Sarah York Shares

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.

York Impresses With Debut Effort

The Anatomy of Edouard Beaupré

By Sarah Kathryn York

Coteau Books April 2012, 216 pp. $16.95 CDN

Reviewed by: James Onusko

While many books are touted as life-changing or having the ability through which the reader will gain new perspectives, oftentimes this is overblown hyperbole on the part of publishers. This smallish book, unquestionably, will change the way you think about those among us who stand out for various reasons. In most ways a tragic figure, Edouard and his story, brought to life for a new audience, has transformative powers to heighten our abilities to empathize with our fellow human beings.

Sarah Kathryn York’s short fiction has appeared in both Canadian and American journals. Sarah is a graduate of the University of Toronto Creative Writing Master’s Program. She is a PhD candidate at the University of Waterloo. Sarah is from Toronto and is a dual Canadian-American citizen, spending time in both Canada and the United States. This is her first book.

York’s writing is superb. Her writing style is both poetic and unadorned. While it is evocative it is not distracting as she humanizes Edouard. This is not easy given her subject matter as it would have been tempting and quite easy to focus mainly on Edouard’s physicality. The author’s brilliance is that she invites us as readers to know that Edouard was in fact a caring, thoughtful and complex young man. While extraordinary for being 8 feet three inches when he died at the age of twenty-three, his deep sensitivity and devotion to his family outsized his physical being. As I read the book, I could not help but think of Joseph Merrick, better known as The Elephant Man, who convinced himself that exhibition in the late nineteenth century was one of the only ways for him to gain a meager living. While Edouard’s life may not have been as trying as Merrick’s, the parallels are compelling. Both men had dreams far beyond the confines of the freak shows of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

In the following excerpt a teenaged Edouard discusses becoming a cowpoke with his uncle Albert on the Canadian plains:

“I wanna cowpoke,” Edouard said, a faint whine in his voice. He leaned back against the post and stared out at the fire. “Besides, I’m saving up for a nice pair of boots.”

“A cowpoke,” Albert repeated. His nail drove deeper into the wood.

“You said yourself that I’m good with horses.”

Edouard hushed a long time. He sat quietly the way he did in school when the children called him mute. They thought he was stupid. Maybe he was sometimes. Unworldly. Even the tallest girl in class had mocked him, the one child who might understand. Girls don’t mean nothing, his friend had said to comfort him that afternoon, Don’t pay no mind. They were throwing rocks at an old barn. We’re nothing either, he’d replied.

“I wish to hell it would rain,” Albert said to break the silence.

Edouard looked up into the blackness and the swarm of stars. They seemed to go on without him, without the world even, washing through the sky like some great dark mouth had opened to swallow the stars whole. He realized in that moment he had outgrown a living. Outgrown the ranching life. Outgrown horses. He no longer held a place among the things he loved and knew.

York allows us to understand Edouard in a way that contemporary sideshow audiences were likely unable to, more than a century ago. While we remain fascinated by his size, she gives us the gift of narration, monologue, anecdotal evidence and pure fantasy to add further colour to his short and angst-filled life. Rather than mere gawking, we are able to share some intimacies with this complex giant of a man who in small ways enjoyed but in more ways reviled his adult years.

There were a few shortcomings. I would have liked more written by the main narrator, the obsessive Montreal doctor who examined Edouard’s corpse in the 1950s, and ultimately, had more questions about Edouard than when he began. Also, York’s gifts for sensitivity and compassion left me wishing she had delved more deeply into Edouard’s earlier years in Saskatchewan. Finally, I would have really enjoyed some brief speculation by the author on what might Edouard have done if he had lived for another handful of years. She has likely come to know him better than anyone else now and although pure conjecture, her insights would have been fascinating.

Sarah Kathryn York has produced an instant must-read. While there is no poor time to read this 206 page book (yes, that does align with the number of bones in the ‘average’ human body), it will make an excellent summer afternoon or evening read. I cannot help but think that there may be a compelling film version of this story, begging to be made. The book is suitable for mature teen readers and older. I highly recommend it and trust that it will offer a new lens to all readers. It has done so for me and I think that is the ultimate praise for a book.

*A copy of The Anatomy of Edouard Beaupré was sent to me to read and review. It was not purchased.