Canadian Interviews - Euphoria
Interview with Connie Gault
Reviewed by: Canadian Interviews
Things Go Back a Long Way
Connie Gault reached into her past for a little help when she started to write her first novel, Euphoria. The heart of the book is her presentation of a determined, intuitive woman named Gladdie McConnell. She is a wonderfully complex and engaging protagonist, spending much of her life in service to others and steadfastly protecting the most vulnerable people around her. When asked how her central character came to be, Gault maintains that she is not absolutely certain but she has a hunch. 'I know that she is based quite strongly on one of my grandmothers, who was a wonderful person,' the author reveals. 'Around the time when I was really working hard on the beginnings of the novel, I was going through quite a stressful period in my life. Whenever I have a stressful period in my life, I always think of this grandmother. I try to conjure her up to look after me a little bit.'
Protection is the leitmotif of the story. At the outset of the novel we meet Gladdie as a twenty-four year old working in a Toronto boarding house. The year is 1891. She is trying desperately to care for an abandoned newborn, a baby girl left behind by Jessie Dole, one of the residents of the house. Jessie commits suicide right after giving birth. The entire scene is illuminating. The reader finds Gladdie doing exactly what she does in many moments throughout the novel: resolutely attempting to care for someone without ever being firmly in control of the situation. Gladdie looks after the infant in the days following the birth. She promises the deserted baby that she will never give up caring for her. With this vow as the starting point, Gault charts memorably the unusual relationship between the servant and the orphaned child. It is a bond that is maintained by sheer force of will. The novel is intricately structured, shifting back and forth in time. Through scenes set in Toronto around the turn from the nineteenth to the twentieth century, the entire life of Gladdie McConnell is ought sharply into view. We learn how she found employment at the boarding house and what obstacles she had to overcome just to gain her job. Also we discover the circumstances by which the deserted child gets adopted by an affluent Toronto family, and takes the name Orillia. All this activity in Toronto is juxtaposed with scenes from the summer of 1912 in Regina, Saskatchewan. Gladdie now operates her own boarding house in the prairie city. Again she is taking care of Orillia, who is suffering from injuries she sustained when the building in which she worked collapsed as the result of a cyclone.
As the novel unfolds, what happens in Toronto informs what happens in Regina and vice versa. Slowly it becomes clear precisely how Gladdie managed to maintain a connection to Orillia over the years, fulfilling in her own mind the original promise that she made to the girl. More intriguing are the reasons why Gladdie felt compelled to keep the promise, even when it seems rather unnecessary to do so. When reading Euphoria, the greatest pleasure comes from observing how Gault never allows her central character to stagnate. Gladdie acquires new layers from start to finish. She is one of the most memorable figures in recent Canadian fiction.
Connie Gault has written two collections of short stories and four plays for the stage. She has spent time as the fiction editor for Grain magazine, mentored emerging writers through the Saskatchewan Writers Guild, and taught many classes in creative writing. In the following interview, which took place in a coffee shop in downtown Regina, the author talks about how long the general idea for Euphoria was in development in her mind, and how her experience as a playwright influenced how she structured the novel. Gault discusses her depiction of children in the story, revealing her fascination with the way in which some individuals manage to persevere even after being horribly mistreated in their youth.
CI: This is your first novel. How long was it developing in your mind before you actually sat down to research and write it? CG: I think since I started thinking about it in ninety-seven, so a long time! But I'm a playwright too. I was working on a couple of plays, getting them through production, so that interrupted me. I would sneak back at the novel and pick at it a little bit, and go back and work on a play. Then eventually I just put everything else aside and settled down to the novel.
CI: With your background as a playwright, there are spots in the book that -I guess by setting so many scenes in boarding houses, the way that characters come in and out -it feels a little bit like a play. Do you think that there was a direct influence from the plays that you were putting together at the time in terms of how you were setting some of the scenes in the novel? CG: Oh, definitely. In fact, one friend of mine who is a director and actor said to me, the novel is exactly like your plays! It's just the same: a lot of characters, quick scenes, and the juxtaposition of scenes. You don't change just because you change your genre, really, but in a novel of course you can explore more than in a play.
CI: In that same vein, there are some interesting ways that you bring your characters into view, and I thought it was similar to how it works in a play, when you first see a character, it tells you something about that character. I am thinking specifically about Gladdie with the abandoned child in Toronto at the beginning of the novel, or Harry when he is first introduced -the conversation between Mr. and Mrs. Riley is literally about whether to throw him a bone or not! Is that something that you are very conscious of as you bring a character into a scene or into the book for the first time, how you are presenting that character and what it is going to tell the audience or reader about the character? CG: No, I think it's just how I see the character when they first appear in my imagination. I'm just thinking that way. As soon as I had Harry in my mind and he was going to appear, that's how I saw him in my mind. It must be just how my imagination works!
CI: At the centre of the novel is Gladdie McConnell. What is unique about Gladdie, I thought, or what is unique about how you wrote her, is that she acquires depth throughout the novel, new layers. Part of that comes from how you shift time and shift scenes. In some novels, the main character gets stagnant halfway through, and the rest of the story is just rolling out what happens to the character. What are the origins of Gladdie McConnell? How did you first get the idea for her? CG: I am not absolutely certain. I know that she is based quite strongly on one of my grandmothers, who was a wonderful person. Around the time when I was really working hard on the beginnings of the novel, I was going through quite a stressful period in my life. Whenever I have a stressful period in my life, I always think of this grandmother. I try to conjure her up to look after me a little bit. So I created a character who needed looking after -Orillia -and Gladdie just arose out of nothing. She really isn't like my grandmother in most ways. She doesn't look anything like my grandmother did or talk really like her at all, but her essence is the same. She is out there to protect, and she is quite fierce. My grandmother -you wouldn't want to cross her!
CI: It is interesting in the novel to set the scenes in Toronto against the scenes in Regina. As you got into your research, what did you want to reveal about those two cities at that specific point in time, sort of turn-of-the-century and early twentieth century? CG: That is a great question. I wish I had thought it out ahead of time! I'm fascinated by that question because I'm not sure that I had in my mind a real contrast between the two places. I was thinking really about how my own grandparents -both sets actually -came from Ontario, and so many did at that time. In the beginning of the province here, a lot of the settlers were from Ontario. So I was thinking why did people come here, and how disappointed they must have been, really, if they were only honest! There was nothing here and it was a hard life. They came from a place that was a lot more civilized. They had to endure real hardships here. So I was thinking of that I guess, and I wanted to make a little fun of it too, the mythology of the settler and how they came here to make their lives better and they didn't. But I'm not big on suffering. I didn't really want to do the typical suffering settler'. I wanted to explore different reasons for people coming to different places.
CI: In the acknowledgements to the book, you note that you used the research facilities at the Saskatchewan Archives Board, the City of Regina Archives, the Regina Public Library Prairie History Room, the City of Toronto Archives and the Toronto Public Library. What did you find the most challenging aspect of bringing the historical elements of the novel to life? CG: You know, it actually wasn't that challenging. I did a ton of research. I did a lot of walking around in Toronto as well as here. In the novel, the Regina part is kind of set where I live, in the neighbourhood I live, so that was easy enough. I did all this research and reading and then I kind of put it away. I decided, I'm just going to write the story. I'm concentrating on the people. I'm going to let the historical knowledge just come in where it will'. It isn't heavily laden, as you probably noticed, with historical references. Other than the cyclone in Regina, there is no big event that informs it. I really wanted to explore how people lived then, ordinary people, not politicians or artists or anybody special', just ordinary people. I decided that it would be best to work along the lines of the way I live my life, which is that I'm aware of things that are happening but they are not often affecting me primarily. Although I had a chart noting if there was any big event that might have had an impact on the characters, I didn't want to hinge anything on that because most of our lives aren't hinged on those kinds of events, unless they are like 9/11, catastrophic things
CI: That's interesting. At that time, with newspapers and the early development of radio, people would be aware of certain events but they would not necessarily change the course of their daily lives. Even now, although the internet, television, and radio bombard us constantly, it still doesn't really change too much about how most of us live our day-to-day lives. CG: I think we just learn to shut it out, a lot of it, don't we? Which is scary too because when we look at the news and see these images that are really disturbing, they are not disturbing us as much as they might have ten years ago when people weren't shown those same images. So it is a little bit worrisome. I'm not sure whether it's a good idea that we get so inured to hardship and suffering.
CI: Part of the effectiveness of the novel is the bouncing back and forth between the different time periods. It's not just the simple matter of telling one little vignette, one scene, and then telling another. Often what is happening to Gladdie in Toronto impacts the way we view her in the next scene when she is in Regina twenty years later. Did your original conception of the novel move in a more linear way, or did you always have this idea that you were going to show her in relief in those two different cities? CG: I always had her in relief. My view of life is that we're always in a flow of time and it goes both ways. Even as we're sitting here now, there is some of our past still in us. I talked about my grandmother earlier, and I sort of feel her here. Even some parts of our future are here. You look at somebody else and you think where will he be in five years?' I find that time is not very linear for me, my experience of time. I wanted to write the novel that way. Gladdie's whole life is one part of the novel and that one summer is the other part. I think every day is influenced by the past, especially the past of course, and somewhat by the future -fear and dread and hope.
CI: Maybe the most significant thing that I wanted to ask is about the children in the novel. They are all threatened in some way, or most of them are. They've been orphaned or they've lived through some cruel twist of fate. There is something ominous about their world. There is always a feeling of some threat. It starts really to kick in during the novel when Gladdie and Harry are in the ravine in Toronto. It comes to the fore there, this idea that there is CG: This lurking presence CI: A lurking presence, right. Is there something from your own life, from your own experience, that drew you to this idea of showing children that way, that there is this sort of ominous threat around them? CG: No, I don't think so. I had quite a safe childhood. But I'm very concerned that a lot of children don't have a safe childhood. Because I felt that the novel was a lot about protection, and children are the most vulnerable members of our society, I just wanted to explore the effects of people who prey on children, but I did not want to do a story about victims in a sort of tragedy mode. I guess it's the old Canadian theme of survival. It has always fascinated me how people endure and how they overcome a hardship. Again that's why I went from cyclone-on in that summer. I was not very interested in the cyclone itself but rather how somebody recovers from a hardship. Same with the children in there, Gladdie for example, and how the abuse that she had to endure -it haunted her but it didn't get her down. It didn't make her into a victim ultimately.
CI: I liked how you managed it in the early part of the novel. There is a sense of Gladdie having a fear of abandonment and needing to protect others as the manifestation of that fear. There is a point early in the novel where she says to herself, 'I'm not going to be afraid anymore', but you don't just flick the switch. She still has those fears. There is a subtlety to the development of the character that isn't in some other novels. I think that is what drew me to Gladdie. As you got maybe a third of the way or maybe halfway through the novel, did you have the full arc in mind of how you wanted her to develop, or did it just keep coming as you went along? CG: It kept coming. You know, endings are hard for novelists, right? I knew that I wanted to bring her -I wanted to bring the two times together at the end of the novel obviously. The summer comes to an end, so we bring Gladdie up to date in her life and the two times merge. I knew structurally that that was what I was doing, and I knew how it was going to end technically, what was going to happen, but I didn't know how Gladdie was going to deal with it until I got to it, until I wrote it! Even then at first I had to do the ending several times in order actually to get deep enough into her mind to figure out how she was going to deal with the end of the summer.
CI: I always like to give readers a picture of how songwriters come to songs, or how authors actually sit down to write a book. I have this image of you having done all the historical background research and therefore having a bunch of books around all the time in order to draw on different elements of the past. What is your preferred situation for writing? CG: Well, I have a really nice upstairs room that used to be a bedroom, and now it's my office. It's a big room with bookshelves and a couch and a desk, obviously, with a computer on it. Yes, it's got papers and stacks of books! It's kind of interesting that you should say that. I met my neighbour a couple of months after the book came out. She stopped me and said that she had read the book. She said, I always picture you up there in your office with charts all over the walls because the novel structure is so complex'. And I did of course! I had to do the charts of time and years and people's ages sometimes to keep it straight in my own mind. Probably the idea of charts on the wall was not too far from it! A lot of them were in my head, but I do tend to do that. I am writing a new novel now and I have got a map of the town that it's set in because the town is very important in it. I have to keep referring to this map that I drew of where people's houses are, you know.
CI: You have to get the details right. CG: You have to get the details right. It's really important. You don't want to say that someone is looking at the sun if they're actually facing north!
CI: Actually I was going to ask if you have another novel in the works. If you had the original spark for Euphoria twelve or thirteen years ago, has this next one been in development in your mind for a similar length of time, or did it start after you finished writing Euphoria? CG: This one actually started even before that. It's been in the works for a long time. I think it maybe draws on some earlier work that I did, which was a story here and a play there, and I think there was more there to explore. Things go back a long way!
Date of Interview: 03/20/2010 Location: Atlantis Coffee, Regina, SK