Meet the Author: Mary Lawson – 10th November 2011 – Feedback from Marianne Tatschner – member of our groups
So far meeting every author at one of the authors’ events has been an exciting experience – like meeting the parents of your closest friends. You are curious to meet them and see what they are like, yet you feel you know them already. The more a book meant to you, the more meeting its author means to you. Meeting Mary Lawson was very special for us as we not only hugely enjoyed her last book, The Other Side of the Bridge, we also read her first novel Crow Lake in the group and even voted it “Book of the Year 2007”. Jan moderated the evening, members of the audience also had a chance to ask questions.
Jan Bild (JB): What was it like to grow up in such a rural part of Canada?
Mary Lawson (ML): I was brought up on a farm in Southern Ontario, which was very remote and in many ways a typical farming community. In the summer we went to our summer home in Northern Ontario. There it was even more remote; we had no electricity and no running water. This part of the Canadian Shield is what I consider home.
I started writing short stories for women’s magazines when my children were little. I needed a job where I could work from home. The magazines would only accept stories that were set in the UK and in the present and they always had to follow the “boy meets girl” formula. I wanted to write about my own background, about Canada, my childhood and my roots there. Once I sent a story that was set in Canada to one of the magazines. The fiction editor phoned me and said “Mary, you know this is not the sort of thing we publish. But I love it and I will publish it anyway. But you’ve got the basis of a novel here.” He also told me that my writing was better when I wrote about Canada, that my voice is Canadian.
JB You’d found your Canadian voice which must have felt wonderful.
ML Yes, I do feel I write with more authority when I write about Canada. I think this is because the things you take in when you are a child – before you are even aware you are taking them in – influence you for the rest of your life.
My great grandmother was an inspiration for me, especially when I wrote my first novel, Crow Lake. She lived on a farm in Northern Canada. She had no education, but a great interest in books. Because she had no time for reading and she got so desperate that she attached a book rest to her spinning wheel. She was determined that her four children would have an education and she managed to send all of them to university and get them off the farm, which was a tremendous success story in our family. I felt there was a story there, but I did not want to use the success story. Instead, I wrote about a family with the same values and dreams as my own. They made sacrifices down several generations until finally there is this one brilliant boy who gets his chance to go to university – and then completely blows it. I thought that would be a much more interesting story.
One of the main reasons why I set Crow Lake in a little farming community is that I hate doing research. I set it in the area of the Canadian Shield because the feeling of isolation is important to the story – and also because it is my favourite landscape in all the world and I just wanted to write about it. So it was an accident really that it was set in Canada, but it was not until I did that I had a bit of success. But even then…
JB: You had to wait five years.
ML: Yes, I could not believe how difficult it was to get it published. It was really hard. I do not know what it is like here in Germany, but in England you cannot just send your manuscript to a publisher, you have to go through an agent. I sent Crow Lake to a lot of agencies. For four years none accepted it. One agent said to me, the book was very well written, but in the present commercial climate no publisher would touch it. Then suddenly three agencies wanted to work with me at the same time. The bidding for the book started within two weeks and seven publishers wanted to publish the book.
I think there is a moral to this story. It goes to show that there is no sense in this business. What makes a good book is anyone’s guess.
JB- Let’s have our first reading. Why Arthur?We loved how you portray the goodness in people- which isn’t easy to do. Arthur is a very endearing character even though he could come across as dull. Where did he come from?
Reading pages 62-67
ML: I was very interested in Arthur as a person, but he is not a typical hero. I was worried that only I was interested in him and nobody else would be so I decided he would need an interesting problem. And that problem is his brother, Jake.
JB: In the part you have just read Jake comes across as very hard done by.
ML: He is. He would love to get his father’s respect, but his father is unable to accept him the way he is and to value his achievements. It is not uncommon, I think. Jake’s mother, on the other hand, adores Jake.
JB: Why did you choose to write mostly about men? We see the world only through the men’s eyes in “The Other Side of the Bridge”.
ML: I do not know why I wrote about men, it was not a conscious decision. The characters just came to me this way. I have two brothers and two sons and I was only interested in the dynamics of relationships, especially of sibling rivalry. It is clear to me that sibling rivalry is a fact and I wanted to use this theme in the book.
Another thing I knew from the start was that the book was going to end in tears. Someone was going to die, but I did not know who. What I did know was that Arthur would never hurt Jake of his own volition, that there had to be a catalyst. This catalyst I found in Ian who is also in love with Arthur’s wife. His character can best be described as idealistic and innocent. He has also had a very difficult relationship with his mother.
Reading pages 52-53, 54-55 (Ian’s mother announces that she is going to leave the family)
ML: When I left home at the age of 19, I had never heard of a mother leaving her children. Also, in those days, it would no only have been very hard for Ian on an emotional but also on a social level.
JB: It would have been a scandal, it would have been very hard for Ian.
ML: The shame for him would have been appalling. But I also felt for Ian’s mother because she was not from the North and the isolation there is pretty bad if you are not used to it. She missed city life and she had tried for some years to adapt.
Questions from the audience.
Why did you know somebody was going to die?
ML: I knew that when Arthur finally was going to explode, he would not be able to control himself. When I thought about what that would mean, four scenarios seemed likely to me: Arthur could either kill Jake. Or he could kill Laura. Or himself. Or he could do nothing – which was the most probable, but which would not do dramatically. But I was certain that once he lets go, all the pain that had been bottled up for years would surface and someone was going to die.
I thought the relationship between Ian and the doctor was very moving. You said you did not like research, but you would have had to research for medical details there, would you not?
ML: I was despairing about the research for this book if I am honest. But with the medical details I had a stroke of luck. I was in New Liskeard, which is close to the area where Crow Lake is set, and I went into the library there and asked if they knew of anyone who was a doctor in the 50s and 60s and could help me with my research. Crow Lake had already been out and I was quite well known already at the time. So they helped me find this doctor, who was then 85 years old and had been a doctor in the 50s and 60s – the only one for about 100 miles back then. He agreed to help me and he was just wonderful. He was a great source of information. For example, he told me that when he went out fishing he had this little bell on the dock that his patients could ring if they needed his help; it is so silent there that the sound carries some distance. He also told me about how he had the blood group of everyone in the community and also the names of volunteers who were prepared to donate blood in an emergency for every blood group. So when a patient needed a blood transfusion urgently, he immediately knew who to turn to.
I was very interested in Dieter and Bernhard, the two prisoners of war from Germany and I thought the way they were welcomed to the community was remarkable. I would love to hear more about their story.
ML: When I started the book, I realised that Arthur would have been born in about 1920, which meant he would have been about 19 at the outbreak of war. So I did a lot of research into how Northern Canada was affected by the war and found that quite a few POWs worked on the farms there – some of which stayed on in Canada after the war ended.
Reading pages 181-184 (the arrival of the German POWs at Arthur’s farm)
What kind of problems did you have to deal with between drafts?
ML: For me writing is all trial and error. It is terribly slow. I go to a lot of readings and listen to other authors and I try to pick something up from them. But I have no experience in analysing books. I had no idea what I was doing with Crow Lake. I showed it to my husband and of course he had to say it was wonderful! So I gave the first draft to my sister and told her that if she read it and told me what she really thought, I would give her 10% of the profits. She did and we have been having this arrangement ever since.
What are you working on at the moment?
ML: My new book is set in the same area. Dr. Christopherson, who is already a crossover character as he appears in Crow Lake as well as in The Other Side of the Bridge, appears in the new book as well – he has very small part. It will be told from the point of view of three characters, one of which is female.
You have a background in psychology. Was it a conscious decision to write about good people rather than bad people?
ML: It is true, I am a psychologist. But psychology is, in the end, just the study of human behaviour. What I have always been interested in is what lies under the surface, why people do what they do. One question that has always been very important in psychology is the nature-nurture-question – whether people behave the way they do because it is in the nature, their character, their genes or whether they behave this way because it is what they were brought up to do, what they have learnt. This question has always interested me very much. But the question of good or bad did not really matter to me. I am an occupational psychologist, so even when I was still working as a psychologist, I was never concerned with pathological phenomena. I tried to make the characters real, not good – I wanted them to ring true.
JB: You write so beautifully about nature, would you please read to us the passage about dragonflies –it’s probably my favourite scene.
Reading page 173
JB: It’s a shame we don’t have more time to look at so many other aspects of the book. Thank you very much for coming. It means a lot to the groups that you accepted our invitation.
ML: It was a real pleasure. Thank you for having me. I’ve enjoyed it very much.