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Robert Kroetsch certainly takes his time in composing novels. His newest one, The Man from the Creeks, which is set in Canada's 1897-99 Klondike gold rush, appeared six years after his previous work, The Puppeteer, which had followed the publication of Alibi way back in 1983. Reports are that The Man from the Creeks went through 13 versions and at least one title change (from Klondike Love Song) before it was ready for submission.
Yet this British Columbian author and former creative-writing teacher is hardly ever idle, producing poetry and essays. And while he may not be as prolific as some better-known fictionists, he certainly hasn't suffered among critics for that fact. He won Canada's 1969 Governor General's Award for The Studhorse Man, and each new novel since seems to fetch him a fresh round of praise from reviewers, even if those people don't always quite understand Kroetsch's resistance to the conventions of modern prose writing, his interest in the arcana of his subject matter, or his often-sly humor.
I caught up with Kroetsch (via e-mail) while he was off in Edmonton, Alberta, musing on his next book. I asked him about his interest in the poet Robert Service (whose work inspired The Man from the Creeks), his research into the history of the Klondike gold rush, and the roots of his fondness for the great Canadian North.
J. Kingston Pierce: What was your earliest exposure to Robert Service and his poem, "The Shooting of Dan McGrew?"
Robert Kroetsch: I read the poem when I was a kid on the prairies of Canada, a young boy fascinated by the North even then. At the age of 17 I wrote a poem that owed a debt to Service.
Did the writing of The Man from the Creeks seem at all intimidating? After all, Service's ballad has stood unelaborated on -- and its "facts" uncontested -- for all these decades.
I thought about the project for a long time -- let's say years. I had a difficult time getting a hold on my version -- then hit on the idea of Peek and his mother sailing out of Seattle. This when I was on a Christmas vacation in Seattle and strayed into a museum on the Klondike.
Are you referring to the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, in Seattle's Pioneer Square historic district?
Yes, I'm sure that was it. A fabulous area of the city.
Being a poet yourself, how do you feel about Service's work, in general?
Service's remarkable international reputation has to be taken seriously. He tells us something about the function and appeal of poetry. I especially like his going back to the ballad -- storytelling, up-front characters. And... Service knew to capture and present a sense of place. He makes the Malamute Saloon so real that people are upset if I tell them it was imagined by Service.
I am interested in how you compare Robert Service's vision of the North and the gold rush with Jack London's. Both tended to romanticize the area and the experience. And both authors have since been lauded for their work, though London's is probably more widely known and read. Is there something about Service's interpretation of those times and the area that is superior to London's?
I wouldn't say one was superior to the other... I'm interested in how the conventions of the Western were shaped or reshaped to fit the North, and Service, for me, seemed to come up with interesting possibilities.
How familiar were you with Klondike gold rush history before you began work on this novel? What sort of research did you do prior to writing The Man from the Creeks?
I did a lot of research -- [in] Seattle, Ottawa, Dawson City, Skagway. I especially found the great store of photographs helpful. I had worked in the North for six years in my youth, but didn't get to the Yukon at the time. Tried to fly into Whitehorse one time, from Inuvik [in the Northwest Territories], but was turned back by weather. Finally got there in the 90s. I had sailed up the Alaskan coast as far as Ketchikan while a university student taking naval training in the summer of 1946. And, of course, as a kid I had read London and others and had seen the Chaplin film [The Gold Rush, 1925].
You say that you worked in the Canadian North in your youth. Where were you and what were you doing?
When I graduated from the University of Alberta in l948 I took a job as a laborer on the Slave River -- Fort Smith, Northwest Territories. Riverboat barges had to be unloaded there and the freight trucked around a series of rapids and reloaded onto barges for shipment down the Slave, across Great Slave Lake, and down the Mackenzie [River] as far at the Arctic. I was quickly promoted to doing paperwork, because I was one of the few literate people on the job. I didn't much like that, so I got myself transferred to the riverboats as a purser. Went all the way down to the Arctic -- Tuktoyaktuk. Two trips a season. In the winter I went back to Edmonton and tried to write and took a bus down to California and somewhere in a bar in LA saw my first TV set in action. Worked on the Mackenzie three seasons. Then worked on Hudson Bay for a couple of months. Then I went to Montreal and looked for work and got a job in Goose Bay, Labrador. I became a civilian information and education specialist for the United States Air Force at Goose Air Base -- the Korean War was on, Goose was important for flights to Europe, etc. While counseling airmen, as part of my job, I decided I should go to graduate school myself, so I quit the job and went to school at Middlebury College, Vermont. Married a gal from North Carolina and stayed in the U.S. from l954 to l978. While in the States I began to remember and write about the North -- my first novel, But We Are Exiles (about men on a riverboat on the Mackenzie), appeared, if I recall correctly, in l965. By then I was teaching at the State University of New York in Binghamton (I dearly loved the place), and somehow the "high culture" of the [American] Northeast fueled my recollections of the North.
I read someplace that you had wanted to hike the Chilkoot Trail in order to capture more of the experience of the Klondikers, but were turned back at the Golden Stairs. Is that true?
Yes, I was told -- partly in jest, partly in earnest -- that maybe I wasn't in shape to make the climb. It was fall. Bad weather was on the way. And I wasn't exactly in great shape physically -- research is not a way to prepare for a hike.
Other critics have seemed split on whether they like your romanticizing of life in Dawson and the Klondike country, or whether they would have preferred that you presented the stampede for riches in more realistic and harsher detail. How do you feel about the balance you struck between reality and romance?
I like the balance I struck -- legend, and the ground that the legend grows from. We use stories to give shape to our experiences. Service did it so well that it's difficult to get past him. By having my narrator spring forth from the poem, I got loose. A character created by Service talking back to Service, correcting him, so to speak.
Do you see (or did you intend) the comparisons that some critics have made between your new novel and Huckleberry Finn, both being picaresque tales about boys coming of age?
I thought I was doing a variation on the coming-of-age story -- a very old man who is somehow stalled (permafrost?). [Mark] Twain's story has long been with me -- I studied in Iowa, and went often to the banks of the Mississippi, even drove down to Hannibal -- again, legend and the stuff of the legend coming into dialogue.
This is not your first novel set in the North. What is it about that cold but beautiful region that most attracts your interest?
In ways the North is a beautiful blank page that invites our scribbling. Then one looks more closely and discovers many tracks that preceded our own. I like working from the "white-out" effect to the fullness of a novel.
You remarked in one interview with another publication that in so many of the true Klondike stories available, people exaggerated their experiences to make themselves sound like heroes. Why do you suppose they did that? Was it simply because the people who hadn't gone to Dawson expected it? Or was there something more personal going on for the writers?
A good question, for which I have no answer. Possibly the vast undertaking -- the treasure hunt -- compelled people to see themselves as heroes in the way of the great quest stories. And many of the stampeders had gone abruptly from humdrum lives into reckless lives of adventure. And maybe the great body of western gold rush material from the earlier part of the century had already established a model.
Finally, the inevitable question: What book are you working on next?
I am staying in a friend's house here in Edmonton trying to make notes towards a novel. Again, I am attracted by the edge, the frontier -- this time along the eastern slopes of the Rockies. | January 1999
J. KINGSTON PIERCE is the senior editor of January Magazine and the author of several books, including the PBS-TV tie-in America's Historic Trails with Tom Bodett (KQED Books, 1997) and San Francisco, You're History! (Sasquatch Books, 1995). A Seattle resident, he's currently working on a collection of essays about that city's past.
Read a review of Man from the Creeks.
Read January Magazine's earlier review of several Klondike gold rush histories.