Thomas, Audrey (Callahan) 1935–
THOMAS, Audrey (Callahan) 1935–
PERSONAL: Born November 17, 1935, in Binghamton, NY; immigrated to Canada; daughter of Donald Earle (a teacher) and Frances (Corbett) Callahan; married Ian Thomas (a sculptor and art teacher), December 6, 1958 (divorced, 1978); children: Sarah, Victoria, Claire. Education: Smith College, B.A., 1957; University of British Columbia, M.A., 1963.
ADDRESSES: Home—R.R. 2, Box 11, C-50, Galiano Island, British Columbia V0N 1P0, Canada.
CAREER: Writer and educator. Visiting assistant professor of creative writing, Concordia University, 1978; visiting professor of creative writing, University of Victoria, 1978–79; writer-in-residence, Simon Fraser University, 1981–82, University of Ottawa, 1987, University of Toronto, 1993, University of Victoria, University of British Columbia, and David Thompson University Centre; Scottish-Canadian Exchange Fellow in Edinburgh, 1985–86; visiting professor, Concordia University, 1989–90, Dartmouth College, 1994, 1996.
MEMBER: PEN, Writers Union of Canada, Writers Guild of Canada.
AWARDS, HONORS: Atlantic Monthly magazine First award, 1965; CBC Literary Competition, second prize for fiction, 1980, second prize for memoirs, 1981; second prize for fiction, National Magazine Awards, 1980; second prize, Chatelaine Fiction Competition, 1981; British Columbia Book Prize: Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, 1985, for Intertidal Life, 1990, for Wild Blue Yonder, and 1995, for Coming down from Wa; Marian Engel Award, 1987; Canada-Australia Literary Prize, 1989–90; Governor General's Literary Award nomination, and Commonwealth Literary Prize, both 1996, both for Coming down from Wa; W. O. Mitchell Book Prize, 2001; Terasen Lifetime Achievement Award, 2003; Matt Cohen Award, for lifetime of distinguished work, 2004.
Mrs. Blood, Bobbs-Merrill (Indianapolis, IN), 1970.
Munchmeyer and Prospero on the Island, Bobbs-Merrill (Indianapolis, IN), 1972.
Songs My Mother Taught Me, Bobbs-Merrill (Indianapolis, IN), 1973.
Blown Figures, Talonbooks (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada), 1974, Knopf (New York, NY), 1975.
Latakia, Talonbooks (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada), 1979.
Intertidal Life, Stoddart Press (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1984.
Graven Images, Viking (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1993.
Coming down from Wa, Viking (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1995.
Isobel Gunn (novel), Viking (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1999.
Tattycoram, Goose Lane Editions (Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada), 2005.
Ten Green Bottles, Bobbs-Merrill (Indianapolis, IN), 1967.
Ladies & Escorts, Oberon (Ottawa, Ontario, Canada), 1977.
Two in the Bush, and Other Stories, McClelland & Stewart (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1979.
Real Mothers, Talonbooks (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada), 1981.
Goodbye Harold, Good Luck, Viking/Penguin (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1986.
Wild Blue Yonder, Penguin (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1990.
The Path of Totality, Penguin (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 2001.
Contributor of short fiction to anthologies, including Personal Fictions: Stories by Munro, Wiebe, Thomas, and Blaise, edited by Michael Ondaatje, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1977, to periodicals, including Atlantic Monthly, Maclean's, Saturday Night, Toronto Life, Capilano Review, Fiddlehead, Canadian Literature, and Interface.
(With Linda Sorenson and Keith Pepper) Once Your Submarine Cable Is Gone, What Have You Got?, Canadian Broadcasting Corp. (CBC-Radio), 1973.
Mrs. Blood, CBC-Radio, 1975.
Untouchables, CBC-Radio, 1981.
The Milky Way, CBC-Radio, November 26, 1983.
The Axe of God, in Disasters! Act of God or Acts of Man?, CBC-Radio, 1985.
The Woman in Black Velvet, CBC-Radio, 1985.
In the Groove, CBC-Radio, 1985.
On the Immediate Level of Events Occurring in Meadows, in Sextet, CBC-Radio, 1986.
Also author of fourteen other radio plays.
ADAPTATIONS: Isobel Gunn was adapted as an audiobook.
WORK IN PROGRESS: Two novels, one set in the 1830s in London and the Gold Coast of Africa; the other, a contemporary novel.
SIDELIGHTS: An American-born Canadian author of novels, short stories, and radio plays, Audrey Thomas has won a number of literary prizes, yet, as Urjo Kareda observed in Saturday Night, "somehow she has never achieved her rightful place in the hierarchy of Canada's best writers. Her writing tends to be racier, ruder, more raw than that of her contemporaries in the Ontario-centered, female-dominated literary establishment." Thomas's work, as a number of critics have noted, is autobiographical in nature, and it displays an interest in feminism and a love of experimentation, both with language and literary devices.
Employing these techniques in different ways to shed light on her common theme of personal isolation and loneliness, the author has said that her stories are about "the terrible gap between men and women," quoted Margaret Atwood in her Second Words: Selected Critical Prose. "Language," Thomas told Liam Lacey in a Globe and Mail interview, "is where men and women get into trouble, I think, … they think they mean the same things by the same words when they really don't." The author also sometimes expands the theme of adult relationships to involve children, who are often the casualties of broken marriages. Saturday Night contributor Eleanor Wachtel maintains that as a writer who reveals these "politics of the family, … Audrey Thomas [is] one of [our] most astute commentators."
A divorced mother of three children, Thomas is well acquainted with the problems of family life about which she writes. Having resided in such places as Ghana, England, Scotland, and Greece, she also "likes to tell her stories of Americans or Canadians set down in an alien culture so that their problems will appear more starkly," wrote Open Letter critic George Bowering. The author's first novel, Mrs. Blood, is about one such character who suffers a miscarriage while living in Africa. It is a stream-of-consciousness novel in which the protagonist, Isobel Cleary, while lying in the hospital, contemplates the problems of her marriage and her painful affair with another man. Critics like Joan Caldwell, a Canadian Literature reviewer, were particularly impressed by the writing skills demonstrated in this first effort. "Mrs. Blood is accomplished writing," praised Caldwell; "it does not bear the marks of a first novel and it must surely not be Audrey Thomas's last."
Thomas has written two sequels to Mrs. Blood, Songs My Mother Taught Me and Blown Figures. The first of these takes Isobel back to her childhood, an unhappy time in her life during which she is caught between her parents—an "inadequate man and [a] compulsive angry woman," as Saturday Night contributor Anne Montagnes described them. Longing for love, Isobel does not find happiness until she gets a job at an asylum, where, as Constance Rooke related in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, "she learns something of compassion and something of the madness which has been concealed in her family. Finally, she chooses to be vulnerable." The subject of madness is also a part of Blown Figures, which takes up the story of Isobel with her return to Africa to find the body of her miscarried baby. "She is now clearly schizophrenic and addresses many of her remarks to a Miss Miller—an imaginary confidante," explained Rooke. "Blatantly experimental, Blown Figures has numerous nearly blank pages which serve to isolate the fragments (cartoons, one-liners, and so forth) which appear here. The novel depends heavily on Africa as a metaphor for the unconscious." Atwood, in a New York Times Book Review article, praised the book, noting that, "In hands less skillful than Miss Thomas's, such devices could spell tedious experimentation for its own sake, self-indulgence, or chaos. But she is enormously skillful, and instead of being a defeating pile of confusions 'Blown Figures' is amazingly easy to read."
The novels Munchmeyer and Prospero on the Island, Latakia, and Intertidal Life concern male-female relationships and also have in common protagonists who are women writers. These characters, reported Wayne Grady in Books in Canada, are "trying to come to terms in their books with the fact that they have been rejected by men who have loved them." Of these books, critics have generally found Intertidal Life, the story of a woman named Alice whose husband leaves her after fourteen years of marriage, to be the most significant effort. Grady called Intertidal Life "undoubtedly Thomas's best novel to date." Although Kareda felt that this novel "doesn't rank with Audrey Thomas's finest writing," he asserted that "its desire to reach us, to tell so much, to keep questioning, are the strengths of an exceptional, expressive will."
According to Alberto Manguel in the Village Voice, Intertidal Life seems to resolve an issue that was raised in Thomas's earlier work. The novel "appears as the culmination of the search for a character that was never quite defined before. Perhaps in the much-neglected Blown Figures or in Songs My Mother Taught Me, there are sketchier versions of Alice circling the primary question: Who am I? In Intertidal Life the question is answered." Rooke explained further that, in being separated from her husband, Alice is able to assert her independence while overcoming her feelings of isolation by becoming "inextricably involved with others and most particularly with [her] female friends and children."
Graven Images features Charlotte Corbett, a character much like Thomas: an American-born writer, divorced and living in British Columbia. Charlotte is on a search for her ancestors, traveling to England to trace her heritage and discover who founded the clan in the eleventh century. Accompanied by her friend Lydia, a woman who was taken to Canada as a child to avoid the Nazi bombing during World War II and is on a parallel quest to locate her own family, the two women arrive in England just as a hurricane hits the island. Writing in Books in Canada, Elisabeth Harvor explained that "Thomas is not often a very introspective writer. She instead reserves her love for the surface of life and for the thousands of details that make up the surface…. This preference for the surface has a tendency to make Graven Images seem somewhat trivial." In contrast, Nancy Wigston in Quill & Quire noted that "Charlotte's voice is one of absolute candour; her insights into the multiple phases of women's lives pile up like the gifts she is constantly buying for friends and family. Cluttered and subtle like Charlotte herself, this book is like one of those gifts: special and resonant with meaning."
Coming down from Wa introduces a male protagonist while once again exploring the issues of heritage and nationality. In this novel, declared Lynne Van Luven in Books in Canada, "Thomas charts new terrain for herself and tackles a powerful subject, human cupidity, in a broader political context than ever before." The story tells of a young Canadian, William Kwame MacKenzie, and his struggle to understand his own past and that of both his parents. He travels from British Columbia to Ghana in West Africa in an attempt to resolve his doubts about his history. "One could make the case that the novel's disguised theme is Canada's loss of innocence vis a vis foreign aid to the Third World," theorized Quill & Quire contributor Jerry Horton; "what seemed possible and even noble in the 1960s has proven enormously complicated from both pragmatic and ethical points of view." The author, Van Luven stated, "has dared to expand her own repertoire in writing such a novel, and she is to be highly praised for that."
While Coming down from Wa gave readers Thomas's first male protagonist, Isobel Gunn stands as a different kind of first for Thomas: it is her first work of historical fiction. While living in Scotland in the 1980s, Thomas heard the story of a woman from the Orkney Isles of Scotland named Isobel Gunn. Immigrating to western Canada, Gunn became the only white woman to work at Hudson's Bay Company, a fort at the bottom of the Bay, in the early 1800s. She had disguised herself as a man in order to get the position, but her gender was revealed when she gave birth to a son during her work shift. When Thomas later visited the Orkney Isles, she heard the story again. "I just kept hearing about her and I thought: I really want to do something with this," Thomas explained to Linda Richards of January Online. After spending four years doing research and finding that very little factual information actually existed about Gunn's life, Thomas began to write her novel. "It was enough of a frame on which to embroider her well-told tale," Thomas told Richards. Critics agreed; a critic for Herizons noted that while the truth of Gunn's story will never be known, "The well-balanced Isobel Gunn is both a credible historic reading of events and a darn good read." Susan McClelland, writing for Macleans, considered the work a "captivating and tragic new novel," and commented, "it is the courageous Isobel who lingers in the reader's imagination."
Writing in the Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Lorraine M. York claimed that "What sets Thomas apart from almost any other writer in Canada is her rich melange of self-conscious fabulation, feminism, and autobiography." These themes that Thomas explores in her novels are also echoed in her short-story writing, which, along with the work she has done for radio, has amounted to a large oeuvre since the 1970s. But, lamented Atwood, despite this concerted effort and "its ambition, range and quality, she has not yet received the kind of recognition such a body of work merits, perhaps because she is that cultural hybrid, an early-transplanted American. Of course her work has flaws; everyone's does. She can be sentimental, repetitious, and sometimes merely gossipy. But page for page, she is one of [Canada's] best writers."
AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL ESSAY: Audrey Thomas contributed the following autobiographical essay to CA:
Several years ago my mother wrote me a letter and enclosed a clipping. The former secretary of one of the first ladies, Lady Bird Johnson perhaps, had just written a book which was auctioned to a New York publisher for some incredible amount of money: thousands and thousands of dollars. Wasn't it about time, wrote my mother, that I admitted I was not a success as a writer, gave up this foolish dream, and went back to what I studied in college, was it medieval history? Perhaps I could get a job teaching. What I studied in college was Anglo-Saxon and Middle English, but my mother is old, very old, so it didn't bother me that she had got it mixed up. What did bother me was my own reaction, after all these years, to her not-so-subtle ways of putting me down. I laughed but I also felt again the self-doubt that has plagued me all my life about my writing: that I had somehow, as usual, ended up chained to a large hungry dog (my writing) and would give anything if someone would come along and release me, unchain me, shoot the damn dog, or at least find the dog another home. Maybe the old lady was right—give it up.
Easier said than done, of course, so I put the letter away and kept on with the only thing I know how to do. It would appear that I have no choice, although it wasn't my first choice or even my second. But therein lies a tale.
I come from a small city in western New York State, at the junction of the Chenango and Susquehanna Rivers. My mother's family had been in that general area since 1790, first in northern Pennsylvania (they named the town of New Milford) and then across the line in Conklin, New York. They had been in Massachusetts for over a hundred years before they "went west" so they were a very old family indeed. They made their money in lumber, and one branch of the family was in the acid factory business up and down the east branch of the Delaware until the 1930s. My grandfather came in on the very end of this—my mother talks about going to live near Shinhopple where they were not allowed to play with the company children. She remembers seeing men with huge arms, stripped to the waist and covered in sweat, feeding the furnaces which were the first step in the "destructive distillation" process which led, eventually, to acetate of lime. Some of those villages still remain: Acidalia, Burntwood, Methol, Corbett, New York, and I have been to see them. However, by the time I was born my grandfather lived in Binghamton and was head of the mechanical engineering department at IBM. THINK, said a brass plaque on his enormous desk. He was my hero when I was a child. I remember my grandmother, his wife, only vaguely. She wasn't a well woman and she died a day or two after a heart attack at my kindergarten Christmas party. My grandfather lived another thirty years after her death; the last time I saw him he called me by her name—"Is that you, Grace?" (Still in his own house then and not senile, he quickly corrected himself and made a nice attempt to admire his great-granddaughter Sarah. We were on our way from England to British Columbia, where we were to settle, but I had taken the baby on a side trip to show her off to my mother and father, my sister, my grandfather. It seemed terribly important to do this even though it meant I would travel by train from Boston to Vancouver by myself, with the baby, as my husband went on ahead once our ship docked at Montreal.)
My father's family had also been in the area for a long time and also came there from Massachusetts. He was a member of the Sons of the American Revolution, somebody having fought in the Revolution but I can't remember who, some connection with General Joseph Warren and the Battle of Bunker Hill. His father died before I was born but had run a very successful hardware and sporting goods store, Callahan and Douglas, for years before he sold it to his partner. He was a keen fisherman and so was my father. One of my favorite breakfasts as a child was brook trout freshly caught, rolled in cornmeal, and fried in a castiron frying pan. I love living out here by the ocean, feasting on salmon and cod, oysters, clams and crab, but there are days when I yearn for the clear lakes and brooks of my childhood and the silvery treasures, laid so carefully on ferns, in my father's creel. My father talked a lot about that sporting-goods store—I think he missed it and would have liked that sort of a life for himself, discussing lures and rods and guns. He loved to "jaw," as my mother called it. Instead, he taught general science and history at a high school across the river. And although he had two degrees I never saw him read a serious book the whole time I lived at home. He read Life and U.S. News and World Report and the National Geographic, a lifetime wedding gift from my grandfather Corbett. (My mother read the Ladies' Home Journal, the Woman's Home Companion, and McCall's.)
I think my father, a short, rather nervous man, was illsuited to be a high school teacher, and one of the ways he showed this seemed very peculiar when I was young. My grandfather Corbett had a summer camp in the Adirondack Mountains, and we went there every summer until I was seventeen years old and he was forced to sell it. We left home the day after school was out (returning at least twice to make sure the gas stove had been turned off and the notes had been left out for the milkman and the mailman) and we didn't come back until Labor Day. Our first stop was the Esso station to fill up with gas. "Yep," my father would say to the owner, whom he knew, "Me and the missus and the kids are headin' up to camp for the summer." And as we progressed—a stop at Utica for lunch, a stop at the General Store in Pisco, if it was still open by the time we got there, a stop at Red's Baits to get worms and other crawly things that lived in soil-filled trays in an old shed—his diction and accent became more and more "country boy." It drove my mother nuts, but then just about everything my father did or didn't do drove her nuts. (It was years before I real-ized that husbands and wives actually shared one bedroom.)
Both my mother and father thought of "success" in terms of money, nice cars, nice things. They argued about money all the time, terrible arguments and nearly every night. Neither could manage money and although a teacher's pay was very low in those days compared with the salaries in any other profession (teachers were like nurses and ministers; they were expected to have a vocation) I don't think we needed to be as hard-up as we were. My father was always asking his unmarried sister, Ethel (who was a maths professor at an upstate college), to bail us out; my mother would ask her father. Sometimes my parents hid when bill collectors came to the door. Sometimes the telephone was cut off. After my grandmother Callahan, who had been crippled for years, was moved up to Syracuse with my uncle and his family (they all lived next door but my mother didn't speak to them), we moved into the family home, a dreary house with faded brown wallpaper and a general air of decay. Except for a few months near the end of his life, when they wanted to be closer to my sister and her family in Massachusetts, they lived there until my father died. (They rented, they didn't own; my aunt owned the house, another thorn in my mother's side.) There were attempts to fix the place up from time to time, but I remember it as shabby and depressing. It had a nice backyard, however, with an apple tree, a cherry tree (pie cherries), and a small vegetable and flower garden. My father tended all this and was very proud of his tomatoes and his roses. His other great interest, besides fishing, was the Masons, and at one point he was master of his lodge. He used to pace up and down in his room upstairs at the back of the house practicing his degrees: "Hail, Brother from the South!" etc. All of this was very secret stuff, of course, but we couldn't help overhearing from time to time. He loved the Masons (successful men belonged to the Masons) and always took us to the annual father-daughter banquet and talent night where we knew he wished we could twirl batons or play the piano. (I wrote poetry but it never occurred to me that poetry might come under the classification of entertainment. My poems were not humorous.) He also liked parades and took us to the Shriners parade every year. I think there was a streak of showman in him. He told me that when he was a child he had wanted to join the circus and that later he had wanted to be a minister. There was something wistful about him although I had nothing but contempt for the way he measured success and the way he engaged in these dreadful quarrels with my mother. I see now that he tried to escape, in his own way, tried to make some kind of a life for himself outside the home, and I wish I had known him better.
The last time I saw my father was the winter of 1963, when he and my mother had rented a small house in Holbrook, Massachusetts. My sister had phoned me to say that he was terribly ill and that, although he didn't know it, he was dying. "When are you going to come and see him?" she said. "At the funeral?" I left my husband and the youngest child and flew with our eldest, then four-and-a-half, to the United States Kennedy had been shot just a few weeks before and the country was still in a state of stunned disbelief. There was a lot of snow and Sarah had fun playing with her cousins although she ended up with tonsillitis and the trip back to British Columbia was a nightmare.
The night before we left I sat up with my father and watched Goodbye, Mr. Chips, of all things. The rest of the family insisted he didn't know that he was dying, but I was sure he did. I wanted to talk to him about it and about his life, but I didn't know how to begin. I was a graduate student at the time, taking a leisurely M.A. because the children were so young, and earning babysitting money by teaching freshman English. He was very proud of all this and talked a bit about his days at Cornell. I asked him if he remembered when he was getting his M.A. and we all went up to Ithaca with him, how he used to bring home stuff from the experimental farm: three-legged turkeys and blue eggs, things like that. I wanted to cheer him up. I should have taken his hand, but we had been trained by our mother to be such a non-touching family I was afraid to do so. We sat side by side while the tears rolled down my cheeks. "I always cry in sentimental films," I told him.
He died in June and had a Masonic funeral. My mother sold the house (her father had died in July) and moved to Massachusetts. She gave away a lot of my childhood toys and books, threw away my box of school certificates and awards, and cleared out a lifetime of old magazines from the spare room. I couldn't help her because we'd gone to Africa to work for two years. When we stopped in to see her on our way, she told me I had killed my father because he was so afraid for us "going out there." She'd worked herself into such a fury about that and other things by the time we left that she began running after the taxi that was taking us to the station, running down the street in her nightdress, barefoot, yelling. My husband held my hand tight: "Don't look back," he said, "just don't look back. It will all be all right."
When you have parents who behave like children, parents who refuse to take charge of their own lives, then how can you ever be a child yourself? They are having the tantrums, the crying spells, the fights. You learn very early on to keep your mouth shut if you know what's good for you. But you can't help seeing and hearing; you hear because even with the pillow over your head the voices come up the hot air registers; you see the broken dishes, the smashed picture frames, and the endless letters, written on secretarial pads, shoved under your bedroom door during the night. You feel trapped and helpless and at the same time furious—that they won't behave, that they can't be relied upon to act like other parents, that they have staked everything on you and your sister: "We stayed together for your sake; we sacrificed everything for you."
If you can't open your mouth to question any of this and if you don't keep a journal because there is nowhere safe to hide it, you memorize, you can't help but memorize. You can't get rid of all this and so it remains inside you, imprinted. My ex-husband still says "you have an incredible memory!" and I do, I do. He says it, now, with admiration, but I see myself like Marley's ghost, clanking along through life, weighed down by all this memory.
In A Prayer for Owen Meaney, John Irving says "Your memory is a monster; you forget, it doesn't; you think you have a memory; it has you." Only I don't forget; so am I a monster, too?
My first choice for "what I want to do with my life" was "visual artist." Why, I don't know, as I have no talent in this direction at all. My mother had gone to Pratt Art Institute for a while (she said recently that she had wanted to be an interior decorator) and her old drawing board was used in the kitchen as a pastry board. She also sharpened pencils with a paring knife; nobody else's mother did this. I never saw her draw anything and still don't know whether she herself had any talent for design. A few years ago I bought her a drawing pad and some crayons and suggested that she might like to do some sketching. Last year she gave them back to me, unused. "You might as well give these to the grandchildren." Her father could draw. I have hanging in my guest cottage a large pencil drawing he did when he was at Stevens Institute. It's a very carefully rendered drawing of a column, a geometrical figure, and a round bean pot. It looks very "modern" and yet he drew it in 1887. It has a photographic quality as well; this was a young man who understood angles and volumes and lines. Did he suggest that I should take up drawing? I know only that he bought me a complete set of oil colours, in a wooden box, when I was in junior high school, and I did some copies of paintings that weren't bad and some charcoal drawings of log cabins in the snow. And once I answered one of those Famous Artists ads which appeared regularly in the magazines my mother read: CAN YOU DRAW THIS PICTURE? Since I was good at copying I sat down and drew the picture (I think it was the head of a girl) and not long afterwards a salesman came to the door. I didn't sign up for the course he was offering; perhaps it cost too much money or perhaps I knew in my heart that I wasn't any good at this. I did, later on, take visual art for a year when I was at college, but I think it was more because I loved being around an art room than because I had any illusions about myself as an artist. I do remember one painting, however (done in poster paints I think), that would have been a psychiatrist's delight. The painting showed a group of girls in yellow slickers and yellow rain hats on one side of a street; on the other stands a solitary girl in a red velvet party dress. My professor saw it; I'm surprised, now, that he didn't ask me about it. I gave the girl black hair but she was obviously me.
I still like being around visual artists. I married one, lived with another, and my eldest daughter is both an artist and an art therapist at a veterans' hospital. All three of my daughters, in fact, have a strong sense of colour and design and were encouraged, when young, to explore paint and clay and printmaking. I think they were very lucky to have a father who would "play" with them in this way. Of course there were books around, lots of books, but they had the added pleasure of "making a mess" and nobody minded. A friend said to me one day that she didn't know anybody else who wrote about landscape the way I do. I think that's an exaggeration, but I do think that I have "the painter's eye" if not the rest of the equipment. When I write I actually see the place I'm writing about, see where the sun is (if there is a sun), see where the shadows fall. However, working with black marks on white paper isn't nearly so satisfying as squeezing out a colour, mixing it with another, laying it on. My vegetable garden is my canvas now, I suppose; I can get very excited seeing my purple burgundy beans climbing the fence with the orange and gold nasturtiums, the ruffled purple lettuce next to the dusty green broccoli.
There was a war on when I was young, but it was all happening "over there." The quarrels of my parents were much more frightening to me than the possibility of an enemy attack. I remember the posters, which seemed to be everywhere. "Shhh. The Enemy May Be Listening" or "Loose Lips SINK SHIPS"—and I remember air-raid drills at school where we went down into the basement and put our heads between our knees. My father tried to enlist but he was over forty and had flat feet so they turned him down. He was welfare commissioner for part of the war, however, and he enjoyed that very much. How he got the job and what qualifications he had, God knows; it probably had something to do with the Masons and the fact he was a Democrat. (My mother was a Republican; she liked to think she cancelled out his vote.) Now he had a big desk and even a secretary, Betty, who took dictation. We had a cocker spaniel named Skippy and my father would stand at the door saying, "Where are we going, Skippy? City Hall? City Hall? City Hall?" until the dog was nearly frantic. My father loved being a big shot, even if he was only a minor big shot (and out on his ear as soon as the Republicans came back in.) Later, he worked briefly as an inspector for the OPA and traveled the state checking up on businesses and staying in hotels; he loved that, too (and of course it got him away from home).
I remember my mother kneading a bag of margarine (called "oleo" then) with a small colour capsule inside. Margarine didn't come coloured then, you had to do it yourself. (I don't think it came coloured in Canada until fairly recently.) She was working this and working this but it never lost its streaky appearance and my father hated it—"none of that ersatz stuff for me!"
I was good at singing and loved all the war songs: "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree," "Comin' in on a Wing and a Prayer," "From the Halls of Montezuma (to the shores of Tripoli)." We listened to Kate Smith every Sunday and prayed for our boys in church. At my grandfather's summer place, things went on much as usual. He had a housekeeper who knew how to get extra treats from butchers and grocers so we ate very well. On the outhouse he tacked up a sign you usually saw at the gas station: IS THIS TRIP NECESSARY?, and bought toilet paper printed with the faces of Hitler, Mussolini, and Hirohito. "Wipe out the Axis" it said. But not a single member of our family was "over there." Some cousins were in the ROTC but I don't think they ever went overseas. The war wasn't real to me; it was something happening somewhere else. I don't think I had any idea, then, what was happening to the Jews; it certainly wasn't talked about at school. Children today are so much more aware of what's going on in the world—they are bombarded with images of suffering, starvation, and death. I suppose they still believe, here in North America, that wars always happen someplace else, but teachers talk about things that never came up in my youth: prejudice, racism, the possibility of war itself being wrong. I do not think we should take away the innocence of children or make them feel guilty if they are white and middle class. But to make them aware of a wider world than their own safe neighborhood is not a bad thing.
We were at my grandfather's the day the war ended in the Pacific; this was the only time I ever saw him take a drink. My father, who had been a bugler boy in the First World War, although he got influenza and never went overseas, took down the bugle which hung on the front porch and played TAPS.
And that was that. The only other thing I remember is seeing the front page of a newspaper with a picture of the mushroom cloud and a reference to President Truman. Because I was fascinated by words from a very early age, I could never take his name seriously. It was like having a president named Mr. Goodfellow. But what he'd done was real all right and now he was a hero.
(A few years ago in Ottawa I saw a traveling exhibition of paintings done by survivors of the atom bomb; I believe most of them had been children at the time. I stood in the corridor and wept.)
From the time I was nine until I was about thirteen I wrote poetry. Some of it won prizes in the annual contests sponsored by Scholastic magazine. I wish I still had some of these poems so that I could include an example here. All I remember is the opening lines of one: Beyond the gates of sunset lies / the shining realm of Paradise, where little boys with golden curls / stoop down to sing with little girls. I wish I could forget THAT! The others were of the same ilk: princes and princesses, knights and lepers—dreadful stuff. I'm surprised I didn't become a writer of greeting card verse. I think I wrote this stuff to please, and to try and elevate my soul from the drab reality of the house at 13 Chestnut Street. It was like covering a cake of shit with sickly, sugary icing and hoping no one would notice what was really inside.
I never admitted to anyone what my life at home was like, and my sister and I never talked about it; we still don't. People must have known, though, at least about my parents' improvidence. The milkman knew, the electricity company, the telephone company, the insurance agent, the department stores where expensive dresses for my sister and me were put on layaway every year, the dancing-school teacher, the dentist (who would wait until I was in the chair, with the drill turned on, before he said, "Would you ask your mother to call me about her bill?"), the bank managers. And all of these people had families; some of them had children at our school. I wrote those poems because it seemed to me that these were the sort of poems teachers (and judges of contests) expected from nice little girls. Perhaps, if I wrote enough of them, they would think I was a nice little girl, just like all the others. It took me a long long time to get over the feeling that I had to please people with my writing, that I shouldn't write about anything dark if I wanted to be liked and/or accepted. And I have never got over the fear of being in debt; I pretty well have to know, down to the last dollar, what I have in the bank. I'm amazed at people who don't balance their chequebooks—how can they stand it? I still see the awkward bill collectors turning their hats in their hands, looking sideways at my mother and father: "Well, perhaps if you put a little something on the account?"
When I sold my first published story (to the Atlantic Monthly), we were living out in West Africa. They wrote and asked for a brief biography and where to send the cheque. (Five hundred U.S. dollars! A fortune!) I wrote them a (very) brief history of my life and at the end I put, "to speak of something as sordid as money, please don't send the cheque here, but deposit it in my bank account in Canada." Shortly after that I received a letter from Edward Weeks. He said I should get one thing straight right at the beginning of my career; there was nothing sordid about money except the lack of it.
My children used to say, "You must have really liked school, you're so smart." But I didn't. I hated it most of the time and wished I didn't have to go. I was shy and awkward and always on the outside of things. And I wasn't really all that bright; learning did not come easy to me, only reading. I spent half my time looking out the window and the other half trying not to be called upon. Junior high was even worse, except that I took journalism instead of English (this was an option if your English grades were high) and finally had a group I belonged to. (I think we all had the same homeroom.) I learned about column inches and layout and design, went round to local businesses and shops drumming up advertisers, wrote feature articles, book reviews, sports columns. I think that was in grades seven and eight but it might have been for three years, I can't remember. The editor of the West Junior Leader was the daughter of the editor of the Binghamton Sun. Naturally I thought I was a far better writer, and the two of us were rivals. As my mother would say, I felt she got the job through "pull."
I also played in the junior high school orchestra and sang in the glee club, for music was my second choice after art. One winter—I think I was in the third grade—I came down with a cold that turned into severe bronchitis and I was forced to stay home from school for weeks and weeks. I didn't really mind because the old radio, a small, wooden table-top model with its wonderful glowing tubes in the back, was brought up to my room. I slept, I listened to soap operas ("The Romance of Helen Trent," "Ma Perkins," "Young Dr. Malone," "Our Gal Sunday"), I cut out pictures from ladies' magazines and stuck them on white paper, designing "rooms." I must have been quite sick because once I saw a sign on the front door: Please Don't Ring Bell—Sick Child. Even today, if I get a cold it easily slides into bronchitis and I have a permanent cough, rather like a smoker's cough. I suppose that all started that winter.
One day my grandfather came to see how I was and he brought me a small violin in a case lined with purple plush. I thought that violin was absolutely beautiful. I would take it out and run my fingers up and down the rich, honey-coloured wood, smell the block of resin used to lubricate the bow, pluck notes on the strings. I still don't know why he decided to buy me this present but I wanted to get better fast so that I could take lessons. We did have my grandmother Callahan's piano downstairs in the living room, and my sister had begun piano lessons but there wasn't much interest in music in the family except for listening to the Lucky Strike Hit Parade once a week. My sister and I both sang in the junior choir at the First Presbyterian Church, and I continued to sing in choirs and glee clubs right up to the time I graduated from university. (I still slip into a church from time to time on a Sunday morning, in order to sing a few of those lovely old hymns.) My father knew some Gay Nineties songs and taught me "A Bicycle Built for Two," "Bill Bailey," and "The Band Played On" ("Casey would waltz with the strawberry blonde"), a song I particularly liked because my hair, when I was very small, was red-gold. And up in the attic there was a gramophone with two horns, one for everyday, functional, adult brassy colour, and one for special occasions—a morning-glory horn. This had been left behind when my uncle and his family moved up to Syracuse. There were wax records too, stored in padded cardboard cylinders. Every so often my father would get out this gramophone and play a few songs or recitations. Strangely enough the only one I can remember was about Jealousy, the Green-eyed Monster. The voices were scratchy and faint, like the voices of the Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz, but I was fascinated. Who knows where that gramophone ended up; how I should love to have it today!
My mother had an old beau named Harvey Fairbanks; his wife was a peripatetic music teacher and often visited our school. Harvey Fairbanks gave violin lessons at the big music store near our church and it was arranged that I would take a half-hour lesson once a week at some bargain price (I seem to remember it was fifty cents) "for old times' sake." Later on I would visit that store many times, as a teenager, to select a record and go into one of the soundproof booths to listen. We didn't have a record player although my sister finally got one as a present the year South Pacific appeared. Mostly I listened to music on the radio or in one of those booths at Weeks and Dickinsons.
The music studios, very cramped and tiny, were on the second floor. Harvey Fairbanks taught me some simple tunes and told me I had to practise, practise, practise in order to strengthen my fingers. But it was hard to practise at home in the living room with my father trying to read the evening paper, my mother working on the evening quarrel, and our dog howling whenever I hit a high note. And I was lazy about it as well; playing the violin was hard work! However, by the time I reached junior high I knew enough to win a place in the second violin section of the school orchestra. We didn't do much except supply a kind of underpadding for the first violins. There were two boys in this section who could really play, had real talent, but of course they were looked down upon by the other boys—and a lot of the girls. It just wasn't "manly" to play the violin. I remember one song, "Dark Eyes," where all the second violins did was go uh-uh uh-uh uh-uh throughout the entire piece. La la la:la la went the melody and paused: uh-uh, we replied, La la la:la la (uh-uh and so on). At some point, perhaps when I entered junior high, my grandfather gave me his violin, which was very old and came with a battered wooden case. I had never heard my grandfather play the violin but he must have, perhaps in his youth. I hated that case, so shabby and beat-up; I was beginning to fall for my mother's belief in appearance and "nice things." I must have made quite a fuss because eventually I was given, for Christmas, a new violin case from Weeks and Dickinsons, but I was already losing interest in pursuing the violin in any serious fashion. By the time I was in senior high I had ceased playing altogether, and the violin went up to the attic. I still think music is the highest art form and envy those of my friends who stuck to their music lessons and derive great pleasure from playing. (This is usually the piano or the recorder.) I recently went to a drumming workshop here on the island where I live, twenty-four of us and a wonderful assortment of African drums. By the end of the afternoon our hands were buzzing, but we were actually producing music. It was wonderful, and now all those yearnings have begun again.
My grandfather had a record player up at his camp; it was the latest thing, with a device which allowed several records to be stacked, one on top of the other, a new one dropping in place when the old one had finished. One record was Fritz Kreisler (violin music!), one was North American Bird Songs (a set), one was Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, and Jerry Colonna. My grandfather was very fond of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby and during the winters he took us to the latest "Road" movie, although my mother thought they were too risqué (her word). Afterwards we went to the Ritz Tearoom where the hostess, a tall blonde in a black dress, took us to our seats. My grandfather was a flirt, even in his seventies, and if we called him "Grandpa" when the blonde with the peek-a-boo bob was around, he'd say, "Now that did I tell you girls?" We were supposed to call him "Uncle Larry."
He was very sarcastic towards both my mother and father, particularly my father, who smoked and who therefore represented a fire hazard when we were up in the woods. He usually walked up from his house on Walnut Street to eat Christmas dinner with us but would make cutting remarks about all the fancy gifts under the tree. I was always a little frightened of him but he was, in fact, a good grandfather. (I know now what a stern, cold father he was and how his children suffered because of this.) I think it was those summers at his camp that kept me sane. My parents didn't dare to quarrel so much—at least not inside or where he could hear them—and my sister and I were allowed a lot of freedom. The cottage, a big log house with a screened porch in front and a workshop and garage underneath, was on a rise above the lake. The nights were very cool—we wore drop-seat pajamas with feet in them called "Dr. Dentons"—but by midday it was high summer and we were down on the sand in our bathing suits, running in and out of the water or taking out the rowboat which was ours exclusively, "The PinUp Girl."
It took a long time for the lake to drop off so we were quite safe, even when small, and once we learned to row a boat we were trusted on the water by ourselves. My grandfather had a series of housekeepers with unusual names (Mrs. Thing, Bertha Pullum, Johnnie Coffee) and that also allowed my mother some freedom as she didn't have to cook or plan meals. She often went fishing with my father over at T-Lake mountain, and I liked to think they were actually happy together at those times. They could be like the children they were, with no real responsibilities (as my grandfather was paying for everything). My mother sometimes complained about the fact that we lived off my grandfather every summer because my father wasn't a "good provider" and she often resented the housekeepers, particularly the very attractive Mrs. Coffee, but in her heart I felt she liked having someone else in charge of all the domestic and financial arrangements.
There was a huge stone fireplace in the main room, with a buffalo rug on the floor in front of it. My grandfather got up about 5 a.m. and lit the fire (and the fire in the woodstove in the kitchen; even after we got electricity and an electric stove, breakfast was usually cooked on the woodstove), and after a while we raced in with our clothes and dressed in the warmth from the fireplace. Now I cook on a woodstove in the winters and enjoy coming downstairs in my nightgown and lighting the fire. Even as I write this, the wood is snapping and crackling and giving off a kind of purr. There is no other sound like it.
We ate very well. Fresh-squeezed oranges (a job for my sister and myself, using a metal contraption that looked something like an earth-mover's shovel), pancakes, bacon, and maple syrup for breakfast; fried chicken and corn on the cob for dinner, or fish and coleslaw and baked potatoes; sandwiches and soup for supper. And there were always blueberry pies or a dish of boiling blueberries and sugar, with dumplings plopped in called "blueberry grunt." Wild blueberries grew in profusion all along the sandy road which led out to the main road. It didn't take long to pick a bucket or two as well as a posy of black-eyed Susans, Queen Anne's lace, and clover.
The waters of the lake were so clear you could see to the bottom even when you were quite a ways off shore. Clear and cool. We ran across the burning sand in mid-afternoon, our feet about to burst into flame, or that's the way it felt, and ran out into that lovely cool water. Out here in British Columbia the ocean is cold; it turns your bones to glass and you hesitate, will I, won't I, on all but the hottest day. Not the same thing at all.
My grandfather sold the place in 1953. The camp burned down shortly afterwards and, as he had sold it "lock, stock and barrel" as my mother said, a great chunk of my childhood went up with the house: the big old radio next to my grandfather's chair, the slippery black sofa stuffed with horsehair, the cotton Navajo blankets and lumberjack shirts that hung on pegs by the back door, the stereopticon with its views of foreign castles and cathedrals, the jars of arrowheads, the old books for rainy days, the Ouija board on which we tried to foretell our futures, the beds we slept in, everything.
I've been back once. The people who bought from my grandfather are there still. He has a business in Amsterdam, New York, and there's a float plane moored at the entrance to the creek. They said my grandfather had installed a sawdust-burning furnace shortly before he sold the place and something went awry. They've built a nice house on the property and they were certainly welcoming but I couldn't wait to leave. Everything had shrunk from the mythic to the ordinary; I doubt I'll ever visit there again.
When I entered senior high school I became very depressed. My teachers did not inspire me, not even my Latin teacher, and I felt very alone and awkward. Both my parents had gone to this high school and my sister seemed to be doing fine. She was very active in the drama society and had joined a "second-string" sorority after neither of us had been pledged to either of the "top" sororities, Delta Kappa or Tau Epsilon. Sororities were a big thing in those days and your whole social life revolved around them. There were meetings every Friday night and after the meetings the boys (who had their own fraternities) came over, milled about, and joined up with the girls for Saturday movie dates. I was very ashamed that we hadn't been asked to join, especially as my mother was so upset about it, as was my father. My mother wept and my father muttered and of course they fought about who was to blame. There was also the implication that it was our fault as well and that we had let them down. I think now it probably was our fault, if fault is the right word. Neither of us knew much about socializing and we had become very self-centered. One could argue that our upbringing had caused this, but I don't think we should be let off that easily. We were older now; we could see through a lot of the pettiness and envy of our mother, the weak-willed behaviour of our father, and yet we continued to view life through their eyes—as victims as "acted upon." It took me a long time to get over this, and the feeling still creeps in occasionally through various cracks and crevices. And I long ago forgave my parents; it seems to be harder to forgive myself!
One day, in study hall, I talked to a girl I knew slightly. She said she hated high school too and was going away to boarding school in just a few weeks. Her father worked in one of the big banks; I'd seen him when we were dragged in by our parents as ocular proof that they needed yet another loan, so I imagine he made a fairly good salary. I went home and told my mother I hated school and wanted to go to boarding school. She asked me if I was crazy—where would they get the money for something like that when our father couldn't keep us out of debt as it was. I said the girl had mentioned scholarships; maybe I could get a scholarship or something.
I don't know why my mother agreed to write. Did she sense how desperate I was or was she so used to asking for money, for favours, that she saw nothing out of the ordinary about writing such a letter? I still don't know what she said, but a few weeks later they drove me to New Hampshire and deposited me at St. Mary's-in-the-Mountains; I was the recipient of a Bishop's scholarship, me, a Presbyterian! There had been an early snowfall but the leaves were still on the sugar maples. I felt as though I were in Paradise, truly, as they drove away and left me there surrounded by all that beauty. This turned out to be one of the happiest years of my life.
I am not going to give a blow by blow description of the rest of my life up to now but St. Mary's was such a turning point for me that I must try and set down why this was so. This was a small school, maybe not more than seventy girls, Anglican, and with great emphasis on strong minds in strong bodies. Classes were small, teachers were dedicated, and the girls themselves were a mix—tall, short, pretty, plain, shy, outgoing. We wore a uniform, grey skirt and navy blazer for class, navy ski pants and pale blue parka when we skiied on nearby Cannon Mountain. Of course there were party dresses for various social functions and some of these girls came from very wealthy families, but most of the time we could simply forget about what we wore. That was a great plus for me, right from the start. Secondly, classes were small and we were given not only the set texts but as much extra work as we wanted. It was okay, in fact it was great, to want to learn more. My English teacher, seeing that I had finished all the books for the year by Christmas, gave me Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Thomas Mann, Ibsen, even, I seem to recall, Gertrude Stein. He told me I wrote very well and had I ever tried my hand at writing stories? The history teacher gave a special class in Far Eastern history; until then I had known little or nothing about China or Japan. I began to realize how truly ignorant I was, but this didn't depress me at St. Mary's. I suppose what I discovered was the joy of learning and that joy led to other joys. Soon I was quite a cheerful person, dreaded going home for Christmas, couldn't wait to get back.
I was in the choir and we sang not only at school but on Sundays, in red robes and white surplices, in the choir of the Anglican church in Littleton. We sang our responses in Latin; we sang a sevenfold A-men. The music teacher had just come from England (she was quite young and I don't think she was English although she affected an English accent) and was full of the works of Ralph Vaughan Williams. On Sunday afternoons there was Music Appreciation and I heard whole operas for the first time, heard Strindberg, Dvorak, Erik Satie.
And then there were the sports. I had never been terribly good at sports (my eyesight has been bad since I was seven) but I'd played grass hockey and volleyball back home as well as softball. I was also a good runner. Now I learned lacrosse and how to ski. I was never good at either of these things but I was out there trying and nobody made fun, quite the opposite. I loved coming in from outdoors on a winter afternoon, my whole body glowing and alive.
When the school decided to put on Macbeth, I tried out for one of the witches. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine the blasted heath, the thin scratchy voices of the witches, who weren't evil themselves but knew evil when they saw it. After I spoke there was a sudden burst of applause. I had discovered another aspect of my personality: I could "do" voices. (This has proved very useful when I do public readings of my own work.)
There were just two flies in the ointment, as my mother would say: the minister who taught us religious studies and was also the priest at the local church, and the headmistress herself. I did not get along with either of them. Rightly or wrongly I felt that the headmistress picked on me, that she didn't like scholarship girls and was the only member of staff who looked down on me. The minister didn't like me because, like the Queen of Sheba, I asked him "hard questions." I was becoming known among the other girls for my rather sarcastic "wit" and I expect I gave the minister a hard time just to show off. Anyway, whatever the cause, I didn't get my scholarship renewed. Mother wrote to another place, in Massachusetts, and I went there for my final year of school. It was all right but it wasn't the same as that lovely little school tucked up in the mountains of New Hampshire. After that year I knew, somehow, that I would survive, that I was never trapped unless I chose to be trapped, that my "background" was simply that and I should start getting on with my life and let my parents cope with theirs as best they could. Not a bad lesson to learn when you are sixteen.
There is a family story that my mother trots out from time to time. She says that when I was about three and my grandmother Corbett was still alive but frail, lying on the big sofa up at the woods and requesting that "somebody take that child down to the beach," I shouted back up at the house, "Well I don't care! Someday I'm going to Europe!" It's probably apocryphal although I did know at a very early age—because of the stereopticon and some old photograph albums—that there was such a place and that it was far away. Nobody in the Callahan family had been to Europe since they came over from Ireland before the Revolution but my aunt, my mother's sister, had been to Europe in her youth and my grandfather's parents, accompanied by their youngest daughter Mabel, had done the grand tour. That was when Mabel danced with the Prince of Wales. ("Before he met Mrs. Simpson, of course," says my mother.) And when I was in grade school there was a series of rather sugary books about children from other lands ("Little Anne of England," "Little Jan of Holland," "Little Marie of France"; I'm making these up because I can't really remember the titles, but you get the idea.) There was also the ubiquitous National Geographic with the pictures of sturdy, happy people from other parts of the world. Every so often the magazine would come with a map which my father unfolded carefully and I borrowed from him later.
I didn't know any people in Binghamton who had been to Europe, although certain fathers and sons had been overseas during the war, not only in Europe but also in the Pacific, the Far East. Girls at St. Mary's and the school I went to later had been to Europe, usually with their families, but I imagined going on my own, perhaps living in Paris or London for a while, writing books which would be instantly acclaimed. The more I read, the more I wanted to travel.
I won a scholarship to Smith College, which had (probably still has) a junior year abroad, but I knew I could never afford that and it still wasn't exactly what I had in mind. Then, near the middle of my second year, I became friends with a girl who intended to head off to St. Andrew's in Scotland for her junior year. A friend of her older sister had done this and loved it. Why didn't I come along? She had a copy of the catalogue, which was nothing like the glossy catalogues put out by American colleges: just a thick book listing rules and regulations and all the courses offered. Scotland was cheap and if we went as nonmatriculating students we need pay only twenty-five pounds (about seventy-five U.S. dollars) in tuition. I went home at spring break and told my parents I wanted to go to Europe for my junior year. How would I get the money? I'd go back to The Hill, I said.
In 1884 or shortly before, the first inebriate asylum was opened on a hill to the east of our city centre: two hundred and fifty-two acres of land high above the Susquehanna and Chinango rivers. The cornerstone was laid by the Grand Master of the Free and Accepted Masons, and part of his speech is recorded in A History of Broome County (with illustrations), 1885:
As I looked last night at the flaming comet in our sky, and saw it inclined and plumed like a pen [there had been a comet in the sky the night before] fit and ready for the Almighty's own hand, I could not but feel that if He should seize it and inscribe with its diamond point upon the sky the chief event of this annus mirabilis it would be the foundation of a policy and a usage that we now celebrate—of an institution, the first of its kind in the world, which proclaims that mercy is better than justice; nay, that mercy is an exacter justice.
Whether there weren't enough inebriates who were willing to come forward or what, I don't know, but the experiment failed. Within a few years, the place had become the Binghamton Asylum for the Chronic Insane, called by the locals "The Hill." I had heard of The Hill, not just in the ordinary way—that everybody in town had heard of it and knew where it was—but because my mother's sister had spent some time there after her second suicide attempt. However, it wasn't the sort of place you went for a field trip with Brownies or Scouts and I had never even been near it until I started to look for a summer job that would pay real money, at the end of my freshman year. I had seen an ad for someone to demonstrate hair brushes at a local department store and, as I had an abundance of nice-coloured hair, I went downtown for an interview. But I had got up late and the job was taken by the time I arrived. What to do? I went over to the New York State Employment Commission and told the woman behind the desk I had to have a job. Could I type? No. Could I instruct children in riding? No. Could I drive a car? No. She said she didn't see how she could help me since I had no skills. "Isn't there anything?" I said. "I really need the money."
She hesitated, then handed me an index card. "There's an opening for two orderlies at The Hill. You could start tomorrow."
"You mean—work at the insane asylum?" She nodded. "It just says someone in good health and prepared to work hard."
I could see by her face she knew I wasn't going to take it. College girl, too good for that sort of thing.
"I'll take it," I said.
My sister, who was away somewhere that summer, had a friend whose father was a doctor. My parents said I had to call him up to make sure it was safe to work there. My father, who hated mention of illness of any kind, kept muttering and shaking his head, but I knew it was my mother who would decide. And the doctor said it would be perfectly all right to work there—they'd never put me on the Violent Ward. In fact, his daughter was looking for a job as well; he'd mention to her that The Hill had two openings for female orderlies. When she came home she called and said she was coming too.
The next day we borrowed her brother's convertible and drove up for our interview. Naturally we were hired on the spot—they were very short-staffed—and half an hour later we had caps and a series of keys which were fastened to a lanyard tied around our waists. She was to go to one ward, I to another. We looked at one another: "We thought we'd be together," I said. The director shook his head. No, we were to act as "reliefs"; we'd be moved around from ward to ward wherever we were needed. He took Joan up to her ward while I waited in his office, then he came down and got me. I was on the fourth floor of the main building, Ward 88. He knocked on the heavy metal door and after a few minutes a nurse unlocked the door and we stepped in. Even today I don't know why I didn't turn and run. The noise! The smell!
"Welcome to the Shit Ward," she said, taking my arm and leading me down the long corridor. "Come and I'll introduce you to our ladies."
Joan quit the next day; I stayed all that summer and went back the next. If anything made me a writer (if writers are made, not born) I think it was The Hill. For although my family life was pretty terrible emotionally, I had, in fact, led a sheltered existence. I wasn't even allowed to go to funerals when I was young. Ward 88 was crammed full of mad old ladies, incontinent, abusive, hideous to look at (most of them), terrifying. I had not known there were people like this in the world, women like this. Skin and bones, most of them, with huge bedsores painted with gentian violet. This was still the era of straitjackets and "baths" (with canvas covers and a hole for the patient's head so she stuck up like a pie bird in a pie).
I worked on other wards besides Ward 88—the shock ward (insulin shock, which is terribly dangerous and makes you fat, as well as electroconvulsive therapy, where I often had the job of holding down a patient's legs), an ambulatory ward, the operating room. In fact, during my second summer I worked almost exclusively in the O.R., witnessed lobotomies and amputations as well as the birth of two babies, born to women who had no idea what was happening. I worked 7:00 to 3:30; I worked 3:30 to 11:00; I worked midnight to 8:00. I made friends with the nurses and some of the other orderlies. The world of The Hill became much more real than the world outside, down in the town. When I wasn't working there, I was asleep. And at the end of the second summer, with a little help from the Daughters of the American Revolution (another of my mother's letters) and all my savings, I flew to Boston to join my friend and we set sail for England. Boston-Halifax-St. John's-Liverpool. It took us twelve days to cross the Atlantic and by the time we stepped ashore, I felt ready for anything that life could offer; I felt free. (It wasn't until several years later that I began to have nightmares about The Hill.)
About fifteen years ago I made a sentimental pilgrimage to St. Andrew's and to No. 10 Hope Street which in my student days was a co-ed boarding house. Now it was a bed-and-breakfast run by a dour Scots woman who was very reluctant to let me in the door when I said I had lived there as a student. She obviously didn't like students very much even though she lived in a town which depended on the university for a lot of its revenue. (It is also the home of the Royal and Ancient Golf Course; no doubt many of her clients were well-behaved golfers, not rowdy undergraduates.)
I went up to the top floor where we had a room directly opposite the stairs. The room was unoccupied so she let me have a look in although she stayed right behind me, looking from time to time at her watch. I had had no brothers and so had never shared a house with boys before; it took me a while to get used to a boy coming out of the (bitterly cold) bathroom in his dressing gown, to the way people popped in and out of rooms, sometimes without knocking. We all had various interests outside the house but we were also the Hope Street Gang and would go en bloc to the movies, where we sat in the shilling seats and smoked and made rude comments if we didn't like the film, or went to the Cross Keys for beer and crisps and noisy discussions about Life. On Tuesdays we gathered in one room and listened to the Goon Show. We made fun of the food we got, the inevitability of it—Mondays, bangers and mash and turnips; Tuesdays, floating mince and mash and tinned peas; Wednesdays, rissoles; Thursdays, stewing steak with gravy; Fridays, plaice and chips. I can't remember Saturdays and Sundays, probably a "joint" of some kind on Sunday. Porridge (always) for breakfast. Pot after pot of tea.
The academic work was hard and nobody stood over you to read that book by Wednesday or get that essay in. At that time only about five percent of young people went on to university so it was still a privilege, not a right. Most of the students were on grants and had very little spare cash. But they knew how to have fun (there were lots of parties and dances and walks along the sea) as well as how to make best use of their study time. After the first quarter, when I nearly failed Moral Philosophy because I hadn't read the books the professor had "suggested" we read, I smartened up and learned how to study myself. I think that basic grounding in self-discipline, setting aside a certain portion of the day for intellectual work, has been of great benefit to me as a self-employed writer. When I am working on a story or a novel, particularly when I am working on the first few drafts and have no deadlines, no editors, no anyone breathing down my neck, I have to set myself a schedule and try to stick to it. Now I find it hard to work for anyone else!
At the end of the academic year my roommate and I went walking in the Highlands and on Skye, staying in youth hostels, hitchhiking occasionally when we got tired. I have always been drawn to hills and mountains and the sometimes bleak beauty of the Highlands really spoke to me. The weather held and we came back feeling very fit after our year of books and bangers and beer. During the long Easter break, we had gone to Spain and now we decided to go to Scandinavia (her grandfather was Danish), Holland, and Italy. It was safe to hitchhike in those days; we never had any trouble even though she was very blonde and I was a redhead. We were followed a lot in Italy (che belizza! che belizza!) but no one really accosted us. Times have changed; a woman would be a fool to hitchhike in most parts of Europe any more. (And perhaps our innocence protected us; I don't know.)
One of the many songs we learned at parties was "Come Landlord Fill the Flowing Bowl" (before it doth run over). The refrain is:
For tonight we'll merry, merry be
For tonight we'll merry, merry be
For tonight we'll merry, merry be
Tomorrow we'll be sober
The first novel I attempted to write, about that year at St. Andrew's, was called Tomorrow We'll Be Sober. I think I wanted it to be a cross between Zuleika Dobson and Our Hearts Were Young and Gay. I abandoned it fairly early on and God knows where it is now; I'd love to have it. I was so in love with the whole student world of St. Andrew's that I even toyed with the idea of staying on. I would have to learn Greek in order to matriculate and I would have to find some more money; the last didn't worry me so much even though I was on a student visa and forbidden to work. There were always odd jobs about and after The Hill I knew I could do anything, however unpleasant, if I needed to. But I was a scholarship student at Smith and I felt a certain duty to return and finish my degree. Maybe obligation is a better word. So, in late August I sailed for home (via the port of Montreal) on the Franconia. There were quite a lot of college kids on that ship; they seemed terribly immature to me, especially the giggly girls. After all, I hadn't just spent the summer cruising around Europe with my pals; I'd been a student. I'd had an affair. I'd actually lived there. I wasn't a tourist. What a snob I must have seemed to the others! What a phoney.
But one thing was real—I knew I was going back just as soon as possible. I'd been bitten. The New World would never again hold the attraction of the Old. Or so I thought—leaning on the rail as we sailed up the St. Lawrence on that warm afternoon in August 1956.
By November 1957, having graduated from Smith and worked in a bookstore and then the advertising department of a department store ("Crisp as an autumn breeze these pleated skirts are just the thing for the smart schoolgirl"), I had saved enough money for a passage back across the water. In the late summer I had also become engaged (wasn't that what all our mothers wanted?) to a man I had known at St. Andrew's. I already knew, by the time I sailed, that this wasn't going to work out but I decided I wanted to go anyway. I shared a room in a house in Ladbroke Grove near the Holland Park Tube Station with a friend from our house at Smith, and I answered ad after ad trying to find work in London. The Aliens Act had come in and I had to prove that I was better qualified to do the job than a British person. I couldn't type or do shorthand and I had no real "qualifications" other than a B.A. so I soon became very discouraged. I tried the BBC, the film studios (I almost got a job with Columbia Pictures, doing publicity, but there was no particular reason why they should hire an American so the home office said no). I think my lowest day came when I answered an ad for a temporary nanny, went all the way to Highgate, only to discover that my future employer would be an American woman who only wanted a girl with "a good English accent." (She apologized for not having made that clear in the ad.) December was cold and bleak and foggy. Sometimes, when you crossed the street, you could only see the orange globes at the sides of the zebra crossings. It was like living in a bag of damp, dirty white wool, and the ambulances went all night, taking the elderly to hospital with pneumonia. For the first time I understood what a pea-soup fog really was. Just before Christmas, when all I had left was a few pounds and my return passage, a young man I'd met on the ship suggested I try Birmingham, where his father was a teacher. Apparently they were always short of teachers in Birmingham. I said I didn't have a teaching certificate. He said that didn't matter; I could teach with a degree.
I really didn't want to leave London. Why would a would-be writer go to Birmingham? Who, of note, had ever come from Birmingham? I liked London; I liked the parks and the museums and galleries. I even got to see some good plays (parts of them) by hanging around theatres waiting for doctors to be called out on emergencies! I was never afraid in London, even in those Dickensonian fogs. I went to free lectures and struck up conversations in coffeehouses (espresso bars were just becoming the rage) and pubs. This sometimes led to free coffee or lager or even a meal. But I knew I couldn't stay if I had no work at all, and my visitor's visa would run out in a few months.
Just before Christmas I took the train to Birmingham, talked to my friend's father who set up an interview with the Education Authority, and I was hired on the spot, to begin the first week of January. They sent me back to London with a letter for the home office saying it wasn't a question of someone else doing the job better, there was no one to do the job. (They were 500 teachers short in Birmingham at that time.) The night before I was (reluctantly) to leave London, the man I loved called me up. We hadn't seen each other for a while because all we did was fight. He wanted to know how I was doing and would I like to meet again and talk. I remember holding the black receiver in my hand (the telephone was in the downstairs hall) and thinking, "I can't go to Birmingham; I love this man; surely we can work something out.") "I've got a job in Birmingham," I said, "teaching primary school. I leave tomorrow." "Best of luck," he said, and I never saw him again.
Someday soon I intend to write an entire book about my time in Birmingham at Bishop Ryder's Church of England Infant and Junior School, a fancy name for what was really a very old school in the slums. I had Class 3, ages six and seven, and I think there were about forty-eight of them, all but a few (the boy whose father was a fireman, the little girl whose father made coffins) very noisy, cheeky, and dirty. I had a high, slant-top desk at the top of the room and took attendance in a huge register, dipping a pen in an inkwell. "John Fulford?" "Here, Miss." "June Binnell?" "Yes, Miss." At break I sold biscuits from three separate tins at three separate prices. Janine Dodgers were the most expensive, a penny ha'penny. There were also Lincoln biscuits and something else I can't remember. The children all crowded round shouting out their orders and I was always short at the end of the week. Every schoolchild in England got a free pint of milk at break but a lot of my children didn't like it—they preferred tea—until I suggested to the headmistress that perhaps they could have chocolate milk. Trucks were lorries, elevators were lifts, cookies were biscuits, your "front passage" was what you peed out of, not the entrance way in your house. When it was my turn to supervise school dinners, I and another teacher walked the school down a few blocks to the Salvation Army Hall where good, nourishing food was ladled out by two deaf mutes. (Eventually the hall was burnt down by some of the older boys at the school.)
The other teachers were mostly much older than I was, very good at their jobs, and knew how to keep order as well as teach; they overlooked the bedlam coming from my classroom and gave me lots of good advice. I'm not sure what those children learned (except a lot of songs; they loved to sing), but I learned a lot.
I lived with two other young teachers miles away in a house owned by the Education Authority and used to teach home economics to secondary school students. My housemates were real teachers, had been to teacher training college, and both had steady boyfriends whom I suppose they eventually married. There was a good fish-and-chips shop at the end of the road where I got off the bus, so I would often bring home big newspaper-wrapped bundles of fish-and-chips or roe-and-chips, and we'd sit around the kitchen table eating all this lovely, greasy food and drinking endless cups of tea. We paid almost no rent, but we had to make sure the place was spotless on Monday mornings.
I discovered Birmingham was full of culture: the Birmingham Rep, the City of Birmingham Orchestra, the wonderful art gallery, the Cathedral, the excellent library. And I hadn't been there long when I met a young man in his final year at the Birmingham College of Arts and Crafts on Margaret Street, the first college to be built outside London during the arts and crafts movement. He had a book in his pocket. It turned out he always had a book in his pocket. I think, in many ways, he was better read than I was. He introduced me to the happy-go-lucky world of the Art College (just to go in the door of that place made me feel good) and soon he was doing the art lesson, on Friday afternoons, for my little monsters.
We "courted" in pubs and coffee bars and curry houses. We spent Saturdays wandering around the Bull Ring listening to the hawkers, watching the Strong Man get loose from his heavy chains (he was married to a girl at the Art College), eating cockles off the end of a pin. He invited me to come out to Solihull, where he lived, to meet his parents. He said he wanted to emigrate, to see the world; I said I had wanted to settle in England but I too wanted to see the world. I don't know whether we "fell" in love so much as realized, gradually, how very much we had in common, that we loved one another, yes, but would also be good companions in the adventure of our lives. We decided to get married. (His parents had quite liked me up to then but they didn't like Americans much and they never expected their son to marry one. They never got over it.)
In 1959, with our infant daughter, Sarah, we sailed to Montreal on the old Empress of France, in the cheapest cabin on D-deck, right next to the engine room (the baby seemed to find the thud-thud soothing) and then came to British Columbia where we have lived—more or less—ever since. I had never seen the Pacific Ocean until then and I am now a complete convert to the Pacific Northwest. Although Ian and I are no longer together, we live very similar lives on separate islands in the same archipelago between the mainland and Vancouver Island. We have vegetable gardens and he has geese and ducks and chickens (I had chickens until recently) and we live in wood houses on land that we own and love. We have three daughters all very much "West Coasters" and all just a ferry-ride away. It seems impossible that thirty-four years have gone by since I held the baby up to the train window as we sped across Canada ("these are the lakes these are the hills these are the prairies these are the prairies these are the prairies—this is your country now, Baby"). I wrote to someone the other day, "If Time flies, he goes by Concorde." There are two little grandsons in Victoria. Is that possible?
I have not said much about our time in West Africa, where Ian was offered a job at the (then) Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, Ghana. We sent a telegram "yes" and then said to one another, "Where's Ghana?" It had been the Gold Coast when we were in school. My family said, "You're taking your children to Africa?" His mother said, "Lucky you, fancy having servants." (We were there when Nkrumah was overthrown and overnight, almost, his name was painted out from everything; it was like something out of Alice in Wonderland.) I was pregnant with our third child when we arrived and lost the baby when I was nearly seven months along and I nearly bled to death, a horrible experience in every way. I was ill for a long time, both in body and spirit, and lived on the edge of a breakdown for several years. But about six months after I got out of hospital I wrote a story, a very stylized story, trying to come to terms with what had happened. (Nobody wanted to talk about it. After all, it wasn't as though I had known her, was it? I must "buck up" and not mope.) I would have had more sympathy with a broken leg.
I sent the story off to the Atlantic Monthly—I had several encouraging letters from them in the past few years—and two months later they wrote and said they'd taken it as an Atlantic "First." I sat staring at the letter with the tears rolling down my face. I would give anything to have had the baby rather than the letter! However, it was from that moment on that I decided to write about reality, about what it was like to be a woman in the second half of the twentieth century, decided that I had to be true, not "nice," if I was to be an artist (and was to save my soul).
Edward Weeks saw the story and wrote me a letter from Atlantic Monthly Press. Robert Amussen at Bobbs-Merrill saw the story and wrote me a letter from Bobbs-Merrill in New York. Both wanted to know if I was working on a novel. I wrote back, to both, that I could only imagine writing short stories as I had two young children and my life was very fragmented. Atlantic Monthly Press said they'd be delighted to see a book of stories when I finished. They heaped praise on me, comparisons to "the early James Joyce" and Katherine Mansfield. Bob Amussen said, "We'll sign for a book of stories right now if you will do a novel later on." I was in such despair and confusion at that time I couldn't imagine a "later on" but Ian, who I think now must have been terribly worried about my sanity, said "sign it, sign it." I think maybe he held my hand as I signed it, I don't remember.
The Atlantic Monthly story came out in June 1965, almost thirty years ago. I have been writing stories, novels, and radio plays (radio is a great passion of mine; I don't own a TV) ever since. Looking back on this time I would say that writing has never brought me happiness, that it has got in the way of my human relationships, that if I knew how to do something else I would. "It's so isolating!" I said to one of my daughters last year. "I want colleagues; I want office parties." She just laughed. Most people envy me because I am my own boss and can take a day off, without asking permission, if I want to. But I have no dental plan, no company pension to look forward to, and I pay all my medical plan myself. (How fortunate I am to live in Canada with its national health care plan!) I teach from time to time at universities but I don't really like university life; I think, on the whole, it's death to artists. I'm glad, most of the time, that I didn't opt for that life, but I get a little wistful when I discover somebody is getting $91,000 a year teaching Canadian literature and I'm on the reading list! But money (or the lack of it) isn't my real problem. I've never had much and I can't imagine I ever will. Money doesn't bring automatic happiness, although it's useful when the old fridge packs in or the dentist hands you a bill you'll have trouble paying. I did think writing well, as best as I knew how, and trying to be a good mother and good wife would bring happiness—and for a while, a long while, it did. But writing by itself? Forget it. And I am more and more cynical about the publishing world. Publishers are looking for profits—can we blame them? And people like me, who have a small but loyal following, are barely tolerated any more. I never get an advance over $10,000 (Canadian), and for my last book, which took seven years, that was paid out in three installments, the last $3,333 on the week of publication. How is one to keep on writing with "encouragement" like that? I can't get an agent because I've written too many books, have too big a backlist of critically acclaimed but financially unsuccessful titles. Agents want to discover people or snap up people who've become "hot." I'm not even lukewarm. Believe me, I've tried and been turned down again and again. Without an agent to negotiate for me (I used to have an agent but she retired, then I had another but he moved to Dublin), I haven't a chance of pulling together enough money to give me some peace of mind. There are days—more and more frequent—when I hate the writing, when the appetite of the large dog seems insatiable, when I have the feeling he will eventually eat me up. I still feel I should be doing something useful. The world is in a "terrible state of chassis" and there must be something I could do to help, something more useful than chronicling what it's like to be a woman in the second half of the twentieth century. I don't think that what I have to say about it is very important. Eliot again: "The great poet, in writing himself, writes his time." What about the not-so-great, the really-rather-ordinary-but-she-has-a-way-with-words? Some days I want to say to young writers—don't do it, run from it as fast as you can. It's not worth it, none of it. Find something else to do, less isolating, more fun, with colleagues and office parties. Artists can't really share—or only with people who would pass them by on the street. Give the large dog back while it's still a puppy or you'll end up discovering you don't own it, it owns you.
Audrey Thomas contributed the following update to CA in 2005:
Several years ago my middle daughter, Victoria, said, "I guess writers don't retire, do they?" (This was around the time her father retired from his permanent part-time position as a teacher of painting and sculpture.) "No," I replied, "or hardly ever—not even when they should." I told her how a friend and I had fantasized about a Last Novel Award, where a writer, for a nice sum of money, agreed never to write, or at least never to publish, again. This was really to be aimed at writers whose work we disliked intensely, but of course it remained a fantasy. Where would we get the funding? What writer would ever agree? Now that I am about to turn seventy I think I might agree never to publish again if someone would give me a golden handshake. I doubt I could stop writing, but the publishing side gets more and more problematic. I can foresee a time when I may have to stop publishing because no one will want my work.
Penguin Canada, my publisher for the last twenty years, turned down my last manuscript, or the fiction editor did, and my agent got one of those letters that usually go out to peddlers of first manuscripts, you know the sort; they end with the editor saying another publishing house would no doubt better serve the writer, "but I send her every good wish for the future." I did call her up and ask if anyone had read it besides herself and she said no. Of course that is the prerogative of a senior editor; s/he doesn't really have to show it to anyone else; but you would have thought that after twenty years she might have passed it along to one or two others. However, the book has just come out with Goose Lane, a small and highly respected press in New Brunswick. They've done a lovely job and it's getting good reviews so we'll see what happens. The editor at Goose Lane told me that the rumour in the industry is that I am a loose cannon, that I seem to write about whatever I please and publishers therefore have trouble promoting me. I think that's a fair assessment—I do write about whatever ever captures my interest and what pleases me lately is historical fiction. My last novel before this one was historical, the current novel is historical with a twist, but the novel before that was set in West Africa and very much a contemporary novel.
Isobel Gunn was based on a real woman from the Orkney Islands off the northern tip of Scotland. In the early nineteenth century she disguised herself as a man and signed on with the Hudson Bay Company. I did an enormous amount of research, both in Orkney itself (walking the land, searching through the archives at the Kirkwall library and the Hudson Bay archives in Winnipeg). Although I have two degrees I'm not really an academic and wasn't sure how all this research would transform itself into a novel, but once I got caught up in the life of Isobel Gunn herself, once I could imagine her in Orkney making her great decision and then working as "John Fubbister" at Albany Fort at the bottom of the Bay, the words just rolled out. (Because I grew up in the United States, I knew very little about the Hudson Bay Company; now I feel I could probably give a lecture or two on this "Company of Adventurers" as they call themselves. Imagine a business empire founded on a fashion in beaver hats.)
"John Fubbister worked willingly and well," as it says in the old log books, and was discovered to be a woman only about twenty minutes before her baby was born. (That will do it every time.)
The reviews were good—my reviews are generally good—but no one wanted it in the States or England. I am hoping someday to see the material made into a mini-series or even an opera. Isobel is a strong character and there are other fascinating players in the drama, including the known father of her child, John Scarth (who may or may not have raped her). No white women were allowed at the Bay at that time, although the "factories" (forts where the beaver skins were collected and shipped back to England) depended upon native women to sew the hundreds of pairs of moccasins the men needed, to act as interpreters and, in many cases, to serve as "country wives" for the men.
Realizing that I could do this kind of research without going mad, I turned my hand to another novel that depended on historical research.
For years, whenever I visited London I stayed at a place for overseas graduates in Mecklenburgh Square, Bloomsbury. When I came out of the square and onto Guildford Street, which I did nearly every morning, to get to the Russell Square tube station or the buses along Southampton Row, I passed a large, gated playground with a curious sign: CORAM FIELDS PLAYGROUND FOR CHILDREN. NO ADULTS ADMITTED UNLESS IN THE COMPANY OF A CHILD. The Brits are fond of signs; they put them everywhere and some can be quirky. I still remember the old Blackwell's in Oxford with its sign as you headed down the stairs to the paperback cellar: MIND YOUR EGGHEAD. This sign was quirky. Surely it was usually the other way around—no children admitted unless in the company of an adult? Finally I asked someone, who told me that the playground was on the grounds where the old Foundling Hospital had stood for over two hundred fifty years. "Coram" referred to the retired sea-captain who had founded the hospital. I thought I had come across the name Coram before but couldn't place it.
My informant said that if I were really interested, there was a small museum located in the shortcut between Mecklenburgh Square and Brunswick Square. I went right away to the museum, met the curator, and was shown around. I won't go into elaborate detail here, but I discovered that a lot of famous people had been associated with "The Foundling" (as Londoners used to call it) including Hogarth, who designed the boys' and girls' uniforms (I saw replicas in the museum; they looked itchy) and the composer Handel who was associated with the chapel, donated a keyboard and a fair copy of the Messiah when he died. Benefit performances of the Messiah were put on for years and raised hundreds of pounds for the hospital.
The most moving exhibits were found in two glass-lidded cases, keepsakes and mementos left by the mothers when they gave their babies over to the hospital: a mother-of-pearl fish; half a metal heart, a letter pointing out that it was a "good baby" and did not cry overmuch, a tiny cap.
The curator mentioned that Charles Dickens had been associated with the hospital when he lived just around the corner in Doughty Street and that he even rented a pew in the chapel. The choir was famous and many fashionable men and women came to the chapel on Sundays. Dickens even used the name Coram in one of his books.
"Of course," I said, "Little Dorrit. Tattycoram."
I went away thinking that there was a novel in all this, but wasn't sure where or how to begin. I was working on something else but I stored all this knowledge away until the beginning of 2001 when I received a grant to work on this novel (in my proposal I said I wanted to write the "life" of a fictional character from one of Dickens's novels, a girl named Tattycoram). I wrote to the Coram Foundation to find out where the archives might be located and whether they were on microfilm. The reply said they were at the London Metropolitan Archives, were quite extensive, and very little was on microfilm. If I wanted to see them I would have to come to London. For £50 they could, however, send me a copy of the index. I agreed, and was very glad I did, as the index is over a thousand pages long.
During the winter I re-read Little Dorrit, read all of Dickens's published letters and several biographies, both old and new. I also marked items in the index that I thought would be of particular interest to me. Then, on September 9, 2001, I flew to London, arriving on September 10.
I got up very early the next day, even though I was tired, as I knew I could afford only a month there (I call London the one-meal-a-day city) and felt I mustn't waste a minute. I was at the Metropolitan Archives when the doors opened and I worked there all day until my eyes felt like fuzzy tennis balls, reading letters faded to sepia, household accounts, anything and everything related to the Foundling Hospital in the nineteenth century. It must have been around 4:30 p.m. when I set off back to Mecklenburgh Square. I hadn't yet discovered that by taking numerous shortcuts I could walk to the archives, so I got on the tube at Farringdon, then changed at King's Cross for the Piccadilly line. I was trying to stay awake when an announcement came over the loudspeaker: "Due to the incidents in America today, there will be no planes flying from Heathrow." (The Piccadilly line is the line that goes out to Heathrow.) I came out of my daze at this announcement and immediately thought, "Bush has been assassinated." This was not such a bizarre thought for a former American; presidents do get assassinated in the U.S. And when the British say "incident," they mean "death." If you hear this over the loudspeaker, "Due to the incident at Oxford Circus this train will not be stopping at that station," you can be pretty sure that someone has fallen, jumped, or been pushed onto the rails. But "incidents"? They must have got Cheney as well. I am no fan of the Bush administration, but in my view assassination is never the way to go. I like to see connivers in high office impeached or publicly humiliated, so I did feel a twinge of something—maybe annoyance, maybe sympathy—and wondered who had done the deed. (That awful term, "claiming responsibility.") It wasn't until I came up to the surface that I found out what really happened.
It was a strange time to be in London, for there were rumours that London might be next. [Editor's Note: This piece was written before the bombings that occurred in London on July 7, 2005, and the subsequent attempts on July 23.] I found I had switched from the Underground to buses; I wanted to be above ground if anything happened. By day I was immersed in the past; in late afternoon I emerged into the anxious present. I kept thinking of those lines from Yeats's "Second Coming," relating the line about conviction to those who should be leading and what they lacked, and his words about passion and intensity to the creators of anarchy and chaos. It was Thursday afternoon, or possibly Friday, when I heard a plane flying overhead. The skies had been so silent for the last few days that the sound cut through my consciousness like a chainsaw. I said to myself, don't look up, keep walking, you knew flights were going to be resumed today; it was today, wasn't it?; yet I couldn't help myself, I stopped and looked up at the sky. All around me people had stopped and were doing the same thing. Sheepish, we smiled at one another when the plane passed out of sight.
The novel I was working on in September of 2001 was Tattycoram, which has just come out. I am already at work on another, on two more, one historical, set on the "Gold Coast" of Africa in the mid-nineteenth century and the other more or less contemporary. I hear my daughter's voice: "Mom, writers don't retire, do they?"
My mother, with whom I began my essay in 1993, is now dead. She lived to be 98, and although she was in a care home, she was bedridden for only the last ten days of her life. I went to see her (I was actually heading east on a book tour when my sister called), sat by her side and held her icy hand. She didn't want to talk—she kept her eyes closed the whole time I was there—so I pressed her hand once and was pleased when she pressed back. I tried pressing twice and she did the same. Every so often we played this little hand-pressing game as I sat with her through the long afternoon. My sister had been reading a book about giving the dying person permission to leave and I knew I was supposed to say, "You can let go, Mother, it's all right, just let go." I didn't do this. Maybe I was afraid she would suddenly sit up in bed and yell at me to mind my own business.
The doctor said she might hang on for days and my sister said I should probably go back up to Canada and do the rest of my readings, so I was back on my island when she actually died. I had stopped in Montpelier on the way down and bought some scented stocks at a florist. (My father, who was the gardener in the family, used to grow old-fashioned flowers like stocks.) The nurse brought a vase, but I took some of them and laid them on Mother's pillow. "Do you remember the stocks in Daddy's garden? Remember how sweetly they smelled?"
She didn't open her eyes but whispered, "lovely, lovely." Those were the last words she ever spoke to me.
Do I miss her? I don't miss her bitterness, her self-absorption and self-pity, her inability to accept people as they are, her wild accusations. I do miss her use of language. My mother was born in 1897 and used old-fashioned colourful words like gumption, high-falutin, shenanigans, smithereens, lollygag. I feel that the English language, for all that new words are being introduced every day, has lost a lot of its vigour, at least in everyday speech. When I listen to teenagers—or even to those older than that—it would seem that every other "fuckin'" word is, "like, fuck."
So I miss my mother in that way and I'm glad she lived long enough for me to cease being afraid of her. I actually cared about her by the end. I think she was a manic-depressive, what we now call by the much less-interesting term, bipolar.
In the spring of 1995 I was teaching at Dartmouth (had talked myself into a job there for a winter-spring term once before, as my mother grew near death, and now I was back even though she had died in the autumn). My sister and her husband and I drove up to the Adirondacks to scatter Mother's ashes—she was the first person in our family to be cremated. The ashes were beside me on the back seat, in a box inside a Stop and Shop paper bag. Every so often my brother-in-law would call out to me, "How's Mother doing back there?" and I would say, "Just fine, thanks." We had decided the best place for the ashes would be in the trout stream near where we spent all our childhood summers. When she and Daddy went fishing, she was probably the happiest she ever allowed herself to be.
We stayed overnight at the Irondaquoit Inn, on Piseco Lake, now a bed-and-breakfast but a private club for men when we were growing up. When we awoke the next morning it had turned cold and was snowing—in mid-May. We sat in the car and read the poems we had chosen, or rather, I read the poem I had chosen, as my sister, for some obscure reason, decided not to read hers. My brother-in-law read a short passage from the Bible, then we stepped out of the car and walked over to the stream. With numb fingers I opened the box and we took turns flinging handfuls of Mother's ashes into the rushing water. A wind had sprung up and some of the ashes, along with snowflakes, blew back into our faces. There seemed to be grit between my teeth for a week afterwards.
The same year that Mother died I sold some papers to the National Library of Canada and assumed a mortgage on a small house, a cottage really, in Victoria, on Vancouver Island. My middle daughter lives here and my grandsons officially live here, but William is now twenty and has just finished his second year of university and Nicholas, eighteen, graduates from high school on June 16. They are fast moving out into their own worlds.
I like the little house, said to be the smallest house in Victoria, although I am sure I've seen at least two that are smaller. For the past five years I have come from my small island to this bigger island (much bigger island) during "the rainy season" or the part of it that extends from January through May. It's hard to call it "winter" when the climate here is so mild compared to the rest of Canada. The sea is just a block away and I can see water and the distant Olympic mountains from my back stoop. I take courses in choral singing, which I have always loved—how wonderful to do something as part of a group—and a playwriting workshop, as I'd like to try my hand at a stage play. Victoria's core is small and I can walk to just about anywhere I want to go; otherwise, I hop on a bus. When I'm on Galiano I rent the house out and except for my very first tenants this has been a pleasurable experience. The hardest part of the whole enterprise is carting things over in boxes in January and then packing it all up again in the spring. One day I suppose I'll have to get rid of one place or the other (maybe both?) and decide where I would really like to spend the rest of my days. The west coast of Canada has become a very desirable place to live and real estate prices keep going up. This means that taxes keep going up as well. Right now I have the best of both possible worlds.
Since I wrote my first essay, one of my daughters has married, two have divorced and one has happily remarried. At the moment all seem healthy and happy and very very busy. My youngest, Claire, and her husband Jason, went to China in February (along with Vickie, the next up, for support) and picked up their adopted baby daughter, Amy Shu. "Shu" was part of her name at the orphanage and it means "pretty girl." She is certainly that, and her new parents decided it should be a permanent part of her name. She comes from a part of China that speaks Mandarin and I often think of that old Far Side cartoon as I watch her watching us speak. You remember the one about what you say to your dog ("Now Rex, I want you to be a good dog Rex while I'm out, and Rex, no barking" etc. etc. etc.) and what the dog hears ("blah blah blah Rex, blah blah Rex, blah blah blah blah Rex"). What babies of Amy's age mostly hear (she is now seventeen months old) is blah blah blah plus their name, but blah blah blah in Mandarin must sound very different from blah blah blah in English. To add to her confusion, Jason's parents, who are Chinese, speak Cantonese! She is very sociable, which I find rather surprising, and has already accumulated an impressive amount of "stuff," brought to her from adoring relations and friends. Sarah, my oldest daughter, and her husband have no children, but they are so impressed by the whole procedure that they are now going the same route. Perhaps we shall have another small grandchild by this time next year.
I remember an interview with Martin Amis that was broadcast on the CBC many years ago. The interviewer asked him what he thought was the biggest hurdle facing women artists. He said, "The pram in the hall." (It sounds more like Virginia Woolf than Amis, doesn't it?) It is certainly true that it's hard—make that impossible—to write with small children running around. I solved this by writing only during "the school day," beginning at 9 a.m. and packing up around 2:30 p.m., before they arrived home. I worked on the kitchen table for years, so I quite literally had to pack up. It's only in the last few years that I've had a small writing studio built in the garden both on Galiano and in town. No more kitchen table, except occasionally in December when I simply want to be close to my big wood stove and its companionable warmth. I still tend to write during the school day and shall probably do so until I drop; I still write in longhand on lined yellow sheets. I send the final draft to Carole Robertson, in Montreal, who has been my typist since 1989. I told her once that it was such a relief, putting that envelope in the mail, I called it "sending the children to camp." Now we share a little joke between us: I e-mail her (yes, I do have an ancient computer) that the manuscript is on the way; I say "the babies are off." When she receives the parcel she e-mails "the babies have arrived."
Writing by hand is a little like drawing, I think, and perhaps that is one reason why I like it so much. Also, I like to travel but I don't like to worry about expensive gear that might get damaged, lost or stolen. I buy Pilot Hi-Tech fine-point pens by the box. I would love to use a fountain pen, but the ink would seep through on this porous paper. (By the way, on the ground floor of the Dickens Museum on Doughty Street, there is a library and reference room. School groups can come in, learn more about Dickens and try their hand at writing with a quill pen. I, too, had a go at writing my name this way. What came out was shaky letters with very uneven strokes and lots of blots. How on earth did he do it—all those huge novels written with a quill pen.)
I'm not sure I have much more to say. Not one of my novels or books of stories has ever become a bestseller. Maybe my old mother was right all along and I should have given all this up years ago. My financial situation is always slightly precarious, but I do have a small government pension now and I augment this with occasional readings, workshops and articles. I also have very generous friends. I've won a few awards with healthy chunks of cash attached and once a year I get a cheque from Canadian PLR.
Many of the people I know who opted for the career plus salary are now retired and actively involved in good causes that require a lot of meetings, usually in the daytime. I am a member of the Writers' Union of Canada (was chair in 2002) and write letters to Members of Parliament about causes I believe in—I do the same for P.E.N. Canadian Centre and Amnesty—but I rarely attend meetings. I think the world is in a terrible state and often feel guilty about not being more actively involved, especially as regards aid to African women and children. How history will condemn us if we turn our backs on Africa!
It has been forty years since my first published story appeared in the Atlantic Monthly. How is that possible?? I once wrote to a friend that if time flies, he goes by Concorde, yet now even the Concorde flies no more and soon no one will get the allusion. Would I have kept at it, the writing, if I had known how difficult it is to make a living? Probably. I finish a book in a state of mental, physical, and financial exhaustion. I vow "Never again!" Then I read something or hear something or see something and I get that little tingle of excitement and curiosity and I'm off. The Cheshire Cat told Alice that we are all mad or we wouldn't be her. Is the creative impulse a kind of madness? I'm beginning to think it is. Our heads are full of voices and visions; we see sights that aren't the same as what we see out the kitchen window. We laugh or cry as we make little black marks on white paper. We need to persuade others that the worlds we see are real. Is this not a form of madness? We can call it by a fancier name, but I suspect we writers, painters, composers, we ARTISTS, are walking a fine line, most of the time, between sanity and something else. (And strangely enough, by walking that line, we stay sane.)
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Atwood, Margaret, Second Words: Selected Critical Prose, House of Anansi (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1982.
Authors in the News, Volume 2, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1976.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 7, 1977, Volume 13, 1980, Volume 37, 1986.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 60: Canadian Writers since 1960, Second Series, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1987.
Reference Guide to Short Fiction, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1994.
Books in Canada, December, 1979; February, 1982; May, 1985; March, 1993, review of Graven Images, p. 46; October, 1995, review of Coming down from Wa, pp. 35-37.
Canadian Book Review Annual, 1995, review of Coming down from Wa, p. 187; 1999, review of Isobel Gunn, p. 187; 2002, review of The Path of Totality, p. 202.
Canadian Forum, May-June, 1974; June-July, 1980; July-August, 1993, Gwendolyn Guth, review of Graven Images, pp. 39-40; November, 1999, Thomas Wharton, review of Isobel Gunn, pp. 39-43.
Canadian Literature, autumn, 1971; summer, 1975; winter, 1992, pp. 139-40; summer, 1994, review of Graven Images, p. 8; winter, 2000, review of Isobel Gunn, p. 186; winter, 2002, Elizabeth Hodgson, "Crossing the Bay," pp. 181-183; winter, 2003, review of The Path of Totality, p. 147.
Essays on Canadian Writing, fall, 1992, pp. 43-50.
Fiddlehead, January, 1983.
Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), April 16, 1977; April 18, 1987; September 22, 1990; November 3, 1990.
Herizons, summer, 2000, review of Isobel Gunn, p. 32.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, February 10, 1985.
Macleans, December 20, 1999, Susan McClelland, "New World Tragedy," p. 110; April 23, 2001, "Heroine Worship," p. 66; May 16, 2005, "When Writers Become Characters," p. 62.
Mosaic, fall, 1993, pp. 69-86.
New York Times Book Review, February 1, 1976.
Open Letter, summer, 1976.
Paragraph, fall, 1993, review of Graven Images, p. 39.
Prairie Fire, winter, 2000, interview with Thomas, pp. 44-50.
Quill & Quire, March, 1993, review of Graven Images, p. 46; September, 1995, review of Coming down from Wa, p. 68; November, 1999, review of Isobel Gunn, p. 34; September, 2001, review of The Path of Totality, p. 48.
Resource Links, June, 1997, review of Coming down from Wa, pp. 232-233.
Room of One's Own, Volume 10, numbers 3-4, 1986.
Saturday Night, July, 1972; May, 1974; April, 1982; January, 1985.
University of Toronto Quarterly, summer, 2000, Ed Kleiman, "Audrey Thomas Looks back on the Cauldron of History," p. 660.
Village Voice, August 6, 1985.
Wascana Review, fall, 1976.
Canadian Writers Union Web site, http://www.writersunion.ca/ (August 7, 2005), "Audrey Thomas."
January Online, http://epe.lac-bac.gc.ca/ (January 1-8, 2001), Linda Richards, interview with Thomas.
Library and Archives of Canada Web site, http://www.collectionscanada.ca/ (August 7, 2005).
Terasen Lifetime Achievement Award Web site, http://www.bcbookworld.com/ (August 7, 2005), "Audrey Thomas."