Books

A writer's creative trances

Jane Urquhart gets joyfully lost in her stories

John Bemrose September 15 1997
Books

A writer's creative trances

Jane Urquhart gets joyfully lost in her stories

John Bemrose September 15 1997

A writer's creative trances

Jane Urquhart gets joyfully lost in her stories

JOHN BEMROSE

As Jane Urquhart stands beside her bright blue family cottage, with Lake Ontario at her back, the wind streams in her long auburn hair and ankle-length skirt, suggesting, for a moment, one of those 19th-century heroines who populate her novels. There is even a hint of the lushly romantic Edward Burne-Jones painting The Evening Star, which graced the cover of Away, her phenomenally successful 1993 novel about Irish settlers in Canada. In that picture, a young woman in a flowing, dark-blue gown flies above a distant landscape, her gaze fixed on things mere mortals cannot see. But as Urquhart comes forward to greet her visitor—here to discuss her new novel, The Underpainter—any suggestion of lyrical romanticism is quickly dispelled. Warm, direct and down-to-earth, the 48-year-old author leads the way into the cottage with a wry warning to mind the back door. Apparently it jams on the step because the repeated dynamiting in a nearby quarry has shifted the ground beneath. “Listen,” Urquhart instructs, as the roar of heavy machinery drifts across the trees. “The chewing sound of the multinational corporation.” A destroyed landscape was one of the dominant images of Away, whose lakeside setting was inspired by this very place. Urquhart has been spending summers in this cottage, a few miles east of Cobourg, Ont., since her childhood, and its cozy, cluttered rooms are filled with decades of memorabilia, including a portrait of the original owner, a doughty sea captain. Out the front window, the great blue flag of the lake rip-

ples in the afternoon sun. Three of Urquhart’s four novels have been set on or very near the Great Lakes. The Underpainter is about an American artist, Austin Fraser, who hails from Rochester, N.Y., the city that lies just under the horizon visible from the window.

The book reveals a side of Urquhart’s talent that may surprise her followers. Gone are the mythic and romantic exaggerations of her earlier works, and in their place is something much more realistic. A lot of the novel’s cooler manner flows from Urquhart’s use of Austin as its first-person narrator (“I struggled to get the book into the third person but it kept insisting on the first,” Urquhart says). Keenly observant but emotionally stunted, Austin startled the author because he was so unlike anything she had created before. “Here was a character who was the very opposite of me, American and male,” she says. “I felt some sympathy for him, because he couldn’t make an emotional connection. But I was also mad at him a lot of the time.”

In many ways, Austin seems like a new variation on the old literary theme of the well-meaning American, who, in his naïveté, creates havoc and destruction. Yet his story begins innocently enough. In the early years of the century, Austin spends his childhood summers on the Canadian side of the lake at Davenport (a stand-in for Cobourg) where he becomes friends with a local boy, George Kearns. The two keep up a lifelong relationship that survives their separate career paths: Austin becomes a famous painter with a passion for Canada’s North, while George becomes a reclusive veteran of the First World War whose great calling is painting scenes on china. Ultimately, though, Austin’s emotional coldness and blundering steers their friendship into tragedy.

Austin also gets involved with another Canadian, Sara Pengelly, who lives in a remote settlement on the shore of Lake Superior. She becomes his model and mistress, but he shies away from a deeper commitment. In the novel’s harrowing, beautifully written climactic scene, he watches her distant form from his hotel as she treks towards him across the Lake Superior ice—all the while debating whether he will slip away before she gets there. “That scene really upset me,” Urquhart says, “because I didn’t know when I was writing it whether he would stay or go.”

As Urquhart talks about her characters, her large, expressive eyes hint at the intensity with which she enters the imaginative world. The act of writing, she admits, is very much like being “away”—the term used in her previous novel to describe a state of otherworldliness so powerful it touches the pathological. Urquhart says she writes unconsciously, with such fervent concentration that the process can leave her wondering where she has been, and how she will ever get back there. “It’s a little scary,” she says.

“I can never really believe I can do it again, because I can never remember how I did it the last time.

I can’t remember sitting at the desk.”

It all sounds a bit like being carried off by the fairies—an apt enough comparison given the emphasis Urquhart lays on her Irish background. Away was dedicated not just to her mother, Marian Carter, a nurse, and her father, Walter Carter, a mining engineer, but to her mother’s family, the Quinns—by which Urquhart means all the Quinns stretching back through time immemorial. The Quinns arrived in Canada from Ireland in the mid-19th century, and ever since, Urquhart says, have been mythologizing the island of their origins. Urquhart—the name comes from her husband, painter Tony Urquhart, with whom she lives for most of the year at their home in the village of Wellesley, near Kitchener, Ont.—was born in 1949 in Little Long Lac in Northern Ontario. But she summered with the Quinns at the Lake Ontario cottage and readily absorbed their Irish fantasies. She had the notion, she says, that Ireland was “this imaginary island somewhere that, if you were only good enough or could think magical thoughts, you might get there.”

Urquhart describes her early self as a “really odd little girl” with passionate ambitions. When she was 9, and her family had moved to Toronto, her parents took her to see The Music Man and My Fair Lady in New York City. Urquhart was starstruck. She insisted on dancing and acting lessons, and commandeered a friend into staging impromptu performances in a corner of the schoolyard, hoping she would somehow be discovered. She even wrote the composer Richard Rodgers, offering to come to New York and work for him. He wrote back, chivalrously offering to meet her at the plane—when she was 18.

In her early teens, Urquhart became fascinated by the work of such Beat writers as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, and wrote reams of bad poetry in the family’s coal cellar (“If I was going to be a Beat, then I had to live in a cellar,” she says). She also began to skip after-class activities at her prestigious private school, Havergal, in order to take the bus downtown to hear folksingers in Yorkville. She was often in love (usually unhappily) and at 18 she fell hard for Paul Keele, an art student about a year and a half her senior. A year later, much to her parents’ distress, they were married. ‘We were so absorbed with each other,” she says, “it was a twin-like kind of condition, and that can only happen when

you’re quite young—that feeling that you’re joined physically forever.”

Living with Keele brought Urquhart many insights into the art world that she would later use in The Underpainter. When Keele enrolled at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax, he became terrifically unhappy with the emphasis the teachers there—many of them American— were laying on conceptual art. “Paul would make a print, but then they’d demand that he burn it or bury it and videotape the whole process,” Urquhart recalls. In The Underpainter she makes Austin into a kind of conceptual artist, who creates realistic images, and then all but obscures them under fresh, blank layers. There is an element of parody in this, as well as a nice symbol of Austin’s habitual burying of his own emotions.

Five years after the couple were married, Keele died in a car crash. “I lost about 40 lb. and looked like some waif,” Urquhart says of her period of grief. The tragedy gave her—though she did not then know it— one of the most powerful elements of her later fiction: the theme of doomed, youthful love, hermetically sealed by death in a kind of perfection. “You get to keep it as a sort of little bubble you can go back to,” Urquhart says quietly of her time with Keele. Two years later she met Tony Urquhart, 15 years her senior, at an art opening in Kitchener. The two married in 1976, and the following year Urquhart gave birth to a daughter. Two of her husband’s young daughters from an earlier marriage also lived with them, and yet, despite the domestic chores that suddenly fell into Urquhart’s lap, she was writing harder than ever and, for the first time, sending her poems and stories to small magazines. “Housework doesn’t take up the side of your mind that invents narrative and plays with words,” says Urquhart, who by now had earned two bachelor degrees, in English and Art History. “But I’m positive that if I’d become some sort of professional person, I’d never have become a writer. I need a lot of unstructured time.”

As she began to get published and gain confidence, Urquhart felt her way into her first novel, The Whirlpool, inspired by an old record book once kept by her husband’s grandmother, a Niagara Falls undertaker. It contained descriptions of the dead bodies or “floaters” that had been pulled from the river below the falls. Ellen Seligman, editorial director of fiction at McClelland & Stewart, which has published all of Urquhart’s novels, read her manuscript and remembers being “quite pleasurably stunned by its thematic richness and magical evocation of place.” The book sold modestly when it appeared in 1986, but won considerable critical acclaim, including France’s prize for the best foreign novel of the year. Four years later, it was followed by Changing Heaven, suffused with Urquhart’s passion for Emily Brontë. Then in 1993 came Away, with its mythical evocation of Canada’s roots. The critics raved, and it spent 2V2 years at the top of the country’s best-seller lists. “It seemed to be read by a lot of people who hadn’t read a book since Grade 10,” Urquhart says, adding with a laugh, “in fact, it was so popular I began to wonder if there was something wrong with it.”

Her 1993 novel, Away; spent 2 V2 years at the top of the country's best-seller lists

The Underpainter—Seligman calls it Urquhart’s “darkest, most mature and psychologically penetrating work”—may not achieve the same high profile. But then, Urquhart remains uncomfortable with fame. What attracts her to writing novels, she says, is the writing itself: “It has never really lost the aspect of play for me. When I go upstairs to write, it’s always with the feeling that I’m going to do what I really want to do: I’m going to play. I’m crazy about it.” And as she walks out to the cottage lawn and says goodbye, an absent, distracted look is already creeping into her handsome features: no doubt part of her is already “away,” in that unidentifiable place where Jane Urquhart’s visions turn to words. □