photo: Paul LaBarge
author Dorothy Speak first hit the literary scene with her critically acclaimed short
story collection, The Counsel of the Moon (presently out of print). It wasnt
until 1996 that we on the other side of the ocean finally caught up with this major new
talent when her second collection, Object of Your Love, made it our way. We
havent stopped talking about it since. This is one of those rare pieces of fiction
that cuts straight to the bone of the female psyche. Her area of exploration: the
crisis. It is with much pleasure that we publish one of the stories from the
collection, "The View From Here," in this issue of the BR. We were also
fortunate to catch Ms Speak during her busy schedule for the following e-mail interview in
which she sheds light on the method of her writing and speaks knowingly and with passion
of her female characters - "women doing whatever is necessary to 'stay alive' in this
|.||BR: Your latest
collection, Object of Your Love, focuses on women in relationships that have gone
awry for one reason or another - often involving a husband or lover who cant return
the womans love - and follows the way the women deal with the situation, which often
involves major life changes and invariably reveals the essence of the woman herself. Was
this theme planned from the beginning or did the stories create the direction themselves?
DS: I didnt set out to write a group of stories centred on one theme. These pieces were written, with many others, over a five-year period. When it came time to create a collection, I was somewhat surprised to see the connections between this group -- that Id dealt with one theme from multiple viewpoints. What most interested me when I was writing these stories was the pragmatic choices I saw mature women in mid-life making with respect to relationships: to have, for example, an affair with a married man or to carry on a sexually liberated lifestyle -- even if this meant violating societys taboos in pursuit of personal happiness, however brief it might be. What I suppose I was trying to show is that these choices are not simple intellectual ones, but are driven by powerful emotional forces stemming from our profound need for love and its physical pleasures. Perhaps the stories also indirectly ask the questions: how supportable are monogamous partnerships and why is adultery such an unforgivable crime?
BR: Your women characters - each and every one is so
shockingly familiar! I found myself in each story saying, "I know this woman."
And yet they and their circumstances are utterly unique. This profound empathy intrigues
me. I dont know whenever Ive encountered female characters who struck home so
deeply. Does this have to do in part with the fact that weve all loved and lost and
been self-destructive in one way or another in the process? But then half of all
literature revolves around love and loss, so something else is going on here. One feels
like layers and layers of superfluity have been stripped away from the characters and
were right down to the essence of the person. The crisis situation is going to bring
that out, of course, but one can rarely make sense of it in real life, and I dont
know whenever in fiction Ive confronted such real and honest female characters.
Its not always pretty. I cant help wondering how you do it, how you get the
scalpel right down to the bone.
BR: Mental illness comes up in more than one
story: the female manic-depressive in "A River Landscape"; and to a lesser
extent Eric in "Summer Sky: White Ship" and Mariahs father in "The
Sum of its Parts." Does it go hand in hand with the books theme - most all of
the female characters experience a period of mental instability at some point - or were
you here specifically placing mentally ill characters in difficult situations to follow
their reactions? May I ask, too, if there was a model for the extraordinary Hedda in
BR: In "Eagles Bride," Stella
has gone to a remote Inuit settlement where she becomes involved with the handsome but
cold Egan, separated but still strongly attached to his wife. The desolate atmosphere of
the village with its own rare surrounding beauty of snow and ice is the perfect setting to
reflect the inner self of the characters. What was the inspiration for the story? Did you
know the direction the story would take when you began? Do you usually?
BR: Your females never apologize for their
acts. I found that so refreshing. Most of us do when we've acted the bad girl in some way,
even if we know we've been the victim. That's the scalpel at work, isn't it?
BR: Adultery appears quite often in the
stories. It takes its toll, but often serves to clear the air, too, by helping people
confront themselves and each other. It can be cathartic, then. Could it even be
BR: In terms of literature, how can we define
Canadian literature besides coming from writers in Canada who may utilize local settings?
I have a hard time getting at its identity. It seems so inextricably a part of the broader
area of North American literature, but there are no standard anthologies as such. It has
always struck me as unfortunate that a Canadian author rarely makes it into standard
anthologies of American (which isnt North American) or British literature
(even though they are eligible for the Booker Award), which is most unfortunate in terms
of academic studies, particularly here in Europe where so many institutes tend to rely on
American or British anthologies only for the curriculum. There is the Oxford Companion
to Canadian Literature, not nearly so available, and interestingly it itself seems to
be struggling over what qualifies as Canadian writing, as it attempts to
incorporate writers born outside Canada who do not write about Canada - Rohinton Mistry,
Michael Ondaatje, M.G. Vassanji - under the special heading "Novels in English
1983-1996." Then, of course, there is the necessity of incorporating French into the
canon as well as the problem of how to incorporate the numerous ethnic cultures.
BR: We speak of Americans as being open and the
British as reserved and we have all sorts of stereotypes that go with that, but what is a
Canadian anyway? I dont even know the stereotype.
BR: Who are your main influences as a writer? Do
you read much contemporary fiction?
Youll note in this list the absence of male authors. For the first 23 years of my life, I read almost exclusively the dead white males. Now Im taking a refreshing break from male authors, few of whom interest me anywhere nearly as deeply as do women, in terms of both subject matter and style. The exceptions at the moment are John Updike (his stories, not his novels), Andre Dubus, a brilliant and sensitive American writer. Others in the past have been Patrick White and E.L. Doctorow. Another male writer Id like to point out is Canadian Alistair MacLeod.
BR: Do you write every day on a routine
schedule? Is all your writing done on a computer?
BR: Whats your idea of a night out?
Dinner? Film? Theater? A hockey match? (I believe Ive hit a stereotype!)
BR: Youre presently at work on a novel.
Can you give us a hint as to what we might expect?
|Interview by Jill Adams
©Barcelona Review 1998