Author Tags: Essentials 2010, Fiction
LITERARY LOCATION: Merville General Store, 6635 Island Hwy, at Sackville Road, Merville, B.C.
Raised on a “stump ranch” at Merville, between Courtenay and Campbell River on Vancouver Island, Jack Hodgins has frequently recalled he felt “bush league” even in relation to people who lived in the nearby towns. He nonetheless became one of the most respected novelists ever born in British Columbia, as well as a beloved teacher. He was elected to the Royal Society of Canada in 1999 and he received the Order of Canada in 2009. In 2011 Jack Hodgins was honoured with a plaque in front of the Laughing Oyster Bookstore, on the Comox Valley “Walk of Achievement" but it was the Merville General Store that was the focal point for encountering the outside world when he was growing up.
He recalls: "The postal address of the family farm on Nurmi Road was simply "Merville Post Office, British Columbia." Eli and Aili Nurmi (and son Bill) lived at the end of the road, and my parents bought the farm alongside it from the original owners. No one else lived on the road until much later -- after my parents built a new house out on the highway (other end of the property) and sold half the farm on Nurmi Road.
"We had to collect our mail from the Merville Store. I recall a hole in the wall, a bit of a shelf across the bottom of the hole, and a little room with a back wall made of small mail cubicles. The PO was run by whoever owned the Store at the time. When I was very young my mother's older sister and her husband were running the store and the PO, though I don't think for long. Actually, I think my grandfather Blakely owned it for that short while, but its ownership changed many times over the years of my growing up.
"For many years the Merville Store had one of the few telephones in the district. In an emergency you got there fast! I based a short story on the time my mother aimed a shotgun at the pheasant out in our field and it backfired, wounding her forehead, and I had to jump on my bike to ride down to the Store and phone for a doctor.
"My mother's parents raised six daughters and ran a dairy farm at the corner of the (old) Island Highway and the Kitty Coleman Road. It was never particularly good farming country, where so much clearing of forest was necessary, and then the picking of an endless supply of rocks that came to the surface every year. Our rock pile was eventually the size of a building. Most "farms" were "hobby farms" where logger families had milk cows and beef cattle, along with gardens and hay fields carved out of the bush.
"More recent arrivals in Merville have adopted and revived its early flavour with great enthusiasm. They have painted the never-before-painted Merville Hall, and moved the no-longer-used little Merville Anglican church up to beside the hall. Also, I think, with another historical shed of some kind. They throw big hall parties and advertise in a manner than emphasizes the "country quaintness" of the place."
Merville, B.C, was named after Merville France, familiar to returning Canadian World War I veterans who were invited to settle in the stump-ridden area. Their attempts at homesteading are the subject for Jack Hodgins' 1998 novel Broken Ground.
Jack Hodgins is the eldest of the three children born to Stanley and Reta (Blakely) Hodgins. He was raised on the family farm on Nurmi Road in Merville and attended Tsolum School. His mother (1916-2004) wrote the local history, Merville: And Its Early Settlers 1919–1925 published in 1985 by the Merville Community Association. Jack Hodgins graduated with a B.Ed from the University of British Columbia and taught high school in Nanaimo between 1961 and 1981.
Encouraged by Earle Birney at UBC, Hodgins made a comet-like emergence with two audacious works of fiction, Spit Delaney’s Island (1976), a light-hearted collection of stories that received the Eaton’s Book Award, and The Invention of the World (1977), a magic realist novel that depicts the fictional Revelations Colony of Truth led by Donal Keneally, a religious leader inspired by the fraudulent occultist Edward Arthur Wilson, a.k.a. Brother XII.
“The Invention of the World ranks up there with The Diviners for me,” says novelist Anne Cameron, who, along with Hodgins, was born in Nanaimo in 1938. “It made my personal reality visible and available to everyone. Somehow it no longer seemed quite the burden it had been to have been raised on this island, in Nanaimo, virtually cut off from the rest of the world.”
Hodgins then gained broad recognition on the Canadian literary map when he won the Governor General’s Award for Fiction for his light-hearted novel, The Resurrection of Joseph Bourne (1979), celebrating a potpourri of characters in the coastal town of Port Alice. He later received the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize for Broken Ground (1998), a novelized tribute to the origins of Merville as a settlement for WWI soldiers and their families. Of his 14 books, his one non-fiction title is a A Passion for Narrative (1994).
Hodgins received the Canada-Australia Prize in 1986. In 2006, he was named the twelfth recipient of the George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award for an outstanding literary career in British Columbia. In that same year he received the Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Literary Excellence. In 2009, he became a member of the Order of Canada. As the author of The Master of Happy Endings, he was named the winner of the 8th annual City of Victoria Butler Book Prize in 2011.
Jack Hodgins is the 12th recipient of the George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award [formerly Terasen Award] for an outstanding literary career in British Columbia. In the same year he also received the Lieutenant Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. In 2009, he became a member of the Order of Canada.
Born on October 3, 1938 in the Comox Valley, Jack Hodgins was raised on a 'stump ranch' at Merville, a former soldier settlement located between Courtenay and Campbell River on Vancouver Island. In 1999, Hodgins received the Ethel Wilson for Broken Ground, his long-in-gestation novel about the homesteading tribulations of an enclave of returned war veterans and their families. Upon accepting the Ethel Wilson Prize, he said, "I would like to express my gratitude for having been born to parents who spoke freely and openly, and at length, about their lives before I came into the world. I feel as though my own personal memory goes back at least twenty years before I was born. This came in very handy when writing a novel set in 1922... I’m glad I won because those of us that have been around a long time need reassurance every bit as much as newcomers."
In interviews, Jack Hodgins has frequently recalled he was raised in what seemed to be like a cultural backwater. "Growing up in Merville, I felt 'bush league' even in relation to people who lived in the nearby smalltown of Courtenay," he says. In this environment, where any literary aspirations as a male would have been suspect, Hodgins was insecure about announcing his love for storytelling and books beyond his family. "It wasn't until grade ten that I had a male teacher whose enthusiasm for literature was contagious," he says. He was nonetheless encouraged by his mother whose stock answer whenever he ran out of reading material was, "Well, go write your own." Although Hodgins likes to recall that literature during his childhood mostly consisted of the weekend colour comics--in which the strip Dogpatch was 'the closest anything in literature came to reflecting the world I lived in'--his mother Reta Hodgins later edited and published an excellent local history of the Merville area after he had left home.
At the University of British Columbia, Jack Hodgins was chiefly encouraged by Earle Birney. He later recalled, "The passion for writing stories was so powerful in me, that if I didn't learn what I needed to learn I would be doomed to write bad stories for the rest of my life." He married his Vancouver-born wife Dianne (neé Child) in 1960 and began teaching high school in 1961 in Nanaimo, hometown of novelist Anne Cameron, also born in 1938. Cameron and Hodgins would evolve a lasting affinity and mutual respect for one another's work even though their manners are contrary.
Jack Hodgins first gained broad recognition on the Canadian literary map when he won the Governor General's Award for Fiction for his light-hearted novel, The Resurrection of Joseph Bourne, celebrating a pot pourri of characters in the coastal town of Port Alice, but Hodgins is just as likely to be celebrated, in the long run, for his first collection of mostly comic short stories, Spit Delaney's Island. It received the Eaton's Book Award to kick-start his career. His first editor for that debut book of fiction was Douglas Gibson who would remain loyal to Hodgins for decades. "I think I was one of his first authors--maybe the first new author--for him to edit at Macmillan of Canada. I remember later asking Doug how he had the nerve to take a chance on me. He said, 'I showed them the piece written by Margaret Laurence praising your work and they said 'Oh well, If Margaret Laurence likes him work, then .....'' Does all of our personal and professional history hinge on such moments?"
For his audacious and fanciful first novel, The Invention of the World, winner of the Gibson's First Novel Award, Hodgins was influenced by the 'magic realism' of Gabriel Garcia Marquez' One Hundred Years of Solitude and other Latin American authors such as Jorge Amado and Varga Llosa. He also travelled to Ireland to glean the rhythms of Irish speech. "Frankly I don't know how I did it," he told Rebecca Wigod in 1981. "The Invention of the World was written in my daughter's bedroom. I rented it from her by the day when she was at school." Also set on Vancouver Island, this novel depicts the fictional Revelations Colony of Truth led by Donal Keneally, a religious leader inspired by the fraudulent occultist Edward Arthur Wilson, aka Brother XII, who absconded with the funds from his notorious Aquarian Foundation sect near Nanaimo.
"Invention of the World ranks up there with The Diviners for me," Anne Cameron has remarked. "It made my personal reality visible and available to everyone. Somehow it no longer seemed quite the burden it had been to have been raised on this island, in Nanaimo, virtually cut off from the rest of the world."
With three children, Hodgins remained teaching high school until 1979 when The Resurrection of Joseph Bourne won the nation's top fiction prize. His next collection of short stories, The Barclay Family Theatre, features a wide array of family-related characters, many of whom reappear in a later book, The Macken Charm. The latter title includes a gangling, Hodgins-like youth named Barclay Desmond who enters a talent contest and loses. Whereas the whimsical Barclay Family Theatre stories are mainly about a family that includes seven roguish girls, the more realistic Macken Charm is a novel about an ornery family that includes ten Macken brothers and one sister. The Barclays and Mackens are Vancouver Island families that intermarry.
After his fourth book, Hodgins turned his hand to a more conventional narrative for The Honorary Patron, a novel that follows the misadventures of a Vancouver Island-born art critic, Jeffrey Crane, as he is invited 'home' from his dignified retirement in Zurich to serve as an honorary patron for a Vancouver Island arts festival. It received a Commonwealth Writers Prize.
Ten new stories were presented in Damage Done by the Storm. In 'Balance,' the opening story, Monte works at Stanford Orthotics, restoring people’s balance, but his own life is a little unstable. He’s fallen in love with Donna Rossini—or rather, with a mold of her feet. "I raised the foot to my lips, and kissed, one after the other, all of her toes… I heard--so help me--the youthful sound of her laugh." Monte’s foot fetish turns into an unlikely correspondence. It is a typical Hodgins' story, charmingly respectful of his characters' private and often insecure feelings.
After Hodgins received the Canada-Australia Prize in 1986 and visited Down Under, he set part of his next novel, Innocent Cities, in Australia. He subsequently returned to Australia and undertook a journey through the outback with Australian novelist Roger McDonald. They drove from Sydney to Canberra, west to Broken Hill, then north and west through Queensland, ending in Brisbane. Their visits to towns with names such as Gundagai, Cunnamulla and Booligal resulted in his spirited and highly praised travelogue about visits to sheepshearing stations, etc., entitled Over Forty in Broken Hill. Australia reappears in Hodgins novel Distance, the story of a successful Ottawa businessman, Sonny Aalto, who flies home to Vancouver Island to see his estranged, ailing father who has six months to live. The reluctant duo travel to the Australian outback to confront Sonny’s long-lost mother, then it’s back to Vancouver Island, where Sonny’s father coaxes him on a final journey to Cape Scott at the north end of the island. In June of 2000, Jack Hodgins was keynote speaker at a conference of Australian teachers of writing, hosted by Griffiths University in Surfers Paradise, Queensland.
Having had a stint as Writer in Residence at Simon Fraser University in 1977, Hodgins took a similar position at University of Ottawa in the wake of his Governor General's Award. Hodgins later became a popular fixture in the Writing Department faculty at the University of Victoria, publishing a 'how-to' book at the urging of his longtime editor Douglas Gibson, and also travelling extensively as a writer on junkets to Australia, New Zealand, Japan, United States, Belgium, France, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Austria and Germany. He retired from teaching at the University of Victoria in 2002 but continued to conduct an annual writing workshop in Mallorca, Spain. He has also occasionally been a faculty member in the writing program at the Banff Centre for the Arts.
In June of 1995, the University of B.C. awarded him an honorary D.Litt for – according to the UBC Chronicle – bringing "renown to the university and the province as one of Canada's finest fiction writers and as an innovative stylist and distinguished academic." Always polite and affable, he has also received honorary degrees (D.Litt) from Malaspina University-College (1998) and University of Victoria (2004). He remains close friends with the critic W.H. (Bill) New, an ardent booster of his career, and his editor Douglas Gibson has remained involved in all of his books with the possible exception of Hodgins' one title for younger readers, Left Behind in Squabble Bay.
Jack Hodgins lives in Cadboro Bay, Victoria; his children and grandchildren reside in Victoria and Vancouver. He has been the subject of a National Film Board film, Jack Hodgins' Island, and a book, Jack Hodgins and His Work, by David Jeffrey. In 1996, Oolichan Press published a collection of essays on his work, titled On Coasts of Eternity, edited by J. R. (Tim) Struthers. Annika Hannan has edited a book of essays on Hodgins’s work for Guernica Press in Toronto. In 1990, as part of its 75th anniversary celebration, the University of British Columbia's Alumni Society included him amongst the "75 most distinguished graduates" to be honoured with a plaque. In 1996 Hodgins was one of ten Canadian writers invited by the French Minister of Culture to be honoured at Les Belles Etrangers festival in Paris. In June of 1997 he taught a fiction workshop in Marburg, Germany. He has been a guest at an academic conference on Literatures of the Islands at the University of Strasbourg, France, and a guest of the Nordic Association of Canadian Studies in Turku, Finland. In 1999 he was elected to the Royal Society of Canada. Hodgins received the City of Victoria Butler Book Prize in 2011 for The Master of Happy Endings.
In his comic novel, Cadillac Cathedral (Ronsdale 2014), Jack Hodgins returns to the fictional town of Portuguese Creek, based on his upbringing in the small town of Merville. It's the charming story of a Finnish bachelor, a retired mechanic, who gets his hands dirty and his heart a ’flutter when he pulls an abandoned hearse out the woods, restores it and goes in search of his childhood love, Myrtle Birdsong. [See review below]
In 2014, Jack Hodgins recalled the origins for Cadillac Cathedral for the Nanaimo Daily News, as well as the day he received the news that his first story had been accepted for publication by the Northwest Review, a literary journal out of Portland:
"My father's father ran a farm where I grew up in Merville, and as a sideline he was a butcher. People would bring him their cows they wanted butchered for winter supply and he bought an ancient hearse to deliver the meat," he said with a chuckle. "People used to call them meat wagons, but his was, quite literally."
"... Our daughter remembers my getting that first acceptance letter. I had to drive down to the bottom of the hill to get our mail and she came with me, and she swears that when I opened that envelope, I did a cartwheel on the side of the road," he said with a chuckle. "Now, I know I've never done a cartwheel in my life, but I must have done something that made her think it was the equivalent, I was so excited. So that was the beginning, and that was just enough to make me think, 'OK, I'm not being a total fool here, I'm not wasting my life trying.'"
Theatre Inconnu in Victoria on Fernwood Street, across from the Belfry Theatre, produced Charles Tidler's adaptation of a short story by Jack Hodgins for Spit Delaney's Island in 2015, directed by Karen Lee Pickett. Spit Delaney is a steam locomotive operator at a pulp mill. After decades of rising at 4 am to fire up his beloved steam engine, Spit finds himself without this job when the pulp mill replaces “Old Number One” with a modern diesel engine. Spit declares that he is: “Not sure of where or how I belong.” Spit’s relationship with his family and the world around him is thrown in turmoil as he doggedly tries to hang onto an identity that is no longer relevant. This is the stuff of comedy, and yet it is also the stuff of the human condition. As we laugh at Spit’s misguided struggle to stay the same, we empathize with his loneliness at being left behind while others move on – more readily adapting to a changing world. But there are magical forces at work here, guiding Spit – kicking and screaming – towards a deeper understanding of himself and an unexpected outcome.
Cadillac Cathedral (Ronsdale 2014) $18.95 978-1-55380-298-3
The Master of Happy Endings. (Thomas Allen & Son, 2010). 978-0-88762-523-7 : $32.95
Damage Done by the Storm. (McClelland & Stewart, 2004). 0-7710-4152-7 : $32.99
Distance. (McClelland & Stewart, 2003). 0771041993 : $37.99
Broken Ground. (McClelland & Stewart, 1998).
The Macken Charm. (McClelland & Stewart, 1995).
A Passion for Narrative. (McClelland & Stewart, 1994).
Over Forty in Broken Hill. (McClelland & Stewart, 1992).
Innocent Cities. (McClelland & Stewart), 1990.
Left Behind in Squabble Bay. (McClelland & Stewart, 1988).
The Honorary Patron. (McClelland & Stewart, 1987).
The Barclay Family Theatre. (Macmillan, 1981). The Barclay Family Theatre (Ronsdale Press 2012) $18.95 ISBN 978-1-55380-144-3
The Resurrection of Joseph Bourne. (Macmillan, 1979).
The Invention of the World. (Macmillan, 1977); The Invention of the World (Ronsdale, 2010). 978-1-55380-099-6 $18.95.
Spit Delaney's Island. (Macmillan, 1976).
Jack Hodgins: Essays on his Work, edited by Annika Hannan (Guernica 2010)
On Coasts of Eternity: Jack Hodgins' Fictional Universe (Oolichan Books 1996). Edited by J.R. (Tim) Struthers.
[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2014] "Eaton's"
Interview 1998 -- Broken Ground (M&S $29.99)
Jack Hodgins' Broken Ground (M&S $29.99) is being touted as a breakthrough. If so, it's definitely not a trendy one. In 1922, in the aftermath of World War One, purblind and disparate settlers struggle to break ground at Portugese Creek, an enclave of land given to WW I veterans on Vancouver Island. A father is killed by dynamite in the opening pages and it ends with a funeral in 1996. Flashbacks to trench fighting in France are matched by tragedies, hopeless quests, unrequited longings and a deadly forest fire. Psychically, it's out of the frying pan and into the fire. "Some of us were so pleased with the distance we'd put behind us," says Matthew Pearson, one of the novel's ten first-person narrators, "that it took a while to see this place would kill us the sort of work it required."
Wrestling with stumps. Wrestling with memories. Wrestling with fate. Fighting a disastrous forest fire. It's not the sort of light fare that readers of Hodgins' earlier books, such as Spit Delaney's Island and The Resurrection of Joseph Bourne, will quickly associate with the Victoria-based writer born and raised in Merville, north of Courtenay.
BCBW: What triggered Broken Ground?
HODGINS: I grew up in a Returned Soldiers Settlement, hearing stories of the forest fire of 1922 that swept through the community. A few years ago it occurred to me that some of the fictional characters I'd already written about would have had, like myself, parents and grandparents who'd experienced the earliest days of the settlement. As well as the Great War.
BCBW: How important was visiting France and seeing some of the World War One battle sites?
HODGINS: It reinforced the connections. The community where I grew up was named by the Returned Soldiers after a French village they fought in. When I was in France, our hosts were interested in this and found out there are three Mervilles in France. They arranged to take me to the one the settlers most likely had in mind, a place called Merville-au-bois.
BCBW: And where exactly is Merville-au-bois?
HODGINS: Near Amiens. It's right on the Western Front. The former mayor of the village showed me the trenches that ran right along the edge of the village, a few metres from his door. Exploring that Picardy area made me think of the soldiers I knew as a child. It caused me to start thinking more about what it must have been like for them to come from the trenches in France to the stumps of Vancouver Island. This, in turn, prompted me to start doing some more serious research. I interrupted another novel to get going on this one. Last fall I returned for a second visit to the area. I attended the November 11th ceremony at Vimy Ridge.
BCBW: How closely does Portugese Creek have any bearing on Merville, where you were raised?
HODGINS: Merville was never even a small town -- just a general store, a community hall and a scattering of farms. There is a Portugese Creek whose nameless tributaries wander through everyone's property. I borrowed something of the geography of the place, and the architecture of the original houses, and of course historical events like the forest fire, but I imagined my own cast of characters and allowed them to respond to these events in their own way.
BCBW: Did you model any characters after people who really existed?
HODGINS: I avoided that. I borrowed some experiences of actual individuals but was careful to avoid portraits of real personalities.
BCBW: Growing up in Merville, did you ever feel 'bush league'? Or was the rest of the world so remote you didn't care?
HODGINS: Growing up in Merville I felt 'bush league' even in relation to people who lived in the nearby small town of Courtenay, so the rest of the world was a great intimidating enigma. I knew there was a good deal about Merville that was pretty wonderful but I didn't think anyone anywhere else would agree.
BCBW: This is obviously a very important novel for you. On a deeply personal level.
HODGINS: I feel as though I've been waiting all my life to write this one. I grew up listening to family stories of the Merville Fire of 1922, which completely surrounded my father's family house, cutting off escape right through the night. It burned their farm buildings and killed their animals. I remember the ageing settlers who fought in the Great War. I lived in a house built by a Returned Soldier, and played as a child amongst the giant stumps blackened by the fire. All of these seemed like extensions of my own being. Writing the fictional account was a way of re-living something I never exactly lived in the first place.
BCBW: Some readers might be surprised to learn Canada had ground-breaking pioneers as late as 1922.
HODGINS: A few of those original pioneers are still around. It was fascinating to learn from them, and from my parents, how things were done. For instance, I had to become a bit of an explosives 'expert' in order to understand how those field were cleared.
BCBW: The story made me appreciate some things anew -- such as the extent to which early settlers were ethnically diverse. One basic hurdle they had to overcome was just communication amongst themselves.
HODGINS. Absolutely. Canadian multi-culturalism is nothing new. My earliest experiences taught me it can work very well. There was a nice blend of assimilation and retention of earier customs. There was mutual assistance and respect for differences.
BCBW: The only other novel that connects World War I with B.C. pioneering is Hubert Evans' out-of-print New Front Line.
HODGINS: I haven't read it. But I did read other fiction about the First World War and fiction about pioneering. There was nothing I read that linked them.
BCBW: Peter Trower once wrote a very powerful poem that compares fighting in a war to being a logger.
HODGINS: For those Returned Soldiers who were 'rewarded' with land for farming, clearing the stumps must have seemed like a continuation of war. Some were wounded by explosives. And of course many more were wounded or killed in the logging camps. Most of them ended up in the logging camps because it became clear that very few of them would ever make a living off their farms. The land was suitable only for timber.
BCBW: No wonder people moved to the cities. It struck me that a less subtle publisher would have called this novel Broken Ground, Broken Hearts.
HODGINS: And yet in spite of all the hardships, despite the forest fire, people stayed to create a cohesive community. They had come to Merville from all over Canada. For many of them, this was a second migration, since they'd come from other countries before the war. Most didn't want to go back. Many, of course, couldn't afford to leave.
BCBW: Tragedy was unavoidable in those days but at least it was always shared.
HODGINS: And the sharing extended to a lifetime of sharing stories. The great fire, the clearing of land, the family tragedies, the comical escapades. All entered the mythology of the community, retold in overlapping narratives at every gathering. The Great War that preceded this was seldom talked about at all, so far as I know, except within the walls of some family homes.
BCBW: Your earlier books have a comedic style. Now you're writing about a terrible fire that consumes an entire settlement. Do you feel you've changed as a writer?
HODGINS: I'm probably concerned with much the same things as always. This time the outward events may be war and fire and hard work and loss, but the novel's real interest is in love, family, fidelity and the successful forging of the community. What interests me is that the fire, which consumed much of the settlement, did not consume the community. I wanted to explore the human qualities that made this possible.
BCBW: You've stayed with the same editor throughout your career. Are you aware that's almost seems bizarre, given the demise of loyalty in general?
HODGINS: I understand I was the first new writer Doug Gibson chose to take on when he began work at Macmillan. When he moved to McClelland & Stewart I followed -- as did others. Over time, I suppose a sort of short-hand has developed, as in any friendship. I know how he works; he knows how I work. Doug's great enthusiasm for a book he's edited is rewarding, of course. So is his approach, which is to sit in for my toughest future reader.
BCBW: I had difficulty with you using the first person voice for all your different characters. Obviously a 'concert of characters' is the protagonist. Was this ever considered to be a risk?
HODGINS: A number of writers I admire have successfully done it. I experimented with other approaches but eventually saw that only a chorus of voices and a variety of narrations would be consistent with the novel's eventual discovery -- that the story is in the variety of voices and points of view and visions. This strong community is born not only out of shared hardships but out of the habit of telling and hearing about it again and again from every conceivable angle.
BCBW: You've even created a society of characters and clans who keep re-appearing in your books. As if your fiction is a smalltown unto itself.
HODGINS: It wasn't something I planned from the beginning. But it seems perfectly natural to me now. These people sometimes arrive in the stories uninvited.
BCBW: Looking at your work as a whole, I'd say you're first and foremost a Vancouver Islander. Is that a fair assessment?
HODGINS: It's probably impossible for someone who's first and foremost a Vancouver Islander to know such a thing about himself.
[BCBW 1998] "Interview"
JACK HODGINS (1978)
JACK HODGINS was born in the Comox Valley on Vancouver Island in 1938. His primarily comic fictions reflect rather than portray mostly non-urban characters, in the short stories of Spit Delaney's Island (1976) and The Barclay Family Theatre (1981). His Vancouver Island-based novels are The Invention of the World (1977), the Governor General's Award-winning The Resurrection of Joseph Bourne (1979) and The Honorary Patron (1987). His frequently enthusiastic/innocent style has also produced the juvenile novel, Left Behind at Squabble Bay (1988). Jack Hodgins lives in Victoria where he teaches at the university. He was interviewed in 1978.
T: Where do you think you got the ambition to be a writer?
HODGINS: I don't know because I can't remember not having it. I loved books from the beginning. There weren't that many around the house and certainly very few around the school. The few books I had, I'm sure I read a dozen times before my childhood was over. The library, for most of my schooling, was just one shelf across the back of the classroom. But there was always something magical about books. The feel, the touch and the smell. I wanted to be one of the people who filled up those books, who did whatever the magic thing was.
So right from the beginning it wasn't just the writing, it was the book that was important to me too. I guess in some sense I would feel that you could sit and write all your life and if it never turns into a book then it isn't real. When I was ten I remember I wrote a murder mystery that was four pages long! I asked my babysitter to type it up, which she did, and then I folded the pages over and sewed them up the back and put a cover on it.
T: Is there anything significant about your family background?
HODGINS: My mother was one of six, my dad was one of thirteen. So every second person in the community was a relative. If he wasn't a relative, he was a friend. So that kind of an extended family is just part of the way I see the world. It's not something I've deliberately gone out of my way to create, except to some extent in Joseph Bourne. I knew everybody in my community. I went to school with the kids of everybody.
T: A lot of people have become writers precisely because they didn't grow up in that kind of social atmosphere.
HODGINS: Well, there was still the loneliness of knowing that what was important to me was something that had no relationship with the lives of the people around me. And if they only knew, they would think I was a real freak. Which I was! That created a problem in that I obviously didn't fit into the adult patterns I saw around me. I think in my childhood I equated this problem to a rural/ city question. I felt I probably didn't belong in a rural situation. Maybe all city people were like me. But when I got to university in Vancouver I discovered that wasn't true. You carry your own home around with you. This tuned up my defence mechanisms and then in turn my abilities to know what other people felt like.
T: In one of your novels there's a remark that the city of Nanaimo has gone from a frontier mentality to a Disneyland mentality. Has it ever occurred to you that you may be fortunate as a writer to be able to see your society change so drastically?
HODGINS: Yes. I think someone on the CBC radio once mentioned, in a derogatory fashion, that the BC Ferries brought Vancouver Island out of an essential hillbilly culture into the twentieth century. Well, that "hillbilly" culture was my whole life up until my twenties. I've gone from a childhood in a farmhouse without telephone or electricity to being gobbled up by the city of Nanaimo, which is bursting at the seams, creating subdivisions all around us.
T: Also there was a story of yours in Saturday Night once about a boy whose mother wanted him to become a concert violinist and his father wanted him to be a logger. Do you think it's an advantage for a writer to be a composite of two opposite parents? HODGINS: Yes, no question about it. If nothing else it gave me a good start at being able to see things from a different point of view. I'm not writing about myself as many do. I write about the people I see out there. If I'm able to do it at all, I think it's because I've developed a lifetime habit of being super-sensitive to the way other people feel, almost to knowing what's going on inside them. It may have begun as a child as a defence mechanism, as a timid kid trying to figure out where the dangers were in the world, trying to know what people were thinking before they ever got around to acting. T: Have you studied people's speech consciously?
HODGINS: Yes. And that's still very conscious with me. I think this is the result of having had to go through a very painful experience of quote, "finding my own voice." In my twenties all my writing was very imitative. I fell in love with the writing of William Faulkner and a few other American writers. Everything I wrote had to sound like them. Then when it did sound like them, it wasn't any good either. Towards the end of my twenties I decided I had to either find my own voice, whatever that was, or else give up writing altogether.
Well, the thing that happened was that I didn't find my own voice at all. But I started listening to the voices of people who live on Vancouver Island. I think that was much more important than listening to my own voice. I started to notice that no two people talk the same. Not only are voices different, but people have different speech patterns, different favourite expressions and different rhythms of speech. Once I figured it out, I thought that is probably the most powerful device I can use for making my characters seem alive.
Often if I've got a character set up and I know him very well, all I have to do is listen to him talk. I will worry less about the content of his answer to somebody's question than about the rhythm of his speech. Often, I suspect, what we say is controlled more by the patterns we're comfortable with than what we really think.
T: Most writers go through a period of finding their own self before they can go on to be writers. Was that a problem for you?
HODGINS: I don't know. I've never consciously looked to understand myself. I think I was at least thirty before a consciousness of myself got to any crisis point.
T: How do you mean?
HODGINS: I reached a point where I had to put up or shut up. Either produce or quit fooling yourself. You see there was a whole pile of people, whose names I now forget, who became overnight sensations when I was about nineteen. And I sort of took it for granted that if you didn't become a published novelist in your early twenties at the latest, it's like the old-fashioned girl who's an old maid if she's not married by twenty-two or something.
All right, I know that's a misconception. But remember, I had nobody to advise me. All I had to go by was the people who got the attention. All those overnight sensations! No doubt, all over the world there were people like me gnashing their teeth saying why do I have to wait? Thank goodness I did! I shudder to think what if somebody had published one of my earlier novels. And I suspect that at least one of them is publishable, though not very good at all. If somebody had given me the encouragement of publishing it, I think it would have been very bad. I might have thought, well, I guess I've got it made.
Now I think, if I've learned anything about writing, it's the result of the terrible frustrations of not getting anywhere for so long. I had to learn. Because nothing was happening by itself. I had to really work like a dog to make it happen.
T: It sounds like the toughest part of being a writer is surviving the apprenticeship.
HODGINS: During all those years there was that nagging suspicion that this was all a fantasy, all a dream. I had no reason to believe that I would ever have any kind of success whatsoever. I had no reason to believe I'd ever be published at all. I didn't know any other writers as a kid. I didn't know anyone else who wanted to write until I was well into adulthood. I didn't even know anyone else from my own generation who loved reading. So if I wrote, I wrote behind closed doors. I even read behind closed doors. This was just not acceptable behaviour for a growing boy in a rural community.
T: Most Canadian writers have had the same feeling. We're probably basically still a very young country with a pioneer mentality.
HODGINS: And we're suspicious of the written word, aren't we? That apprenticeship as a writer can be so painful that it seems to me if writers can do nothing else for aspiring writers, they should tell this fact about their own lives.
T: Would you agree the Protestant work ethic influences the reading of literature in Canada?
HODGINS: No question about it. I often get the impression reading much of the fiction written in this country that nobody in Canada ever laughs. Nobody ever makes fun of themselves, nobody ever takes life at all lightly. And yet I look at the real people around me and it seems that almost everybody I know laughs quite often every day. So if there are examples of humour in my work, it's not usually a deliberate attempt to be funny. It's simply a reflection of the way I see people, people who seem to spend a lot of their time laughing, often at themselves. Humour is a perfectly realistic part of life. But you don't get all that much comedy in serious Canadian fiction.
T: Along with that humour, I think the reader also gets a feeling from your work that the person creating everything is enjoying himself. And some of that pleasure rubs off.
HODGINS: That's good. And you're quite right, I am enjoying myself. This may be a case, ironically, of a weakness becoming a strength. I'm very, very impatient with my own work. I'm very easily bored. So I demand that almost every page entertain me. I can only hope that it will entertain the readers about one tenth as much.
Sometimes I just fly by the seat of my pants. That is, I want to turn the page to find out what happens next. I don't always know. I'm never happy if my writing seems simply beautiful or practical. It can do everything I want a scene to do, to serve the purposes of a novel or short story, but I still throw it away if it doesn't somehow get me so excited that my heart is pounding.
T: That would explain much of the audaciousness of your work.
HODGINS: Yes. But also I abandoned those safe little novels I was writing simply because it was obvious I wasn't getting anywhere by writing safe little novels. Some part of me said, all right, if I'm not going to get anywhere writing safe little things I might as well go way out and risk everything and either fall flat on my face or else maybe at last I might get a foot in the door.
T: And so you can risk having a title like The Invention of the World.
HODGINS: Sure. I thought, well, I've already taken all the risks writing this novel so why not go one step further? The interpretation of that title I find most people getting immediately is that the author is the inventor of a world inside a novel. But the one all important image throughout the novel is the image of all, they are decent people. The person who cares about creating a public image is so busy thinking about "Am I living up to it?" that he's going to be less sensitive to other people.
T: Would you agree then that the most striking aspect of your work is that it appears so unegocentric?
HODGINS: Yes. I write out of curiosity, out of the mystery of these people who are around me. Inevitably I uncover more mystery than I ever solve. Whenever I try a character who is quite close to the kind of person I may be myself, I find myself losing interest in the story. I don't know what this tells you about me! I don't even want to think about what it might tell you about me!
T: Do you think too much can be made of the fact that Jack Hodgins is writing about Vancouver Island?
HODGINS: Yes, it's dangerous to talk that way. Of course it's important to me that I get Vancouver Island right, but if I was only interested in writing about Vancouver Island I'd write a geography book or a history book. I'm interested in writing about human beings. I just happen to be writing about people who are close to me geographically. I try not to think too much about what makes people different here. In making too much of the uniqueness of a people in a region, there's a danger that a writer could write stuff which is nothing but regional. It's important for me to find the things that people in New York or London or South Africa can also recognize. To a small degree, that's starting to happen. People will write to me from far, far away to say your characters sound like my neighbours. That's what I want to hear.
T: Do you think too many Canadian writers place an inflated value on their own individualism?
HODGINS: That's a dangerous question.
T: But it's an important question.
HODGINS: Yes, it is. I know there is a school of fiction writing which believes very strongly that the only window left open on the world now is through yourself. That, I think, is perfectly legitimate for a person who sincerely believes it. But it doesn't happen to fit into the way I see the world.
T: Which is closer to Rudy Wiebe's approach to writing than say, Marian Engel's.
HODGINS: Yes. I think if all of us lived a hundred and fifty years ago, the Rudy Wiebes and Robert Kroetschs and Jack Hodginses would be writing the epic novels and the first-person novelists would be writing lyric poetry. Now we're living in a time when all the borders have been crossed. Some poets can be writing epic poems and some novelists can be writing lyric novels. It doesn't really matter. Basically I think it's a question of finding where your instincts lie. Probably you write the sort of thing that you enjoy reading yourself.
For myself, I often think of fiction as high class gossip. Really, what you're doing is saying listen, I've got a story I want to tell you about the guys who live down the road. This is what they did and isn't that something. That's partly why I like reading Rudy Wiebe and Robert Kroetsch, and also South Americans like Vargas Llosa and Marquez, and John Nichols, the American. They have this sense of community. Everybody's in on the story. It's not exclusively the story of one person. The whole world is alive and teeming with life. There's a sense in the novel itself that the novel is a complete world. When you open the first page, you're entering a new world. When you close the last page, you're no longer in it.
[STRONG VOICES by Alan Twigg (Harbour 1988)] "Interview"
Lieutenant Governor’s Award, April 2006
JACK HODGINS ACCEPTANCE SPEECH
Your Honour, Ladies and Gentlemen,
I've been a little leery of awards ever since my first novel won a prize sponsored by a distillery. They kindly invited me to be their guest at a four-day conference where I would be presented with the award at the banquet on the final day. They didn't tell me till I'd arrived that I was to be the bartender at their open house for four days, so I didn’t tell them that I'd
forgotten everything I'd ever known about mixing drinks. I relied on a vague memory that associated drinks with certain colours and hoped that being overly generous with the booze would make up for my ignorance – but I hadn't anticipated that I would cause distinguished gentlemen to get into drunken fist-fights and elegant ladies to offer me their room keys.
Since the imposter syndrome has been my lifelong companion I shall have to pretend for a while tonight that I may actually deserve this wonderful award. It won't last, because I know that when I sit down at my desk on Monday I’ll be a beginner again. It is a fact of life for a novelist that every new novel must be invented out of the demands of its own materials and cannot be simply a replica of something already done.
Although I wanted to write fiction from the time I learned to read, I didn't have any thought of writing stories set on Vancouver Island. It was obvious to me that the reason I'd seen or heard of no books set on the Island or in B.C. was that this place must not be interesting enough to anyone else to deserve such attention. Books were set elsewhere, in the “real” world of London, or Mississippi, or California.
So I wrote a Mississippi novel that might have been written by William Faulkner on one of his worst days. And I wrote a poor imitation of a John Steinbeck novel. And I wrote of characters who might have lived in Al Capp’s comic strips, set in the Ozark mountains of my private Arkansas. When these novels and several stories were rejected it seemed for a while that I ought to quit this foolish ambition. But about this time I began to notice that my extended family in rural parts of the Comox Valley were telling me gossip about friends and relatives that seemed as interesting to me as anything I'd read about in books.
It occurred to me that perhaps I’d found a gold mine in my own back yard.
I began to fashion stories out of bits and pieces of the life around me, the life I remembered from my childhood, and the life that was reported to me by the tale-carriers. Of course I had to tone things down a bit so people elsewhere would believe me. Even so, those far to the east thought I was making it all up out of an imagination given to gross exaggeration, while people on Vancouver Island were not shy about saying “That was a pretty good story there, Hodgins, but I could've told you a better one. Why don't you tell them what it's really like?”
I've tried. I'm trying.
Yet, several years ago, after an academic from Back East had been to visit for several days – had been shown the island, introduced to friends, and exposed to my relatives – his parting words when I took him to the ferry were, “I used to believe you have the greatest imagination in Canada, but now I know you don't have any at all!”
You can't win.
Or, it seems tonight, that sometimes you can.
I would like to take advantage of this moment to acknowledge the support I have received from Dianne, who, when I told her what I wanted to do with my life, married me anyway, and is still with me after 45 years. I would like also to acknowledge Bill New, who, back in the late fifties when I was hitch-hiking daily to UBC, was amongst those who stopped to give me a ride, became a life-long friend, and has shown me time and again that my books are smarter than I am – and that they must be listened to before I consider them "done." In addition I am enormously grateful to Her Honour the Lieutenant Governor, who initiated this award, in order to reinforce the importance of telling our stories, of honouring our people, and of recognizing our place.
Even so, award or no award, I will continue to write with a beginner's hunger and trepidation, hoping every time that I may finally have earned this award.
Jack Hodgins Receives 2006 Terasen Lifetime Achievement Award
Press Release (2006)
from Vancouver Public Library
Mayor Sam Sullivan will officially proclaim Author Appreciation Day in the City of Vancouver on June 10, 2006, in conjunction with the presentation to renowned B.C. author Jack Hodgins of the 12th Annual Terasen Lifetime Achievement Award for an outstanding literary career in British Columbia. This is Hodgins’ second major award of the year, having received the Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Excellence in April 2006. "Terasen Gas is pleased to be able to recognize outstanding literary careers such as that of Jack Hodgins," said Amy Hennessy, Terasen Gas community relations manager. "Great B.C. authors like Jack Hodgins not only contribute to the arts, but inspire the province's youth to develop their own literary skills." Born on October 3, 1938 in B.C.’s Comox Valley, Jack Hodgins was raised on a 'stump ranch' at Merville, an soldier settlement located between Courtenay and Campbell River on Vancouver Island. In 1999, Hodgins received the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize for Broken Ground, his novel about the homesteading tribulations of an enclave of returned war veterans and their families. Hodgins first gained broad recognition in the Canadian literary community when he won the Governor General's Award for Fiction for his light-hearted novel, The Resurrection of Joseph Bourne (1979), which celebrates a colourful cast of characters in the fictional coastal town of Port Annie. However, Hodgins is perhaps most celebrated for his first collection of short stories, Spit Delaney's Island, published in 1976. It received the Eaton's Book Award and kick-started his remarkable literary career. “This Lifetime Achievement Award is a wonderful honour - imagined but hardly expected,” said Hodgins. “Now it becomes a remarkable sort of encouragement - not to step aside as though an end has been reached, but to keep working as though there were a second lifetime." Jack Hodgins and his wife live in Victoria, B.C. Their children and grandchildren reside in Victoria and Vancouver. He has been the subject of a National Film Board film, Jack Hodgins' Island, and several books, including On Coasts of Eternity: Jack Hodgins' Fictional Universe, edited by J.R. (Tim) Struthers. In 1996, Hodgins was one of ten Canadian writers invited by the French Minister of Culture to be honoured at Les Belles Etrangers festival in Paris. In June of 1997 he taught a fiction workshop in Marburg, Germany. In 1999, he was elected to the Royal Society of Canada. This award is adjudicated annually by members of the Pacific BookWorld News Society. Its president, Howard White, says that “[…I]n his stories and novels, Jack Hodgins has sought to capture the flavour of the BC countryside perhaps more singularly than any writer, and has succeeded in giving us a portrait of ourselves that manages to be appalling and endearing at the same time. He was tailor-made for this award."
In partnership with the Vancouver Public Library and BC BookWorld, Terasen first initiated the Terasen Lifetime Achievement Award in 1995 at the official opening of the Library Square to celebrate and support outstanding literary careers in British Columbia. In addition to the award presentation, Mr. Hodgins name will be added to "Writer’s Walk" near the northeast plaza, close to the Library's Georgia Street entrance. “The Writer’s Walk of Fame is a popular destination for visitors to Vancouver and everyday Library Square patrons alike,” said VPL City Librarian Paul Whitney. “The Terasen Lifetime Achievement Award is a great way to celebrate B.C. writers, and VPL is proud to join Terasen and BC BookWorld in showcasing some of B.C.’s great literary talents.” Jack Hodgins is the 12th recipient of the Terasen Lifetime Achievement Award, B.C.’s most prestigious literary award. Previous winners include Alice Munro, P.K. Page, Jane Rule, and Eric Nicol, to name a few. For more information on this award, 2006 award recipient Jack Hodgins, and a complete list of Terasen Lifetime Achievement Award winners, visit www.bcbookworld.com. Founded in 1887, the Vancouver Public Library is one of Canada's largest library systems, dedicated to meeting the lifelong learning, reading, recreation and information needs of the people of Vancouver. Its 22 branches serve over 370,000 patrons, offer over 2.5 million items and countless online resources to the public, and answer over one million reference questions each year.
Terasen Lifetime Achievement Award
Acceptance Speech (2006)
from Jack Hodgins
The last time I spoke to a library audience I swore I would never do it again. This was while giving a reading in a small library where a man in the back row kept sighing loudly every few minutes throughout, as though he were bored, and impatient, and physically uncomfortable. Groaning, really. Poor fellow, I thought. I'll call a break so he can escape this hell with some dignity. I did, but he got up and loaded a plate with cakes and sandwiches, got himself a glass of wine, and returned to his seat where he continued to sigh and moan loudly throughout the rest of the reading. Never again, I vowed!
You can see what it takes to make me change my mind.
For me, there is something special about the fact that this is happening in Vancouver. One of my first memories is of standing on the deck of a CPR steamship – I was a small child at the time – and looking up as we sailed under the Lions Gate Bridge and entered Vancouver's harbour. If anyone had told me then that my name would one day be embedded in a Vancouver sidewalk I would have been terrified this meant I was destined to be either a traffic fatality or a real estate developer.
That was my first journey out into the world and I remember it vividly because in those pre-BC Ferry days it meant getting out of bed in the middle of the night, sleeping in the back seat of the car as we travelled down the winding old island highway south to Nanaimo, driving onto a large elevator that lowered us and our car down into the hold of the ship, crossing the strait, and then seeing for the first time that magical bridge and the towering buildings of the mysterious city – including that amazing "skyscraper," the Marine Building!
Later, Vancouver became important for another reason. Of my father's many brothers one had not gone into the logging camps or the pulp mills but lived and worked in this city, and I was aware that he composed original songs on the piano and wrote anecdotes he sent to the family still living back on the Island, as well as undertaking the massive task of assembling and writing a family history that included the entire world. He became, at a time when I needed it, a symbol of a different sort of life, a life that made my private ambition to write stories seem a little less ridiculous and slightly less impossible than it seemed while I was feeding chickens and milking the cow before school.
If he and Vancouver encouraged my dreams, nothing I'd read at school or home told me that writing about BC was a reasonable prospect. I'd heard that there was a juvenile magistrate and fisherman in Campbell River who wrote books, and I even saw one of them once – a paperback titled "Timber" with a half-naked woman on the cover. My parents had brought it into the house but I was never able to find it after that first glance, though I turned the place upside down looking for it. It they had hidden it somewhere, I thought, this was probably because it was, like Peyton Place, not fit for young minds. To me, the curious thing was – the miraculous thing of it was that, whatever was on the cover, it had been written by someone who lived on the same piece of the world as I did! And it had been published -- just like the "real' writers from other countries, the writers we learned about in school.
Years later, at university, it was Earle Birney who suggested I read the novels of Vancouver's Ethel Wilson to learn the importance of style. He also assigned Sheila Watson's strange and wonderful new novel hot off the press, set in a fictitious community somewhere in the Interior of British Columbia. It seemed that I had not inherited a literary wasteland after all, I'd just been unaware of what had been going on. There were hugely talented writers already making superb fiction out of the world that they lived in, not all that far away from mine.
Of course there's a risk in being amongst the first to write about a region. I have met people who tell me they emigrated to Vancouver Island from their European countries because they liked what they saw in my books. This is a scary thing to hear – especially while you're waiting for them to tell you if they found what they'd expected. I have also met people who tell me they love the books but would never want to live in a place where nature is so wild and the people so eccentric. And at every book signing or reading Back East someone has told me they grew up on Vancouver Island and that I've ruined their lives – that my books make them so homesick they feel like giving up their jobs and moving back. One woman said, "I only have to see the word 'salal' and I'm a basket case!"
One evening, at a party on the 17th floor of a hotel on Denman Street here in Vancouver, that temporary west-coaster Margaret Laurence, after I'd thanked her for her early encouragement, told me how Ethel Wilson had given her encouragement in the beginning, and how she was happy to pass it on. "That's what you do, kiddo" she said. "You pass it on."
My turn to "pass it on" came after I'd been teaching in Ottawa for two years, when the University of Victoria called me up and suggested it was high time I got myself back to BC where I belonged, to teach in their writing department. This resulted in an opportunity to work for 19 years with an astonishing number of talented beginners, some of whom will stand here one day to accept a Lifetime Achievement Award of their own.
For them, in my turn, I intend to be an example – by demonstrating that a Lifetime Achievement Award is not a signal that it's time to quit, but is, rather, a pat on the back encouraging you to start working on a second lifetime achievement! Because, despite all the me me me in my comments just now, I continue to find other people more interesting than myself – and still feel compelled to explore them! Fiction is not only about place, after all, or its unique culture, or even about the pursuit of the perfect sentence. It is, finally, an attempt to understand and celebrate the human soul.
In addition to my gratitude to Dianne (Vancouver's greatest gift to me) and to family members for their unflagging support, and to the University of Victoria for bringing me home to work "on location," so to speak, and to Douglas Gibson who has been my editor from the beginning. I wish to express thanks to Alan Twigg and B.C. Bookworld, to His Worship Mayor Sullivan, to Paul Whitney and staff of the Vancouver Library, to Amy Hennessy and Terasen Gas, and to all other supporters of BC writers and writing – including the booksellers and readers -- for this award and for all that it represents.
It's probably a good thing I don't live in Vancouver. Otherwise I might eventually become an embarrassment, hanging around the library just to see if people stop to look at this plaque, and to check once a week for signs of rude graffiti.
[Vancouver Public Library, June 10, 2006]
The Master of Happy Endings by Jack Hodgins (Thomas Allen $32.95)
from Sheila Munro
Jack Hodgins, by comparison, is a huge success story. He burst onto the scene in 1976 with a collection of comical short stories, Spit Delaney’s Island, which received B.C.’s highest literary honour at the time, the Eaton’s Book Award.
Influenced by the ‘magic realism’ of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and other Latin American authors, Hodgins’ audacious first novel, The Invention of the World, received the Gibson’s First Novel Award.
With three children, Hodgins continued teaching high school until 1979 when The Resurrection of Joseph Bourne, his third book, won the nation’s top fiction prize, the Governor General’s Award. Hodgins had the bit between his teeth, and he was set to have one of the most successful fiction careers of anyone born in British Columbia.
Ten books have followed, nearly all fiction, except for one children’s book and a writing guide, A Passion for Narrative, that arose from his experiences as an extremely popular instructor at UVic’s creative writing program. Hodgins won an Ethel Wilson fiction prize for his novel Broken Ground, but his sales have never been stellar.
It hasn’t helped that Hodgins’ long-time editor and publisher, Douglas Gibson, has left McClelland & Stewart, once Canada’s foremost publishing imprint.
Now Hodgins, after a six-year hiatus, is making a comeback of sorts. His fourteenth book and twelfth work of fiction, The Master of Happy Endings, is his first title not published by either Macmillan (books one through four) or McClelland & Stewart (books five through thirteen). And--no surprise--it’s about an ex-teacher dealing with the discomforts of being put out to pasture before he feels ready to be sidelined.
The Master of the title is Alex Thorsdal, a widower living on a small island off the B.C. coast, in the cabin that he and his wife retired to.
Alex’s wife called him ‘The Master of Happy Endings,’ sarcastically, because of his optimism about what could be accomplished in the classroom through sharing a love of literature. It’s that optimism that is at the heart of Hodgins’ work.
Thorsdal is one of those typical, mythic West Coast characters that Hodgins is fond of inventing. He is not just tall; at 6-foot-8, he is “a Norwegian giant of a man,” who swims naked in the freezing ocean every
The voice of his late wife now inhabits his imagination while Alex, feeling stranded, plays his cello mournfully to an assembled throng of stumps on the beach.
The island harkens back to the animated mindscape of Spit Delaney’s Island or Joseph Bourne. It is filled with wild, eccentric characters like Gwendolyn Something, the mother of six daughters, each with a different father, who are named after botanical plants (one is Hooker’s Willow). And there’s an old abandoned commune in the rainforest, and rumours of shadowy drug dealings.
At 77, Alex knows he’s old, but not that old. He is definitely not ready to be a “senior senior,” someone consigned to the irrelevance that others might wish for him—like the young man on the ferry dock who simply shoves him aside.
Alex must do something before his idle solitude drives him further into paranoia, but what? In the past, he has been a hugely successful teacher, and so he longs to teach again. He decides to place an ad in the newspaper offering his services as a tutor who wants to live with a family.
Eventually, after receiving a number of bizarre replies, Alex does find a student, but instead of tutoring the seventeen-year-old boy in his home on Vancouver Island, he winds up accompanying him to Hollywood, where his pupil has a minor part in a television series.
In the supercharged LA atmosphere, Alex finds himself in danger of being sidelined again, trying to impart a love of Shakespeare to an inexperienced actor who is struggling just to learn his lines. But then the misguided adventure takes a different turn, and becomes a kind of retrospective on Alex’s life.
Alex learns the true fate of his father (a Hollywood stuntman) and he encounters a beautiful Irish actress, Oonagh Farrell—who he was once in love with.
Hodgins’ fiction isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. There’s never anything ribald, or risqué. There's more of Stuart McLean than Marquez in these pages. Connections between characters don’t feel emotional. But, in his seventies, he’s got 14 books and counting. He’s not quite up to Gordie Howe, but he’s getting there.
He’s clearly not contemplating collecting any stamps in the near future.
Jack Hodgins has developed his own style, his one lens, with mythic elements, and he has made an enormous contribution to B.C. fiction in the process. As a trailblazer, he’s in the realm of Bertrand Sinclair, his Nanaimo-born contemporary Anne Cameron, or playwright George Ryga.
He has dared to be original.
Happy Endings 978-0-88762-523-7
Review by Sheila Munro, who conducts writing workshops & writes from Powell River.
Butler Book Prize
Press Release (2011)
A Greater Victoria author and an illustrator were recognized for their literary achievements at the 2011 Victoria Book Prize Awards Gala.
Jack Hodgins, author of The Master of Happy Endings was named the winner of the 8th annual City of Victoria Butler Book Prize.
Kristi Bridgeman, illustrator of Uirapurú (pronounced oor-a-pur-u), was named winner of the 4th annual Bolen Books Children’s Book Prize.
Mayor Dean Fortin and Brian H. Butler of Butler Brothers Supplies presented Jack Hodgins with a $5,000 cheque for his novel published by Thomas Allen Publishers, for best book published in the preceding year in the categories of fiction, literary non-fiction and poetry.
Samantha Holmes, owner and general manager of Bolen Books, presented Kristi Bridgeman with a $5,000 cheque for her illustration of the children’s book Uirapurú, written by P.K. Page and published by Oolichan Books.
The Master of Happy Endings is a wonderful tale of what happens when retired teacher Axel Thorstad posts an ad in the newspaper asking to be adopted by a family in need of a tutor. He hopes a return to teaching English literature will be a way out of the malaise which has enveloped him since his wife died.
Jurors for the City of Victoria Butler Book Prize were Theresa Kishkan, writer; Cathy Sorensen, bookseller; and Avi Silberstein, librarian. The jurors’ citation stated, “The Master of Happy Endings is an exuberant novel about the power of narrative to serve as a compass for human odysseys. Hodgins’ story is as much about the terrain of the heart and spirit as it is about the physical world and he moves confidently from one to the other, his literary skill in service to his rich imagination.”
Uirapurú is a magical story based on a Brazilian legend about a songbird reputed to sing the most beautiful
song in the world. P.K. Page’s retelling of this tale is beautifully reiterated by Kristi Bridgeman’s illustrations.
Jurors for the Bolen Books Children’s Book Prize were Tracy Kendrick, librarian; Barbara Nickel, writer; and
Pat Oldroyd, bookseller. Their comments on Uirapurú included, “Kristi Bridgeman’s extraordinary accomplishment in Uirapurú is to tell a story with illustrations so richly-layered and complex, so warm with colour, humour and detail so as to draw the reader into its haunting magic and back again, each rereading a discovery.”
Love is a many-splendoured hearse
review by Cherie Thiessen
Take one laconic Finn, Arvo Saarikoski, a retired mechanic who, since leaving the logging camps, has lavished his love on abandoned cars. He spends much of his time restoring them and handing them off to his friends and neighbours.
Now add a vessel that makes his heart race, a 1930s hearse, the Cadillac Cathedral, left to molder in the mountains and subsequently used to haul logs. It’s was an old-time glass-walled horse-drawn carriage, modified with an open-air driver’s cab, sporting a long engine hood out front and a running board with a mounted spare tire alongside.
So Arvo’s in love.
Then take a small but indefatigable flame that has been burning in him for over half a century, cherished memories of his childhood love, Myrtle Birdsong. Is she why Arvo has never married?
Cadillac Cathedral (Ronsdale $18.95) is made from a distinctly Jack Hodgins’ literary recipe using locally sourced characters and settings. The hearse used to belong to Myrtle’s undertaker father. Is it possible that by restoring the grand old hearse and returning it to Myrtle in the big city, he just might have a chance? Arvo’s flame of love is leaping higher, but does he have the nerve?
But there’s a detour on the road to bliss. When a well-like retired politician in Portuguese Creek dies, the only relative is an estranged son, so friends of the deceased, Martin Glass, gather in Arvo’s garage and decide they ought to bring home Martin’s remains for a proper send-off. But in what?
One of Arvo’s friends, Peterson, recalls seeing the venerable old ‘gal’ in the forest.
Hodgins is a master taleteller and he’s never going to be caught dead with only one dish on his table. As always, his fictional Vancouver Island community and characters become large as life in all their laid-back and humorous detail. The origins of the story emanate from his mid-island upbringing between Courtenay and Campbell River.
“I had toyed with the idea of once again using the little rural community I call Portuguese Creek,” says Hodgins. “It’s named after the real creek that wandered through nearly every farm in the community where I grew up.
“While I had never tinkered with old cars myself, I knew several who did and I recall one property nearby where there was always a gathering of old vehicles waiting their turn to be repaired or ransacked for parts.
“So I began with an image of a small group of pals watching a friend fix up a damaged vehicle in his workshop. I only realized much later that I’d already invented a very similar situation in an earlier novel.”
A short stage version of Hodgins’ story was written first after the Vancouver-based Chor Leoni asked him to write a piece which they would set to music and sing in concert in early February performances in Vancouver, Nanaimo and Victoria. (See www.chorleoni.org.) Hodgins became intrigued and spun a longer tale for the new novel.
“I didn’t know what he [Arvo] would find in the city,” says Hodgins, “and I didn't know how Myrtle would react to him, until Arvo and his friends had brought me to the situation.
“By this time I had come to know that Myrtle was much more than simply Arvo's imagined ‘goal.’ She would have to have a story, an attitude, and a future of her own. By travelling with Arvo and his pals, I gradually discovered that what he had gone looking for was not necessarily what he would find.”
Myrtle is still available, as it turns out. She still lives in the town where she and Arvo grew up. But will she reciprocate the lanky old Fin’s feelings? Will he even knock on her door?
All of Vancouver Island seems bent on keeping him from accomplishes his mission. Arvo is stymied by the slow speed of the hearse itself, the desire of an ambitious realtor to own the hearse at all costs to advertise his business and the ‘borrowing’ of the Cadillac for a ‘pre funeral’ (because there’s no such thing as ‘theft’ on Vancouver Island back roads).
The detours and diversions of Arvo’s accompanying pals who are helping to escort the hearse to pick up Martin’s body are one thing; the fascination of the motorists who find themselves in an impromptu cavalcade behind the old 4-wheeled ‘dowager’ are another.
And then there are the machinations of one the regular visitors to Arvo’s garage, retired schoolteacher, Cynthia O’Brien. Who can blame the winsome Cynthia for imagining what the single-minded devotion that Arvo has consistently put into restoring wrecks might be like when directed toward a woman? Or for wondering whether some of that long-nurtured love for Birdsong might spill her way?
I suspect some female readers might find the ending unconvincing, or frustrating, but it’s definitely worth going along for the bumpy ride to arrive at the wake to end all wakes back in Portuguese Creek.
This is a welcome tale in the spirit of Hodgins’ light-hearted novel that earned him a Governor General’s Award for Fiction, The Resurrection of Joseph Bourne (1979), celebrating a potpourri of characters in the coastal town of Port Alice, as well as his venerable and much-loved first collection of stories, Spit Delaney’s Island (1976). Both have been newly republished by Ronsdale Press, along with Hodgins’ The Invention of the World and The Barclay Family Theatre.
Cherie Thiessen regularly reviews fiction from Pender Island.