Q&A with Tricia Dower

This is your first foray into fiction. How did you come up with the idea for this work?

A University of Toronto production of Othello sparked Silent Girl. I had studied the play years before without having seen it performed. Reflecting on how willingly Desdemona allowed her life to end, I thought of domestic abuse victims and the seeming collusion of some in their own misfortune. Many, like Desdemona, are socially isolated. The story that resulted from that evening – "Nobody; I Myself" – ended up being as much about idealism and racism as it was about social isolation, but that’s the thing about stories: they often end up being about something other than what you intended. Anyway, after conceiving of the first Shakespeare-inspired story, I wondered how many other contemporary counterparts of Shakespeare’s female characters I could find and I set out in search of them.

What was the creative process like for you?

It took me three years to write the eight stories in Silent Girl. I might have been done sooner except my husband and I uprooted ourselves partway through. We sold our house in Toronto and headed out for parts unknown with only whatever fit in the car. We arrived in Victoria two years ago and haven’t left. Creating the collection involved the typical highs and lows for me: conceiving a “perfect” story in my mind and being unable to translate it to the page; gathering so much research I was sure a story would write itself and discovering it would take the usual hard work. Near the end of the collection I was impatient to be done until I stumbled onto the eighth story which so energized me I have decided to develop it into my next book.

Who did you read as a kid, and how did these first forays into reading fiction affect your sensibilities as a writer?

I was an early, quick reader, but other than Wonder Woman comics, I can’t remember much of what I read when I was very young. When I was about twelve or thirteen, I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith and, possibly because the protagonist was a girl my age, I began to think I could write a story like that one day. Another book that left an impression on me was a fictionalized account of Anne Boleyn’s life. I was sure I had been her in another life.

What are you reading right now?

I just finished Cormac McCarthy’s powerful The Road and am mid-way through Bill Gaston’s wonderfully-researched and engaging Sointula. Gaston must have been a woman in another life the way he gets into the skin of the main character Evelyn.

How and where do you write?

I have a sanctuary that gets the morning sun from a window, framing an ivy-encrusted tree. I have the luxury of being able to write every day and I spend hours at it. I use a computer most of the time, but occasionally I’ll take notepad and pencil out to the kitchen table to do some “thinking writing.” This is usually when I need to get deeper into the emotions of one of my characters in a particular scene.

Do you write with a certain audience in mind? Who is your “ideal reader”?

No. My ideal reader, I guess, is me! If a story doesn’t work for me, no one else is ever going to see it.

Name one person in your life who profoundly influenced your work, and why did you choose this person?

I’d have to say Alice Munro because her stories and the way she writes them resonate with me deeply. She knows her characters so intimately their contradictions come across as the most natural of phenomena. By trying to emulate her, I’ve been rewarded: the more I learn about my characters, the more interested I am in writing about them, so it’s a technique that not only informs the writing but nourishes the writer. I also admire the way Munro can make the most ordinary character’s life extraordinary.

Who is your favourite protagonist in a work of fiction or poetry, and why?

No real favourite comes to mind, but a contemporary one I responded to from the heart was Silver in Jeanette Winterson’s Lighthousekeeping. She’s heartbreakingly courageous, vulnerable, resourceful, poetic, and thoroughly original.

In your own work, which character are you most attached to, and why?

I suppose I identify most with the narrator in the fifth story in the collection, “Nobody; I Myself.” The story is set in my “era,” and I was once as idealistic and naive as she is. I could easily have been in her situation given different circumstances. However, I’m probably most “attached to” Selanna in the last story, the novella-length “The Snow People: AGM 30-46,” because of the both proud and pragmatic way she deals with oppression.

Which story was most difficult to write and why?

Emotionally, the title story, “Silent Girl,” was the most difficult because of the subject matter: sex trafficking of children. I was astonished at the scope of this brutal business and to learn that it isn’t just happening “over there, somewhere.” I wanted readers to experience how devastating trafficking is to even one child but there were times when I wondered if I was wrong to write the story, if I was not contributing to the horror.

Tell us a little about the overarching theme of your work, and why you felt compelled to explore it.

Most of the stories in Silent Girl are, in some way, about women who are silenced by oppression, by the “system,” or by their own fears. That’s too simple a statement, of course, because the characters are more complex than that. But it became apparent to me as I got deeper into the research and writing of this collection that some things haven’t changed for women since Shakespeare’s time. The reason, I suspect, is that we are still locked into gender roles and a patriarchal value system despite the efforts of many women and men to change their thinking and their behaviour. I felt compelled to explore this, I think, to understand my own life, to help free myself and move on.

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