September 16th, 2012
To write The Windshift Line, sick (Greystone), her elegiac memoir, Rita Moir holed up in a Fort Macleod motel with her father’s botanical research papers and the stories she had begged him to put down on tape before he died. A former journalist, Moir lives in Vallica, in the Slocan Valley, where she pieces together a life teaching writing, cleaning houses, doing fill-in reception work, and making sandwiches at the Co-op. “Sometimes I’ll go to three jobs in one day,” she says. Her previous book, Buffalo Jump: A Woman’s Travels (Coteau), received the VanCity Book Prize and the Hubert Evans Non-Fiction Prize in 2000. Moir was interviewed by Sara Cassidy in 2005.
BCBW: Your book is about a lot more than your father’s life as a botanist. Were you surprised by how it turned out?
MOIR: I knew it was more than a father-daughter story. I used his stories to help me be strong. I worked through some difficult issues, about who I get to be and how do I stake my own place on this earth as a woman. This book at one point was called “wind-trained trees”, because that’s an image from my father, an image of trees holding strong even in hard wind. Then it became The Windshift Line.
BCBW: Can you explain what a windshift line is?
MOIR: In science, it has many meanings, but the one I chose is where the cold wind from the west meets a front of warm moist air from the south. If the cold air is moving fast enough it will override the warm air. Warm air is light and when it’s overbalanced by this cold, oppressive air, it starts pushing to get out from under and that’s where the turbulence and the turmoil starts, that’s where tornadoes start.
BCBW: Speaking of turbulence, there is a lot in the book about your relationships with men. I guess that because you were writing about your father, you started to write about other men in your life?
MOIR: Yeah. And part of it is, what is a single woman? What attributes do you need to live alone in the country? If you’re a woman in the country, you have to be able to take care of a lot of stuff – whether it’s just making systems work, just having a handle on things, and not always depending on a male to take care of stuff for you.
I also wanted to examine the issue of male power. Can I live as a single female and not in a male protectorate? Because sometimes it’s very hard for a woman living alone in the country; sometimes the community looks on them with “if only you had a man” or “you need a man to take care of that for you”.
BCBW: What about the—I’ll say abusive—partner you had? Were you worried about writing about him?
MOIR: I had to do it. If you’re not going to put up with bullies, then you’ve got to name them. I don’t mean name the name, but you’ve got to tell the story. It wasn’t an easy thing to write. I didn’t want to over-write it, I didn’t want to make it into something that it wasn’t for the sake of more drama. Compared to the stories of a lot of women, what happened in this book was nothing. But other women will go, “Oh yeah. I can see this little shove or this little insinuation, this little control.” There’s probably not too many women who can’t identify with what hap pened.
BCBW: In the book, you’re also interested in the combination of art and science, the two together.
MOIR: That’s partly why I’ve come to call creative non-fiction “Calvinist poetry”. We tend to think of art and science as opposites and they’re really not. That’s what I learned when I listened to the language (of botanical names) and to my father tell his stories. The precision of detail in science is the same thing that makes art work. And when he talked about his work, his love of it, to me that was poetry, too.
BCBW: Where are you now in grieving your father? Did this book help?
MOIR: Well, I put him in file boxes recently and that was a good thing to be able to do.
BCBW: You mean the tapes and his papers?
MOIR: Yeah. Now I can take all the files and put them in a box and move on. I don’t subscribe to the “writing is therapy” because it’s a big skill, it’s a big craft, it’s not just my diary on the page. But it was a synthesis. It was taking my art and craft and saying I care enough.
This will be my say.
BCBW: Why did you move into a motel to write?
MOIR: Dislocation puts all your observation skills at their best. You’re not involved with the daily minutiae of running your own household, fixing toilets and making firewood. You just go somewhere where you can empty your mind of all that busy-ness. You see things new. You start with a sparse landscape and then put the things into it that you need for the writing. I got to escape the clutter of my own home, take the things I really needed and give them the prominence that they needed.
BCBW: And you formed some new friendships in the process.
MOIR: As a single woman I’ve always felt strongly that, yes, certainly there can be scariness out in the world, but there can be far more of that in the home. I’ve always thought women in Canada would be far safer if they all hitchhiked back and forth across the country, non-stop, meeting strangers, than staying in their own homes.
I always have been open, as a traveller, to the fact that people help travellers. I’m really extroverted—I think that comes from years of being a journalist, or else I became a journalist because I’m extroverted—and I’m curious about people. It doesn’t scare me to strike up a conversation with somebody. And in a small town, if you meet someone at a gas station and strike up a conversation, people don’t all look at each other like, what kind of maniac are you, talking to strangers?
Essay Date: 2005