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by Elizabeth Hay
Published by McClelland & Stewart
374 pages, 2003
Though A Student of Weather may be Elizabeth Hay's debut novel, the widely acclaimed writer is no stranger to the world of writing and authordom. Born and raised in "Small-town, Ontario," Hay spent many years knocking around the Yukon, central Canada and Latin America writing radio documentaries for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation [CBC]. Her stints working in radio, however, were often punctuated by time spent on hiatus "trying to write," creatively. Something she felt she could do but that, for a long time, economic realities kept her from pursuing in a real way.
Hay's second book of fiction, the short story collection Small Change was in many ways her breakthrough book. Though by the time Small Change was published in 1997, Hay was already the author of another collection of short stories and two works of creative non-fiction, the book pushed Hay into the limelight on the Canadian literary scene. Small Change was nominated for the Governor General's Award for fiction, the Trillium Award and the Rogers Communications Writers' Trust Fiction prize. While Small Change won none of the awards it was nominated for, Hay is charmingly pleased and slightly bewildered about the nominations and attention that work received. It seems likely that A Student of Weather will be equally lauded, even though the author is modest about the possibilities. It will be tough, she says, even getting nominated, "given the competition out there." And yet, it would seem that A Student of Weather has all of the elements. Hay's first novel is sure and strong. Hay's trademark economic prose moves the story along briskly, but not without leaving an indelible mark. The novel is elegant, eloquent and absolutely unforgettable.
The story opens on a Saskatchewan farm during the Depression. It's dustbowl country and Hay brings the era to life beautifully. We meet two sisters: the beautiful Lucinda and her ungainly younger sister, Norma Joyce. One night during a blizzard a young man arrives on their doorstep. He is Maurice Dove -- the student of weather -- and his coming will alter the sister's existence for the balance of their lives.
Set in Saskatchewan, Ontario and New York City, weather and its study play an important role in Hay's novel, but meteorological comings and goings add drama, not particular lessons. "What I like," says Hay, "is weather as a visual event. Weather as a force of history that moves groups of people from one place to another. Weather as superstition."
Elizabeth Hay lives in Maurice Dove's house in Ottawa with her husband Mark and their 11-year-old son Ben and 14-year-old daughter Sochi.
Linda Richards: You live in Ottawa.
And Ottawa is paradise.
For a girl from Saskatchewan. For me it's a little different story.
Do you have prairie roots?
I don't have prairie roots. I grew up in Ontario. I was born in Owen Sound, Ontario which is on Georgian Bay. I grew up in small-town Ontario. The first time I saw the prairies was in 1972. I had quit university in my third year and I went out west by train -- this was in January. I took the train out to Vancouver and that's the first time I saw the prairie landscape. I was very struck by it and then the following September I returned by bus.
You write about it intimately.
I'm glad you think so. I was a bit worried, you know, about writing about the area. I've lived in Winnipeg, but I've never actually lived in Saskatchewan.
Well, that's close. In terms of, you know, a flat place that was dustbowl in the 30s. It's not a huge reach to Saskatchewan.
Actually, one of the things I wanted to do that I hadn't done before was to start the book in a time and a place that I wasn't familiar with. That I'd have to really make my imagination work harder than if I were writing something autobiographical. So that was a challenge. But I loved doing the research on the 1930s. Finding out stuff about how people made ends meet. That was very compatible with my own upbringing since my mother grew up in the Depression and she raised us as if the Depression hadn't ended. So, it wasn't hard to imagine myself into a situation where you had to make a little go a long way. Even though the time and the place were different.
It struck me that the past and the present live hand in hand in this book. Which I thought was wonderful. Quite often, throughout the book, you juxtapose the future onto what becomes the past. You did that quite a bit and you did it beautifully.
Yes. I did that a lot. Part of that was if you tell a story retrospectively, then you don't have to account for everything, right? You can be more selective. When I had to do the rewriting of the novel -- it had been accepted by the publisher, but I had a very vigorous editor and she pointed out, quite rightly, that the second half of the book was a good deal less compelling than the first half. She wanted me to flesh things out more. Certain scenes needed to be fleshed out more. Certain places -- Ottawa, New York -- I needed to spend more time. In the first couple of drafts that I showed her of these changed sections, I was sort of laboriously filling everything in. Which is incredibly boring to read, to say nothing of write. It was only when I managed to sort of yank the second half around that again I was telling it more in retrospect. But a lot of that stuff could fall away and I was just focusing on certain selected moments that came to her [Norma Joyce's] mind when she thought about the past. It helped a lot with organizing the material and not getting swamped by the need to account for everything chronologically.
It seemed to me on reading A Student of Weather to be a very fresh approach. Just the whole concept was different. The physically beautiful and emotional damaged sister is a wonderful character. And the fact that she is such an ungainly little person herself.
Yes. Norma Joyce, the main character.
Yes. She's kind of repellent looking in the first half of the book, which is an interesting place to start a character from. A different place.
I think to a good-looking young man [Maurice Dove, the student of weather in question] she was very homely. Although the more he knew her, the less homely she became.
Actually this happened to me once. I was in my 20s and I met this man who I thought was supremely unattractive. But I worked with him over the summer and within about two weeks I was head over heels in love with him. I found him incredibly handsome.
I haven't seen him since, but I suppose if I were to see him walk in here, once again my first reaction might be: What a homely man. But, you know, proximity does something. And getting to know someone does something. So often, especially maybe with men, their first reaction to women is they're looking for a soft face. And it might take them a while to like a face that doesn't fit that mold. Women are more interested in interesting faces. I'm generalizing wildly, of course. But I'm just saying that I think for Maurice, Norma Joyce was very homely initially.
But she was homely. Not just to Maurice, but you established her as being not physically attractive. Unlike her sister Lucinda, who is very beautiful.
That's right. I did. She didn't look ordinary. Big earlobes. High forehead. Baggy eyes. Yeah. That's right. But over time, she becomes someone more attractive.
But what you describe -- that meeting someone who you think is unattractive at first and then growing to find them more so -- I've experienced that. Yet, I've never seen it described in fiction, where so often the heroines are beautiful and you go from there.
But there is that expression in French, belle-laide. Beautiful-ugly. A belle-laide woman. I'd love to think that my character is the first belle-laide woman in all of fiction, but she ain't.
This is your first novel?
Yes. But the fifth book. So I've written two collections of short stories, and then two books that were kind of creative non-fiction. Hard to categorize.
Your last book of short stories was incredibly well received. You were nominated for...
Every award under the sun! Do you want to hear them all? [Laughs] My son would say: You know, my mom she was nominated for the this award and the this award and the this award and you know what? She didn't win one of them. [Laughs]
Well, maybe this year.
Well, this year will be pretty tough. It will be tough to be nominated, even, given the competition out there.
But it's a pretty wonderful book.
Are you a student of weather?
Well, you know the sad truth is that I've probably opened up a dozen scientific books about the weather and I find them really hard to understand. You know, high pressure, low pressure. All these weather maps. In fact the scientific technical side of weather -- the meteorological or the logical explanations -- are often beyond me. What I like is weather as a visual event. Weather as a force of history that moves groups of people from one place to another. Weather as superstition. And weather as story. So I tried hard to become an amateur meteorologist and for a while there -- for a few weeks when I was researching heavily -- I probably could have talked coherently about the science of weather for a few minutes. But I've forgotten it all.
Are you a journalist?
I used to be.
Because that's a journalistic trait: that immersion and understanding that doesn't always stay with you.
When I worked on [the CBC radio show] Sunday Morning you'd be assigned a story. You knew nothing about it. So you'd work like a dog for a few weeks, get your thing done, go on to the next and lose all the memory of it. It's just gone. I find that sad. I think I remember conversation fairly well and incident. But I don't have a memory made for facts.
When were you a journalist? And where?
I started in 1974. I was working for CBC radio up in Yellowknife from 1974 until 78. And then I worked on the morning show in Winnipeg for 79. Then there was a little break there when I didn't do anything except try to write and do it badly. That was for one winter. I then got hired as a summer replacement for The Sunday Morning Show at CBC radio in Toronto. So I spent the summer doing these radio documentaries and they kept me on. I did that fulltime until about 1982 and stopped again to write, but I would do some freelance stuff, just to earn money.
I went down to Mexico in 1984, again I was primarily trying to write but I'd do these radio documentaries around Latin America. That's where I met Mark, my second husband. So we lived in Mexico for a year and a half. Then we came up -- he's from Boston -- and we lived in Brooklyn, New York. But once I began to have kids I didn't do the radio work anymore. And I would earn money -- and not much of it -- but whatever money I earned was teaching. Teaching at night. Writing and editing.
Did you study journalism?
No. Those were the good ol' days. Nobody studied journalism. [Laughs]
So this wonderful voice is natural. Just yours.
What wonderful voice?
Your writing voice.
My writing voice. But it's not natural. That's sweat and blood. I didn't study creative writing either. There was one time though. That time between Winnipeg and Toronto there was a little time in Windsor where I was supposed to be writing. And I was writing, but it wasn't going very well. I enrolled in a night class in creative writing. An extension course. The kind of thing I would teach later. But you know, I just went for about three times because the teacher was not good and it just made me feel really bad. My own writing was bad, he was a bad teacher. So I just stopped. I think you can have a good teacher. I'm sure that in the right circumstances a creative writing class could be helpful. But that wasn't.
Are you working on anything now?
Another novel and some stories. Just trying to figure out the novel. And the stories: it seems to me that I've got just piles of paper and a lot of stuff to deal with. So I'll get to it soon.
Is it all in longhand?
Well, I keep notebooks and I write longhand. I figure out my stories and the scenes of whatever I'm working on. Then I transfer it to the computer and print it out and edit on the printed copy. I straddle a couple of generations, I guess. Working both longhand and computer. I don't write directly on the computer, although sometimes if I'm stuck I'll just go to the computer and try and pound it out. Sometimes just a little change is enough to jerk you free of whatever trap you're in.
Gardens and growing things have in place in A Student of Weather. Are you a gardener?
To a degree. I'm not an avid gardener, but I really like learning things. I like interesting information. So I love planning out all the different plants and so on. One of the pleasures of writing a book is finding out new things.
I actually have a very lovely garden at the moment. We moved into this house in Ottawa in 1996 and it was a house that used to be owned by a botanist who worked at the experimental farm. And that house is sort of the setting for Maurice Dove's house. The house right below faces west with a sloping garden going down to a kind of alley. And the other side is another house which is the house where Lucinda and Norma Joyce live. So I changed the street numbers, but I used the actual street names and you'd recognize the garden.
So -- I'll just guess -- you look out your writing room window and see the tent [that's in A Student of Weather]?
Well, I could if it were there, yeah.
Your writing room is Maurice's room in the house?
More or less, yes. As I said, I needed to change our house -- it's the location, but I needed a set of back stairs and our house doesn't have back stairs. I needed an extra bedroom.
You're married and live in Ottawa?
And you have children?
Two. Ben is 11 and my daughter Sochi is 14. | June 2000
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of several books.