• Broadkill Review

Scaffolding the Imagination: An Interview with Toronto writer and journalist, Christine Fischer Guy

In Ursula K. Le Guin: Conversations on Writing , a series of interviews with David Naimon, Le Guin says about the process of writing, “When I can use prose as I do in writing stories as a direct means or form of thinking, not as a way of saying something I know or believe, not as a vehicle for a message, but as an exploration, a voyage of discovery resulting in something I didn’t know before I wrote it, then I feel that I am using it properly.” Christine Fischer Guy, whose first novel The Umbrella Mender was met with critical acclaim, is no stranger to this “voyage of discovery” through writing. Approaching the blank page as a way to encounter the truth of what a story will be and using research as a way to fuel the imagination, Fischer Guy isn’t afraid of where that might take her, be it scrapping a manuscript to start fresh or diving deep into a family member’s historical materials. She cultivates her own curiosity on subjects that inspire her and presents a rich, living portrait of the characters who people her stories. Because of this, readers find themselves fully engrossed in the story as it organically unfolds.

Picture of Christine Fischer Guy, taken by the author.

The Broadkill Review: You are a journalist, literary critic, short fiction writer, novelist, and you taught at the University of Toronto. How are you able to move across genres and what inspires you to start a particular project?

Christine Fischer Guy: I started writing journalism while I was still an English lit undergrad, contributing small concert reviews as a freelancer for the local newspaper as well as working as a staff member of the university’s student paper, so processing the world that way is familiar and comfortable for me. My MA was in critical theory, so literary criticism became a natural part of my work when I started to read as a fiction writer in my mid-thirties. These writerly occupations feed one other: as an example, it occurred to me during an early draft of my current novel-in-progress that I could write a profile of my character as a way to get to know her, much as I’d write a profile of a real person for a magazine. To look at her through a journalist’s lens was an incredibly useful exercise for me. It gave me a new way to understand my character, but it also serves as a prism through which readers can view her.

I never know where inspiration will come from, but other artists constantly inspire me, so going to readings and seeing plenty of visual art regularly—in other words, being witness to other artists’ rigorous artistic questioning—is crucial to keeping those creative lights on. Listening to you read your creative constraint poem “I Witness My {Da} Father’s Fear That he Can No Longer Take Care Of his {Ma} Bride” at VCCA is a case in point—I felt like my head would explode with creative goodness!

My stories and novels often begin with a character not exactly whispering in my ear but hovering nearby, waiting to be coaxed out of the shadows to tell me a story. A question about something I’ve seen or read can get me started, too: for the current novel, it was the brass sculpture of Glenn Gould outside the CBC headquarters in downtown Toronto. Who was this guy, really, besides an eccentric genius? Once I started reading about him, I couldn’t stop, and the idea for the novel began to emerge. As I write, ongoing research continues to inspire me and acts as scaffolding for my imagination, platforms for creative leaps into the unknown.

BKR: Can you talk a little bit about how the inspiration for your first novel The Umbrella Mender (Wolsak & Wynn, 2014) came to be and your experience going to Moose Factory, Ontario for some of your research?

CFG: In my mid-thirties, I enrolled in a doctoral program, something I always thought I’d do after a break from academia (I had my MA at 23 and was a little burned out). During my very first term of study, a pioneering tuberculosis doctor in my extended family handed me his memoir. In my heart of hearts, I knew I really wanted a novel, not a dissertation, and that memoir turned the lights on in my writing room. I saw an idea that was big enough to sustain me through what I knew would be years of work and lots of research (scaffolding!) Naturally, I did the sensible thing and quit after that term to begin working on the novel.

I'm kidding, of course. The road to novel-making is filled with dead ends and bumps in the road and no certain destination, and that includes research trips! After I had a first draft, I decided I needed to learn the setting with my feet and talk to people in that community to help me bring it to life, so I planned a trip to Moose Factory, ON. That year there was a flood (Moose Factory is an island in the Moose River) and I couldn’t go until September, and even then it wasn’t fully operational yet—I was the only guest in the eco-lodge. The other occupants were work crews from Timmins restoring it to pre-flood functionality. I have so many fond memories of the warm hospitality I received there when I told them what I was working on, from tours of the former TB hospital, nurses’ residence, and the elder lodge to meals of moose stew with Moose Cree Council to steak with creamed corn around temporary plywood tables made by reconstruction crews. When the book came out, I started my tour in Moose Factory and brought a box of books to distribute to everyone who had been so generous.

BKR: In ancient Greek there is a concept (first recorded in the Odyssey) in which it is believed there are two gates through which dreams come: the horn gate where true dreams pass and the ivory gate where false dreams pass. In The Unanswerable Question( New York Review of Books), Alberto Manguel writes, “Perhaps writers must content themselves with using only the ivory gate for their dreams, knowing that their craft consists in telling lies. Except that the lies told by writers are not untruths; they are merely unreal. Errori non falsi, Dante, who knew what he was doing, called them. ‘Lies that are not false.’ The distinction is important.” In your writing, what does this mean for you, especially when the narrative is birthed through historical facts?

CFG: I wonder if what both Manguel and Dante were getting at is the false dichotomy between truth and fiction. Alice Munro offered another way of thinking about this in a CBC interview: ‘Memoir is about the facts of a life. Fiction is about the truth of a life.’

In these post-truth days, we’ve all witnessed how easily even undoctored video and audio can be bent to one’s own purposes. As a writer, I believe my work is to seek veracity with the artistic tools available to me. Two more writers who have shaped my thinking in this area are Guy Gavriel Kay and Miriam Toews.

Kay invented a hybrid genre that takes a slight turn from the historical record through the lens of the fantastic, all in the service of finding truth in fiction. In his own words, from his essay Home and Away: “It takes incidents out of a very specific time and place and opens up possibilities for the writer - and the reader - to consider the themes, the elements of a story, as applying to a wide range of times and places. It detaches the tale from a narrow context, permits a stripping away, or at least an eroding of prejudices and assumptions.”

Toews’s work offers another take on the question since she has been open about the ways her fiction is built on her lived experience and she has spoken about being interested in the blurring of lines between memoir and fiction. This makes so much sense to me: where else do writers find inspiration but from things they’ve read or experienced? I once wrote a story with a character who pointed with an index finger that had been amputated at the second knuckle, and I didn’t realize who that hand belonged to until many months later when I saw that friend again. The creative imagination is very mysterious: I never know quite what I’ll pull up when I reach down in there.

BKR: Another challenge a writer must face regarding the pitfalls of factual information is addressed by Jake Wolff in his article On the Fine Art of Researching for Fiction.” He ponders the question, “How do I provide authenticity and detail without turning the story into a lecture?” How do you approach this delicate balance?

CFG: If there’s one compliment I wanted in a review when The Umbrella Mender came out, it was “She wears her research lightly.” That was what I was reaching for: readers shouldn’t feel I’ve just dumped a bunch of textbooks on them but rather that they’ve spent time in my character’s world. I agree with the spirit of what Wolff is saying but I think I operate more intuitively in this regard, closer to Zora Neal Hurston’s “Research is formalized curiosity.” I’d add that research is also a natural outgrowth of, and supports, the million acts of creative empathy a book represents.

As an example: in one scene, my main character, Hazel, needed to have a plot-advancing conversation with her colleague and friend Ruth, and it made sense to me that they’d talk as they worked together doing something at the hospital. I started with the idea that they could be changing a bed together after a patient discharge, and what immediately followed that inspiration was a question: how did hospitals sanitize a bed in a TB hospital in 1950? I felt I needed the details—What type of cleaning solution? What did it smell like? Would they wear any personal protection equipment or garments? What kind? How were dirty linens and medical vessels cleaned?—because how could I convince my readers of the scene’s veracity if they couldn’t experience it for themselves? Finding the details I need to construct that scene is an extension of the empathy I need to practice to see the world through her eyes and convey that to my reader.

If I’ve done my work properly, my reader isn’t aware that I’ve researched the details of the scene, they’re simply convinced that what they’re reading is the actual record of what transpired in that room. I guess I can count the question “Are you a nurse?” (received many times as I toured, and no, I’m not) as a compliment in this regard.

BKR: There are so many elements in The Umbrella Mender that you had to research. Women nurses in the 50’s, tuberculosis and its treatment, the treatment of indigenous people in the north, Cree and Inuit customs, culture and language, Moose Factory, weather patterns, falcons, and of course, the mushfakers (umbrella menders). Can you speak a little bit about your method? How did you keep from getting overwhelmed or lost?

CFG: The first draft is about discovery for me: finding the story and the characters after I’ve read generally in the area and have a vague idea where I’m going. Subsequent drafts (seven for The Umbrella Mender) are for closing off dead ends, installing more light on the paths that are staying, and getting to know characters better. Convincing a reader means that I have to get the details right, and I usually find that I run into roadblocks as I’m working that let me know I need to know more to make a setting or situation real for the reader. That takes me back to the research so I can render the story as vividly as possible for the reader. To change the metaphor, I add layers of colour and depth with each subsequent draft as a painter would. It doesn’t happen all at once. Creating a world—something from nothing—takes time. My first book took six years.

Pretty early on I knew I had to consult an infectious disease specialist. The one who agreed to help sent me to a fantastic medical library in a hospital that was formerly a TB hospital, where I found not only newsletters produced for patients during that time period, but also an infected lung, preserved in formaldehyde, in a Plexiglas case. Cool! My character Gideon arrived on the scene after I learned about hobo symbols by seeing them printed on t-shirts at a craft fair. Once it was clear he was part of the story, I needed to know more about that culture and how he might fit into it.

I’m not sure you can do this job without insatiable and bottomless curiosity. But you’re right. It is possible to get lost in the research and never find your way back to the book you’re writing, especially since the internet made extensive research so much easier. I guess journalism gave me practice drawing a line in the sand when I feel I’ve learned enough to write about a subject, but it’s not an exact science. I was re-checking facts until the book went to press.

BKR: You talk about how the story develops in an interview with