Toronto Quarterly Interview

» Posted by on Jan 29, 2015 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Toronto Quarterly Interview

Patricia Westerhof was born to Dutch Canadian parents, and has lived in the Netherlands, Alberta and Ontario. She is the author of The Dove in Bathurst Station (Brindle & Glass, 2013), a novel, and of Catch Me When I Fall (Brindle & Glass, 2011), a collection of linked stories. She co-authored The Writer’s Craft, a textbook for creative writing students. Her short stories have been published in Room Magazine, The Dalhousie Review, and the anthology Trees Running Backward. Patricia lives in Toronto where she teaches English and creative writing.

TTQ – What inspired you to start writing and who were some of your early influences or mentors?
Patricia Westerhof – Many years ago, when I was in university, I thought I was a poet. It was a tremendous setback when I got a poem published in the university arts magazine, superimposed upon a schmultzy photo of a sunset, like the most sentimental greeting card you can imagine. To make it worse, my Writers’ Guild friends, who dressed in thrift store clothing and considered themselves artistically superior to most people on campus, reported that they had seen the poem torn out of the magazine and pinned up on first-year students’ heart-bordered bulletin boards in the residence halls. The fact that the masses liked my poem confirmed that it must be bad art. Then I began teaching, which took all my creative energy. Between school work and increasing responsibilities at home, it was many, many years before I felt the urge to write again. While pursuing a MA degree at the University of Toronto about ten years ago, I stumbled into a writing course. The cryptic description in the catalogue had made it sound like a theory course. So I was flummoxed to discover that the course work was simply to write pieces of memoir. But on my way to the Registrar’s Office to drop the course, I started thinking about the craft projects that swept through the rural Alberta community of my childhood. You’d go into people’s kitchens and washrooms, and you’d see the same homemade item, just done in different colour combinations and with slightly varying levels of success. Most of them were bizarre. People attached pictures cut out of Sunday School worksheets to soaps, using a layer of paraffin wax. There were rug-hooked toilet seat covers with the words “Grin and bare it” woven in and mobiles made of fake fur happy faces. So for me, my writing career did not begin with the urge to catalogue the secrets of the human heart. It began with small but niggling questions such as why did Phentex yarn come in such ugly colour combinations, and why did everybody make the Aunt Jemima toilet paper holder at the same time? I wrote about those crafts and that rural Alberta community in my collection of linked stories, Catch Me When I Fall. A few writers who encouraged and helped along the way include Michael Winter, Douglas Burnet Smith, Anne Michaels, Shari Lapeña and Angie Abdou. I also think that all the hours of my life that I spent studying fiction have prepared me for writing, and I’m indebted to probably a hundred or more authors whose craftsmanship I admire (including the authors listed above!)

TTQ – In terms of writing, what would be a perfect day?
Patricia Westerhof – A perfect day begins with coffee at my writing desk, which, in this fantasy, is dusted and tidy. I open my laptop and type. Ideas gush, and words stream onto the screen in elegant, fully-formed sentences. This almost never happens. An almost-perfect day is one in which I persevere in spite of distractions and interruptions and negative voices in my head. I write and rewrite and rewrite some more. And after four or five hours of hard work, I see that I have made progress.

TTQ – How would you best describe your latest novel, The Dove in Bathurst Station (Brindle & Glass, 2013) and what message do you hope your readers will take away with them after reading the book?
Patricia Westerhof – The novel features Marta Elzinga, a floundering guidance counselor, who has been searching for a sign—Jesus’s face in an oil puddle, an angel visitation. Marta needs direction. She suspects she went astray way back in grade twelve, the year her former boyfriend hanged himself. Now she struggles to meet the needs of her charming but unstable husband, as well as the students for whom she’s responsible. During “Doors Open Toronto,” Marta visits Lower Bay Station, where she chances to meet a former student. He invites her to join him in some urban exploration—tunnel running and draining. And so, in the late evenings, Marta comes to traverse the dangerous geography underneath the city’s streets; she slips into manholes hidden in Toronto’s ravines and parks. Through the journeys, Marta confronts the coils and bends in her own thinking about providence, chance and personal responsibility. I recently read about a glass manhole cover in Brescia, Italy that allows passers-by to peek at the underground river there. I’m fascinated by the things we bury, whether those are the polluted rivers we’ve encaged in Toronto, or our deep hurts and shame. This past summer, we experienced the most rainfall in a single day in Toronto’s recorded history, and I especially loved seeing the manhole covers by the Rogers Centre straining against the fountains of water erupting from beneath them. It’s such an obvious metaphor. We can hide things—we can push them out of sight—but they are still there, liable to erupt unless the infrastructure keeping them in place is maintained constantly. So my character undergoes literal journeys through the city’s subspaces, but she also journeys into her own psyche as she searches for healing. I’d like this novel to be like a glass manhole cover to its readers—a glass manhole cover that allows them to peek underneath the surface both of this city and of a person who might be like someone they know, or even like themselves. Kathleen Winter has written that The Dove in Bathurst Station “touched me with its sense of possibility.” That’s also what I would like readers to get out of reading this novel: some recognition of the possibilities around us, and a sense of hope.

TTQ – The protagonist, Marta Elzinga, is both a floundering guidance counselor at a local high school and an urban explorer traversing the underbelly of Toronto city streets. Where did the idea of portraying Marta with such a complex character come from and have you done or aspire to do any exploring underground?
Patricia Westerhof – Marta receives the signs she was hoping for early on in the novel, but she doesn’t know what they mean. I think that people who believe that a divine power is guiding them are open to taking extreme action, especially if things in their lives are not going very well. That is Marta’s situation—she has reached a place in her life where the combination of her unresolved trauma and the challenges in her everyday life has rendered her status quo untenable. Yes, I made several trips underground as research for the novel. I planned to make do with armchair travel, and I read the accounts of the few urban explorers who have described Toronto’s drain tunnels and other underground spaces. I also interviewed someone who had TTC maps of the subway tunnels and drain tunnels and had done quite of bit of urban spelunking. But as I wrote the novel, it became clear to me that I was going to have to go down myself. For one thing, the explorers I could find were all male, and my character is a woman. There were details missing from their accounts. For instance, I needed to find out about the ‘ick’ factor—how nasty would Marta, my main character, find it down there? How exactly does it smell? Are the rungs on the ladder wet? How damp or dry or warm or cold does it feel down there? What is it like if you turn off your flashlight? I especially wanted to know more about sound. My character is a musician (well, ok, a failed musician), and in one scene, she sings underground. I needed to know about the acoustics in both the tunnels and the water storage chambers. So, underground I went. And despite the fact that I was raised in a Dutch –Canadian community who embraces the adage that cleanliness is next to godliness, I reveled in these excursions. They have changed how I walk along the top of the city—I am always visualizing what’s under me: subway tunnels, buried cables, drain tunnels, sewers.

TTQ – Dealing with the aftermath of suicide is something Marta’s character struggles with throughout the book. How close to home is the subject of suicide to you personally and what inspired you to write about it?
Patricia Westerhof – Many years ago, a student of mine committed suicide. She went home one night and hanged herself in her bedroom. She was only sixteen. I barely knew her, as it was only the third week of September, and I had never taught her before that semester. Yet I have thought of her often. Over the years, I have found myself wondering if there was something I should have noticed and something I could have done.

TTQ – Are you a big believer in seeking out counseling when life’s struggles become too difficult?
Patricia Westerhof – I think this novel shows that all counseling is not the same. Marta saw a therapist when she was a teenager, and it did not help her. Her high school guidance counselor was ineffectual. Marta herself flounders as a guidance counselor and is able to help some students but not others. It’s the unexpected encounters with the leader of the Julian of Norwich workshops on healing that bring her relief. Is this because it’s the right time for Marta or because she’s met the right person? Maybe it’s both. So I believe in seeking help, but I think that the healing of the heart and soul rarely takes a linear path.

TTQ – How arduous was the editing process for the novel, and who helped you get through it and how important was their input in completing the book?
Patricia Westerhof – Because I have taught high school English for many years, I believe in the writing process and in the value of feedback. I love Anne Lamott’s analogy to describe the benefits of seeking editorial advice: “Imagine that you are getting ready for a party and there is a person at your house who can check you out and assure you that you look wonderful or, conversely, that you actually do look a little, tiny, tiny, tiny bit heavier than usual in this one particular dress or suit….Of course you are disappointed for a moment, but then you are grateful that you are still in the privacy of your own home and there is time to change” (Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Random House, 1994). My friend Susan Cockerton read my first drafts and gave me valuable feedback all the way through. My editor, Robert Schreur, helped me to flesh out the passages that needed more detail and helped make the prose more graceful and polished. He’s an astute reader, and his advice was insightful. I also appreciated the help from the proofreaders, Heather Sangster of Strong Finish and Cailey Cavallin from Brindle & Glass. Proofreaders are unsung heroes in the book industry—they are like the kind friend who tells you that you have spinach in your teeth or toilet paper stuck to the bottom of your shoe. I found the editing process hard but satisfying work.

TTQ – What words of advice do you typically give to your creative writing students?
Patricia Westerhof – I am passionate about teaching creative writing and co-authored a text for high school creative writers (The Writer’s Craft), so answering this question in just a few sentences is pretty challenging. I avoid typical advice like “read a lot.” Reading voraciously doesn’t make you a writer, and most people don’t gain abilities through osmosis. I use Francine Prose’s book Reading Like a Writer in my classes, because I believe that scrutinizing craft can increase writers’ skills. Similarly I don’t advise students to necessarily write a lot. Many people still in their teens have written whole fantasy novels or epic trilogies. The manuscripts are usually entirely unedited. Perhaps they have potential, but no one is likely to slog through the prose to find out. Beginning writers need to figure out what makes good writing good and what gets in the way. So while I spend a bit of time teaching invention techniques in my classes, we focus on revision.

TTQ – What’s next for Patricia Westerhof?
Patricia Westerhof – I’m in the middle of new novel with the working title Shifting Stone. It weaves together three stories about failure and mettle: the building of Rogers Pass in British Columbia, the building of the Homer Tunnel in New Zealand, and the story of Neve, a young mother who must rebuild her life after her infant suffers irreparable brain damage.