November 04th, 2009
This article is written by Maria Pavlik who interviewed W.O. Mitchell at the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver in 1990 when he was there to publicize his newest book, symptoms Roses are Difficult Here. It was first printed in Prairie BookWorld.
The soft hazel eyes beneath W.O. Mitchell’s feathery white hair suggest kindness. A spark in his gaze, however, hints at a cutting intellectual edge.
Mitchell, 76, responds to questions with warmth and wit; but his answers are not always revealing. It’s sometimes difficult to find the man behind the scholarly professor, the storyteller or the showman.
Mitchell’s latest novel, Roses are Difficult Here (M&S $26.95) is set in the 1950s. It’s the story of Matt Stanley, who enters Shelby, Alberta to become a publisher, editor and reporter of a newspaper he inherited from his Pulitzer Prize-winning uncle.
Matt Stanley’s uneasiness surfaces when a sociologist arrives to study his town. Her Easterner’s view of Shelby as inferior gives shape to Matt’s thoughts. He is swept into a process of understanding and defending his community.
PBW: Over the years, your work has often validated small town life.
MITCHELL: That’s correct. I have mostly written out of the geography of my childhood. There’s an assumption that the isolated rural community no longer exists in the 90s. But it does. With television and the motor car, the isolation is not so great, but it still exists. Lucky is the child who grows up in what still remains.
PBW: Do you ever feel you have to present yourself in a certain way – as a representative of those rural-based books?
MITCHELL: I always introduce myself as Bill Mitchell. A few moments go by and all of a sudden I see a look. What it says is, ‘Don’t be who you are, be who I think you to be and that is your writing facade’. It’s flattering because it means my fictional character conned them. Most people associate me with Jack Trumper, the hired man in Jake and The Kid. They think I a rural hired man. Hell! I won the gold medal in philosophy. I’ve been a writer in residence at universities in Italy and West Germany. I’m afraid I’m an urban sparrow.
PBW: Matt is proud but bound by his uncle’s Pulitzer Prize. Has Who Has Seen The Wind become the Pulitzer Prize of your life? Do you feel bound by that book?
MITCHELL: I don’t think you can speak to any serious writer whose first work was a bagger who wouldn’t say you’ve got that monkey on your back for the rest of your life. What saves you is that, in the arts, you don’t look at closures in the same way other people do and you really don’t look back. It’s a continuing creative flow. I’m a very lucky guy. If I were born to be a pipe fitter or a brain surgeon, I’d be retired by now.
PBW: You’ve always written sensitively about nature. Even the title of your new book suggests that. Are you involved in any environmental issues?
MITCHELL: Not actively. I’m apolitical. Art is the only thing humans do for its own sake and does not involve an adversarial relationship. Having said that, I’m so cheesed off at what’s happening at The Old Man River Dam in Alberta and the Rafferty Dam in Saskatchewan. This is very close to the swimming hole where I was a child, east of Weyburn. I care so much about the environment. I’m not alone as it happens. Do you realize that 15 years ago, the average joker never gave it a thought? There is hardly a person breathing and living in North America today that is not worried about acid rain and pollution. That’s a beautiful gain.
PBW: You sound optimistic about mankind correcting past mistakes.
MITCHELL: I keep thinking about Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath which opens with a turtle trying to go up a sandy slope. It struggles up and slides back. Each time, it makes a miniscule gain. Now admittedly the turtle made it to the top and out into a four-lane highway and got smashed. Optimism is a strong word but I see the changes. When I rode freights in the waterfront of San Francisco and hadn’t eaten for three days, a woman, single or otherwise, could be a relief cheque for $25. There was no unemployment insurance, old age pension or medicare. Come on. That turtle is keeping up, keeping up. Now I’m not saying whether it will get smashed on the freeway or not.
PBW: Your personality obviously determines the way you shape the characters in your books. In Roses, are you bits and pieces of everyone or are you mostly one person?
MITCHELL: You cannot make up fiction. It has to be found. You’ve got to start with life and find someone you hated, someone you loved, feelings, emotions, sensuous fragments and particular insights for the thematic structure. Having said that, life is not art. There has to be a creative leap away to what can be called illusion. Every single bit is the truth and it’s found through your own experience. But the whole thing becomes a more meaningful, dramatic and magic lie.
PBW: You have a dark side as well as a light side. How has that been expressed in your work?
MITCHELL: My learned son once said, ‘Dad, the heart of darkness has been in everything you have ever written’. It has been. In Who Has Seen The Wind, there is a symphonic structure of alternating birth and then death, death, death. I was raised on the prairies for the first 12 years of my life. It’s a lonely sort of isolation. Very early, I could see a dead steer or a gopher with undertaker beetles and ants on it. My father died when I was six. From spring to fall, every other week, my mother took us to visit the prairie cemetery where his remains lay. By the age of ten, I knew I was mortal. You see life is a cord. Shakespeare knew it. He called it comic relief with the idea that if you have laughter, you have tears. It makes the emotional pendulum swing and makes the tragedy that much deeper and the laughter that much louder. So yes, there’s a dark element in my work.
PBW: Matt believes humans take themselves too seriously and we explain our behavior too pompously. How much of your work would you say is dedicated to making us see through the pomp?
MITCHELL: An awful lot. In this book, I had fun doing what Matt called ‘academic Pig Latin’ which is utterly lacking in clarity. Greek and Latin-derived terms which never use the active voice, only the passive. I feel pretty emotional if anybody damages my language, including the politicians.
PBW: You were recently honored in Toronto for your life’s achievements. How did that feel?
MITCHELL: That was the most beautiful event in my life. I tried to think of anything more emotionally lovely than that three-hour tribute, with my family there, at the International Festival of Writers at Harbourfront. I figured out it was just as emotional and cathartic as when I held my first published novel physically in my hand. I haven’t gotten over it yet. As a result, I was the object of an editorial column in the Toronto Star. And I’m still living.
Maria Pavlik is a freelance writer specializing in Canadian Books.
Essay Date: 1990