Recently, author and academic Sarah Kathryn York took some time out of her very busy schedule to respond to some questions I had for her about writing in general, her latest book, writing influences, and her future projects. I trust you will find her responses as insightful and honest as I have.
JO: Can you share how you discovered Edouard’s story and what inspired you to write about him?
SY: I first heard of him through my friend and Canadian singer Daisy DeBolt. She’d been out to Willow Bunch where he was born, and recorded a ballad with words by Michael Ondaatje. I was taken by Edouard’s quiet vulnerability and strength. There’s something accessible about him that testifies to us all. To me, his story is not tragic. It’s important, and it should be told and retold.
JO: Your Edouard, is a gentle and very sweet man. Was this reflected in the archival record or something you chose to develop while writing?
SY: Edouard is described as gentle, kind and shy by those who knew him. I think he was also tremendously generous, trusting and brave. He took care of his loved ones, rescued strangers, and never hurt anyone, even in professional fights. His goodness and grace were immediate. It was who he was. Of course, the Edouard in my book is imagined. So it was also a choice to portray him that way.
JO: How did writing this book change you not only as a writer but as a person?
SY: Anatomy threw me into experimental forms and spare language. The genre changed three times, in part because there’s a respect in dealing with actual people. The process led me to reconsider storytelling and representation, and where those delineations lie. The closer I ran with the facts, the less “true” the story felt in some ways. Fiction allowed me to honestly engage the characters and the integrity of imagination. Yet real details were important. The research was intense.
The book left me with more questions than answers. The need to be “lifted” up or personally resolved through stories is a peculiar aesthetic demand. If we’re not trying to understand each other better, build empathy, and change ourselves, what are we doing? Fortunately, the world has no shortage of good readers. I hope people will go on forging their own relationships with Edouard in their own ways.
Personally, writing was both engaging and taxing. Also, my life altered while I was writing it, on the edges of writing it, and in order to write it. So there’s a sense of investment, of risk.
JO: Were there ways that you were able to identify with Edouard as you wrote his story?
SY: Absolutely. In fiction, you enter characters through the humanity that binds us, and whatever stories reveal. I identify with those things foremost. His sensitivity and solitude, dreams and sacrifices, distance from home and mixed heritage, the desire to be seen, and to see others, for our authentic selves, his troubles and love of life and need for freedom – lots of people can relate, I think. Complicating the feelings of people who cared for him was not so easy. It was harder to identify with gawkers, but I avoided judging his audiences, especially in an historical context.
Edouard’s physicality was not my focus, though he was lovely inside and out. I tried not to emphasize his body, yet it shaped his experience. In order to inhabit him, I had to confront his form. I am wary of this word, “inhabit,” as though you wear your characters or somehow invade them. I didn’t want the book to be about, you know, did he really kick the ceiling and leave a shoe print?
I grew up with eccentrics and outcasts, so ‘normal’ is not something I understand well – does anyone? We’re all unusual. In some ways, Edouard was ‘regular’: a good man from humble beginnings in a small rural town, who worked hard and was passable in school, an athletic but awkward teenager, with traditional family and religious values, who wrestled with hard poverty, but never shied from eating, drinking, joking and hunting. He was also gifted, fluent in many tongues, an astounding strongman, toured the continent, led an extraordinary life, tolerated celebrity, and was a brilliant horseman, roper, and dead shot at a young age. He was flawed and heroic. He broke through everything, but didn’t fit anywhere. The poetry of finity, so to speak.
JO: What was the best part in the entire process of writing Edouard’s story?
SY: I learned a lot, but was glad to see it finished. Some people said they wished I’d written more – a good sign, hopefully. Talking with his family was the best experience.
JO: Were there books that you used to help in crafting this book Sarah?
SY: Not specifically. I avoided other creative works on the subject for fear of influence (by the wonderful Geoffrey Ursell for instance). As a child, I loved this old anatomy book that had wax paper layers. You started with a skeleton and added transparent pages of muscle, veins, and skin to get a whole impression of a body. Remembering that helped me in the narrative layering of the book.
JO: What authors have been some of your most important influences as a writer?
SY: There are too many great writers to choose from. The influence changes constantly. James Baldwin has never been an influence, but his story “Going to Meet the Man” is about as perfect, if disturbing, a story as I’ve read. I always return to the ones who blur the boundaries between place and people: Faulkner, Keats, Munro, Morrison, Robinson, MacEwen (Gwendolyn), Kafka, Dickens, McCullers, Erdrich, Woolf, James, Brontë (Emily), McCarthy, Nabokov, and many others. Who knows how it all filters down. I recently sat down with Lee Maracle, and her personal stories blew me over. The writers around me, my friends, have a sort of radiating effect.
JO: Would you care to share what book(s) you are reading currently Sarah?
SY: Halldór Laxness, The Fish Can Sing. Simon Van Booy, Everything Beautiful Began After. Arley McNeney, The Time We All Went Marching. Arley and I went on book tour across Canada, along with others, and her book is so lyrical. As a creative writing teacher, I’m always re-reading. Right now, lots of poetry and North American fiction.
JO: To me, it seems that this book sets up very well for a film adaptation. Have you had any discussions with anyone about this to date?
SY: It would be interesting to see it adapted. I think it lends itself to that, and I’d be curious to see it visualized in new ways. I’ve had some interest from a well-known American director, whose name I probably shouldn’t mention. We’ll see.
JO: Would you care to share what you are working on currently Sarah?
SY: I’m currently finishing a novel called Sermon, some shorter creative non-fiction pieces, and a book about aesthetics that I started recently in Paris, France.