In the spring, The Cure for Death by Lightning (Knopf Canada) by Gail Anderson-Dargatz was among several first Canadian novels that caused a stir at home and abroad, where it won publishing deals in five countries. The book— which combines the coming-of-age story of 15-year-old Beth Weeks with recipes, newspaper clippings and other memorabilia from her mother’s scrapbook—was later shortlisted for the Giller Prize for Fiction. Anderson-Dargatz, 33, had already won acclaim for her 1994 collection, The Miss Hereford Stories.
She and her husband, Floyd Dargatz, a dairy herdsman, live near Parksville, B.C., on Vancouver Island. Her reflections on being a writer:
My mother tells this story of my beginning: when I came into the world, I didn’t cry, I vocalized—coos and burbles that struggled towards speech. I spoke early; my first word was “Cheezies.” As soon as I could string a sentence together, I reportedly talked about my past life in detail, though on pressing, my mother can’t provide particulars. Evidently I was in the habit of comparing that other life with this one, especially when I wasn’t getting my way.
What am I to make of this, my personal myth of origin? Friends ask: “Do you believe that bit about being reincarnated?” If I say I do, I risk sounding flaky; if I say I don’t, I risk offending my mother, Irene. So I usually sidestep the question and say I celebrate the role of family stories;
I take from them a sense of who I am and what I’m capable of. It would seem from this reincarnation story, for example, that I was a born storyteller (my husband says I never tell a story the same way twice).
My ancestors, and my husband’s, were farmers. The stories my parents tell often seem pessimistic, but are softened by an underlying optimism and humor. A farmer won’t test God or the fates by saying, foolishly, “Yep, going to be a good year!” because she will be punished for her presumptuousness. Hail will surely decimate a bumper harvest. Instead, she complains: about the weather, feed costs, her aching back. Perhaps God will hear her complaints and be merciful. On the other hand, farmers are famous for a stick-toitiveness that is a form of hope. How can they go on farming if they don’t believe next year will be better? Stories that evolve from farm life are stories of triumph over adversity, and of commitment to family and community because one must commit to survive. (In my husband’s home in north-central Alberta, everyone locks the front door on leaving, but leaves the back door open in case a neighbor has car trouble on the frozen roads.) The stories that I write, then, are in praise of commitment, community and perseverance.
But my family stories are also haunted by the bizarre. My parents told me about a bachelor named Coyote Jack who appeared and disappeared at bush’s edge, just like a coyote, though he was only a shy man, not the monster his name inspired in my first novel. Like my character Beth, my mother was hit by lightning as a girl. She saw ghosts and had premonitions. I’ve built my next novel around her vision of her brother’s drowning a week before it actually oc-
Family myths and mysteries are an author’s pot of gold
curred. With stories such as these forming my identity, how can I avoid stepping into the black waters of the fantastic when I write?
I view the stories my parents tell as priceless gifts. They teach me, they prepare me, they open my mind to possibilities, and they keep the petty woes and joys of the everyday in perspective. In my life as a writer, they offer up the gossamer from which I weave dreams. But it’s not just stories of the past that shape me and my fiction. We all develop new family stories to help redefine ourselves as the need arises. I tell the story of how I dressed in a cow suit and, on the crowded university campus, asked Floyd to marry me. I tell another about our wedding, a medieval costume bash with a cow theme. I purposefully left both these odd rituals undocumented because I knew the story that grew up around them would be so much richer than the actual events captured on film. And captured is the key word here: a story trapped in this way will not ripen on retelling. On the other hand, if a family story, some mere twig of truth, is cultivated and allowed to thrive, it shoots up, gathers strength from my imagination and branches into new life. Once ripened, its growth is arrested as, with luck, it is put into print. In short, the family story becomes fiction.
Most of us in Western culture are accustomed to learning about ourselves from fiction. Books and movies now augment, if not replace, the traditional sacred myths that once defined us. Writers are the new prophets and priestesses, of a sort, and the heroines and heroes they create help shape our individual and cultural personalities. I suspect most fiction writers begin their writing journeys as I do, at home, in family stories. I cherish the narratives my ancestors handed down because they give me a history, and I delight in the tales I create as I live because the day will come when I’ll hand these to my children. Family stories set me neatly inside a continuum. When I retell these stories as fiction I’m aware of their power to encourage, inspire and heal because they have already done just that for me. □
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