Author Tags: Fiction, Interview, Kidlit & Young Adult
Gail Anderson-Dargatz does for the family farm or ranch in B.C. what many authors have done for rural life in the prairies or smalltown life in Ontario, magnifying the elements of life that are special and, in that process, revealing some of the underlying mysticism of the region.
Born in 1963, the fifth of five daughters, Gail Anderson-Dargatz grew up in Salmon Arm, B.C. where she realized in her teens that her father Eric Anderson, a sheep farmer, was not her biological father. Her mother Irene Anderson confirmed this. Her parents divorced in 1981. "Dad never made me feel anything other than his daughter," she told Maclean's magazine in 1998.
That situation was mirrored in her novel A Recipe for Bees. After Anderson-Dargatz showed each of them a copy of the manuscript separately, the former spouses starting talking to one another again and remarried, on the sly, sending faxes to their children to spread the news.
When she married Floyd Dargatz in 1990, the author adopted her double-barrelled name. The couple lived on a dairy farm near Parksville. [See Personal Background information below.] Her first collection of fiction in 1994 was nominated for the Leacock Medal for Humour. In 1996, her folksy magic realism was immediately cheered by readers who made her first novel a surprise bestseller. Expanded from an award-winning short story, The Cure for Death by Lightning ($28.95) is a whimsical, bold, moving tale of 15-year-old Beth Weeks, growing up on an isolated farm in fictitious Turtle Valley, near Kamloops, during the Second World War. Bizarre events, recipes and eccentric characters abound, and a cure for death by lightning is provided: "Dunk the dead by lightning in a cold water bath for two hours and if still dead, add vinegar and soak for an hour more."
The Cure for Death by Lightning won the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, the VanCity Book Prize, the Betty Trask Prize and was shortlisted for the 1996 Giller Prize and the Chapters/Books in Canada First Novel Award.
During the writing of that first novel, Anderson-Dargatz' husband suffered from a brain tumour and underwent surgery. Royalties from the book allowed the couple to purchase a farm near Millet, Alberta where he recuperated and learned beekeeping. A Recipe for Bees ($32.95), also nominated for the Giller Prize, is the life story of elderly, Courtenay-based Augusta Olsen and her enduring marriage to her husband Karl, a farmer near Kamloops. Their daughter is the product of an adulterous relationship that Augusta had, but Karl loves her anyway. A testament to the 'farm marriage', the story includes lots of information and lore about bees along the way, as well as a character who undergoes brain surgery.
Anderson-Dargatz' third novel, A Rhinestone Button ($35.95), follows the fortunes of Job Sunstrum, a shy, angelic-looking blond who loves to cook. His skill as a farmer allows him to survive in the rough-and-tumble Baptist world of Gosfinnger, Alberta.
Although her stories contain some fantastical elements, Anderson-Dargatz remains grounded in the family farm of the recent past for her inspiration. From the work of born-and-raised-in-B.C. novelists such as Anderson-Dargatz, Jack Hodgins and Anne Cameron, it's possible to surmise that constancy is not an option in British Columbia. As the Raven and Coyote stories of First Nations in B.C. already attest, it is a place for conflicts, epiphanies and transformations.
"My mother was hit by lightning when she was a girl," Anderson-Dargatz recalled in 1996. "She talked about ghosts and premonitions. I was surrounded by stories of a time that completely disappeared."
Consequently Gail Anderson-Dargatz expressed her affinities for ghosts when she published her novel, The Spawning Grounds (2016), another intimate family saga rooted in the Thompson-Shuswap region.
"It's largely about the watery boundaries between the ordinary world and the world of the spirit," she wrote, "Those who know my writing won’t be surprised. I’ve written about the wandering soul that travels between these realms in almost every one of my novels.
"In The Cure for Death by Lightning, a transforming spirit chases Beth. Augusta travels out of place and time in A Recipe for Bees. And in Turtle Valley, Kat and her family are haunted by ghosts from their past. So naturally readers are inclined to ask if I believe ghosts are real.
"In the years immediately after my mother died, I dreamed of her. In these dreams, we often walked a familiar street and talked about writing, about my kids. My mother offered advice as she always had.
"Then we embraced and she left me, again.
"Once, my father was with her. In one of those lucid dreaming moments that are so rare I asked, “How can you be here? You’re both dead.”
"My mother said, 'We’re not real.'
"But they both felt so real, so very real. I hugged them and said, 'I miss you both so much.' I woke, heart-wrenched and convinced I had spent a few precious minutes with my parents.
"These are the moments in which we say our goodbyes.
"So, do I believe in ghosts? No. I don’t believe our souls survive death. But ask me again. Do I believe in ghosts? Yes. We see the ghosts of those we love in our dreams, and in our grief, we see them walking on the street. They appear at the foot of our bed in the wee hours hovering in that space between sleep and wakefulness. Sometimes these encounters frighten us. But for the most part I believe that within these final visits with our beloved dead we find solace and closure.
"I know for a fact my mother’s spirit lives on, in the stories I tell, in the bits of wisdom I pass on to my children. I see my mother in my own lovely daughter, in her haunting grey-blue eyes, in her grace, her humour, her will, and her ability to read the emotion of a room. I know when my life ends, my daughter will carry my stories and sensibilities forward. She will see me in her own children, and just as I carried on my conversation with my own mother long after she was gone, my daughter will visit me within her dreams."
Gail Anderson-Dargatz’s first novel in a Rapid Reads series [reading level:3], Search and Rescue (Orca $9.95) features Claire Abbott, journalist and sleuth. Claire is not just a reporter with “radar for crime”; she has a secret, a familial sixth sense that will lead her to the truth. When a young woman disappears from a local trail, Claire insists search and rescue are looking in the wrong direction. When the local fire chief doesn’t believe her, Claire and her mother set out to follow Claire’s intuition, placing themselves and others in danger.
The Miss Hereford Stories (Douglas & McIntyre Ltd., 1994).
The Cure for Death by Lightning (Knopf Canada, 1996).
A Recipe for Bees (Knopf, 1998).
A Rhinestone Button (Knopf, 2002).
The Spawning Grounds (Penguin Random House 2016).
The Stalker (Edmonton: Grass Roots Press $9.95) 978-1-926583-29-7 Reading Level 4,5.
Coyote's Song (Grass Roots Press)
Bed and Breakfast (Grass Roots Press)
Search and Rescue (Orca 2014) $9.95 9781459805767
Playing with Fire (Orca 2015) $9.95 9781459808423
Shortlisted, Giller Prize, for The Cure for Death by Lightning, 1996.
Shortlisted, Stephen Leacock Humour Award, The Miss Hereford Stories, 1995.
CBC Radio's Literary Competition, short fiction, for "The Girl With the Bell Necklace."
Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, 1997
VanCity Book Prize, 1997
Betty Trask Prize, 1997
[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2015] "Fiction" "Classic" "VanCity"
Personal Background / The Cure for Death by Lightning
Here Anderson-Dargatz, 33, talks about her life, love and writing.
"When I was writing The Cure For Death by Lightning, I made my home on Vancouver Island, in Errington (near Coombs, the place with the goats on the roof, near Parksville). My husband Floyd was working as a dairy herdsman and that meant he took care of herd health, milked cows (no, they don't do that by hand anymore), and inseminated cows (with bull sperm, from a tube). Floyd made his living as a cattleman near Wetaskiwin, Alberta until we met at university in 1989, so working for someone else is difficult for him. We now have our own farm near Wetaskiwin, Alberta, close to where Floyd grew up. Floyd is now working for me as researcher and office staff, though he still keeps a herd of beef cattle. We still live cheaply but writing is now taking up all our time. I write full-time and help Floyd out on the farm when he needs help. He's still recovering from the brain surgery he had last year. Well, we're both still recovering from that one. He's fine now, just easily tired (it wasn't cancer). I'm doing some writing about that experience in my next novel, which I'll finish next spring. I've just finished off a creative writing degree at the University of Victoria. Floyd and I met at the university, in the cafeteria. Things went their natural course and that fall I asked Floyd to marry me, on campus, in a cow suit (the joke among our friends was that with Floyd, the only thing I had to be jealous of was cow M19, Floyd's favorite cow.) Before Floyd, I worked at the Salmon Arm Observer as a reporter, photographer and so-so cartoonist for several years in my early 20s.
"My parents are Eric and Irene Anderson. I was born late to them; my mother was 37 at the time. I have four much older sisters. Eric is quite elderly; he's just turned 82. He was a sheep farmer in the days when one could still take herds of 500 or 1000 sheep down the highway and up into the hills. My mother is where I get my writing from. She writes for local papers, historical journals, the United Church Observer, seniors' publications and the like. Much of The Cure For Death by Lightning came from her. Much of her life has been magical and a little hard to believe. She was struck by lightning as a girl. She did see ghostly, judging figures in her home. She had premonitions (one profound one involving her brother's death that I'm using in my next novel, A Recipe For Bees.) I have a newspaper clipping she wrote from the 1950's where my father found a clump of buttercups growing in the deep snow on a mountain slope in mid-winter (likely it sat over uranium deposits, but it's magic nevertheless). She gave me the ability to see magic and I have great respect for her.
"Much of my own childhood was magical. I had invisible playmates; my mother tells me that she had to regularly set a place at the table for one of them. I have no memory of this either, but I do know that I have inherited my mother's ability for, ahem, enlarging the truth, so take these stories as you will. My maternal grandmother died the year I was born so I got to know her through her scrapbooks and this, of course, is the basis for The Cure For Death By Lightning. Many if not most, of the recipes in the novel are from my grandmother's scrapbooks. I'm a great scrapbook keeper myself. They're a form of diary."
A Hat Full of Tattered Butterflies
Promotional material (for 2006)
"In her latest novel, A Hat Full of Tattered Butterflies, Gail
Anderson-Dargatz revisits the haunting and magical landscape of The Cure
for Death by Lightning. Beth is now an old woman and the novel is told
from the perspective of her daughter Kat. As the family struggles to
evacuate from the fire that threatens the whole of Turtle Valley, Kat
uncovers a decades-old mystery, the disappearance of her grandfather,
John. She hunts down the terrifying story of what really happened, and
in the process discovers the ghostly links between her mother's past and
her own quest to find love. The novel is filled with the lush
descriptions, dark poetry and ghostly manifestations that made The Cure
for Death by Lightning an international bestseller." -- Shuswap Writers Festival, 2005
Sketching the Outline of the Dream
Margaret Thompson interviews Gail Anderson-Dargatz for WordWorks Fall 2007.
Gail Anderson-Dargatz needs no introduction. She is an internationally known and celebrated author who has earned a prodigious number of prestigious awards: her first novel, The Cure for Death by Lightning, for example, won the Vancity Book Prize, the Ethel Wilson BC Book Prize, the UK’s Betty Trask Prize, and just to round things out, was a Giller finalist as well. A Recipe for Bees was also an international bestseller and Giller finalist, A Rhinestone Button made the national bestseller list, and her very first book, The Miss Hereford Stories, was a finalist for the Leacock Award for humour. Anderson-Dargatz also teaches fiction in the MFA creative writing program at UBC, and lives in the Shuswap, in the landscape of so many of her stories. In between returning from a festival at Woody Point, Newfoundland, where she launched her new novel, Turtle Valley (and had a honeymoon!) and setting out on the road once more, she drew breath at home and agreed to an interview with Margaret Thompson, conducted by email.
The publication of your first novel, The Cure for Death by Lightning, was the cue for a flood of comparisons and labels—you were compared to Margaret Laurence, Alice Munro, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and the novel was hailed as the emergence of Pacific Northwest Gothic. What was your reaction to these comparisons? Were they of any use? Relevance? Or just a burden on a new novelist?
Those labels were cool! And often quite funny. I’m really not sure what “Pacific Northwest Gothic” means, though I’m sure because of it, I ought to wear black. But how can you complain about being compared to Margaret Laurence and Alice Munro? Both these writers were, and continue to be, my heroes. The comparison with Gabriel Garcia Marquez seemed a wee bit silly, however flattering. Anyone who throws ghosts and premonitions into the mix seems to get compared to Mr. Marquez. But his writing is so terribly different, and wonderful. I just grew up hearing a lot of weird and spooky tales in the Shuswap. That’s where the magic comes from.
You have described your mother as your Muse. Can you tell us more about that?
Irene Anderson was a writer herself, and the reason I became a writer. Just as my character Beth does in Turtle Valley, my mom spent most of her days scribbling down the events of her days on stationery, sometimes to send as letters, sometimes to keep as a sort of journal, but very often to fax to me in response to the questions I asked of her as I researched for my fiction. She offered me her stories, but more importantly she gave me her approach to life. As I wrote on my blog, she helped me to see the good in everyone, and the magic in the everyday.
Magic realism, a natural affinity for the inexplicable—premonition, dreams, synchronicity, second sight—is an integral part of your novels, as much as the rural landscape. I understand its place in your own experience, but how would you describe its importance in the construction of your novels. What kind of creative advantage does it give you?
Working in magic realism gives the writer tremendously useful tools to demonstrate the psychological issues of her characters. For example, writers have been struggling forever to express the mystical experience, something that by its nature can’t be expressed. In A Rhinestone Button, I gave my character synaesthesia, a cross-over of the senses, so he senses sound as colour and tactile sensation, in order to allow the reader to experience something of that mystical experience. In Turtle Valley, rather than wax on in exposition, flashback and/or dialogue about how the history of this family continues to haunt it, I expressed that in a literal haunting: ghosts walk this farm and follow its inhabitants. The past lives on.
Job, in A Rhinestone Button, is a character with a wonderfully magical quality which eventually disappears. It seems to be replaced by his happiness at an almost mystical perception of the presence of something mysterious—God?—in all things. Is this a more profound sort of magic?
The mystical experience is cool, but man, what’s here, right now, in front of us, is way cooler. To hold my little girl in my arms and feel her cheek against my neck. To eat that really great, soul-altering meal. To master a skill like writing and feel that exhilaration and satisfaction that comes at the end of a writing day. To spend an evening with my lover and see his eyes glisten as he takes in my face. That’s magic.
The other trademark of your novels is the rural landscape, again with obvious connections to your own background. In your new novel, Turtle Valley, you have returned to the setting of your first novel, and even to some of the same characters. Apart from familiarity, what is it about rural Canada and its people that draws you back over and over again? If you were to write a book with an urban setting, how do you think it would differ (if it did!)?
I have written urban; I started out that way. But when I returned to the small town, rural landscape that I grew up in, when I stepped off the pavement, well, that’s when the magic started to happen. Things are not neat and orderly or expected here. The wild is still very close. A bear ripped off the door to my garbage shed just recently and I see from his calling card that he’s returned for our plums. Coyotes regularly run through our backyard. Anyone who has spent any time in the bush knows that here is where we face the deepest part of our subconscious.
But I’m curious why I keep getting asked this question as I know many of my city dwelling buddies don’t get asked why they write urban, which is something I’d be very curious about. What draws these writers back to the city over and over again when there is so much rural, small town and wild landscape in this province, in this country, to explore? If they wrote a book in a rural setting would it be different? You betcha.
The reality is, of course, that fewer and fewer writers write about rural settings because most writers live in the city. However a great many people do still live out here. Rural living is still very much our reality in this country, and it needs to be expressed, now more than ever as we struggle with environmental issues. As Jack Hodgins and I were saying on my forum, we both get a little annoyed with the unspoken assumption that the urban experience is somehow more worthy of writing about and why would anyone want to write about a rural experience (hence the comparison with rural writers from the past)? That rural living is somehow less sophisticated. But when I look for story, of course I’m looking for conflict, and man, is there ever potential for conflict in a small town setting. Everybody knows what you’re up to and by god they all have a stake in it. There is much less opportunity for that sort of conflict in an urban setting where the people around you often don’t realize you are there, much less care enough to stick their nose in your business!
A Rhinestone Button is set in Godsfinger, a fictional town in Alberta (a perfect name! If there were prizes for fictional names, you’d be adding to your list of awards)—again making use of your experience as a farmer. Is rural Alberta essentially the same as the Shuswap, or are there differences that intrigued you?
Oh, rural Alberta is worlds away from the rural Shuswap-Thompson I know both in terms of landscape and culture. When I was living in Alberta I went on book tour through New Zealand. I experienced far more culture shock in Alberta than I did in New Zealand! So, I’m a BC girl. And of course, the landscapes are so very different. In fact it was in that flat prairie landscape that I first came to understand that I carried a map of the Shuswap inside of me and that this was how I expected the world to look: layers of forested mountains, lakes and fog-shrouded hills. A secretive, gothic place. But in Alberta, everything is laid open; neighbours know exactly what you are up to. And in that prairie landscape my sense of perspective was off: I kept missing turnoffs or stopping for them too early because my sense of distance was so distorted by that strange horizon that contained no mountains. It gave the Alberta landscape a magical feel: the big sky, the perfect clouds receding below the horizon. It always felt a wee bit like those Monty Python cartoons: I expected that any moment God would stamp down a big foot and squish someone.
I know the feeling exactly! In A Recipe for Bees, the narrator says of Augusta’s memories, “Sometimes she believed her own stories as truth; other times she believed them as fiction.” Does this reflect your own approach to using personal recollection in your novels?
Oh, for sure. I sometimes don’t quite remember what is real and what I made up in my own books. But that’s true for all of us. It’s a fact of the way the brain works that we make up a memory each time we remember it. As we recall a memory it is reinvented, reconstructed, and that memory is deeply influenced by what we’re going through right now. So, it’s the old what’s truth and what’s fiction? As I write in Turtle Valley, “memory (is) such a mercurial companion, and one not to be counted on.”
You have said, “My job as a fiction writer is to sketch the outline of a dream.” That begs for expansion!
Many readers fail to recognize that they create a book right along with the author, that a book changes each time it is read as the reader takes in her own history, expectations, beliefs, and wonderful imagination. If you don’t buy that idea, try reading the same book at twenty, thirty, at forty…each time you read the book it will be different. Of course the book itself has remained the same; the reader has changed. So, keeping that in mind, my job as writer is to provide a sketch, a vessel, in which the reader pours his own history, imagination, stories, world view and hopefully, together, we cook up something wonderful.
Your novels seem like very rich tortes to me, the tasty surface always yielding to more and more succulent strata beneath, the present events triggering buried layers of memory, each contributing to an understanding of characters, motives, lives, mariages, deaths. Does that pattern hold for Turtle Valley?
What a lovely compliment! Well, I certainly hope the pattern holds for Turtle Valley. I worked very hard to make it happen. I think the goal of every writer is to have the reader recall the book long after they have read it, to have the reader stumble upon a new realization, perhaps, as they remember some element of the book, much as we might remember a nighttime dream long after having it, and discover something new in it.
A comment you have made about books refers to their “chameleon nature”, which I assume to mean the way we discover new things in books on re-reading, or the way readers have quite different interpretations of the same text. When you look back at your own books, in what way have they changed for you? Do you detect any kind of progression?
I generally don’t reread my own books. I’m always on to the next. But as many characters from The Cure started tapping me on the shoulder and asking to be written about again, I went back to The Cure and reread it. I expected to be embarrassed at this young attempt, but I found myself loving the novel, though I also found myself reading it as if another writer had written it. I had changed so much since I wrote the novel that I found it hard to identify with the writing as my own. I do think I’m a much better writer now, and that Turtle Valley is the best novel I’ve written to date. (I hope I can always say that!) I can see myself maturing through these books, my perspective on life enlarging. No surprise there, I imagine. I have read that a woman writer, in Canada at least, reaches her peak in her fifties. I have that to look forward to.
Every writer, consciously or not, has a compact with a reader. What is the nature of that relationship for you? Have you ever discovered that the book you wrote is not apparently the one they read?
Oh, that happens to me over and over. I’m constantly surprised at what readers see in my novels. Again, this isn’t surprising as each reader reads a very different book. I remember having a reader recognize me in a bookstore in Ontario and she enthused over a passage in The Cure, delighting in the smells, tastes and textures in such wonderful detail that I felt blessed that I had written such a masterpiece. When I got back to my hotel, I read the section just to bask in the glory of it, and found that it wasn’t anything like what she had described. This reader had taken her own marvellous imagination, her own history, her own experiences into the book, and, as I’ve said, created it with me. It was her own genius that she was reading there. Another time I got an email from a reader who thought The Cure for Death by Lightning was the funniest novel he had ever read! I was flattered, but you know, I don’t think I’d invite that fellow over for dinner.
Like many writers, you also teach writing at UBC, and include Mentor in your list of personal roles. The benefits to your students go without saying; what are the benefits to you?
Oh, yes! Simply put, teaching in the MFA creative writing program at UBC has made me a better writer. There is the expected, that when you teach, you must really think about your craft. But as this program is on-line, we attract writers who already have established lives and are accomplished in so many diverse fields (and live and work all over the world; one of my students this year is in Australia). I have “students” who are producers at CBC, working stage actors, or who work in film. Others have business ventures of their own. And others are highly accomplished writers in other genres. Each of these writers brings not only their unique voice into the workshops, but their unique set of skills as well. For example, one writer gave us all a lesson on interviewing which was so useful that I posted it for the rest of the students on our general forum. Week after week I find myself taking notes. I’m learning as much as the writers I work with. It’s a terrific program as we all teach each other.
Can I quote you again? You have said, “If I’m not surprised by a day of writing, I don’t feel I’m doing my job.” Would you expand that, please? What kind of surprise are you hoping for, and what, precisely, do you feel your job is?
Well, that’s the great dilemma we’re all faced with at the cocktail party, isn’t it? What exactly does a writer do? Maybe the real question is, “What do you feel your role is?” What is a writer’s role? I imagine the answer to that question is different for each writer who answers it. Shelagh Rogers interviewed me on stage at the Writers at Woody Point festival in Newfoundland this past week. During this interview Shelagh asked me a question that, surprisingly, I haven’t been asked before. She said, “You’ve been so candid about where your writing comes from. What has that cost you?” I really had to think about that one. Aside from the occasional bit of embarrassment, being candid about my inspirations hasn’t really cost me. Rather, it allows others to be candid, too. Each time I do an event where I talk about what has inspired a novel, at least one member of the audience comes up to me afterwards, very often in tears, and relates his or her own story. That’s what it’s all about for me: opening the door so that others can tell their stories. I remember reading Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women for the first time as a very young woman and thinking, this story is about me! A young woman. A Canadian. Living in a rural or small town setting. So my story is worth writing about! That was a revelation. So I guess to the question, “What is your role?” my answer is that I hope I can give a similar revelation to those who read my stuff. I want to show the reader that his or her stories are not only worth writing about, but worth celebrating.
Your new book is just out, so I’m sure you’ve already started on the next projects. What’s in the works for us to look forward to?
I’m about a year and a half into the next book. I’m again writing about this Shuswap landscape, the river this time. It’s a much more poetic novel, much more focused on language. I’m writing sections of it as poetry, and then translating (quite literally) back into prose. And I expect some innovations. I’m back to my experimental self, at least a little. But, as they say in the reviews, while experimental, it will still be “accessible,” in other words, fun to read.
How Gail got her groove back
Lately some high profile female writers have been putting their names on books for children and reluctant readers. Poets Susan Musgrave and Lorna Crozier have contributed a few lines for simple board books for toddlers—with Musgrave’s Love You More (Orca $9.95) and Kiss, Tickle, Cuddle, Hug (Orca $9.95), both illustrated by Esperanca Melo, and Crozier’s And Lots of Kisses (Orca $9.95)—and novelist Caroline Adderson has released A Simple Case of Angels (Groundwood $9.95) for children aged 8 to 11.
With If It Bleeds (Orca $9.95), January Magazine creator Linda Richards has entered the new Rapid Reads niche. Her heroine Nicole Charles didn’t attend journalism school to become a gossip columnist, but with jobs scarce she takes the job until something better comes along. As Nicole struggles with the stigma attached to her type of journalism, she begins to think she’ll never have a real reporting job. When she discovers the body of an up-and-coming artist in a dark alley, she finds herself in the middle of the biggest story of the year.
For the past decade or so, acclaimed novelist Gail Anderson-Dargatz has been busy with parenting, step-parenting, the death of both parents, divorce, remarriage, a move, another move, and teaching writing from her Shuswap home in UBC’s optional-residency CW MFA program. Having just turned fifty, here she describes how she recently regained her literary verve with Search and Rescue (Orca $9.95), a thriller for her new Rapid Reads series about smalltown journalist, Claire Abbott, who solves crimes in rural B.C.
TO DANCE WITH A CAT
by Gail Anderson-Dargatz
In the last five years, I fell out of love with my writing life. Aside from having little time to write, I found myself feeling that I had to write like the person I no longer was, this “Gail Anderson-Dargatz.” My writing name is not my personal name and hasn’t been for a decade. My husband calls me by my middle name, Kate, and I took his name when we married.
So there I was in mid-life, another person. More than that, I was no longer sure what stories I wanted to tell. I was proud of my early work, but I had grown beyond that person who had written those books. I felt pressure, real or imagined, from the publishing industry to continue to write as “Gail Anderson-Dargatz.”
I know I’m not alone here. Falling out of love with writing is something that happens to most writers, and not just in mid-career. We fall out of love with nearly each project and, especially when writing a novel. As is the case with any long-term marriage, there are bland days when we wonder why we started this damn thing in the first place. Or, even worse, we fight with a story that isn’t working. We think of giving up and leaving the project altogether.
Sometimes, as in a bad marriage, we should leave it. Some projects are just practice, where we learn a thing or two, like the relationships of our twenties, when we experiment with lovers until we find a good match. Even when we do find that good match — the writing project that “fits” — there will be days when we want to give up, when we seem to have fallen out of love.
How do we heal our relationship with our writing life in general? How do we reignite that spark? I think I’m beginning to figure it out. I believe the key to keeping any long-term relationship thriving lies in making time for that love, and in bringing back play. Just as we do with our partners, we need to make the time to be with our writing.
We often fall out of love with our writing simply because we don’t have the energy for it. When we’re not at work, we’re chasing our kids or overloaded by domestic demands. It’s hard enough to find time to romance our partners, much less our writing.
If that writing life is important to us, however, then we must find that time and energy to romance it, almost daily. I say ‘almost’ because breaks are important. We need time away from our kids and lovers to charge up, to appreciate them. The same is true of writing.
To stay in love with writing, we need to make it a daily habit, one we return to because we want to, because we’re driven to, not because we have to. Here was where I ran into trouble. Between my responsibilities as a parent to four kids, as a daughter to aging parents, as a teacher, and as a wife, I had very little time left to romance my writing.
I had also lost the ability to view my writing as play. As pros, we often come to think of our writing as work, and defend it as such, as something we must do, we should do. There’s nothing like a “should” to take the joy out of any activity.
Writers often ask me how I stay disciplined, how I keep writing. I tell them I do my best not to discipline myself to write. When I make it work, it feels like work. Despite what I told these writers, however, writing had become work for me. Writing was how I made my living. I wrote for a purpose now, and not for play. And so, I lost energy for it.
I see the importance of play at work most keenly with my children. My two youngest love to write. My youngest son had two novels on the go before the age of twelve. My daughter writes poetry and picture books for fun. For fun. These kids aren’t worrying about getting published, or finding an agent, or getting decent reviews. They are writing for no other purpose other than to play.
My son learns through a distributed learning program, at home. He’ll spend the day writing on his own initiative, because he loves it, but when he’s given an assignment to write by his teacher, his creativity stalls. He can’t think what to write. When he’s writing for a purpose, someone else’s purpose, his writing stalls.
I remember that feeling of play, the joy of the white page. The possibilities! I wrote for that bubbly feeling I now see crossing my children’s faces as they write their fiction, that feeling of wonder that came when I engaged my own imagination, when I was there, inside the world of my writing. I wrote for no purpose other than this.
Then I published, gained some measure of success. Writing became work and the experience changed. I was writing to a purpose, to publish, to win competitions, to garner attention, to get an agent, to get an editor, to keep my editor, to win bigger awards, and so on. I had grown up and forgotten how to play.
It changed for me—for the better—when I took on writing for adults struggling with literacy issues; first through the Good Reads program, then through Orca’s Rapid Reads series. In the process, I explored commercial novels, looking for that clear narrative arrow, the fast-paced plot, the page-turner so necessary in engaging a new reader.
I discovered I really liked writing young adult and children’s fiction. It’s fun! I could quit being so damn earnest, so literary. I find myself forgetting about what others might think of my fiction, my literary fiction. In short, I’m allowing myself to play again, to write not for an audience, but for myself.
I feel a little giddy, as if I am genuinely falling in love again, with the writing process. The days I worry about what my agent/editor/reviewer/reader will think are the bad days, when the writing stalls. The days when I don’t give a shit what anyone will say are the good writing days.
So I now stumble some days, and dance others. I suspect it will take me some time to fully rediscover that place my son and daughter intuitively and naturally write within. Like them, and like the writer Lucien in Michael Ondaatje’s novel Divisadero, I’m learning, once again, “to dance with no purpose, with a cat.”
Gail Anderson-Dargatz is currently at work on her fourth novel for adults. An earlier version of this essay appeared in Event.
[An earlier version of this essay appeared in Event magazine in 2014]