September 16th, 2012
BCBW: Why the fascination with Chaucer?
ANGIE ABDOU: Chaucer is possibly the very first English writer to have a true interest in character. Before his work, site characters tended to be flat representations of certain sins (Sloth or Pride, say) or certain virtues. Chaucer uses characters to represent particular classes in his medieval society, but he quickly shows that these people cannot be contained within their designated roles.
BCBW: So you’re doing the same, but with contemporary people.
ABDOU: Exactly. I have ski bums, rednecks, hippies, developers. I hope the reader discovers these characters cannot easily be contained within their labels. Chaucer used a pilgrimage to bring together diverse elements of medieval society. In that way, Chaucer had an opportunity to satirize a cross-section of his medieval society. So I asked myself—what type of journey would bring together diverse components of my community?
BCBW: What other parallels did you use?
ABDOU: The Canterbury Trail takes place in April. That’s an “of course!” for anyone who knows Chaucer. But here it is spring snow rather than spring thaw that brings everyone together.
BCBW: So would you describe The Canterbury Trail as a social satire?
ABDOU: Satire implies a certain distance from the material—a looking in at and a poking fun of, a highlighting of the shortcomings of others. I have no such distance from this material. So instead of satire, I have been referring to The Canterbury Trail as a black comedy or a tragicomedy or a comic-tragedy. If anyone has a better label, I would be happy to hear it.
BCBW: What do you say to readers who might be offended by some of the language in your novel? Especially the C-word.
ABDOU: I am completely surprised by how offended some readers are. I guess Germaine Greer was right when she claimed “it is one of the few remaining words in the English language with a genuine power to shock.” It’s in the original Chaucer. He refers to queynte for a misplaced kiss that’s meant to land on an intended lover’s lips but lands instead, well, somewhere else. It is, therefore, one of the oldest words to describe a part of the human body—a part on every woman, and the place from which we all come. So if you find yourself recoiling at it, you might ask why it should be any more offensive than, say, the word “kneecap.”
BCBW: Were you using it mindfully?
ABDOU: Of course. One reason for the C-word’s predominance in this book relates to the feminization of landscape. At an earlier stage, this novel was a dissertation project, and the best moment of that process was when an examiner declared: “Nature is a character in this novel … and she is ANG-RY!” But once a book is published, a writer no longer has control over it. The Canterbury Trail is now out there in the wide world for each reader to make of it what he or she will.
BCBW: I wonder if Chaucer encountered any similar feedback in his day?
ABDOU: We don’t know. But one thing that might surprise people today is the pure wildness of The Canterbury Tales. Because it is a classic text, people sometimes assume it must be stuffy and serious and boring. Though Chaucer’s text does have serious content, taken as a whole it is one of the bawdiest and most ribald texts of the English language. Remember, it’s a tale about sinners using a pilgrimage as an opportunity to indulge in their favourite sins.
BCBW: That works as a good explanation for the drugs and swearing in your book.
ABDOU: Well, let’s just say I take my tone from Chaucer. Just because a novel includes drug abuse does not mean that it endorses drug abuse. My husband asked me at one point if I was really going to include those marijuana cookie recipes. “You have a lot of young readers—is that the message you want to send out?”
My answer was that we live in a society where access to information is not the issue—instead we need to teach young adults what to do with information and how to think about it critically. If young people want recipes for drugs, they can find far worse with a simple click on Google. Drugs are a part of mountain culture, and they are a part of this book.
BCBW: Does it matter if some readers haven’t read The Canterbury Tales?
ABDOU: Not at all.
BCBW: Why did you choose a B.C. publisher?
ABDOU: Around the time I was deciding what to do with this novel, I read a piece in B.C. BookWorld about writers abandoning B.C. just as they were becoming successful. There is, the article said, a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy about B.C. writers being doomed to remain mid-listers… This piece struck a chord with me. It made me feel loyal to the Western Canadian writers, editors and publishers who had been so helpful in the various phases of producing my first two books. So I decided to try a B.C. publisher. After all, The Canterbury Trail is a very B.C. novel.
Also, Fernie is very isolated. It’s a good twelve-hour drive from Vancouver. I thought going with a press in Victoria would link me into the B.C. publishing world. I also chose Brindle & Glass because of the publisher, Ruth Linka. I trust her absolutely. We were undergraduates together at the University of Regina. I remember sitting next to her, in about 1989, for a Feminist Theory course taught by Joan Givner. I wonder what we would’ve thought then if someone could’ve told us that one day she’d own a press and would publish my third book?
BCBW: Now you’re on the cover of Quill & Quire, Canada’s national publishing trade magazine, having not opted for Toronto.
ABDOU: At times it feels pretty weird. One of the weirdest moments of the Canada Reads competition was picking up the National Post and reading Mark Medley’s description of me as “virtually unknown.” I knew what he meant, of course, but at the same time I thought, “Oh yeah! Well, Mark Medley is virtually unknown where I come from!”
Fernie is a long way from Toronto. Choosing a B.C. press was, in part, an awareness that it’s important to be known first at home. I have to say, my proudest moment so far came when I saw the book featured in March’s Hot List right here in the Fernie Fix. To know that Fernie’s young hip crowd is reading this novel and enjoying it made me feel, for just a moment, pretty darn cool.
Essay Date: 2011