There's a girlishness about Jane Urquhart that belies 51 summers. "I love being in my 50s," Urquhart declares with some passion. "I'm finally starting to be taken seriously." This, of course, is at least partly in jest because, for almost as long as Urquhart has been writing, her work has been taken seriously. In 1992, her first novel, The Whirlpool, was the first Canadian book to win France's prestigious Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger (Best Foreign Book Award). Away, Urquhart's third novel, broke records by remaining on the The Globe and Mail newspaper's national bestseller list for 132 weeks. The 1994 winner of the Marian Engel award, Urquhart was also named to France's Order of Arts and Letters as a Chevalier. Her fourth novel, The Underpainter, was awarded Canada's most prestigious literary award when it was published in 1997: the Governor General's Award for Fiction.
Urquhart's earliest publications were short fiction and poetry. Her first novel, The Whirlpool, took her almost by surprise. She says Whirlpool was something she didn't "identify as a novel until it was actually in print. Because I think I would have been so intimidated by the fact that I was writing a novel that I would not have finished it. Or I probably wouldn't have even started it."
In some ways, Urquhart's writing process seems deliciously mysterious to her. "I never know when I finish one book whether another one is ever going to happen, because it always seems like an act of such unlikely magic, on some level. It's like a miracle, really, that it happens at all."
Though Urquahart may choose to shroud parts of the writing process in mystery, even from herself, the lyrical confidence of her writing seems like evidence of the thought and care she consistently layers into every book. Her most recent novel, The Stone Carvers, seems a complete example. Urquhart says that, for her, the book is "about the redemptive nature of making art. I always hope that a book will teach me something that I didn't know that I knew. By the time I'm finished I want to know something I didn't know when I started." Not art for art's sake, but at the same time, "it need not be the great big huge work of art either -- just making something: just taking experience, reshaping it and reordering it -- whether that experience be celebratory or terribly tragic -- is redemptive."
Jane Urquhart lives in Ontario with her husband, the artist Anthony Urquhart.
Linda Richards: How do you see yourself at this point in your career? As a poet or novelist or...?
No. I just lived in that part of the world for some time because my husband taught at the University of Waterloo, so that's where we lived.
And then you started writing poetry?
I wrote fiction, as well. Short fiction as well as poetry. So that was happening pretty much at the same time. The first novel was something that I didn't identify as a novel until it was actually in print. Because I think I would have been so intimidated by the fact that I was writing a novel that I would not have finished it. Or I probably wouldn't have even started it. I just was writing -- to my mind, anyway -- a kind of series of vignettes that were starting slowly to tie together stories that had to do with various people.
Which novel was that?
The Whirlpool. It was set in Niagara Falls and had a lot to do with Tony's ancestral background: my husband's ancestral background. His people ran the oldest funeral home in Canada. It was published in 1986. I was one of those people who was naive enough to believe -- I guess because I was home with all these kids -- that you really could wrap up a manuscript and put it in a mailbox and send it off to a publisher and something might happen. In fact, something did.
It's a good thing you didn't know too much! [Laughs]
Yes, but things were also very different then. Not as many people were writing, there weren't as many publishers, the world was much smaller. But that's how I met the divine editor, Ellen Seligman.
And the rest is practically history.
I've been very fortunate. It's been sort of an easy career on some levels, too. I wasn't subject to the same kind of pressures as newer authors are now. Because there weren't the kind of expectations. If you sold 1000 copies it was considered to be a wild success. And of course I began with small presses in the short story/poetry end of things, and that's where [there might be] an edition of 100. This kind of book tour was really fun, actually. With the help of the Canada Council and maybe six friends across the country you would go from city to city with your books in a bag. There would be readings arranged by the six friends in the various cities and maybe seven people that had been bludgeoned into coming by the six friends would appear at the reading. Then maybe three of those would buy a book. By the time it was over you might have sold 20 books, but you'd had a wonderful time. Lots of good parties and the other aspect of this was that you were constantly sleeping on someone's couch. If not the floor.
You make it sound like the olden days, but it's really not that long ago.
Well, this would be late 1970s early 80s. And, you're right: in terms of physical distance it wasn't that long ago. But in terms of how the experience of moving into the writing world has changed, in Canada, it's radical.
It's a more sophisticated marketplace.
Well, I think that there's a more sophisticated readership. And I think that has to do with several things. One of the most important was CBC radio who really developed a very educated, very sophisticated Canadian readership for Canadian literature. The other thing that developed a wonderful readership for Canadian literature was the existence of independent booksellers. And back when the chains wouldn't touch a Canadian literary title -- unless it was Margaret Atwood -- the independents were selling these things over the counters -- hand selling -- having read the book. I don't think Canadian literature would exist without them.
The Canada Council obviously was important as well, but boy those independents -- many of which lost the battle and are no longer with us -- were hugely important. And they were also important as community centers for writers. Because, what would happen is, you would go into a town like Vancouver and you'd go to Duthies and you'd meet Celia Duthie and she would know who was in town, who wasn't, what was happening, where the things were going on, what books were hot and who the authors were. Or you would go into the independent bookstore and there would be five authors and if you were breaking into that world at the time, often the bookstore was the central place. That's the kind of thing you lose when you lose a bookseller.
Tell me about the birth of The Stone Carvers. Where did this story come from for you?
Well, it came from mostly from seeing Walter Allward's [war] memorial [at Vimy, France]. From seeing it over the years several times and from spending a lot of time doing something that I never would have done under any other circumstances and that is being down in those tunnels which are underneath the monument -- the tunnels where the men stayed before the battle -- where there is so much Canadian graffiti from 1917 that it's just remarkable. I mean, here you are in France, in tunnels under the ground where there are complete rooms: an officers' mess, telegraph offices, wiring, electricity: everything is still down there.
Were you there to research the book?
No. The first time I went because my husband wanted to go. [Laughs] He had already been and he said: No, trust me. You really must see this. And he was absolutely right. But I thought of it as kind of a boy-zone battlefield adventure. But it really is tremendously moving. It's just remarkable.
When were you there?
That would have been the late 1970s. So it's been incubating for some time. Then, when I finished The Underpainter, which is my previous book, and had things to do with the First World War as well -- although I'm not really interested in the battles themselves, I'm interested in the aftereffects. And, to some extent, in what precedes them. I had been doing a lot of research about the First World War: sitting in archives weeping my eyes out. So often in Canada when you're reading about the First World War -- or anything historical -- you are doing the most primary research because nobody but you has ever been into the files. Which is not why I was weeping: I was weeping because the intimacy of the material is so heartbreaking. It has to do with children, you know? And grief. And lots of letters home from boys who were tremendously homesick and then were dead. So I couldn't really emotionally disengage from the material and that's another reason why I started thinking about the monument. And I thought there was something kind of scarily Canadian about the fact that the artist who had created [this monument] had been forgotten. And so I began to research him.
Obviously, any war is significant for those who are unfortunate enough to participate in it, but it seemed to me that [W.W.I] was the birth of modernism in many ways. I think that's why it still haunts us to the extent that it does.
People say that after a bad earthquake you question everything, because the earth has moved. And I guess, really, the earth moved in a really significant way with that war.
Yes, it really did. And it's still moving, that's what's so astonishing to me. About a week and a half after The Stone Carvers came out, in which there's a long section about the fact that the battlefield is still filled with mines and grenades and how so many years later you would not be able to walk and you can't if you go to the battlefield there. There's a section where you can, but there's a whole huge area of 100 acres that France gave to Canada that you're not permitted to enter because it's so alive with land mines. About two weeks after my book came out, they had to evacuate all the villages around Vimy because what had happened was some old canisters of mustard gas... because the ground is literally saturated with the detritus of war, it's incredible. And mustard gas is about as bad as it gets. It sort of melts your lungs and your skin and everything else. So they had to get people out of there. This is one of the things that I find so fascinating about that landscape, is that when they say history is over: it's finished. It's not, there. And, in fact, you can be sure that at least once a year a farmer plowing will hit a mine and something terrible will happen.
Tell me what The Stone Carvers is about for you.
For me I think it's about the redemptive nature of making art. I always hope that a book will teach me something that I didn't know that I knew. By the time I'm finished I want to know something I didn't know when I started. And I think that that was what this book taught me. And it also taught me that making something -- it need not be the great big huge work of art either -- just making something: just taking experience, reshaping it and reordering it -- whether that experience be celebratory or terribly tragic -- is redemptive.
[The character] of Klara interested me because I knew women like her -- though not of her generation necessarily -- and I have now come to realize that those spinsters, some of them were considered to be completely old women and they were in their 30s. Now I look back and think: How is this possible? You were considered to be an old, old lady if you weren't married by the time you were 26 or something. [Laughs] My daughter is so far away from settling down and being married and this is changing with every generation. The childbearing age is changing, everything is changing. But those women were often the most interesting people around.
I've been very moved all across the country by people bringing me photographs of their great-aunts who were all spinsters as a result of losing people in the First World War; bringing me pictures of soldiers who were killed at Vimy who were grandparents and great-grandparents. And it's very touching. It's astonishing. It's as if somehow the book and the idea of memorializing and the monument and this redemptive nature of having some trace has given people permission to care about stuff that they probably already did care about but hadn't really talked about.
Are you working on anything right now?
No. I'm touring. And it's very difficult, although I'm keeping diary entries because I have noticed that the book tour is perhaps the most bizarre thing on the planet. Talk about the past and talk about history never being lost: when you're on a book tour and there's a lot of media attention, every person you have ever known in your entire life will surface somewhere from one end of the country to the other. And then people who have known not only you but your husband will surface. Like ex-girlfriends and cronies [Laughs]. It's quite wonderful on some level and every day is kind of filled with these vignettes.
Oh so there is an interesting new book coming. [Laughs]
No. I use my imagination when I write. I think that my work is emotionally true in that in the same way I can't really write about a landscape I've never experienced, I can't write about an emotion I've never experienced. But I like to use my imagination because it gives me an alternative world. If this one gets too horrifying or too boring, I can always just go into the other one.
Do you have a novel in mind?
Not really. I don't, actually. I don't think I will until I can be in one spot for an extended period of time. And then likely something will happen. but there's no guarantee. I never know when I finish one book whether another one is ever going to happen, because it always seems like an act of such unlikely magic, on some level: it's like a miracle, really. That it happens at all.
Why is it a miracle? Partly because it's a great deal of work and, because of the way I work, I have to depend on the fact that the narrative will unfold because I'm not a person that blocks out scenes.
You find that the thoughts you have when you start aren't always where you end up?
Oh no: They're never where I end up. As a matter of fact, I'm not sure ever when I begin a book where I'm going to end up. With the possible exception of this one in that I knew I wanted to get my characters -- whoever they might be -- to that monument. I had no idea where it's going to end up. The book is always full of surprises for me. Always. And kind of delightful ones, sometimes. This book was full of really delightful surprises. The last book, I was so angry with the character by the time I finished it I practically couldn't publish the book.
Angry with which character?
Austin Fraser, The Underpainter. I felt empathy for him but I hadn't expected he was going to do what he did at the end of the book. But I knew when I was writing it that that's what he had to do because it would have been completely out of character for him to have done anything else, really. He just couldn't do it. And if there was redemption in that book it was that he at least was telling the story. It makes a difference.
How old are you?
51. And I'm really happy about it. I love being in my 50s. I'm finally starting to be taken seriously. I was the youngest in my family by a long shot. My brothers are 10 and 12 years older than I am. I really think 50 is the best. It's when your children are grown up and also, I've come to a point where I've come to feel some confidence -- though not a huge amount of confidence -- about my writing. I don't think I'll ever feel completely confident about my writing. | June 2001
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of several books.