See Book Reviews on January Magazine.
Whoever first quipped about turning lemons into lemonade and broken eggs into omelets must have been very like Gail Anderson-Dargatz. The 39-year-old author's second novel, A Recipe for Bees, was based in part on Anderson-Dargatz' own recent family history. At the time of Bees' publication, Anderson-Dargatz was quoted as saying that, in some ways, "this book was an anatomy of my parents' marriage, and many marriages I've witnessed." Her latest novel, A Rhinestone Button is not autobiographical, but the author found herself using her husband Floyd's brain surgery as a jumping off spot to explorations of the temporal kind.
Like all of Anderson-Dargatz' novels, A Rhinestone Button is a lyrical exploration of human psyche tied closely to its landscape: in this case the fictional fundamentalist Christian community of Godsfinger, Alberta. The action here centers around Job Sunstrum, a cattle farmer with synesthesia, a rare -- though not fictional -- condition where the afflicted see sounds in terms of color. Anderson-Dargatz says that giving her fictional character, Job, the condition gave her a way to articulate some of the mystical experiences Floyd had prior to his surgery "in a way readers could settle into."
In a recent interview Anderson-Dargatz explored some of A Rhinestone Button's religious and humorous overtones, the effect motherhood has had on her writing and how creativity has helped her overcome the worst type of adversity.
The author lives on Vancouver Island with her husband, Floyd, and the couple's infant son, Graham.
Linda Richards: What came first for you, the character of Job Sunstrum or synesthesia?
Gail Anderson-Dargatz: As you may have read in some of the literature, my husband had brain surgery in 1994. Before that he kept coming to me as he was experiencing mystical experiences. He had real mystical experiences. We're talking here the real "ah-ha" feeling. The classical mystical experience that can't be articulated that mystics have been talking about for generations. He would keep having them. Over and over. They were like a weekly experience for him. He would come to me and I would see him very emotional. He would try to articulate the feeling he was having and couldn't. And, when this experience would pass, he would try to tell me what had been happening and, again, would find it very difficult to come up with the words.
He kept on having these experiences and, in fact, had been having them since his early teen years and had tried to make sense of them in his worldview, which was fundamentalist Baptist in rural Alberta, if you can imagine. So, he tried to make sense of his experiences and it pushed him deeper and deeper into his belief system to the point where he went down to Texas to train to be a missionary in his late teens. Then went to Africa [as] a missionary and he really failed, because he's just not made up for that kind of thing. I think you really have to be a salesman and he's just not. [Laughs] He's just not that kind of person: he doesn't like pushing anything on anybody. Unlike myself, he just really sits back and blends in. [Laughs]
This had been going on for some time. Then in 1994 he had a grand mal seizure in our kitchen. He was hospitalized. They found a very, very large brain tumor that had probably been growing since his childhood. I mean, we have no way of really knowing, but that was what the doctors told us. And he had surgery.
We were told a lot of things: that he wouldn't survive or that he'd be in a wheelchair or that he wouldn't be able to talk because it was in his temporal lobe region. That started his many years of recovery that we've both been through. And I don't know if you've ever known anyone who has had a brain injury, but it affects every area of your life: it just profoundly shakes you up. We've been recovering but, through that time, Floyd had a lot of perceptual difficulties. They were often very painful for him, but they were often very beautiful and very strange. For example, he had moments where time stopped for him. Like, movement would stop. Time would just cease. He told me of an experience where he was driving a tractor down a road and he was looking behind him to see that the wheel of the tractor didn't go into the ditch as a vehicle was passing him. And everything stopped: the wheels stopped, pebbles hung in midair. Just everything stopped. It was just like the wonderful digital stuff we see in movies: it just stopped. So he had those kinds of experiences but, more than that, sitting [in public was] devastating for him because he lost the ability to filter out extraneous noise. He would be overwhelmed by the light, other people talking, dishes clattering, movement: everything.
That was post-surgery?
Right, post-surgery. Everything would come at him and he couldn't block it out. So if we went to a restaurant, we would choose a corner where he would look at a wall -- and it would have to be blank, because if there was stuff there he would just be grabbed by it. So we had tricks to deal with those kind of perceptual problems. He wore earplugs. And he'd just have to take breaks during the day where he closed himself off from stimulus so, as you can imagine, a trip to the city was just absolutely overwhelming. You can see that influence in A Rhinestone Button. Also, in trying to describe that mystical experience, how do you put it in words? Because, by its nature, it can't be articulated. So I chose the synesthesia because it's a very tactile visual way to express something that can't be expressed.
And synesthesia is a real affliction?
It's very real. It's very rare, obviously. But people who have it, their brains actually do work quite differently. Floyd did not have synesthesia, but it seemed the closest I could get to trying to interpret the experiences he was having in a way readers could settle into. That's why I chose that. Obviously, it's been a big influence on my writing and on everything.
It's safe to say that your life has been a big influence on your writing.
Oh, of course. And if writers were honest with you -- which nine times out of 10 they're not -- a writer pulls from their life. Of course.
But in some ways you seem to even more than many.
I talk about it more. But the approach I've always had to writing is: it's such a long-term project. The novel. So many years and it takes so much energy and I have to be so in love with the characters and the setting and everything about the book in order to sustain that motivation that I usually choose someone I love as an inspiration or a landscape I love or something I have a great passion for. I use that as part of a template but then I do interviews. I'll talk to as many people as I can who live in that setting or, in this case, I talked to a whole lot of people who've had loss of faith experiences or who were still in this faith system. Either Evangelical or Fundamentalist Christians. I went to a whole lot of events, which was really interesting because in my late teens I had maybe two or three years where I was an Evangelical Christian. So for me having been in there and then revisiting it from an adult perspective was quite interesting. And it was very difficult to get into that mindset so it didn't look strange or ridiculous.
[Nod] Or frightening. It's very hard to do that from an outside perspective and I'm not 100 per cent sure that I was successful there, but I tried very hard to still write with affection for these characters who were involved with it but, like any belief system, once you step out of it, it does look strange or odd. It's like being in a different culture. They just don't do things [in the same way], so it's hard not to have that judging feeling there, even when you're struggling hard not to.
I felt you did a lovely job with that in A Rhinestone Button.
[Sighs] Well, I tried. But it's still there. For me that was really secondary to that mystical experience that I was trying to write about. Or the role perception plays in that mystical experience.
Yet, for me reading the book, those things were very tied in. Which was interesting, because I haven't seen that sort of rabid Christianity used as a backdrop for a non-Christian novel. So that was very interesting to me, because a lot of the novel's subtext is in that landscape.
I think, at least in Canada in our literary community, we tend to shy away from talking about religion and issues of faith. I think maybe that's changing. But maybe [it's been] because we're afraid of being labeled [as] flaky or maybe we don't want to rock the boat or maybe we don't want to offend. I don't know what the reasons are. But we have theater critics and we have political critics and we have restaurant critics, I think we should also have religious critics. And we don't, do we?
What would they do?
They'd do just what a restaurant critic would do, or a political critic would do: they'd analyze and say what's working and what's not. And we don't really have people who fulfill that function. I think one good reason [we don't is] because we don't want to judge other people. We do have that political correctness going on and I think that's valuable because we tend to judge. So I think it's very good that we don't. On the other hand, we don't see a lot of media saying: Hey, wait a minute: there are things going on here that shouldn't be. Because we're afraid to offend and we're afraid to be seen as intolerant and those kinds of things. And I think that's too bad because there are a lot of things going on in a lot of religious communities -- not just this one I wrote about, but in many religious communities -- there are things going on that just shouldn't be happening. And they're happening. And they're not written about in the media. You know, the media and the literary world live here and there's this whole other group of people that live [there] and we're not talking about them.
They don't really overlap. And, anyway, they're reading their own literature.
Exactly. And that's just it: there's a whole huge book industry for Christians. And there's a huge music industry. And they don't overlap. And when they do, there's outrage. Like Amy Grant, when she did pop stuff, there was outrage.
There would be a really fine line with being a religious critic. I mean, wars have been fought over stuff like that.
Of course they have. And I know what kind of a dangerous thing I'm saying here. But, on the other hand, we do have people there as watchdogs for every area of our lives, but we do not have watchdogs there for religious communities. If politicians were allowed to do whatever they wanted without the media being critical, then tremendous abuses would happen, and they happen anyway. The same is true for our religious leaders and our religious communities. But, by and large, we're talking about really good people who are very loving and trying very hard to live good lives but there is still stuff that's happening.
My husband has been on both sides of it and he went through a phase of being very, very angry, like most people do who have been raised in fundamentalist communities and have come out. He got very, very angry and felt duped and felt that he'd been misled and I certainly understand his perspective. But there are a lot of people who live very happily because it works for them. Who is to say?
But when we were interviewing people I was quite forthright about what I was doing. I was saying: You're not going to agree with the premise of the book. And people were generally willing to talk, though we certainly had people trying to convert us. All the time. Which was hard for my husband, because he does a lot of the interviews for me. He's got a very good interview style. He's one of those people who really listens. And many, many people tried to convert him, which was quite hard for him coming from his background and he often left those interviews angry, still.
Were you still living in Alberta at the time?
[Nods.] For a good chunk of this. But we finished up the novel living on Vancouver Island. We moved in 1999. So we were still doing some work on the book at that point. Actually, quite a bit of work.
I know you had your first child [just over a year ago]. You would, if I'm not mistaken, have been finishing up A Rhinestone Button around the time your son was born.
Yeah. In fact my doctor joked that I had to finish the book or the baby wouldn't be born. And he was right, too. They had to induce labor. And then I finished the book two weeks after [he was born].
I guess that was good planning. Because, with a new book out, you don't have to start the next one until your child is a little older.
Oh, I've already started the next book.
Well, I love writing, so it's not a hardship anymore. Not at all. Having a baby changes everything, but Floyd is at home so we're both there all the time and both our offices are there, so it's fine.
Much of A Rhinestone Button takes place in the town of Godsfinger, Alberta. Is that a real or fictional place?
Fictional. Where I set Godsfinger is where Beaumont, Alberta is. Beaumont was not the inspiration for [Godsfinger] but I set it there as far as location, in my mind. It doesn't really matter. Just to keep it in my mind, I put it there.
What is your educational background?
I've got a degree from the University of Victoria in creative writing and I worked for The Salmon Arm Observer as a reporter in my very early 20s. And I was a photographer and cartoonist. Probably pretty bad on all three counts, but I enjoyed it and got to be a local celebrity, got the guys. [Laughs] Then I went back to university when I was 25 and I met Floyd. He was 30. I asked him to marry me [wearing] a cow suit, because at the time he was still a cattleman and our joke was that my only competition were his cattle, so I got myself a cow suit, got a friend to be the back end. Got another friend to ask him out to lunch so it would be really embarrassing: there would be lots of people around. And came out in this cow suit: got down on my knees and asked him to marry me. He said yes.
Thankfully. The alternative would have been extremely embarrassing.
[Laughs] No kidding! Then we kept moving up the Island. But I was writing short stories before I went to university and they were just beginning to win prizes and I started getting published within the first year that I was at [the University of Victoria]. Then I won a CBC literary prize and landed Denise Bukowski, who is my agent. Then things kind of took off from there because I had the manuscript for The Cure for Death by Lightning and for The Miss Hereford Stories and it just took off. I've been writing full-time since then.
What year was Lightning published?
You had a very busy decade!
And we went through so many ups and downs. It was just crazy.
Seismic changes. Brain tumors and bestselling author and...
And both Bees and The Cure are now published all over the world in something like 15 different languages. [Her hands move disbelievingly] They were happening in tandem, too. Bees was shortlisted for The Giller Prize in, I think, 1998 and Floyd went with me [to Ontario for the Giller ceremony]. And, for us, the big deal wasn't being on the Giller list, it was that Floyd could survive being in a room with 400 people, all drunk, screaming at the top of their lungs at the Giller Prize party. And he survived it. He was absolutely exhausted afterwards, but he survived it. So yeah: it was a devastating experience to go through, but at the same time, some really wonderful things were happening. But they tended to be kind of secondary to just getting through what we were going through.
This is your first child?
Yes. And we started late largely because Floyd had to recover before we could attempt this, so it's a real celebration for us. We're talking about the next one, but I'd better get moving.
The next novel or the next child?
Oh, the next novel is a given. The next child is what I meant. [Laughs]
Having only one isn't such a bad thing.
No, it's not such a bad thing. But Floyd and I are both from families of five, so we wanted at least another one. Not five, but...
Five is a lot these days.
It's a lot in any days.
What's your son's name?
Graham. Born in December . He's just a sweetie. One of these kids that are just very willful but constantly content. I don't know how we managed to arrange that: both of us are less than content kind of people. But he's just a very sweet child.
Can you talk about the next book at all?
Well, it's still kind of forming. I was a bit surprised about this, and I probably shouldn't talk about it but I'm not a writer who thinks sequels are a very good idea. But I, for many reasons, went back and revisited the landscape of The Cure for Death by Lightning and interesting characters started coming up, so it does look like it's a continuation of that book, which really, really surprised me. And, again, it came out of that landscape. I'm about a year into that novel.
Do you work on a computer or a typewriter, or...?
Oh, a computer! You can hack and throw out and save. I started out on a typewriter in my late teens but I was that first wave of computer users. I can still remember trying to edit a story on a typewriter with Wite-Out and... oh! Scary things. I still do a little handwriting, but not very much. Notes and stuff. But having a baby really changed how I wrote, physically.
In a lot of respects. I found I could write a lot in my head, because I had to when I was breast feeding. It seemed like eight hours a day sitting there breast feeding, so what are you going to do? So I could write a lot in my head, which really surprised me. And you write in shorter bursts, of course, because you have to. And I write in the car. Another thing that happened is, as we've talked about this next kid, Floyd and I have cleaned out one of the downstairs bedrooms. You know, in anticipation. And he moved his office upstairs into what was my library space. And I was one of these writers who thought I needed a room that was my own and I needed quiet and long stretches of time and all that kind of thing. And he's got Graham in there and Graham is making Graham noises and I'm working and working just fine. In fact, I found I was becoming more prolific in large part because I've been experiencing what I call lactation brain. You know, with all those hormones you get a little fuzzy. And it used to take me about two hours to enter the writing headspace, which is that kind of fuzzy dreamy headspace. And now I'm there all the time! It never goes away. [Laughs] So I'm finding I'm a lot more prolific, which was a real surprise.
You'll have to have lots of kids! [Laughs]
[Laughs] Lots of kids just to keep the hormones going. Maybe I should get hormone injections to keep that going. We may be on to something for writers to inject that fuzzy thing.
We've talked about some of the more serious aspects of A Rhinestone Button, but there are some very light moments. It's often a very funny book.
I had a lot of fun writing it. But, again, it came more from the small town things that happen. I'm living on Vancouver Island now, if you want comic relief just sit in a small cafe in some small town for a while. | February 2003
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fourth novel, Death was the Other Woman, will be published early in 2008 by St. Martin's Minotaur.