Jane Barker Wright
April 07th, 2008
Jane Barker Wright’s second novel The Understanding arises from the personalities of Solly and Isobel, two modern idealists. Solly was an active proponent of free love and Isobel went along with it. This was ‘the understanding’ they had.
“I became aware of how naïve and rather sweet that attitude seems today, ” says Wright. “Solly believed it was harmless, even beneficial. It turned out to be tremendously harmful, resulting in two deaths. I can’t give away more than that!”
There’s a scandal involving a missing baby—and suddenly they all find themselves in the tabloids, trying to appear as ‘normal’ as possible.
BCBW: Was there a germination point for The Understanding?
WRIGHT: I began to imagine a woman who refused to stop having kids. I ‘d just had our fourth and final child and, while I didn’t want to go on producing them, I still felt a pang for that last one. The recognition of the end of the child-bearing phase is a poignant moment in many women’s lives. Even childless women reach a point when they realize that the baby option is no longer viable. With that poignancy in mind, I came up with the character of Isobel Whitechapel, mother of nine, and a regular contributor to Family Matters on CBC.
BCBW: Isobel and Solly go from a very open-ended communal situation to a very protracted city life.
WRIGHT: Yes, aging entails a gradual narrowing of possibility. I became fascinated by the logistics of raising a large family in Vancouver in the ‘90s. How much milk, bread, peanut butter and toilet paper does a family of eleven actually go through in a week? How the hell do you get everybody in the car at one time? Whose soccer game do you attend? How do you cope with parent/teacher interviews, dentist’s bills, holidays? Family life is always black comedy.
BCBW: Then somebody runs a red light. Or a doctor has bad news.
WRIGHT: That’s right. But it doesn’t matter what horrific ordeal you’re suddenly going through; meals still have to be made, concerts still have to be attended, illnesses still have to be treated. Children require normalcy or at least a parody of it. Until I wrote the last line, I didn’t know whether the marriage in The Understanding would survive or self-destruct. I’d always wanted to write about an abiding, long-term relationship—you can’t even say happy marriage anymore; people smirk—it’s a state that’s commonplace in life, especially middle-life, but virtually absent in modern literature, which I find strange.
BCBW: They need a support group. The Happily Married specialty channel.
WRIGHT: Right. You can’t say you’re happily married. It feels like a boast.
BCBW: Besides, you’d be tempting fate if you said that.
WRIGHT: That happens to Solly and Isobel in a way. I suppose their relationship could be called a folie a deux. Solly is a social activist who started a commune. He has always lived according to ideological principles. He sleeps around constantly; he’s quite famous for it actually. Isobel puts up with it because she’s learned that she can’t change him and she can’t bear to leave. She never falls out of love with him; mostly she fears he will leave her. I’m interested in the compromises, surrenders and shared experiences that keep two people together more than I am in the indifference and acrimony that pull them apart.
BCBW: What are some of the compromises and surrenders that keep your own marriage together?
WRIGHT: As you know, writers spend a lot of time scribbling away and producing no income at all, so it was up to my husband to pay the rent. He works in mining and for the first half of our marriage, we moved from Trail to Vancouver to Sydney, Australia to Vancouver to Tumbler Ridge to Greymouth, New Zealand and back to Vancouver by which point our oldest child was too old to be expected to switch schools every year. Since then, he’s done the travelling and I’ve covered the home front. Unlike most women, I’m hopeless at multi-tasking and that makes me an incredibly slow writer. In all my years of writing, I’ve never really dealt with the logistical juggling, time-management and, let’s face it, guilt involved in being a working mother.
BCBW: At your first book launch, you went into labour.
WRIGHT: Yes. Not a good career move. My first novel was published by the brilliant and endlessly understanding Julian Ross. I wanted to promote it for his sake. I’ll try to do better this time, but I’m afraid I’ll never be able to schmooze properly. A very, very young writer told me a couple of years ago that these days you have to schmooze. His short story collection was just published by Penguin. I find this profoundly depressing. I have about five minutes of patter and I never remember anybody’s name.
BCBW: In your first novel, a young couple leaves a secure life to go to Tasmania, and she’s pregnant. That was about motherhood, too.
WRIGHT: Well, it’s something I know something about. The sentimental iconography of motherhood both intrigues and frightens me. Mothers are not allowed to be frail or fallible. The mad or bad mother always makes the front page. Mothers are not supposed to be human. Yet most of us manage to live up to society’s expectations. Wonderful mothers are as common as dirt! It’s an amazing phenomenon.
Parenthood is one of the big subjects, as big as war or love. If someone writes a novel about war, it’s automatically endowed with a kind of gravitas because of the resonance of the theme. If a woman writes a book about motherhood, it’s gently condemned as ‘domestic,’ as if the producing and nurturing of life is less monumental than the destruction of it. But the issues raised are the same: risk, power and the lack of it, despair and hope.
BCBW: Domesticity. A subject that can’t get dated.
WRIGHT: (laughter) I think Carol Shields’ The Stone Diaries taught us that an ordinary life can be as gripping as an extraordinary one. She writes wonderful domestic books. Now I’ve started on a third novel and it’s following the trend. Calvin Trillin wrote The Tummy Trilogy. I’m working on a Mummy Trilogy.
Essay Date: 2002