was alive, and so on. What was their world like? I think that’s why people watch movies. And I’m also a bit obsessed with dead people, because ever since I was a child, I’ve been pissed off that people die, and that all my family— I was just like, ‘My family are all going to die! My dog’s going to die, my cat’s going to die’— I couldn’t bear it; I wanted everyone to just stay quietly still. Just, ‘don’t die, just stay the way you are right now.’ Or the way you were in 1798, or whatever— like, why can’t it all still be going?

So in that regard, I suppose writing about somebody else and getting into their character is a way of permanently immortalising them?

Yes, that’s true! Although I must say, I’m feeling rather guilty about what I’ve done to my ancestors, because although I know they were slave owners, I’ve done some rather naughty things. To their brains, to their behaviour; with their behaviour. So, I do have a bit of— the people I’m writing about now are the ones who went to Kansas, in the covered wagon. And I went to see their graves, last Fall, and there I was, standing and thinking ‘I’m using your name, and your name, and I’m saying things about you that you would not like.’ Because, you know, I’m just making it up— right? Because who knows! You don’t know your great-great-grandmother, you don’t know what she was thinking. But you might like to imagine. You know— was she ever pissed off? Was she ever sad? And so on. Did he sleep with any of those slaves, you might ask yourself? But you know, I’m not very popular in the family right now for that.

How do you keep the novels true to the subject matter you’re writing about? You want it to be true to the time, even if you can’t know exactly whether the emotions you’re ascribing to somebody were ones they ever felt— how do you go about that?

You have to think— I mean, I have to keep reminding myself that they all believed in God, without any doubts, probably. Um. Which was a little hard for me. And they all probably believed in family loyalty. They probably all believed in obedience; certainly obedience to parents. You know, there’s all that stuff— so you have to kind of, screw your brain around and say ‘what did that, then, given that set of beliefs— how would they have viewed this dinner that they’re eating?’ How would they have viewed whatever, the eating of the meat, or the fact that the servants were bringing in food, or whatever— it’s not like me. They wouldn’t be uncomfortable having a servant serve them. Whereas I am. So, you have to— you know, that’s why it’s such a beautiful thing to do, to write. Because it’s empathetic. And it teaches you empathy; and hopefully it teaches the reader the same kind of thing. Maybe I’m hoping that my characters, who are not terrible, but who are sometimes wicked— so you want to say that sometimes a wicked person can also be a kind human being, or a sad person, or whatever; that they’re just as complicated as good people. That’s the idea for me. Because we’re all very shadowy. So I’m probably being very unfair to me ancestors. But they stand for something that is human. I’m just using their names, which I probably should not have decided to do; I probably should have fictionalised it more. But it was so… It was so intriguing, because I had so many interesting facts about them, so I kind of wanted to play that game.

Where do you find those facts?

There were some family papers; there were some things written by my aunt, who’d gone to Virginia and done some research, and then I went to Virginia with my niece, who was an avid scholar, and we’d go into libraries and she’d start Xeroxing everything –everything— and I’d be talking to someone. There was one library where there was an old lady –honestly, this is the best thing— she came in to the library every morning, and she sat there to answer questions! You know, she was probably in her nineties— who was going to ask her those questions? I don’t know. But I did. So—  ‘how did you plant potatoes?’, and, ‘did you have a cellar?’— and so on. And then, she was the one – this old woman— who said, ‘So what are you doing?’, and I said, ‘I’m researching the Dickinsons,’ and she said ‘Oh, well so you’ve seen their house?- it’s right down the road.’ And I said no –I didn’t know there was a house!— and she said, well, yeah; it’s one of those, what do you call it, with the plaque. You know, it’s a thing. And I said, no, my God. Well, then, you know, what if I hadn’t met her? Nobody in the family knew about this house. Big old huge mansion. And there it was. And I ended up getting in it, going down into the cellar, where great-great-great-great uncle had kept his slaves; which was not a nice thing to do. You didn’t keep your slaves in the cellar, that’s nasty. You know, if you’re going to have to have the bloody things, you keep them out in their quarters. Where they get some sunshine, and so forth. So, he was considered quite a nasty guy. And that interested me, obviously. But I knew that we’d gone bankrupt, I knew a lot of stuff, that I could sort of use. And whatever I knew to be true, I wanted to use; and sort of make myself fill in the pieces, just for fun, kind of like a game. ‘If you went bankrupt, what was that, how did that happen, what did it feel like…’ Things like that.

So when you’re writing like this, when you’re piecing together the identities of people, the different links that you create—do you end up with a massive binder of information, or is it a more spontaneous affair, injecting bits as you go?

I did have binders of information, in the beginning, on these books. Well, certainly on the Borneo book [A Dark Place in the Jungle, a 2003 investigation of a colleague of Jane Goodall’s work on orangutans in Borneo], I had vast, vast quantities of it— which I just got back from the lawyer, by the way, because I was being sued… I guess so, but also the web is fantastic. It’s amazing. You can be quite lazy nowadays, and get a lot of research done. Plus, I kind of collect old books, and then you sort of find odd bits of information in those old books. I found out that nobody wore a coat in the winter— there weren’t any coats! So, ‘oh, well, that’s kind of weird.’ Because I probably have been referring to coats for the last two hundred pages, so, you know, that goes. And I probably wouldn’t have found that on the web, because I wouldn’t have— well, I mean, what would I go ask to get that information? It just happened that I had an old account of some guy’s childhood from that time of that part of the world, and he happened to say that when he went outdoors, it was really cold! Because he didn’t have a coat!

So for the characters themselves, do you, before you start writing, map out the person they’ll be—do you draw up their character arc, and plan out where they’re going to end up going?

No… I wish I did that, but I don’t; I’m sure my editors wish that I did do that. No; I just sort of feel my way in- and it’s a bit daunting when… for instance, in this book I’m working on now, I have a slave who escapes, and he’s fifty-three years old. And early in his life he’s been castrated. Now, I don’t know anything about castrated men; like— how they used to do kids when they were teenagers? Boys, to get them to be castrati so they could sing— what does that do to your— I mean, I don’t know, I’ve still got to do some research about, sort of, what would be the result by the time you were fifty, that having been done to you. Physically, but emotionally of course it’s also a bit- mysterious to me! Not only that he’s been castrated, but that he’s a slave and that he’s a fifty-three-year-old man, and so forth; so, it’s daunting, some of that. It’s easier to think about what my great-great-grandmother would have been thinking. I don’t think women’s lives are all that different. I mean, they are now; yours, and even mine, are different than our grandmothers’, but, until then, they stayed pretty— you know, they just did the same old damn stuff. Guys did different things- they were farmers, or they were plumbers, or whatever; the women— you know, mending, washing, cooking. Yeah. Sewing. So that’s not so hard. But being a fifty-three-year-old escaped slave is a little tricky for me.

Why do you choose characters like that? What do you think influences your choice of characters?

I don’t know. Well… some of it is plot. Because I knew that this big family farm went bankrupt, and that they had slaves— and I also, by the way, knew that my great-great-grandfather, who was the son of the other one I wrote about, had freed them. Because my father used to tell me about that- ‘well, we freed them!’ when I used to say ‘oh, Daddy, we had slaves!’- ‘well, we freed them, and we gave each of them a mule’… So that was obviously some family thing that had come down. And then I thought, so we freed them; that was the year 1858, before the Civil War: where did they go? What did they do? In Virginia, when you were freed -which was called ‘manumitted’- you had to get out of the state: ‘out! Get away!’ You wouldn’t stay here- it was kind of like being an immigrant; they wouldn’t want you around, because you were going to cause trouble and take somebody else’s job, and so on and so forth. And so they had to get out—but where did they go? They had no education; so, we’d been patting ourselves on the back for freeing them, but… I’m not sure how… I mean, what was that really like, for them?

When you’re writing about this sort of thing, an issue that is so deeply personal, and political, how do you manage to do it without mapping on anachronistic views?

That’s it! That’s a good question! It’s incredibly difficult. It’s funny, because my editor in New York— I just got some notes from her saying, it would really be a good idea if you had some of those escaping slaves being brave and really, you know, sort of going for it— really taking care of each other. But that’s not what interests me; I’m just not at all interested in heroics. And, I think that that sort of gives a false idea of what it might have been like, to suddenly be cast off on your own. I mean yes, you might be glad to be out of there and away from your horrible boss— but you also might be terrified. I don’t know. That’s brave enough, just to have it happen. So I don’t know. There’s that modern mind, which is worried that this book will offend black people, because I make these slaves seem fragile. Well— [her voice drops to a whisper] too bad. That’s how I see it.

So, realism and giving an accurate revelation-

Well, who knows if it’s real! I’m sure there were lots of people who were brave and daunting; and I’m sure that there were people who were terrified and crawled off; but, why do I have to write about— to keep somebody happy, politically? No. I think that’s a dangerous precedent. Because I think our job is to really look at the inside of people. Not so much their actions, but their reactions. Which is the opposite of making a ‘hero story’. I mean, even heroes are scared! Supposedly. We know they are. They have to be. So who knows if you fulfil that duty of staying true to the mental logic of the time— because we can’t know. We can just try; just because it’s interesting. Those guys— I’m sure they felt ambivalent about slavery. They still did it. Some of them felt ambivalent, others didn’t. My main character is obviously feeling a little ambivalent, particularly after he falls in love with one of the women, and he realises what the system has done to her. Which is sort of an easy plot device, frankly, to get him to be more moderate in his views.

You mentioned, briefly, the duty of the writer to stay real. What duties, if any, does a writer have?— a writer has a great privilege in their ability to speak directly into somebody’s mind; how should that be used?

Really privileged, yeah. I think the only duty is— well, I don’t know. I don’t think a writer has any duties to… I don’t think a writer has any duty to the reader. I think that writers often sell out their own souls; that’s ok. I do that. I’m not going to go to jail for being a sell-out. I might even get a prize for it. I’m interested to read the book that won the most recent Booker prize. It’s called The Sell-Out, and the guy gave an amazingly strange speech. He’s black, American, and he’s written a book in which a black man sets up a community that’s entirely segregated, and re-institutes segregation. So that could be interesting. Yeah.

You’ve had one of your books adapted for film. How was it as a creative process?

It was really fun. But you have to understand, though, that the woman who did it, I knew; she was a friend of my daughter’s, and my daughter was actually the script editor. So, it was very cosy; it was nice. I mean, it wasn’t all that cosy, because once it started being filmed, I had to stay out of it. And of course, I had to also watch the story get slightly mushed around. I really wanted there to be a moment at the end where it said ‘this is the true story of Maryann’, and show a picture. And they wouldn’t do it— they said no, we’re going to get sued; and then, they finally did it, but it’s for, like, two seconds, if you really watch, during the credits. You see Maryann with one of the dogs that she trained. But it’s too bad. Because I wanted it to be a little bit of a political moment for women in prison. And I don’t think it was, really.

But it was fun; and the other thing that was fun, was— well, the book takes place in Hawaii, and was filmed in Toronto. Ok, try that! So it was really funny, because just as they started filming, there was some big movie about the tropics that was just done, like it was just over. And they said, ‘oh, can we buy the sets?’; and so they had this sort of lake-shore sandy place, and they had these palm trees that somebody else had bought, and they were kind of dying. But they had them up for the murder scene. And then for the courthouse—the courthouse in Honolulu has a huge statue of King Kamehameha, and he’s got leis, and people put leis on him; and he’s big, a beautiful statue. So, what were they gonna do? They used a University of Toronto building, or something like that; but it didn’t look like the Hawaii stone building; but that’s ok. But then they had to get a kind of Photoshop thing of King Kamehameha, and it really looks rather silly. But that’s alright. I mean, you probably wouldn’t notice if you saw it; but I’m there going ‘Oh no! That’s- crazy!’

And as regards the story process, did that go according to plan?

It was fun; it was really fun.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

The thing is, I always notice with young writers –or any beginning writers— they’re very worried about plot, they’re very worried about structure. Never mind! Just- get it, get your five hundred thousand or whatever it is, I don’t know how many words the things are anymore, but—You know, get a bunch of papers in front of you that are filled with words. And then worry about ‘Does it all fit? What’s this guy doing?’; but at least you’ve got something. Then you can work on it. Otherwise, if you’re like ‘But I don’t know what’s going to happen on Wednesday? What is Paul going to say when-?’ You can’t do that. You have to just go. That’s my one thing. And then— read. Yeah. If you’re a reader, it makes it a lot easier— because your brain works that way. In fact, I had a boyfriend… I was married, and then I was divorced; and then I was sort of floating around, and there was this nice boyfriend… And he said: write. And I didn’t know how to start. And then he said, ‘read first novels by women.’ And I spent a year doing that. Joan Gideon’s first novel— not her great ones, but the very first one. And that was kind of good, because it’s less intimidating, so I thought ‘oh!’ It was really kind of neat. And only women. It was very specific. But it was such a good idea! They had to go through their, sort of, weird experimental phases, and some of them were great; I happened to love Joan Gideon’s first novel. But I don’t think anybody else does. It was a good thing to do. It gave you permission to fool around. I think people take it all too seriously when they start— ‘I’ve gotta be smart, from line one… I have to know what I’m doing!’ No.

Where do you enjoy writing most? Do you have a particular spot?

Well… In Hawaii I had an actual desk. That was a long time ago. Um. I actually write on my lap. It’s very bad— it’s very bad for your back, right? But I’ve got this great laptop, and I just sort of sit in the chair and… I mean, I do have a desk, at home. It’s on the third floor, and sometimes I feel lazy and I like to be close to the kitchen, so I’ll just sit and type away. So there’s not a specific environment in which I feel most able to write. What’s really great about being here, in this wonderful thing that I’ve been given, is— there are no interruptions. You get up in the morning, and you start, and nobody bothers you; you don’t have to walk the dog, and you don’t have to feed anybody. It’s just heavenly. It’s great. And I actually forget to eat because I’m just… So that’s very luxurious. It’s a real gift. I’m going to have to write all of St Andrews a big thank you note, or something.



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