On Writing Fiction,
Non-fiction and Autobiography
Volume 20 Number 6
Have lunch with one of Canada 's most famous authors for both adults and children, join in the conversation on writing and story-telling, and get a taste of his newest book, My Father's Son.
We met in a small cafe in downtown Toronto, about a block from Union Station--and I can now say that I've done "the lunch thing" with Farley Mowat. You may not be impressed, but I sure was, because, you see, I grew up with Mutt, the Owls, Happy Adventure, and the wolves. Meeting the man who had actually lived (and written about) all these stories was exciting.
We ate lunch and talked about families (he and Claire split their year between a farm in Cape Breton and Port Hope, Ontario); about dogs (two of their dogs "perished" (his word, not mine) last year; they now have just the one); and about writing (specifically, his new book, My Father's Son).
My Father's Son is Mowat's thirtyfirst book and his third look back at World War II, following And No Birds Sang and The Regiment. The book is a collection of letters written from 1943 to 1945 between Farley and his parents, Angus and Helen.
In the book we learn that Mowat, at the age of eighteen, joined the ranks of Canadians volunteering for military service at the outbreak of World War II. The young Farley enlisted in his father's regiment, the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment. He went to England in the summer of 1942 and the following year took part in the invasion of Sicily.
Farley Mowat was to spend the next three years in Europe, first in Italy and then Holland, Belgium and Germany. His parents, meanwhile, stayed behind in Ontario keeping up with their own interests (Angus Mowat fought hard to have library books sent overseas for the soldiers). His parents supported Farley the best way they knew how. Like many, the Mowats kept the family bonds strong by writing letters.
Having said that, I can report that My Father's Son is really only partially a war story. It is more a dialogue between a young man and his parents during a time of crisis. This dialogue is interesting because it's in the form of letters written over a span of several years. Reading this book is not unlike listening to a good jazz recording. Each character in the story has a personal point of view from which he or she responds to, and influences, the whole. The story is "sewn" together by the letters.
"This is part of my autobiography, which I've been writing in bits and pieces," Mowat told me. "I've been doing it all my life. I write about what I know best."
I wanted to know if he ever "embellished" reality to make a better story. "I never let the facts stand in the way of the truth," he said. "I am not a rational animal. I am a subjective animal. The only thing that matters is the subjective response."
He stabbed his fork in my direction. "Whatever you do, remember your readers first and foremost! If you forget them your purpose becomes frustrated and blunted. You can't lose them!"
"Angus always thought that the only kind of writing that meant a damn was literary writing, and that meant fiction. He believed fiction was the thing. Angus thought his reader was the ghost of the nineteenth-century English writer, Joseph Conrad, and that was the kiss of death. He concluded I had failed because I had not become a novelist. I didn't want to be a novelist."
"Do you consider yourself a nonfiction writer then?" I asked. Farley Mowat, raising a glass of beer up to his mouth, paused, brought it down, brought it back up again and then lowered it sort of halfway in between.
"I am an entertainer," he said at last. "I do like to pleasure my audience. If that makes my writing more acceptable then it will be more effective. My writing is a communication between myself and the reader. I am very aware of the unseen reader."
"The essence of writing is storytelling and it's oral and always has been and will remain so! And if we lose touch with that we become incompetent as writers. If you examine most of the writers you find difficult--hard to handle--you don't like their work and are uncomfortable with it--you will see it is because they have forgotten (if they ever knew) what their essential role really was-- story-tellers!!"
This is important information for dedicated Mowat readers to remember. Farley Mowat practises a tradition in which "fiction" and "truth" are not mutually exclusive. Stories told around the kitchen table and cooking fire are true stories meant to be remembered and learned from--but perhaps not exact in every fact.
Anyone who has read Farley Mowat's other books, as well as anyone who would like to become a better writer, should read his latest. Why? Because My Father's Son is a good account of Mowat's wartime experiences after And No Birds Sang and because it illustrates the importance of voice in modern writing. The voice, or narrative style, Mowat uses in his books is nearly identical to the voice he used in his letters home. Each is a conversation, a dialogue between the writer and the reader.
If you ever get an opportunity, also read Angus Mowat's novel, Carrying Place. Compare it to Farley Mowat's writing. The two men, father and son, have surprisingly similar letter-writing styles but radically different writing styles in their books.
Farley Mowat's books "talk" to us. Whether it is a humorous account of sailing a Southern Shore bummer up the St. Lawrence or a very angry and passionate account of the abuse of life in the oceans, we are never unsure of who is telling the story.
While talking with Farley Mowat I had to ask him why, at the age of seventy-one, he still writes. "To deny function is to deny life," he responded. But does he still enjoy writing? A smile worked its way up through his beard and twinkled in his eyes. "I don't enjoy writing, I've never enjoyed writing. I enjoy having written. The completion of the exercise is marvellous!" Yes, marvellous.
Books by Farley Mowat
And No Birds Sang. McClelland and Stewart, 1980.
The Black Joke. McClelland and Stewart, 1963.
The Boat Who Wouldn't Float. McClelland and Stewart, 1969 (new edition 1974).
Canada North. McClelland and Stewart, 1967.
Canada North Now: The Great Betrayal. McClelland and Stewart, 1976.
Coppermine Journey: An Account of a Great Adventure, Selected from the Journals of Samuel Hearne. McClelland and Stewart, 1958.
The Curse of the Viking Grave. McClelland and Stewart, 1966.
The Desperate People. Little, Brown, 1959 (revised 1975).
The Dog Who Wouldn't Be. Little, Brown, 1957.
The Grey Seas Under. Little, Brown, 1958.
Lost in the Barrens. Little, Brown, 1956.
My Father's Son. Key Porter Books, 1992.
My Discovery of America. McClelland and Stewart, 1985.
Never Cry Wolf. McClelland and Stewart, 1963 (revised 1973).
The New Founde Land. McClelland and Stewart, 1989.
Ordeal by Ice. McClelland and Stewart, 1960 (revised 1973).
Owls in the Family. Little, Brown, 1961.
People of the Deer. Little, Brown, 1952 (revised 1975).
The Polar Passion: The Quest for the North Pole. McClelland and Stewart, 1967 (revised 1973).
Joe Shepstone is a creative non-fiction writer with a passionate interest in natural history. He specializes in writing and interpretation for children. Home base is a cedar cottage on the shore of a small lake in the Gatineau Hills north of Ottawa in Quebec. His first interview for CM, "Marjorie Lamb: It's Only a Mater of Time," appeared in the September 1990 issue.
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