Marina Endicott was born in British Columbia, grew up in Nova Scotia and Ontario, and studied acting in London, England, where she began to write fiction. Endicott returned to Canada in 1984, working in Saskatchewan as a director and dramaturge with the Saskatchewan Playwrights Centre. She currently lives in Edmonton and teaches creative writing at the University of Alberta. Her novel Open Arms (2002) was serialized on CBC Radio's Between the Covers. Her second novel Good to a Fault (2008) was shortlisted for the Giller Prize. Endicott's short stories are widely anthologized. She is at work on a novel about the Belle Auroras, a sister-trio vaudeville act who toured the Canadian prairies in 1909, as well as series of Young Adult novels called Time in Hand.
Charlotte Gill was born in London, England, but was raised in Toronto and rural New York State with brief stints in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. She earned her B.A. at the University of Toronto and an M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of British Columbia. Her Masters thesis became her first book Ladykiller, which was nominated for the Governor General's Literary Award and won the Danuta Gleed Award for best debut short story collection, as well as the B.C. Book Prize for Fiction. Her work has appeared in many Canadian magazines and anthologies. Gill is currently the 2008-2009 Markin-Flanagan Writer-in-Residence at the University of Calgary and is working on a non-fiction project, a memoir titled Spade Life.
We had the opportunity to interview Marina Endicott (M.E.) and Charlotte Gill (C.G.) following an event entitled "Marina Endicott, Charlotte Gill, and Tom Wharton—in conversation," which took place at the University of Alberta on Thursday, February 5, 2009.
CanWWR (Clare): We'll try to conduct this interview chronologically. And this doesn't have to be one person goes, the other person goes, we were hoping this could be sort of a conversation. Were you both avid readers when you were children and if so, what kinds of books did you read? Marina, you were talking earlier about how you really got stuck early on on the Young Adult books, and I was wondering specifically why you think you keep coming back to those?
M.E.: I didn't get stuck on them at all, in fact I went backwards to them. When I started reading, you won't remember this, because it's a long time ago, but people didn't have a lot of books in their houses usually in those days. We didn't anyway, although both my parents read enough. But we moved to Nova Scotia and had a very big old house that had a library in it with glass-fronted book shelves. So my mother would go to auctions and buy boxes of books, just boxes of books to fill up these bookshelves. So I read voraciously and completely catholic. Whatever was in the shelf was my meat. So I'm probably the only person you'll ever meet who's read all of Marie Corelli. (Laughter) And it has clearly maimed me. I read Victorian schlock. It didn't matter at that point whether it was good or bad, it mattered that it was new material, it was saving my life, really, to read. Volume was almost all that mattered but in the processing of all that volume, I began to like some things better than other things, and to think about why I liked them better. I didn't read, for example, classic children's books until I was in my twenties. Wind in the Willows—I was given it and I thought it was boring. I wanted to read French pornography! (Laughter) And I was eleven. Some of those books, if my mother had known what was in them, she would have been quite horrified. I was never forbidden a book. The only children's book I really read when I was young were books my parents read to us. Anne of Green Gables and all the other ones, and then the Narnia books, which they were very keen on, because they conformed to their religious ideas of course. And I liked them very much at the time. Why I go back to YA now—I guess I think that good YA is the same as good adult fiction. It's written from a passionate obsession or interest in the subject matter. I love reading books from every genre and every era, because I do think that what is good in fiction runs through every genre, it doesn't stick only to literary fiction. In fact, during some slow summers at a cottage I've found good Harlequins. It's the quality of the imagination that is good, whatever that imagination is obsessed with or bent upon.
CanWWR (Clare): So as a child did you start to develop certain tastes for any writers or genres or titles or was it more, as you were saying, volume?
M.E.: I certainly did develop taste, but there weren't enough of the books that I wanted. I was addicted to it to the extent of never being at school without a book on my lap while work was being done. I was always being sent home for reading at school. (Laughter)
C.G.: You could read more at home? I had kind of a parallel situation in the sense that I grew up in a fairly small town without a book store in it. My parents were doctors and they were so busy working 24/7 that there wasn't a lot of leisurely reading going on in the house, although I think they had a deep respect for books. So when I was doing a lot of young children's reading, it was British classics. So I started out with the Beatrix Potter books, and a lot of frilly female protagonists, which really didn't interest me at all. It wasn't until I got to my adolescent years when I really just went looking for books myself. So around that time all the Judy Blume books were coming out, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, all of those books were fantastic, the Narnia books I also really loved. I became so attracted to a certain kind of female protagonist who had a really masculine sense of swashbuckling. I really loved that; that's always what I read. So I don't know how that influences my writing style or literary tastes today.
CanWWR (Clare): Are you still attracted to the same kind of characters?
C.G.: I know when I read now I am less interested in characters who make small movements. I like very drastic, wild reversals between one kind of life and another kind of life. People who are stuck in any way—like As for Me and My House. I read that in my undergrad years and I thought it was tortuous. (Laugher) I would never pick a book like that to read.
M.E.: The girl in Good to a Fault, Dolly, reads in the same way that I read when I was little, and has as much trouble finding books, and steals them when she needs to. And although I don't remember stealing a book, I certainly would have, if it had occurred to me. But the scene where she finds Mistress Masham's Repose, the T.H. White book, which I had never heard of before then of course. And you really very rarely hear about it now, but the illustrations are just so beautiful, and it's got a map inside it. I was being chased home from school, and dodged into an antique store to save myself, this book was on the counter. Mistress Masham's Repose—because of the French pornography thing, I thought, "Well, mistresses, those are good." (Laughter) So I looked at that, and then it really turned out to be a children's book after all.
CanWWR (Patricia): How disappointing!
M.E.: No, it was such a good one! So I did ask the man to save it for me, and he said I could take it home with me. When I got home, and showed it to my father—they were really quite poor then and we didn't buy stuff—and instead of saying, "Oh, you must take this back" or "Oh no, we can't afford it," he got in the car and drove me down and paid the man right away. That was a huge thing for me, to have that book that I needed, and for him to recognize that.
CanWWR (Patricia): And your Dolly actually reads Vanity Fair, doesn't she?
M.E.: Yes. And so did my sister and I when we were eight or nine. Because we were just reading everything. We read a lot of Tom Swift, [the protagonist of a series of Young Adult science fiction novels], don't get me wrong. (Laughter) There were no Judy Blumes then, though. Is Are You There God? It's Me Margaret her?
CanWWR (Clare): Yeah, that's Judy Blume.
M.E.: So that was the only one I saw in those childhood years. Another one that I wanted to mention just because I loved it so much was Terrible Horrible Edie, by E.C. Spykman. It was a Scholastic Book and Scholastic was great. Again, we didn't have the money to do that often, but from time to time I would successfully beg and get a book. And Terrible Horrible Edie was one of the ones I got. It was by E.C. Spykman, who's an American writer. The book is set in about 1911. And I think it's been a book that has made me a writer and has made me want to continue writing, and it's entered into all the books I've ever written. Anything I've ever written has had pieces of Terrible Horrible Edie in it.
CanWWR (Clare): Wow. Do you still own a copy?
M.E.: I do. I had to send away. It's not in print anymore.
CanWWR (Devorah): I'm interested to know whether there was a moment in your life when you knew that you wanted to be a writer, an event or someone that influenced you? And I was also wondering if you went to writing because you felt the need to write, or if writing kind of came to you?
C.G.: I'll take that one first. I had one of those epiphany moments, which I don't think very many writers have, and I think when I talk to people who have had those moments, it's because they've left it for too long. They felt that somehow they really wanted to do this thing, and they didn't even know, what do you call that thing you want to do? No one's a writer, that's like being a rock star. It's just unfathomable. So I kind of pretended, I think, that it wasn't something that interested me, and I was in an undergraduate English class, I think it was a Canadian literature class.
CanWWR (Patricia): Reading As for Me and My House! (Laughter)
C.G.: Possibly. I'm sure we did it in that course. I had a young professor. It was the first time that I had someone who was still doing their PhD, and he had a tremendous amount of energy and he taught us all kinds of things, all kinds of writers that I otherwise wouldn't have read. I went to a fairly old-school Canadian university with an old-fashioned English department, so he introduced us to lots of new writing and I had never read anything like it before. And he was talking about his trip to school one day and how he had been stuck in traffic behind this garbage truck and there was a man on the back of the garbage truck kind of pirouetting off the side and picking up a bin and chucking it into the back, and he was so happy in his job. And I don't know why this made me think, "I have to be a writer!" (Laughter) Then I thought, "Oh my God, this is terrible! This is the worst thing that could've happened to me! Because writers are poor, right? Writers are really poor. History is full of them. And then, how do you do it? There's no rule book, I don't know any writers, I can't go and phone somebody up and ask them how to do it." I didn't have a clue!
CanWWR (Devorah): How did you get from that moment of "I don't know what to do!" to "I'm doing it."
C.G.: Well then I started writing. Secretly. I didn't really tell anybody I was doing it, and just kind of started collecting enormous volumes of printed material, which I haven't kept through my many moves. Then eventually I thought, "Well, maybe I should try and get this published." And I did as much research on how one would do this as you could at the time without the internet. A lot of bumbling, really. A lot of serious bumbling. I think if there was a faster way of figuring out how to do it, I don't even know if I would have benefitted, because it took me so long to practice, to get it to the point where it was even readable.
M.E.: Was there a moment when I decided that I wanted to be a writer? I think I was becoming a writer when I was quite little, but I wanted to be an actress. And so writing was what I did, but acting was what I was planning to do. So I spent a lot of time—I can't say wasted it, because it was certainly not wasted, and it was all work on training your imagination and creating a character. But I spent a lot of time pushing towards something that I wasn't supposed to be doing. I wrote the whole time that I was acting. When I was creating a character I wrote volumes about the character. In fact one of my acting teachers early on said, "I think maybe you should be a writer." (Laughter) It's funny, because I was in England, still trying desperately to get into the theatre and they couldn't have been less interested, and I was trundling along on the bus between London and Oxford. Outside the window a flock of birds flew up from the field and it was like ashes blown off a plate. That's what it was like! It was the plate and then the ashes and there were the birds. And I thought, "I think I'm doing the wrong thing." (Laughter) So I kept on acting for a while but writing more, and really I didn't know either how you became a writer. How you published. I didn't know any of that. I think I thought you sent off a story to The New Yorker and that would be it. But I was in Saskatoon when I had been writing long enough and finally showing my stories to some people who I knew. And one of them said, "Well, you should go see the Writer in Residence at the library." And it was Gertrude Story at the Saskatoon Library and she said, "You should send this to Grain Magazine." So I sent it and got it published right away. To tell you the truth, I sort of thought, "Well, naturally. Why wouldn't you?" It wasn't until later that I realized that that doesn't always happen. (Laughter)
CanWWR (Devorah): So what I'm hearing from both of you is that it started with something very private or secret, or your energies were elsewhere. Charlotte, you mentioned a community earlier. Did you find one or actively seek one? Did you relish those early solitude years or find them lonely? Did you find it hard to find your own voice?
C.G.: I did write alone for many years. And I didn't really know any other writers. And whenever I made attempts to join someone else's community, it just felt wrong, I felt like an outsider. It wasn't anything organic, I didn't know these people as friends. So it just kind of naturally fell apart. Which is probably a good thing. You know, writing for that long in isolation you kind of get used to certain psychological processes, like the learning, the failing, the learning, the failing. You're used to a different level of difficulty that comes later on once you start getting published. In some ways, the learning curve is still very difficult. And you need a strong stomach, certainly. But after about ten years of doing it mostly by myself I thought, "You know, I'm not learning anymore. I don't really know how this business works. I'm learning as much as I can by myself, but now I'm just reinventing the wheel. So how am I going to meet some people who are my peers truly, not people who I'm going to ask to mentor me, or not people who know less than I do, but some people I can share information with on a peer-to-peer basis." So I thought, "I'll just go back to school!" So I applied to do a Master's in Creative Writing. And I think at that time no one really knew what that was. Like, you went to school and got another degree in Creative Writing. Well what's that? That's like finger painting for adults. (Laughter) It's not a big deal. And that really changed my life. Being able to share the experience with other people. Other people found it difficult. I felt bad for a long time because I thought, "Oh this should be an entirely pleasurable experience! I should love what I'm doing!" And actually I really couldn't stand it. I wanted to pull my hair out half the time. And I found other people who were also having this experience. "Oh, that's just normal. Oh, phew, thank God."
M.E.: Just an addendum to that little thing about trying to be an actor and not wanting to be a writer. My daughter is now thirteen and determined to be an actor and writes forty pages a night. She's writing constantly. Every time we say to her, "Maybe you should think about writing," she says, "I'm an actor!" (Laughter) So funny. But the thing about acting and writing is that when I moved to Saskatoon—which is where I found the Writer in Residence—the circles between different arts intersect very much there, unlike larger cities. There are just fewer artists. So I knew visual artists and I knew musicians and I knew a lot of writers, and they were luckily writers that I really admired. Guy Vanderhaeghe. It was, again, finding a community of people who were, in my case, not necessarily my peers, but people who I could talk to and could see as ordinary workers, not mysterious, but continuing to work, out there every day doing it and then out drinking at night. I also started, as a dramaturge, working on other people's writing and thinking about their writing as playwrights. And running writing retreats for playwrights with the Saskatchewan Writer's Guild Retreat at Muenster. So every summer I would go to Muenster and run a two-week writing playwright's colony.
CanWWR (Patricia): At the monastery?
M.E.: Yes, it's the monastery, St. Peter's Abbey in Muenster. Fantastic. So for the first week they would all be writing busily and I would have no work to do, so I would write short stories. And then the second week I would actually have to work. But I had that one week a year of writing in the company of other people who were all writing. And there were always fiction writers there as well as, and lots of poetry writers. I don't know if that answers your question.
CanWWR (Devorah): Yes, it does, it definitely does. Thank you.
CanWWR (Lindsay): Now that we've moved into the writer's life, I'm wondering about your writing process and hoping you can describe a typical day. A typical writerly day. (Laughter) Do you have any rituals? Is there a typical day?
C.G.: Yes, but it's really embarrassing! (Laughter)
M.E.: Ok, you go first and I'll see how embarassing it is, see if I can top you.
C.G.: Writing routines, ok. I write every day. It's not always a pretty sight. I get up in the morning, I drink—
M.E.: Voldka? (Laughter)
C.G.: Enough coffee to kill a small child. (Laughter) No food, though, no food. And I sit on the couch cross-legged in my pajamas and I just start writing. I mean if I talk to someone or the phone rings—"Hi, it's the bank, your cheque bounced" or whatever—it's all over. The bubble has popped. It has to happen first thing in the morning and I can't go outside or meet any people. None of the outside world can happen yet. So I try to get it done in the morning and then usually that's the more creative part of my day. I'll try and get big chunks of visual stuff down on the page as quickly as I can and then as the day goes along and I'm losing steam then I'll start doing the refinements. It's just the editing—I call it the secretarial work. I'll start doing the line editing, the things I can do at any time of day. Then when I've completely run out of steam I'll start attacking my email.
CanWWR (Lindsay): And you're cross-legged on the couch the whole time?
C.G.: Well, you know, I get up. But mostly cross-legged on the couch.
M.E.: Do you have a lap desk? A little pillow thing to put your laptop on?
C.G.: No, I have a little blankie.
M.E.: I mostly developed my writing process while I had children. In fact, I started out with the luxury of being taken away from my working life and taken off into the country with my husband, who was going to work and I would write, and I spent two years unable to write, getting it all wrong, writing on the wrong tangent. And then I had to work because we had no more money. So, my secret to writing is that I get myself a lot of jobs and then I don't do them and I write instead. (Laughter) The more work I have that I ought to be doing the better I'm writing, usually, when I'm avoiding money work and doing the writing work. I write first thing in the morning from 4:30, 5:00 to whenever I have to get the children up and then I write between all the things I should be doing all through the day. I never leave my desk, is my secret, I just sit there. And I sort of work the other way. I'm tentative in the morning and I'm getting very spidery ideas in the morning and gradually through the day my work gets stronger, I think. I'm able to do better work in the evening after a long day of working. And I learned to work with interruptions. In fact, I have to leave my office door open because it's easier for me to work when I can hear what people are doing out there and then I can get sort of trance-like.
C.G.: I always wonder how people manage to write whole books when they have children. I mean you must have to learn to work with burping children and phones ringing.
M.E.: Well, that's the good thing about having children. There's a lot of physical work involved but they're not really engaging your mind so much. They're very boring. (Laughter) It's pretty well the same stuff most of the time so you can have a pretty rich inner life, cogitating about whatever your work is on and then in the four hours—no, not four, what am I saying?—the hour and a half that they're asleep and not crying and nobody else is demanding anything then you work really fast.
C.G.: So you're writing when you're not writing and then you're just putting it down on pages?
M.E.: I think so.
C.G.: So you've had all day to kind of gel your thoughts.
M.E.: Yeah. And all the times when you're lying beside them and trying to make them go to sleep or something, you're sort of dreaming—less thinking than dreaming—of the story. Because your mind is not really capable of thinking.
C.G.: I believe it!
CanWWR (Amy): Well, we started out with what you read as children and we want to end up with what you read now. I know you already discussed this a little bit during the Q&A but since our project is about Canadian women you could sort of channel your answers, if you want. Do you read Canadian writing? Do you read it by women specifically or do you still read everything you can get your hands on? What genres, what writers? What do you think about contemporary Canadian writing?
M.E.: I read less volume than I used to. I used to be a 3 or 4 book-a-day person. I used to read all the time and now I'm trying to write instead. But I do read Canadian fiction a lot. I try to read more than I sometimes manage to read because there's an awful lot of it. And there's an obligation to read a lot of it because if I'm on a panel with somebody I read their book, if I'm on a jury with somebody, I read their book, I often review books. So a lot of the reading that I'm doing is assigned reading in a way and it has to be done. But of course there's joy in that as well. I have a lot of women friends in Canada who are writing books and I get to read their stuff, and a lot of women I don't know in Canada whose books I'm reading.
C.G.: Can you think of some?
M.E.: Lynn Coady is one that I read with huge pleasure. In fact when we were talking earlier about which book would you like to have written I was tempted to say Mean Boy but I thought she might be a bit embarrassed. I think that book is so perfect.
C.G.: I read about a book a week, which is not outrageous by anyone's standards. I read a lot of Canadian fiction and non-fiction. If I can create this completely artificial spectrum with, on the one hand, very complicated, stylistic work, and then very thematically rich work on the other hand, I'm more attracted to the stylistic, experimental work, which tends to be the more modern stuff. So to me it doesn't really matter what country it comes from. I read lots of work in translation. Certainly I try to keep up with the books that are coming out of Canada every year and there are more and more of them every year. If they're written by a man, if they're written by a woman, it doesn't really matter to me so much. There are certain kinds of stories that I like more than others. I don't have children so I don't tend to gravitate towards the domestic story that's just limited to the house, which is not to say that story never interests me. If it's written in a way that's fresh and startling and surprising and there are things happening in the story that I've never read before, then I'm completely interested in it. But to me just the domestic scenario is not enough to keep me going and turning pages; that's just a completely personal bias.
CanWWR (Amy): And would you say that you think a lot of Canadian women's writing is fairly domestic?
C.G.: I think historically it has been, which is fine. I think it's just a question of personal taste. Women do most of the reading in this country, absolutely they do.
M.E.: It's funny because I can't think of any, I mean aside from my own book, I can't think of any domestic books by Canadian women just lately. Your book and Melanie's book aren't really domestic. Aside from Bonnie Burnard's Good House I'm sort of blanking on it.
C.G.: Let's say Carol Shields, for example.
CanWWR (Amy): This is interesting because we did a survey of some undergraduate students and some graduate students as part of this project, and we asked them similar questions. Do you care if it's men or women writing the books you read? Do you care where they're from? And generally people say no.
M.E.: I'd be surprised if people said yes. If they were choosing books because they're Canadian.
CanWWR (Amy): Unfortunately, they also seem to believe, whether or not it's true, that they only ever read Canadian women's writing when they are forced to in class. They had this idea that they had to read Margaret Laurence in high school, they had to read Margaret Atwood in university.
C.G.: This is what I mean. It's like books that were published up to a certain point in Canada ... I think things have completely changed. And when people say, "Oh, Canadian fiction!" their eyes roll back in their head. (Laughter) Because they remember what they had to read in high school, they remember what they had to read in their undergrad Canadian literature classes. I think that's all there was at that time. Canadian literature was just kind of finding its footing. There was Margaret Atwood and only a handful of other women writing in Canada. Nobody was being published in Canada. There wasn't even Canadian literature in universities for the longest time. There were American professors teaching British classics and F. Scott Fitzgerald, you know? So I think we've grown a lot and maybe we have some growing pains.
M.E.: I'd forgotten about Margaret Laurence too. Isn't that funny? I'm really trying to make a list in my own head but of course you can never think of it when someone asks you what your favourites are. The women writers that I've been enjoying in the last couple of years—as I said the list is mostly people whose writing is very little based in the home. Maybe it's just that the literature has matured, as you say. When I put this book out I was worried about how domestic it was. In fact, I didn't really want to write it. I thought who on earth would want to read about a spinster and a priest? It's just so deeply grounded in really boring, ordinary, daily life.
C.G.: But that's ok. It's the way that it's conceived.
C.G.: It's not that the book is plotless or not plotless but there's something about the sensibility of the voice that is very dated in a way that was so anachronistic compared to literatures of other countries. I mean, in the 60s and 70s what was going on in the States was pretty radical stuff and yet we were kind of trapped in this really backwards-looking way of thinking about ourselves and I don't know why that is. I don't why we've been so slow to speak in a voice that's more recognizable to us. It feels like "Is this the way people really deal with each other in a marriage or talk to each other in the street?" It felt more artificial than real.
M.E.: I have worked with a lot of Canadian women playwrights and I'd say the opposite was the case in playwriting. A lot of the more radical voices were women. They were less concerned with writing "the well-made play" and more concerned with pushing away at what a play could be and who could be in it and how the voice could be used.
CanWWR (Patricia): Like Sharon Pollock.
M.E.: Connie Gault has written plays where you can't even understand what's going on half way through and then you suddenly see the whole thing sort of shuffle into sense. Lots and lots of them.
CanWWR (Amy): That's definitely supported by what we've found in the other part of our project, a database of Canadian women's writing from 1950. It's all genres, everything we can find. We're obviously still working on it because it's a huge amount of stuff but one thing that's really interesting is how suddenly the volume of titles grows in the 70s.
M.E.: It expodes.
CanWWR (Amy): It really explodes. But the awards are the other thing that are really interesting because we keep track of which works have won which major Canadian awards. And they also explode.
C.G.: I think statistically women are dominating the literary industry in Canada these days. Women are nominated a hell of a lot of times, Margaret Atwood in probably the best paid author in Canada right now. I think the best known poet in Canada is also a woman. I don't know if those standards—a glass ceiling for women, or women can only get so far—I don't think that even really exists anymore. I don't know whether that has to do with the reading demographic or just the way the publishing business seems to work these days. It's also populated by women. Women make all the buying decisions, they acquire all the books.
CanWWR (Patricia): And you mentioned earlier that women are primarily the readers too, in Canada.
C.G.: Yes. Everywhere, it seems.
CanWWR (Patricia): Reading is a gendered activity. I was asked that question when I was at the University of New Brunswick in St. John recently, talking about Canadian women writers. A British man in the audience, who was a visiting landscape architect, asked me, "Do only women read these books?" I was quite taken aback by the question. And I said I didn't think so. "And should there be awards just for women?" And I knew it was a trick question (laughter), so I said, I don't think so, it should be open and if women's book are in the running then they should be given the award. But it did cause me to think about the degree of circulation of women writers. Maybe they are of interest primarily to women readers.
M.E.: I certainly hope that's not true. I would hate that to be true.
C.G.: I hope it's not true, but anecdotally, I know plenty of men who would never pick up a recent novel written by a woman. They just assume there's nothing in the pages for them. I mean, it's not an openly chauvinistic choice—"I would never read a book by a woman"—but they look at the cover and they say "There's nothing in there for me. I'm not going to read that."
CanWWR (Patricia): It's like their response to a chick-flick.
CanWWR (Amy): Chick-lit is a thing now too.
M.E.: I'm hoping that's an ending thing now. I think it was a thing about three years ago and that it was a bad thing. A lot of bad books came out of it and a lot of good books got categorized as chick-lit when they shouldn't have.
CanWWR (Amy): They get those covers slapped on them and then they get relegated on that basis.
CanWWR (Clare): Marginalized.
M.E.: That's an attempt to make money, really. It's seen as a way to sell a lot of books so manuscripts were packaged as chick-lit that shouldn't have been.
CanWWR (Patricia): You've been really generous with your time, Marina and Charlotte. Thank you very much.