Wendy McGrathModeratorSeptember 26, 2020 at 6:39 pmPost count: 12
Ask Me Anything
with Wendy McGrath
Wendy McGrath is a Metis writer/artist born in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan and is based in Amiskwacîwâskahikan (Edmonton) on Treaty 6 Territory. Her writing and artistic practice embraces multiple genres. Broke City, the final book in her Santa Rosa Trilogy (which also includes North East and Santa Rosa), is a prairie gothic novel that chronicles the struggles of a working-class family and is told through the eyes of child-narrator, Christine. McGrath’s most recent poetry project, Paso doble, is a poetry/photography collaboration with Danny Miles (drummer for July Talk and Tongue Helmet). Her most recent spoken word project, BEFORE WE KNEW is her second album project with producer/musician Sascha Liebrand. (Her first project with Liebrand, BOX, is an adaptation of her eponymous long poem. “MOVEMENT 1” from the album was nominated for a 2018 City of Edmonton Music Award in the Jazz Recording of the Year category.) McGrath is a printmaker who also creates artist’s books.
Eamon McGrathParticipantSeptember 29, 2020 at 2:50 pmPost count: 1
How does geography affect your writing, in the sense of could you have written your books being based anywhere else other than Treaty 6? What affect does where you live have on what you write?
Wendy McGrathModeratorSeptember 30, 2020 at 12:01 amPost count: 12
Thanks for your question, Eamon McGrath. I would describe my writing as working-class-prairie gothic and absolutely consider geography and setting to be characters in my books. I don’t think my books could not have been written out of anywhere else other than Treaty 6. There is an underlying sense of darkness (literally and metaphorically) on the prairies…an infinite horizon, oppressive-yet-open sky. But a darkness is always there either under the surface or right in front of you. The prairies create their own tragedies (large and small) and it’s those tragedies that are the most challenging (and satisfying) to capture. Where I live definitely influences what I write. Stretches of highway that flatline between prairie destinations, a city that oscillates between extreme cold and extreme heat, a specific kind of light, the changing scent and colours of the seasons in a specific locale…all of those factors impact what I write. I like to recall and encounter in real life all of those sensations and build on them when I write. So where I live definitely impacts my work.
- This reply was modified 3 weeks, 1 day ago by Janelle Desrosiers.
Jon ConmParticipantSeptember 29, 2020 at 4:47 pmPost count: 1
The outcome of your most recent work has been a trilogy of books that form a story thread. Why did you take this approach versus a single book, and what do you see as the benefits as a writer to taking a more incremental approach over several books?
Robert PinParticipantSeptember 29, 2020 at 4:53 pmPost count: 1
The style and structure of your work seems to be very unique, not following established constructs about the form of the novel, dialogue within a novel, or how you give voice to your characters.
I am interested in knowing more about your creative writing process, your approach to building a story / plot, and other aspects of your writing as you conceived of and completed the Santa Rosa series of books.
Wendy McGrathModeratorSeptember 30, 2020 at 12:03 amPost count: 12
Thanks for the question, Robert! I suppose my process is fairly organic. I simply begin. And I may begin with a memory of a scent, a colour, a sound, a film, or a TV program that I expand into a scene or a conversation. I become the narrator, the ‘eyes’ through which the reader will enter this scene with me. My aim is to articulate details in the same way that one might access memory—it’s not always linear and doesn’t surface or resurface in any predictable way. But, ultimately, there are connections made as recognition or awareness comes upon us (or doesn’t) in moments. I’m definitely not a writer who has a bulletin board of colour-coded index cards and arrows linking plotIines, but I do visualize a plot before me, more like keys on a piano? If that makes sense? Each key has its own sound, but they all have the possibility of connecting…even if they’re different keys at opposite ends of the keyboard. When I began Santa Rosa, the first novel in the trilogy, I began by writing it as a ghost story (in the traditional constructs, motifs, etc.) because I wanted to create the sense that the ghostly characters inhabiting a neighbourhood that no longer existed (which was true) but it just didn’t work, so I scrapped it—and I’d written quite a lot! So instead, I created a SENSE of ghostliness—the workingclass neighbourhood has disappeared, the family has disintegrated. I created a feeling something ominous is about to happen. Throughout the trilogy, though, one of my main goals is to create workingclass fiction—give workingclass vernacular a voice, and set a body of literary fiction in a workingclass neighbourhood.
Shelagh KubishParticipantSeptember 29, 2020 at 11:41 pmPost count: 1
Another participant asked about the specificity of geography. I’m interested in that as well as the specificity of detail. I’m astonished at your recall of details. But I’m interested in why the details stay with me. What makes details in scenes powerful? Do you think about what to leave out? Why do your details “hit” me though I don’t share the memory?
Wendy McGrathModeratorSeptember 30, 2020 at 12:04 amPost count: 12
Shelagh, thank you for your question! “It’s all in the details” as they say! I think part of the ‘recollection’ of details is simply plumbing memory OR the perception of what you think you remember to get at truth of a scene…and truth is malleable in fiction and, I’d argue, in non-fiction. Details in scenes make them powerful because they pull the reader in and, whether or not the reader has actually shared that detail, make them believe that the detail is actually part of their world. I do indeed think about what to leave out…often that’s the most important thing you can do when you have a child narrator. If the child narrator sees or understands too much, they won’t be believable. However, if the child narrator leaves gaps of understanding, then the reader is able to fill those in. I can only hope that, as a writer, I can draw the reader in so details in an imaginary world becomes the details in the reader’s world and that world becomes real as long as they are immersed in the story.
Parker ThiessenParticipantSeptember 30, 2020 at 12:00 amPost count: 1
Knowing that the book(s) is at least semi-autobiographical. What was it like retelling these stories? It seems like you brought in such great details like smells and sounds, what was it like to conjure up those memories in such great detail?
Wendy McGrathModeratorSeptember 30, 2020 at 12:02 amPost count: 12
Jon, thank you for your question! I knew when I began my novel, Santa Rosa, that it would be the first of three novels. A trilogy gave me the opportunity to explore the growth and progression (artistically/creatively and in terms of age) of heroine, Christine, as she gains greater awareness of herself, her family, and her world and her place in it. As a writer, it’s a challenge to write from the viewpoint of a child narrator (you can’t make them too knowing or precocious, but they must be aware that there is something going on around them that they just…can’t…quite…grasp). With each book I had to give the reader enough information so that they would know what was going on, but Christine didn’t. It’s a tricky incremental broadening of the child-narrator’s world that I had to alter with each book. I wanted a gap between each of the novels in the Santa Rosa Trilogy. The benefits to this approach is that, as a writer, it afforded me time to get Christine’s voice right, to make sure it was an authentic reflection of where she was at a particular moment in time. The final novel in the trilogy, Broke City, is a breakthrough for Christine…certainly not a ‘happy ending’ but, a kind of understanding. I felt that had to develop over three books…
Paul PearsonParticipantSeptember 30, 2020 at 12:14 amPost count: 1
Edmonton has a really bad reputation for not preserving its historic architecture, for demolishing the past and putting up really ugly new things in its place. The fact that so many old houses like Christine’s have been bulldozed for skinny infill and yet the homes in her neighbourhood are still standing at the end of Broke City gave me a warm feeling. I was bracing for the wrecking ball to make an appearance before it all was over. Is this a tension you felt writing the books? How do you feel about the relationship between physical and narrative history? Between demolition and preservation?
Wendy McGrathModeratorSeptember 30, 2020 at 12:34 amPost count: 12
Thanks for your question, Paul! It is heartbreaking to me that many of the Edmonton places/buildings that are mentioned in the Trilogy are long gone. I returned, both literally and figuratively, to the actual house my family rented in Santa Rosa when I was working on these books and I was so afraid it would be demolished before I’d finished the trilogy. I’m happy to say it’s still standing! In fact, when I returned to it late this summer with the filmmaker and videographer Parker Thiessen to shoot the videos for ThinAir, I was happy to see it was getting some TLC. New windows, a new fence…but the small garage I recalled from my childhood is still there. I think the relationship between physical and narrative history is inextricable. We all write from/with a sense of ‘place’ and I think in some ways we can never escape that. I am simply heartsick at the Edmonton buildings that have fallen prey to the wrecking ball. There was a scene that didn’t make it into Broke City that was to be set in a beautiful downtown Edmonton theatre that was built in the early 1900s…it’s no longer there. Who knows? Maybe the scene will sneak into something else…
Wendy McGrathModeratorSeptember 30, 2020 at 12:22 amPost count: 12
Claire, thanks for the question! Certainly I would describe the Santa Rosa Trilogy as ‘prairie working-class gothic.’ I’m not sure I can list other books thatwould fit this specific genre. I think this genre is sadly under-represented in prairie literature and, arguably, in CanLit (whatever that means) as well. It was definitely my intention to give working-class characters a voice. I would say that the films of Ken Loach from the early- mid-1960s capture a working-class world. I actually acknowledge films and music that helped form a backdrop for Broke City and the Santa Rosa Trilogy (there’s a Santa Rosa Trilogy playlist on Spotify!). Some of those films are:
Santa Rosa films:
The Song of Bernadette – 1943 (w Jennifer Jones)
Joan of Arc – 1948 (Ingrid Bergman)
North East films:
Cleopatra – (1963 Liz Taylor/Richard Burton)
Father of the Bride – 1950 (Spencer Tracy)
Broke City films:
The Family Way – (1966 w Hayley Mills)
The Three Lives of Thomasina – (1964 Disney)
Cleopatra – (1963 Liz Taylor/Richard Burton)
The ‘music soundtrack’ for the novels in the Santa Rosa Trilogy includes:
(You Don’t Know) How Glad I Am – Nancy Wilson
Ferry Cross the Mersey – Gerry and the Pacemakers
A Holly, Jolly Christmas – Burl Ives
Rhythm of the Falling Rain – The Cascades
Puff the Magic Dragon – Peter, Paul and Mary
Downtown – Petula Clark
Can’t Get Used to Losing You – Andy Williams
Blue Velvet – Bobby Vinton
O Tannenbaum – (traditional)
Silence is Golden – The Tremeloes
Take Five – Dave Brubeck
Ode to Billie Joe – Bobbie Gentry
San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair) – Scott McKenzie
It was unfortunate that I couldn’t actually include lyrics in the books ($$copyright) but I think readers will know what the songs are by the hints!
Wendy McGrathModeratorSeptember 30, 2020 at 12:25 amPost count: 12
Thanks for your question, Shelly!
I focus on working-class characters because I myself come from a working-class background and I feel that those voices have not/are not heard in literary fiction, certainly in fiction in this country. There is hardship and poverty of course in my books, but I’d also like to think that I portray the dignity and humour of the working-class world as well.
Bernice FraserParticipantSeptember 30, 2020 at 12:40 amPost count: 21
Hi Wendy, thanks for being here! The questions and responses in this thread have been super interesting to read! I see from your biography that you also write poetry and perform spoken word – do you find the process of writing different between prose, poetry, and spoken word? Is there a strategy you use to help you get into the headspace for one or the other?
Wendy McGrathModeratorSeptember 30, 2020 at 12:46 amPost count: 12
Grant, thank you for your question! I was going to focus on my Santa Rosa Trilogy to respond to your point about my attempts to capture the ‘ephemerality and fragility of place’—that’s part of what I set out to do when I began. But, reflecting on it now, all my books either directly or indirectly address the fragility of place. I think that connection resonates even more strongly with me now in a time of pandemic. Since lockdown I’ve been reflecting about life’s precariousness a lot. (I’m writing text for a graphic novel/comic and collaborating with a Calgary-based artist on a project that is inspired by the pandemic…stay tuned…). I’ve written a piece for the anthology “Beyond the Food Court” (Laberinto Press) that talks about the links between my artistic practice (in this, case linocut printmaking) and the food of my childhood…this happened because I was at home in isolation and had to pursue these artforms and the connections between them on my own…and I was unencumbered by social obligations because there were none! We couldn’t go anywhere. Right now, everything seems fragile. I keep returning to my writing and art and that helps me cope.
Wendy McGrathModeratorSeptember 30, 2020 at 12:55 amPost count: 12
Bernice, thanks for your kind words, for joining the discussion, and for your terrific question!
Yes, I certainly like to experiment in multiple genres. For me it’s very simple: I love to write. Not just the finished ‘thing’ but, the process, whatever that process may be. I like to dive into new things, new forms, new challenges. I don’t really think about getting into a different headspace. I really do let whatever I’m working on tell me what to do. I listen to what the work tells me it needs. And, of course, in my collaborative projects—whether that be with other artists, designers, or musicians—I try to learn as much from them as I can. I leave myself open to new possibilities and try not to be afraid to try something completely different.
Wendy McGrathModeratorSeptember 30, 2020 at 1:04 amPost count: 12
Thanks for your question, Shelly! That’s tough to answer, but, if I were put on the spot, I’d have to say Broke City, for a number of reasons. First, Christine comes into her own and realizes she can be and do whatever she wants (I’m cheering for her!). Second, there is a resolution of sorts as Christine comes to grips with where she comes from and deals with a devastating tragedy. Third, because there was one point when I thought Broke City would never be finished! I had thought I’d had a clear vision of the third and final book when I began the Trilogy, but when I began it just wasn’t working. I’d plugged along for (what I thought was) 2/3 of the book and it was dying on the page. Christine’s voice didn’t seem right, the structure was too codified…it was a bleak time. Then one morning on the way back from a run, the entire structure and voice hit me. I scrapped what I had, started fresh and finished in three months. So Broke City has a special place for me.
Wendy McGrathModeratorSeptember 30, 2020 at 1:07 amPost count: 12
Thanks for the question, Parker! Certainly the setting and some of the details that inspired scenes in the books are taken from my childhood and it was bittersweet to put myself (imaginatively speaking) back in the place(s) I’d come from. But much of the stories are simply fabricated…I could definitely recall scents, a certain kind of light, feeling, and sensations, but I brought them into a world that never really did exist…at least outside of my own memory and imagination. That’s the joy of writing. “Conjure” is a good word…for me to conjure up memories (or rather conjure scenes and conversations based on memories) I imagine myself to be wherever, whenever I am writing about. I listen to the music from that time, watch TV programs and movies from the time, look at fashions, what people listened to on the radio. I become that place. I become that time.
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