Award-winning writer Rachel Wyatt was kind enough to respond to several questions from me in a recent exchange. What follows are some candid thoughts on the current literary scene in Canada, some of the challenges and frustrations of aging, musings and advice on the craft of writing, as well as some of the projects that Rachel plans to work on in the near future. I trust that you will enjoy her responses as much as I have and I thank her again for her generosity in responding to my queries.
JO: Many actors state that comedy is the most difficult type of acting to perform. You handle humour in Letters to Omar with great skill. Do you find it challenging to integrate humour into your writing?
RW: I sometimes find it hard to keep humour out of my writing. Comedy can arise from being a serious person in a topsy-turvy world like Alice in Wonderland, or being a Jacques Tati character, a ‘feckless’ person in a serious world. The problem with some kinds of humour, say, irony, is that isn’t always understood. On a panel four years ago I was asked whether the humour in my work didn’t go too far at times. Weasel-like, I answered ‘perhaps’. Ever since that day, I’ve wanted to reconvene that panel and that audience and say, ‘Absolutely not or I wouldn’t have written it.’ For me, a sense of humour isn’t about telling jokes, it’s about looking at this strange and tragic world in a cock-eyed way. Or as a wise person once put it, writing humour is only a matter of setting down the truth in simple words.
JO: What do you hope that readers might take away from Letters to Omar?
RW: I hope when readers have finished it, they’ll feel that they’ve shared a bit of life with some real people. I hope they’ll have been entertained and also have found something to think about. It would be nice too if they felt impelled to go out and buy copies for all their friends and relatives.
JO: In Canada, many of us seem reluctant to discuss the elderly and aging in a meaningful and profound way. Would you share some thoughts on why this might be?
RW: Old age. Yes. I’m there now. I’ll become a great-grandmother this year. I’m not sure how it happened but I am old. I think some people see the aged as skeletons at the feast, memento mori , and so they prefer not to look. There’s a little scene in the novel where Dorothy takes Elvira with her to the TV station because she knows she’ll likely be ignored. This kind of thing has happened to me and to other women I know. We are the invisible, the used-up and the no longer useful. How depressing that sounds! But we, the oldies, know that we have life left and things to do and if you treat us badly you could be in for a nasty surprise.
JO: You have worked within several literary genres in your writing career Rachel. Do you have a preferred genre and why do you term it a favourite?
RW: My favourite genre? I enjoyed writing for radio because it’s a challenge to tell the story in words without overloading the dialogue. The listener’s mind is the stage and it’s up to the writer to build the scenery. So much can be done in a few words and with the help of the sound engineer. My favourite sound effect was for the sinking of the Titanic or any large vessel: take an old rocking chair, a Coffee Crisp and a hammer. . .but that was before all sound effects were on CDs.
I liked working in the theatre because of the collaboration with so many talented men and women: costume designers, directors, lighting and sound people and of course the actors. And then there’s the thrill of having an instant reaction to your work. Will it be an ovation or the sound of the audience rushing for the exit?
Setting out to write a novel is to begin a journey in which anything may happen – and perhaps nothing. There’s a sense of danger and at the same time a feeling that in the end, no one will want it and the manuscripts will remain forever in a drawer. But when you have that first draft on your desk or your hard drive, there is a fine sense of achievement along with the knowledge that the real work is just beginning.
To answer your question though, my truly favourite genre and the most difficult to write is short fiction. When stories work, they have a roundness to them, a completeness. A story will tell you itself when to stop, when to leave it alone. Good stories can be small in scope or they can take in the world. If I could write poetry, I would like that best.
JO: Rachel, what is one book that you would love to read, but have not been able to so to date? Would this be an extensive list if I asked for more titles?
JO: Are there some contemporary writers that you enjoy reading and what are some of the reasons that you find their work particularly meaningful?
RW: I’ve just read Linden McIntyre’s The Bishop’s Man and found it to be fine in every way. It made me want to write a novel with a single voice again. Mavis Gallant’s stories fill me with admiration, as do Alice Munro’s. Both of them achieve such depth in their work. Then there’s Martin Amis who makes me wish I was young enough and smart enough to write in such a ‘modern’ way. I could go on.
JO: How would you describe the current landscape in Canadian literature? Do you feel it has changed a great deal in the past twenty-five years?
RW: Has the landscape changed? Some of the old trees are still standing. And then people like Yann Martel came along with a new approach and planted themselves in the foreground. Since then there’ve been new shoots; writers in various genres experimenting with form and style. It hasn’t so much changed as evolved, I think. Though perhaps those two things are the same. And CanLit has rooted itself strongly in the international scene in the past couple of decades.
JO: Would you care to share some of your current projects with us? Can we expect another novel in the near future?
RW: Coteau is currently considering, at least I think they are, another novel. It’s a back-to-front mystery story. I was perhaps reaching beyond my capabilities when I wrote it. Its fate remains to be seen. Meanwhile, I am putting together some short stories. And I have an idea for a play.
JO: What advice would you offer to novice writers that may be reluctant to move from the initial private act of writing into the public realm of publishing?
RW: It does take courage to send out that novel or those stories for the first time and put your work into the hands of strangers but it’s better than having your efforts ‘waste their sweetness on the desert air.’ It can be hard when letters come back saying, ‘this is not for us’, or worse. The only thing to do is to keep writing and to keep sending stuff out. And most of all, keep reading.