Can you tell us what made you become an author?
Although I had no understanding as a child of the notion of writing as a vocation, I think my affinity for words started very early in life. I was sick a lot with asthma as a child, and in those days of minimal therapy was often stuck in bed. I lived in my imagination, and then as soon as I learned to read, lived in books. I was one of those kids who had to be called to dinner ten times if my nose was stuck in a book. It wasn’t until I started university and met published writers that I came to understand writing as work – that “the art of writing is the art of applying the seat of one’s pants to the seat of a chair,” as someone or other once said…
What inspired you to write The Knife Sharpener’s Bell? Is there a story behind the story of writing of this novel?
The plot of The Knife Sharpener’s Bell pretty much seized me by the throat. The story originated in two pieces of family history. The first piece is that my maternal grandfather planned, in 1935, to take his family back to Mother Russia. He had left Tsarist Russia before the First World War and met my grandmother in Canada. Both of my grandparents shared strong left-wing beliefs. And when the economy came crashing down in the Dirty Thirties – and the Prairies were particularly hard hit – my grandparents decided the best thing to do for their family would be to take them to the Workers’ Paradise, the Soviet Union. As fate would have it, my grandfather’s trip back in 1935 to the Soviet Union did not result in permission to immigrate. But that alternate history and its consequences has haunted me all my life. As has my mother’s story of hiding on the train that was to take her father to Halifax for the trip to Europe. This scene is the prologue to the novel.
The second bit of history has to do with Vladlen Furman, to whom (with my mother) The Knife Sharpener’s Bell is dedicated. This distant cousin, who was living at the time in Moscow, became active in one of the very early dissident movements in the Soviet Union. In the anti-Semitic hysteria of those post-war years, he was arrested, along with a number of other young people. Stalin arranged for a show trial in 1950. These young people, whose ages ranged from 17 to 21, were prosecuted for treason and terrorism and found guilty. Their crime had been to think that perhaps socialism had not reached perfection within the Soviet state. Our family in Canada did not discover the truth of Vladlen’s story until 1975, when my Canadian-born mother first travelled to the Soviet Union and met the surviving family.
So the plot in my novel is based on an interweaving of these two stories. Writing this novel I tried to uncover the meaning of this personal history and the reflections that it casts on our tempestuous present.
What is it that you’re exploring in this novel?
I think the prologue, that first scene in which my protagonist, Annette, tries to keep her father from leaving her, is emblematic of the novel as a whole. How can a person act to preserve what they love, even when the odds against them are so great, even when so much in the world conspires to keep them feeling powerless? One of the things that struck me in my research was how people under Stalinism were betrayed by their loyalty to their ideals. So that theme of betrayal, of self-deception as well as deception by others, is also very important to the novel.
You’d written six collections of poetry before writing The Knife Sharpener’s Bell. What was the greatest challenge for you in the switch from poetry to fiction?
Um – narration. This is a very complicated story and I had to find a way to cover about 25 years in the protagonist’s life without writing a War and Peace length novel. This book is essentially a study of character, but it also had to have a big historical sweep. There was a lot of ground to cover, so it was very difficult to figure out how to compress all those events so that they didn’t overwhelm the characters’ interiority. These aren’t issues that tend to arise with poetry, so I was on a big and painful learning curve. It felt like it took me forever, and it almost did: the writing spanned a decade.
It is a complex story. Writers are told to “write what you know,” but your novel takes place before you were born and in places you’ve never visited. The reviews, however, have commented on the historical authenticity and accuracy of your story. What was it like researching this book?
I had to be very careful about the research, because I could so easily have spent the rest of my life researching the historical background for this book. So I tried to go about my research with surgical precision, not to get distracted. (It helped that I don’t know Russian!) There was some basic research that I had to do that was quite easy: finding timelines about when various historical events happened, when Odessa was occupied, the circumstances around the siege of Moscow. At first I thought the premise that anyone would move from the New World to Stalinist Russia would be quite fantastical, but I soon discovered numerous instances where people did make that move– thousands of people did take on that reverse immigration. And what I was most interested in was to locate primary sources that would give me an understanding the mindset of people who, like my historical grandfather and like the father in the novel, believed whole-heartedly in Communist ideals. Luckily, in the early days of my research, I was able to discover books written by idealistic Westerners who lived temporarily in the USSR in the mid-1930s. These memoirs were, interestingly, often published immediately for a public curious about everyday life in this brave new world. This was wonderful for me, because I didn’t want to study books written with the advantage of hindsight; I wanted a window into Soviet life as it was experienced at the time.
Is there a character in this book that you’re particularly fond of?
I’m very attached to Annette, my protagonist. She started out in earlier drafts as a bit indistinct, and definitely too much of a Goody-Two-Shoes. But as the revisions progressed, I connected with her hellion side, and I believe that helped bring her into focus. I also liked some of the quicker character-sketches of the minor actors, like the loathsome caretaker in Moscow, Polankov.
Are there any suggestions you would want to give a book club to help direct their discussion of The Knife Sharpener’s Bell?
My experience of book clubs is that they’re usually made up of very good readers, so I’d be hesitant to give people specific direction. I would want to assure them, however, that despite my being a poet first and foremost, and despite the fact that the book is described as “poetic,” to the best of my knowledge the book does contain both a plot and characters.
What so far has been your most memorable moment publicizing this book?
I’m normally very relaxed about readings. For the Vancouver launch of The Knife Sharpener’s Bell, however, I was part of a panel for the Vancouver International Writers’ Festival. I was extremely nervous about this event, feeling I was in pretty illustrious company. Our moderator was the impressive Kirk LaPointe, Managing Editor of the Vancouver Sun. At the start of the panel he gave the usual patter about turning off cell phones and beepers, and then remarked that if one did go off, an appropriate punishment would be to require the offending person to sing for the audience. Everybody laughed and then the panel proper began. I think we all were a bit nervous. Suddenly, in the middle of about the third question, a cell phone rang loudly. “Okay,” Kirk said, “whosever phone that is has to sing for their supper.” An all-too-familiar voice piped up from the back of the theatre: “It’s Rhea’s phone!” My partner was in the audience and I’d loaned him my cell phone, which he’d forgotten to switch off. I wasn’t feeling very kindly towards him, but Kirk, on the other hand, was gracious enough let me off the hook about singing. Oddly enough, this comic intrusion broke the tension and everyone relaxed into what turned out to be a very lively and informative discussion.
Which authors have been most influential to your own writing?Helen Dunmore, the British writer, has been very important to me. She is also a poet, and it was pretty thrilling to see her apply the high standards of poetry to books that also had compelling narratives and believable characters. I’m also just crazy about the Newfoundland writer Lisa Moore’s work, which is gorgeous and real and desperately, compassionately human.
Some writers are superstitious about being asked what they’re currently working on. Does this describe you? If not, care to share…?
I understand the superstition because there is something very inexplicable about the forces that give us a work of literature, whether it’s a poem or a short story or a novel. But I’m the kind of person who tends to blather on forever about what they’re working on. And that’s actually been very helpful, because when I was researching The Knife Sharpener’s Bell, people knew what I was looking for and kept feeding me wonderful tips and leads. Since The Knife Sharpener’s Bell, I’ve completed my seventh book of poetry, All Souls’, published in Fall 2013. And I’m not afraid to tell folks that I’ve now started my next novel, which is set in 1982 — I’m not sure whether to call that historical or not!