Kit Pearson on Being a B.C. Writer.
Volume 22 Number 4.
"How does living in B.C. influence my writing?" "What is it like being a B.C. writer?" Kit Pearson poses and answers those questions for readers across Canada.
The following text is an edited version of an address given by Kit Pearson at the Canadian Library Association Annual Conference in Vancouver on June 15,1994.
When Judy Richardson first asked me to speak on the theme, "The View from the Coast," I said I was the wrong choice, for even though I have lived on and off in British Columbia for half my life, only one of my five novels is set here. I am rooted, by birth and ancestry, in the prairies and, as well as in British Columbia and Alberta, I have lived in Ontario, where I also have family connections.
Thus my first book is set in British Columbia, my second in Alberta, and my next three, a trilogy, in Ontario. I am now back to B.C. with my work in progress, which is set in Vancouver and Victoria - but the book after that will take place in Alberta again. So I jump all over the place in my writing as I've done in my life, and I'm sure I'll set stories in places where I haven't lived as well.
My multi-provincial background means I should never call myself just a B.C. writer. But living here must have some effect on my writing, especially since I've lived in B.C. for all my writing life.
It's easy to talk about being a B.C. writer, so I'll save that for second. I'll begin with the harder, more amorphous question: does living here influence my fiction?
Obviously it does in the two books - The Daring Game and my new untitled manuscript - that are set here. The Daring Game is about a twelve-year-old girl who is a boarder at a girls' school in Vancouver in 1964-65. You can probably guess that it was inspired by my boarding school, Crofton House, which I attended for three years during the same period.
I could have set this story anywhere, of course, in Ontario or England. And because all girls' boarding schools are basically the same - I am confirmed in this by the number of adults who've told me how much the school in my book is like theirs - perhaps the book wouldn't have been that different if I had. But I think the dramatic beauty of B.C. plays a prominent role in the book.
One of its themes is Eliza's awakening to the mountains and sea and greenness of Vancouver: she even writes an essay comparing spring in B.C. to spring in Alberta. This province's seductive beauty hooks her, and I think she will end up returning to B.C., just as I have. When I look at The Daring Game now I think it has too many flowery - sorry for the pun - descriptions of Vancouver's scenery, especially of spring. But this was because I was writing the book during the first coastal spring I'd experienced in six years. I was overcome by it, just as I was shocked by Vancouver's lushness when we moved here for four years, in the middle of an Edmonton winter, when I was eight.
The four years I lived in B.C. as a child were some of the happiest in my life. My family lived in Quilchena close to an abandoned golf course where, in more innocent days, we were allowed to run wild. I have such vivid memories of those ages - nine to twelve - that I know that's why I write for and about them. But so far I haven't drawn specifically on that time - the late 1950s - and that neighbourhood for a novel. I know I will, though - it's another setting waiting in the wings.
Settings, therefore, are profoundly important to me, I'm sure, partly because, like my characters, I became more aware of the landscape around me through moving from one to another when I was young. Canadian settings are especially significant to me; modern young Canadian readers are luckier than I was as a child, since the only books I read then with a Canadian setting took place, as you can guess, in Prince Edward Island.
I think place grounds a novel just as it grounds people in real life. I was moved a few years ago when a graduate student wrote a paper on the significance of Canadian settings in Kit Pearson's novels; she recognized how deliberately I emphasize this. Apart from awakening my characters to this province's beauty, does setting a book in B.C. affect the characters, plot or themes in any other way? In other words, am I, in my present and future works, a regional writer after all?
Probably not. I'm not even sure if you could call my novels particularly Canadian - they wouldn't be that different if they were set in another country.
I can think of two types of fiction, however, where the B.C. setting could have a more profound influence - fantasy and historical fiction: novels like those of Catherine Anthony Clark, who uses the landscape for mythic fantasy; or Ruth Nichols, who has two children walk into the Endowment Lands and then into a magic land; or Paul Yee, writing about Vancouver's Chinese-Canadian past; or Ann Walsh, who sets her fantasy and historical fiction around Barkerville; or Julie Lawson, who sets a time travel in Victoria's Chinatown. These books are far more "regional" than mine.
On to the more prosaic part of this talk - being a B.C. writer. I'd like to emphasize that I can talk only about being a Vancouver writer; I know it is very different living in more remote parts of B.C. When I decided to try writing a book, I was living in Boston, but I intended to return to Toronto, where I'd been a librarian for the previous four years. Somehow I just couldn't picture myself staying inside my apartment in Toronto and writing a book - I would escape to a play or an art gallery or a book store. It was much easier to imagine sitting at my desk on a grey Vancouver day with the rain dripping outside ... So I moved back here.
This is a great city to write in, because there are so many places to think. I can take my dog for long walks on the beach or in the Endowment Lands and get ideas. Maybe that's why so many writers live here.
However, I am, again, not typical of many B.C. writers because my publisher, Penguin Books Canada, is in Ontario. This is both an advantage and disadvantage, depending on what stage my current book is at. While I'm writing one I want to be as far away from my publisher as possible. I can only write if I feel that1) I don't have to do it and
2) I'm not doing it for anyone but myself.
But because my books have been successful my publisher, understandably, tries gently to find out when the next book will be finished and what it's about. I don't blame them for this, but it helps to feel 4400 kilometres away. When I am in Toronto I'm treated especially nicely, given tours of the office, and taken out to dinner. The Penguin people there still seem glamorous to me and I can pretend I'm an eccentric children's writer, when I'm really very ordinary. Thus a kind of mystique is set up on both sides that keeps our relationship interesting, whereas if I lived there perhaps we'd get bored with each other.
While I'm being edited, however, it's a different story. Despite the phone and fax, there are still times I would desperately like to go out for lunch with my editor and hash things out. On the whole I am very happy with Penguin and very happy to have them "back east." It helps me not take writing as seriously, to pretend that I'm just doing this for fun, and that's the only way I can do it at all.
Many of my fellow Canadian children's writers have told me they are envious of our children's book community here, and perhaps they have reason to be. There are so many supports in Vancouver, and in many other parts of B.C., for children's writing - the Children's Literature Roundtable, Vancouver Kidsbooks, the wonderful public and school librarians who ask us to come to talk to kids, writers' festivals in Vancouver and Sechelt and Nanaimo, an accredited Writing for Children course at the University of British Columbia, strong children's literature courses in the library school and education department at U.B.C., and, just recently, our very own British Columbia officer for the Canadian Children's Book Centre, April Cox.
But it isn't all idyllic. We do not have as much funding for writing from our government in this province as in others, although this is slowly improving. And creators of children's books complain about poor reviewing and lack of awareness of children's books as much as in any other province. I think this is a national problem, however, not a provincial one.
Vancouver, notwithstanding hockey riots, is a peaceful, breathtakingly beautiful, and supportive place to be a writer. I have a restless wanderer inside me and I have no idea whether I'll always live here. But, I'm sure, whether I stay or not, this province's soul will find its way into my writing.
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