Williams and Robinson

Giller Prize-winner Ian Williams (l.) will converse with the U.S.’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Marilyn Robinson on the craft of writing, themes and the power of fiction at Vancouver Writers Fest. FULL STORY

Andreas Schroeder

April 07th, 2008

ANDREAS SCHROEDER was born in Hoheneggelsen, Germany in 1946. He emigrated with his parents in 1951. He developed a keen interest in surrealism at UBC, founded The Journal of Contemporary Literature in Translation (1968-80), contributed a literary column to the Vancouver Province (1968-73), chaired the Writers Union of Canada (1976-77) and is chiefly responsible for the institution of Public Lending Rights in Canada. For possession of hashish he was incarcerated for eight months and subsequently wrote his superb non-fiction memoir, Shaking It Rough (1976). Earlier experimental fiction has been eclipsed by an incredible documentary-style novel, Dustship Glory (1986), based on the true story of a dirt-poor Finnish Canadian farmer in Saskatchewan named Tom Sukanen who endured seven years of toil and poverty to build an ocean-bound, dustbowl freighter fifteen miles from the nearest river. Andreas Schroeder lives in Mission, BC. He was interviewed in 1986.

T: Did it ever strike you in the course of writing Dustship Glory that building a ship in the middle of the prairie is somehow analogous to trying to finish a novel?
SCHROEDER: I didn’t consider it at the time. But there are certainly many similarities. Sitting at a desk for years and years hammering away at pieces of paper that no one may ever want. Trying desperately to keep the original idea in focus. Fending off people who keep trying to apply mere logic to the problem. For whom it’s all just a lunatic exercise.

T: The big difference is that Tom Sukanen went about his lunatic exercise in public view.
SCHROEDER: Right. And I can relate to that from another angle, too. I find writing so hard, so painstaking, that whenever I lose traction, whenever I can’t hear myself anymore, I grab a hammer and nails and go out and build something. Something indisputably there. Because at least with building something physical, you don’t have to doubt your vision. One of the things that draws me to a man like Tom, which is to say a man with a grand vision, is that he was a builder. Now I live in a crazy house with a tower and cathedral arches all over the place. There’s hardly a right angle anywhere. Getting the vision of what we wanted to build took Sharon and me a number of years of just fantasizing until we had it straight. After that it was just the hassle of trying to get from here to there, to get it done. I was prepared to spend twenty-six hours a day at it, because I could see it so clearly. I couldn’t understand why the helpers I hired were only interested in putting in eight. The project was huge but it was also such a treat. Just knowing that, no matter how challenging the undertaking, there’s a solution for every problem you might run up against. In many ways it’s even immaterial whether you stumble a whole lot in the process, or even if the damn thing caves in once or twice. Whereas with writing, I have never felt I had the privilege of a vision so clear and sharp. You can only hope you end up with more or less what you had in mind, though you never do. It can’t possibly be exactly what you fantasized it to be. There’s always going to be a rueful sense that it’s not exactly what you intended, it’s not quite the same.

T: So obviously you used the experience of building your own house to understand Tom Sukanen.
SCHROEDER: That’s got to be true. I certainly understood that for Tom Sukanen the reasons for building his ship and his visions of what he was going to do with it were far more important than the trivial horseshit of cold-rolling half-inch steel, however unbelievable people have found that in retrospect. His tragedy was that he miscalculated on the timing. That’s about the only thing he couldn’t manufacture himself: enough time. With enough time, he could have launched that ship, I’m convinced of it. He could have pulled it off.

T: If only the people in the community had got their John Deere tractors together and hauled the bloody thing. ..
SCHROEDER: Yes, that’s one of the things that became clear as I did the research. There are still a few men sitting around looking just little guilty about that.

T: Everybody was smaller than Tom Sukanen’s vision and now they have to realize it in retrospect.
SCHROEDER: That’s right. So now they’ve either got to shit on him even more, to protect themselves, or they’ve got to admit that. To their credit, there are some, a few at least, who faced up to it. Some of the men, but very few of the women. Not that I blame them, the women I mean. Tom treated them pretty badly.

T: Would you agree there’s a male/ female antipathy in this story that goes beyond personalities? Because traditionally it’s only men who behave as visionaries?
SCHROEDER: I was troubled by that fact. Because, fundamentally, I’ve always believed that’s a crock. But maybe it’s also got something to do with those times-the dustbowl, the scratching to survive, and the fact that women often manage to come up with the most level-headed approach when push really comes to shove.

T: Did you ever try to write a straight biography of Tom Sukanen?
SCHROEDER: No, no. What I saw in this story was a lot bigger than that. And that required the freedom to invent where the record or people’s recollections failed the story. And that happened a lot. It’s astonishing, really, how full of holes someone’s story can turn out to be when you change focus from wide-angle to close-up. Probably up to seventy-five percent of the book needed to be “invented” in some way. Which sounds like a lot, I’m sure, but what’s important is exactly where that seventy-five percent is located. And in this book it’s represented by a blizzard of mostly little things, conjunctions, bridges, a lot of fine-line detail. The main ingredients of the story, or most of them anyway, remain what is conventionally known as fact.
I discovered that a lot of what people told me was invention anyway, though they were convinced it wasn’t. And by the time I got through with all my research I felt I knew the old bugger better than anybody that was left around anyway, even his relatives, who’d never bothered to get very close to him. And from that, I just started putting him back together. When pieces were missing, I filled them in. I was allowed, I think, to step into that place because people who claimed to have known him had, in effect, abrogated the position. They hadn’t ever made the effort to really appreciate the possibilities of this man and his story. All their lives they’d watched him through the wrong end of the telescope. And I was damned if I wasn’t going to turn that telescope around.

T: Because you were thinking big? Creating a myth for someone like me who lives two thousand miles away?
SCHROEDER: Right. Exactly.

T: Whereas the people around Macrorie, Saskatchewan are going to read Dustship Glory and be very angry. They’re not thinking of the ship in terms of the Taj Mahal or the Pyramids. ..They’ll say, “This guy Schroeder’s a liar!”
SCHROEDER: They’ll probably say that because they think having been neighbours gives them the right to consider their inventions more accurate than mine.

T: Even though it clearly says that this is a novel on the cover. That it’s fiction.
SCHROEDER: Yes. I mean, I guess I could get into a full-blown debate on the question of historical truth here, point out that historians like Fernand Braudel have consistently kicked the stuffing out of the notion in book after book, proving that most of what has passed for historical truth has merely been the convenient invention of the prevalent aristocracy and so on and so on, but I’ll tell you: I frankly don’t much give a damn which side wins. To me, the issue centres on the purpose of setting down history, and a novelist’s is clearly different from a historian’s. A historian, I suppose, wants to make a simple case of who did what to whom, what caused what, without any
ulterior moral purpose. Where a novelist, so long as he’s not trying merely to entertain, always has a much larger hidden agenda. He’s always looking for the archetypal experience, the moral parable, for the events or incidents in which the most telling wisdom is demonstrated. I mean sure, some are more conscious of this than others, but we all do it. I mean, there’s a damn good reason why the myths of Sisyphus or Icarus, in whatever form we come across them, are as applicable today as they ever were. It’s because their authors managed to find or invent experiences that sum up our hopes and frustrations so adroitly, people throughout the ages kept sitting up in astonishment and saying, “Goddamn, that’s me, that’s exactly what I’m struggling with, dead on, man.” And who in his right mind cares whether Icarus wore blue pants or green pants or any pants at all? Or whether he really wore wax-and-feathers wings. Let him have strapped on fusion-thrust rockets from General Dynamics for all I care. That’s a total red herring; the wisdom in the myth isn’t dependent on that. By the same token, what I tried to do in Dustship Glory was to serve the mythic resonance of Sukanen’s story, to make sure that those elements which make it ageless got the necessary backlighting. I wasn’t interested in any lesser reasons for writing that story which is what I always suspect people of who quibble over the colour of Icarus’s pants.

T: Rudy Wiebe took much the same approach in writing The Temptations of Big Bear. He’s also a German Canadian Mennonite. Are there any more connections?
SCHROEDER: Actually, Rudy and I have had a strange relationship. For some time we approached each other, it seems to me, like wary wolves, trying to figure out our territory. He was always in a much better position for that than I, obviously. But there was one thing I seemed to have that Rudy didn’t, and which, I suspect, interested him in me. I think I seemed to him back then something of a loose moral cannon on deck, divested of all the standard Mennonite taboos and restraints, and he wanted to see what happened when a defunct Mennonite jumped off the deep end into the steaming waters of moral depravity. I think I must have ultimately disappointed him though, because I remember him saying once, when I was describing my common law but pretty conventional relationship with a certain young woman, “Awgee, you sound just like the rest of us.” Speaking of Big Bear, by the way, I’m also getting a lot more intrigued by the notion of digging into Canadian history for my central characters. We do seem to have a downright gratifying rogues’ gallery of them. Amor de Cosmos. Brother Free John. General “Puff’ Brackendale. Canadian eccentrics seem to have a certain patina…

T: And Dustship Glory is a deeply Canadian story.
SCHROEDER: Yes, it is that. If you tried to write it for American history, if you wanted to custom-design it for the States, you’d have to look at it quite differently. Not to mention making it a lot “noisier.” But I’m convinced that Americans could really benefit by seeing the world from a Canadian perspective now and then. Calm them down a little.
I’m fundamentally content with the Canadian perspective on the world, but there is a distressing Canadian tendency to want to, well, the German word is emuchtem, which means to neutralize, to deflate, to trivialize with sobering detail. The tendency to say, ‘Yeah, that sounds pretty wonderful, but really, didn’t this guy also beat his wife and cheat on his income tax? So he couldn’t really have been all that great, could he?” It’s going to take some time and a lot more books like Hodgins’ Invention of the World before we stop being so self deprecating about our heroes. It’s not Greek gods we’re inventing here, after all. We may be celebrating vision, but it’s a grounded vision after all.

T: When you just said, “It’s not Greek gods,” it just flipped into my mind, “Okay, then it’s Canadian gods.” Why is that immediately laughable? “Canadian gods.”
SCHROEDER: I know what you mean. But it shouldn’t be, and maybe some day it won’t. However there’s a distinction I’d like to make about this now that you’ve brought it up, and it’s this. The problem with Greek gods is that they have no really believable human roots-that is, all those silly human attributes they exhibit always felt to me tacked on like those sticker eyes on Cabbage Patch dolls. Quite mechanical. Not the slightest room for empathy there. They feel like a bad novelist’s inventions. I can’t take them seriously; I’ve always had trouble believing that the Greeks really did. For me, there are only two believable kinds of gods: one that has an existence totally outside all human invention or experience, some inexplicable, unpredictable, invincible Outside Power- and since I can’t see any convincing evidence for that so far, I don’t believe we’ve yet encountered such a god or there should be gods who are actually just idealized people, once-real people whose magnificent vision or wisdom or performance good or evil warranted putting their images on pedestals, their thoughts and histories into “bibles,” either as warnings or encouragements. Their power, in other words, would reside in the strength of their examples, their ideas or visions -not the colour of their pants. And however high we felt the need to elevate them, they would still continue to convince people of the possibility of emulation because they’d once, after all, been human and started off with roughly the same flaws and virtues as everybody else. Now for my money, that ‘5 the only kind of humanly invented god that makes any sense-a god you can pray to, but also, in some sense, run into at the supermarket any day of the week. Like Jesus, for example-just ignore all that nonsense about his pedigree and you’ve got yourself a perfectly workable god.

T: This idea must come directly from your Mennonite background.
SCHROEDER: Well, you’re right in the sense that that’s precisely where the rupture originated. We were constantly being told to feel all this reverence and adulation for a god who had so obviously been invented by men looking for a handy way to control and push around humankind, all protestations to the contrary, that I just couldn’t buy it. It was just too obvious. Now if this god had truly stood for anything genuinely worthy, it might have been different, but as far as I could see, he merely stood for raw, unadulterated power. The combination of suspiciously human motives and a handily vengeful god trivialized conventional religion utterly for me. That god who was presented to me as a goddamn monument, someone to look up to and revere, had never done anything to earn any of my deepest feelings. In fact, if you want to get really specific about it, the god in the Old Testament is a prick. He’s the most unjust, spleenful, Jealous, capricious, unfair son-of-a-bitch that ever had the nerve to masquerade as a “just god” anywhere.

T: So it would make as much sense to worship Tom Sukanen.
SCHROEDER: That’s about it. But at least I can relate to what this man was prepared to sacrifice his life for. I can admire the breadth and splendid craziness of his vision, and all the desperation that went into it. That I can relate to. And I’m prepared to carry that a step farther, to elevate it to a height where it operates as myth. Whereas I’m not prepared to put the sum total of my admirations, translated into four or five years of sweat at a desk, into contributing toward the mortgage payments on a lot of religious real estate belonging to an enormous patriarchal religious bureaucracy. I mean, sure, the needs of community are always served to a degree whenever two or three are gathered together in His name, but that can be accomplished with a lot less overhead, thank you very much. All puns intended.

T: And this has resulted in a schism with your father.
SCHROEDER: My father lives in an increasingly different world. For one thing, he doesn’t read English, which means he doesn’t read my books. But more to the point, he speaks a completely different spiritual language. From my perspective, it’s religious jargon, which means the world to him but very little to me. I wouldn’t be surprised if I sound the same to him a lot of the time. It’s hard to tell; he doesn’t open up much to me. So I guess there’s a schism. There’s certainly a language problem. And a very fundamental difference of opinion about what’s important. One thing I guess I know for sure, and it’s sad but unalterable: I’m not the son he had in mind when he made me.

T: It makes sense you turned to surrealism at UBC. As a rebellion of language.
SCHROEDER: Well, surrealism had a purpose at the time. It had to break up a whole Victorian mindset, my own included. And it did that. It did that very effectively. But there is a reason why it faded as fast as it did, all over the world; there was always something missing, something slightly empty about it. It was a half-truth blown up to full-truth proportions. And on the negative side, it fostered a climate at the Creative Writing Department in those days which said, in effect: “We’ll be as experimental and obtuse and impenetrable as we like, and if readers can’t stick with it, then screw them.” I had to work my way through that. Mind you, some part of me does see the world that way, so it was good to work through it, but I got stuck in it too long. I became a disciple. It cost me almost as much to get out of the voice I wrote in those days as it took me to acquire it. Now I don’t have to invent theatres that blow up at the end of the last act any more. And I don’t have to try to invent people like Tom Sukanen either, because I eventually discovered that you can find them almost ready made and much more compelling if you simply drive down Highway 2 south of Moose Jaw, or live on West Seventh Avenue in Vancouver-that’s where the main character of the novel I’m working on now used to live. It’s really quite wonderful. Nobody believed me when I set my stories into Magritte-like landscapes with great rolling balls clear back to the horizon, but since I’ve found those exact landscapes hayball for hay-ball thirty-five miles northwest of Wood Mountain, Saskatchewan, they’ve had no choice. And I can continue to indulge my predilection for the bizarre under a new flag of convenience. It’s like that wonderful line in a Paulette Jiles poem: “Texas is not my fault.” Well, Tom Sukanen is not my fault either. And that leaves my hands free to plunge into him up to my eyeballs.

Essay Date: 1986

Comments are closed.

  • About Us

    BC BookLook is an independent website dedicated to continuously promoting the literary culture of British Columbia.