#91 Audrey Thomas
January 28th, 2016
LOCATION: Public bench, Spanish Hills government dock, north end of Galiano Island.
DIRECTIONS: Take the Sturdies Bay / Porlier Pass main road up the island for about 26 kilometres, past Lover’s Leap and Spotlight Cove, all the way to the aforementioned dock. [Just up the road, about a five-minute walk, there’s a cairn marking the 49th parallel.]
Audrey Thomas has maintained a cottage on northern Galiano Island since 1969. “I’ve spent hundreds of hours sitting on a bench at the government dock, thinking and plotting, and still like to go down there and watch the sunsets. During the Hale-Bopp Comet trajectory, I was down there every night for a month.” The dock and former store feature in the opening scene of her novel Intertidal Life for which she received the inaugural Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, the top fiction award in British Columbia. Thomas is the only writer to have won it three times.
Audrey Thomas is not a household name, and yet she has long operated in the upper echelon of Canadian literature. She has received the Writers Trust of Canada Matt Cohen Award, the W.O. Mitchell Prize, the Canada-Australia Literary Prize and the Marian Engel Award. She is the only three-time recipient of B.C.’s top fiction award, the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, for Intertidal Life (1984), The Wild Blue Yonder (1990) and Coming Down from Wa (1995). She has also received the George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award and the Order of Canada in 2009.
Since 1967, Thomas has written eighteen books of fiction and more than twenty plays. Often concerned with gender politics, secrets, language and identity, her stories concern the struggles of women, oppressed, or bitter with disappointment, with few happy endings. Possibly her sharp judgments and acerbic observations are best suited to short stories. “Page for page,” Margaret Atwood has decreed, “she is one of the country’s best writers.” Her other close literary associates have included Jane Rule, George Bowering and Alice Munro.
Born in New York State in 1935, Thomas has lived mostly on Canada’s west coast since 1959, having left England in August of that year with her infant daughter and husband in order for him to work in Vancouver. She started work on a Master’s degree in English, employed as a teacher’s assistant at UBC from 1961 to 1964. From 1964 to 1966 she lived in Ghana where she wrote her first published story, “If One Green Bottle…” It concerns the author’s confinement and miscarriage in a Ghana hospital and won her an award for debut fiction from the Atlantic Monthly. After Thomas published her first collection of short stories, Ten Green Bottles (1967), her first novel Mrs. Blood (1970) harkens back to her Ghanaian experiences. As the second novel she published, but the first novel she wrote, Songs My Mother Taught Me (1973) recalls growing up in New York State.
Separated in 1972, with three daughters, Thomas became a Canadian citizen in 1979. An excellent special issue of Room of One’s Own highlighted her work and life in 1985. The female protagonist in Isobel Gunn (1999) is based on an historical figure from the Orkney Islands who disguised herself as a man in 1806 and signed on with the Hudson’s Bay Company to work in Rupert’s Land, concealing her identity for a year-and-a-half. Thomas next picked a character from Charles Dickens’ household for Hattycoram (2005), about a relatively powerless woman struggling with her identity as Dickens interacts with his own characters. Audrey Thomas’ early books were mainly published by Talonbooks of Vancouver; then with Ontario imprints from 1981 onwards.
Audrey Thomas has lived in Greece, France, England and Scotland but has maintained a home at the north end of Galiano Island since 1969. She continues to write fiction by longhand, avoiding computers.
In 2003, Audrey Thomas received the ninth Terasen Lifetime Achievement Award for an Outstanding Literary Career in British Columbia, now called the George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award.
There are precious few literary prizes in Canada that she hasn’t won. In 2004 she delivered the Margaret Laurence Lecture at the Writers Union of Canada AGM in Victoria and was honoured with the $20,000 Writers Trust Of Canada’s Matt Cohen Award in honour of a distinguished body of work. The Galiano Island and Victoria-based short story writer and novelist has also won British Columbia’s top fiction award, the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, an unprecedented three times, for Intertidal Life, Wild Blue Yonder and Coming Down from Wa. As well, she has received the $15,000 W.O. Mitchell Award (2001), the Marian Engel Award (1987), the $3,000 Canada-Australia Prize (1989), the Canada-Scotland Literary Fellowship (1985-86) and a National Magazine Award. She received the Order of Canada in 2009. More than 25 of her plays and stories have been broadcast on CBC.
Audrey Thomas was born in Binghamton, New York on November 17, 1935, and raised there as Audrey Grace Callahan. She completed her B.A. at Smith College. She married English sculptor and art teacher Ian Thomas in 1958, immigrated to British Columbia in August, 1959, attended UBC and earned an M.A. in English (1963). At UBC she met numerous writers involved in the emerging TISH poetry movement but always felt separate from them as a prose writer. She taught English 100 at UBC from 1959 to 1963. From 1964 to 1966 she lived in Ghana where she wrote her first published story, ‘If One Green Bottle…” It concerns the author’s confinement and miscarriage in a Ghana hospital. It won her and award for debut fiction from the Atlantic Monthly. In 1967, Audrey Thomas published her first collection of short stories, Ten Green Bottles. Her first novel Mrs. Blood (1970) harkens back to her Ghanaian experiences.
Audrey Thomas has three daughters and two grandchildren. She and Ian Thomas separated in 1972. She became a Canadian citizen in 1979. She has taught and been writer-in-residence at many universities and has several honorary degrees including an honorary SFU doctorate, conferred in 1994, and a similar doctorate from UBC. She served on the panel of judges for the 2002 IMPAC Dublin Literary Arts Award, the most lucrative literary prize in English. She was twice shortlisted for Governor-General’s Awards for fiction and has received three prizes from CBC Literary Competitions. Her books have been translated in several languages and she has had 20 radio plays produced. A special issue of Room of One’s Own highlighted her work and life in 1985. She has lived in Greece, France, England and Scotland but has maintained a home at the north end of Galiano Island since 1969.
Audrey Thomas has published eighteen books of fiction. In them she is often concerned with gender politics, secrets, language and identity. The first novel she wrote, but the second one published, Songs My Mother Taught Me (1973), recalls growing up in New York State. The female protagonist in Isobel Gunn (1999) is based on an historical figure from the Orkney Islands who disguised herself as a man in 1806 and signed on with the Hudson’s Bay Company to work in Rupert’s Land, concealing her identity for a year and a half. The audiobook version of Isobel Gunn, read by Vancouver actor Duncan Fraser, was nominated for an Audie Award in 2003. Having plucked a character from the pages of history for Isobel Gunn, Audrey Thomas next picked a character from Dickens and his household for Hattycoram (2005), another novel about a relatively powerless woman struggling with her identity. [See review below]
Audrey Thomas’ books were mainly published in Canada by Talonbooks of Vancouver and Penguin Canada of Toronto prior to her 2005 novel with Goose Lane Editions and a subsequent novel with Dundurn.
Thomas continues to write her fiction by longhand, eschewing computers. She has long been associated with Galiano Island, having taken up residency there before the arrival of the island’s other well-known novelist, Jane Rule, who lived at the south end. Still active on Galiano as of 2015, Audrey Thomas contributes as a valuable member of a Galiano bookclub, providing her writer’s insight. Her family’s lemonade recipe is always appreciated at the island’s annual picnic in September. She also sometimes sings in the local choir and her workshops at the Galiano Literary Festival are always sold out.
An alternate literary location for Audrey Thomas abroad could be Cape Coast Castle, Ghana. [Directions: From the capital city of Accra it’s a two-and-a-half hour drive for 144 km to Cape Coast.]
As a young wife, Audrey Thomas followed her husband to Ghana where they lived from 1964 to 1966. There she wrote her first published story, “If One Green Bottle…” describing a confinement and miscarriage in a Ghana hospital. It won an award for debut fiction from the Atlantic Monthly and served as the basis for her first novel Mrs. Blood (1970). Later her Blown Figures (1974), set in Ghana, reputedly uses Africa as a metaphor for the unconscious. During a vacation in 1965, Thomas and her husband visited the remains of the Elmira and Cape Coast Castle slave-supply hubs, now both World Heritage Sites. There she saw the graves of the Cape Coast Castle manager George Maclean and his bride Letitia Landon, formerly a respected English author before her mysterious death. Five decades later Thomas brilliantly imagined the life of the transplanted authoress from 1836 to late 1838, in both London and at Cape Coast, for a superb but largely unnoticed novel, Local Customs (2014), in which she convincingly enters the minds of the female protagonist and the men around her.
[President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama visited the slavery museum at Cape Coast Castle in July of 2009. The slave fortress was pre-dated by a similar Portuguese compound at Elmina, six miles away. The renovated Cape Coast structure was first built as a fort by the Swedes for their timber and mineral exportation. The Dutch took it over, then the English used it as the hub for their transatlantic slave trade from 1665 to 1807. With a population of one million, Cape Coast was the capital city when Ghana was called the Gold Coast. The British moved the capital to Accra in 1877.]
Ten Green Bottles (Bobbs-Merrill, 1967, Oberon 1977) – stories
Mrs. Blood (Bobbs-Merrill 1970, Talonbooks 1975) – novel
Muchmeyer / Prospero on the Island (Bobbs-Merrill 1972) – novel
Songs My Mother Taught Me (Talonbooks 1973) – novel
Blown Figures (Talonbooks 1974) – novel
Ladies and Escorts (Oberon 1977) – novel
Latakia (Talonbooks 1979) –novel
Real Mothers (Talonbooks 1981) – stories
Two in the Bush and Other Stories (M&S, collected, 1981) – stories
Intertidal Life (Stoddart 1984) – novel
Goodbye Harold, Good Luck (Penguin 1986) – stories
The Wild Blue Yonder (Penguin 1990) – stories
Graven Images (Penguin 1993) – novel
Coming Down From Wa (Penguin 1995) – novel
Isobel Gunn (Penguin 1999) – novel
The Path of Totality (Penguin 2001) – stories, new and selected
Tattycoram (Goose Lane, 2005) – novel 0-86492-431-3
Local Customs (Dundurn 2014) $16.99 978-1459707986
The Path of Totality: New and Selected Stories (Viking Penguin $29.99)
Review by Joan Givner, BC BookWorld, 2001
In The Path of Totality: New and Selected Stories (Viking Penguin $29.99) Audrey Thomas is often describing female protagonists in Africa, Mexico and Greece as a means of exploring their identities. “Who are we when removed from family, friends, house, street, job, city and mother-tongue?”
Settings in non-English-speaking countries frequently allow her to exploit her fondness for word-play.
Thomas ends this collection on what she describes in her preface as “a note of quiet contentment” with a love story. While it is good to see a writer in a mellow mood at a late stage in her career, what long-time admirers of Thomas cherish is her ascerbic wit, the sometimes savage indignation, and the bitterness that remains on the palate like a dash of good vinegar.
The 17 stories from previous collections include her earliest published story, ‘If One Green Bottle…,’ (The Atlantic, 1965) as well as such familiar masterpieces as ‘Local Customs’ and ‘The Man with Clam Eyes.’
However, the three previously uncollected and the two new stories are so fresh and interesting that one wishes the balance of this collection had tipped more in favour of new material.
One of these, ‘Volunteers,’ is a dramatic monologue in which a woman observing a mentally handicapped child, plays a game of What Might Have Been by imagining how their life together might have unfolded if, instead of rejecting such a child, she had had the courage to raise it to adulthood.
While Thomas has always depicted women’s lives with a frank awareness of gender inequity and discrimination, she has rarely made such a bold political statement as ‘Bear Country,’ an uncollected story that first appeared in Saturday Night. This story takes place in Montreal and its references to the massacre of women there by a lone male suggests that it was written as a response to that event. The subject matter could have produced sentimental and heavy-handed results, as with ‘Volunteers’. It is a hallmark of Thomas’ talent that she handles such potentially dangerous material with verve.
Wilma, the protagonist, is “in real life” a performance artist who can’t seem to get away from feminist pieces. After hearing a professor say the air is putrid with feminism, she devises a skit based on the Pollution Scoreboard at the McGill metro. Instead of showing levels of pollutants the scoreboard shows levels of feminism for the day.
The second part of the skit has Mulroney and Bush Sr. (in masks) engaging in an emergency summit to deal with the problem. In a final skit, based on the familiar YOU ARE IN BEAR COUNTRY pamphlet, Thomas plays with a series of bilingual puns.
“We are in bear country,” says a group of women to the sound of bear bells.
“This country is ours,” replies a group of men.
Audrey Thomas divides her time between houses on Galiano Island and in Victoria. She is the recipient of the new $15, 000 W.O. Mitchell Award and has won three Ethel Wilson Fiction Prizes. 0-670-89647-0
Isobel Gunn (Penguin $29.99)
Audrey Thomas, three-time recipient of the Ethel Wilson Prize, has a new historical novel, Isobel Gunn (Penguin $29.99), based on a young Orkney woman who disguised herself as a man to work in Rupert’s Land until she gave birth in 1807. With a feminist imagination, Thomas explores Gunn’s radical adventure, the origins of her child and her painful separation from him—narrated by an Orcadian minister named Magnus Inkster. 0-670-88684-X
[BCBW WINTER 1999]
AUDREY THOMAS interview from STRONG VOICES by Alan Twigg (Harbour 1988)
AUDREY THOMAS was born in Binghamton, New York in 1935, She moved to BC after her marriage in 1958, received her MA from UBC in 1963 and accompanied her husband to Ghana (1964-66), Upon returning to Vancouver she published her first short story collection, Ten Green Bottles (1967), followed by Ladies & Escorts (1977), Real Mothers(1981), Two in the Bush and Other Stories (1981) and Goodbye Harold, Good Luck (1986), Her mostly autobiographical novels and novellas are Mrs, Blood (1970), Munchmeyer (1971), Prospero on the Island (1971), Songs My Mother Taught Me (1973), Blown Figures (1974), Latakia (1979) and Intertidal Life (1984) for which she earned the first Ethel Wilson BC Book Prize, She lives on Galiano Island, where she has maintained a cabin since 1969. She was interviewed in 1986.
T: You once said the challenge of people’s lives is to organize one’s pain. Are you getting your pain more organized as you grow older? THOMAS: I’ve got my craft more organized, man! Mind you, I hope I don’t avoid painful situations. I hope that I will never avoid painful situations.
T: What about what Eleanor Wachtel says in Room Of One’s Own about the women in your books becoming saner and stronger?
THOMAS: Stronger, yes. But I hope they don’t become saner.
T: Surely the more you become “craftsman-like,” the more sanity creeps in. As you develop more objectivity.
THOMAS: Well, you know there’s a lovely phrase in one of Malcolm Lowry’s letters that I often relate to myself. It’s raining and everything is wrong. He’s really despondent. Maybe it’s after his cabin has burned down. He says, “But cheerfulness is always creeping in.” I’ve always loved that line. I feel that’s really the story of my life. I’m basically quite a cheerful person. I’m hardly a depressive at all. People are usually very surprised when they meet me. Somebody once told me at a conference, “I never realized that you were funny.”
T: Something I like about your work is what you call “quick language,” and in order to have “quick language” you can hardly be a depressive.
THOMAS: Yes. And I’m getting less and less of a depressive as I get older. As I realize more and more that everybody’s screwy. I’m not alone!
T: Speaking of not being alone you’ve described Faulkner’s fiction as “meticulous and outrageous at the same time.” It struck me that’s entirely appropriate for your writing, too.
THOMAS: Well, on that score I think I’ve learned a lot from the Australian novelist Patrick White. He’ll actually stop sentences in the middle, things like that. Tricks of emphasis. I didn’t know prose writers could do that until I started reading White. I thought poets were the only ones who were allowed to be as meticulous as that.
T: At the same time there’s an uninhibited, willing-to-be unconventional quality to your prose that is quite overt.
THOMAS: Well, the novel is essentially a middle-class form. I know I’m not unique in saying that. The novel has a tradition of received morality behind it. And if you no longer believe in that-or if you believe there isn’t any such collective morality in the society in which you live-then the novel is about breaking down all that. And the minute your novel is about breaking down, it’s not a novel anymore. It’s a book. I write books.
T: Looking at those “books,” George Bowering has decided there is a huge difference between your short stories and your novels.
THOMAS: And that interested me. He thought I was more experimental in my novels. But he hadn’t read Goodbye Harold, Good Luck. There are some very experimental stories in there.
T: For example, “The Man with Clam Eyes.” It reminded me a little bit of Leonard Cohen. Just the way you were loading up the language and purposely not explaining things.
THOMAS: You know who that story reminds me of? Browning. I grew up on Browning and the idea of the dramatic monologue.
T: Where did that title come from? “The Man with Clam Eyes?”
THOMAS: I sometimes read manuscripts for the Canada Council. In one of them there was this typo. It said this man had “clam eyes.” I was tired and I just thought, Jesus, what a strange image! It took me about an hour to realize it must have been a typo. Then David McFadden told me he has a poem that has a line “calm as a clam.” The whole dramatic monologue got started from that.
T: When you first lived in Scotland at age twenty-six, you said “the ghosts talk.” Given the changes, could you still get in tune with that romanticism in Scotland?
THOMAS: Oh, I think so. Especially in Orkney. I think the largest deposits of uranium in Britain are under the ground in Orkney. And yet they have this mythical landscape. It looks a lot like Saltspring Island. Very soft, rolling greenery. Meanwhile there’s uranium underneath. It was interesting to see the romanticism and the reality together. They had big signs saying Keep Our Island Uranium Free. There’s an uneasy truce with the government for the time being. Because it’s so easy to feel the mysticism of that place, there’s a lot of anger that they might think of mining the uranium. I happened to be there just after the cloud was passing from the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster. The radiation levels were high. I was very aware of everything at stake there.
T: Chernobyl could turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to the twentieth century.
THOMAS: I know what you mean. I don’t believe in God. But there was God’s warning to us all.
T: Yes. Everybody on earth was touched by that accident. It was wonderful because for the first time it all went from theoretical to practical overnight. We have to stop having such blind faith in technology.
THOMAS: There is no god in the machine. It’s madness. It’s as though we have this terrible desire to kill ourselves. A death wish. I wanted to start a Lysistrata society. Have you ever seen that play? The women refuse to sleep with the men until they stop waging war. That play is one of the great moral comedies. I’d like all the women of the world to become Lysistrata members. And they would not sleep with the men until disarmament takes place. We could put on the play everywhere. All across Canada on a particular day. Using the nuclear issue. Except you’d have too many women feeling it was unnatural.
T: You’d have to make it a Lysistrata Day. That way you’d get supportive publicity for it at first. All the male dominated media wouldn’t feel it was a real threat. They’d be willing to play it up. It would be good for ratings.
THOMAS: I’m really tempted to do it. It’s the women who’ve got to stop this. We’ve got to prove to the men that they’re the losers.
T: You’ve always participated in the Writers Union. You must welcome its new swing towards more political activism.
THOMAS: I do. I left the United States for political reasons. And for years I’ve been writing letters for Amnesty International. And I belong to PEN. So what am I doing sitting on my ass in Canada doing nothing politically? That’s how the Writers Union can be important. I would never run for government because then I wouldn’t write. I’m that selfish. I think intelligent women should run for politics and I think it’s awful that more of us don’t, but I’m not a good enough organizer. I’ve been on the executive of the Writers Union but I would never be the chairman. I’m not good at organization. I was good as a second vice-chairman, writing letters to Trudeau, sending telegrams, that sort of thing.
T: I know you’re sensitive to the criticism that as a feminist you are not fully and overtly a feminist writer.
T: But I feel that if you stop in a story to analyse language, as you do, that can be as progressive as anything on a more didactic scale.
THOMAS: I agree. When I point out the word other in mother, to me that’s a political statement. Because mothers sometimes lose that sense that they are another person. Or the word harm in pharmacy. Because I think there are far too many drugs passed over the counter. Or the word over in lover. I certainly think there should be people who make direct political statements about inequities.
T: They’re called politicians.
THOMAS: Or polemicists. Or else non-fiction writers. But it’s just not my way of doing it. In a story, if I have a child turning a grapefruit around because she’s terribly confused about saying which parent she’s going to spend the next Christmas with, that’s an image that I hope will stay in people’s minds for when they’re considering splitting up.
T: Since you’ve brought that up, the story of yours that had the most resonance for me was the one about the boy in Greece…
THOMAS: Oh, do you like that? That’s one of my favourite stories.
T: I like it because it shows how children are instinctually sensitive and understanding of the adult sexual climate. They’re affected by it. And that’s such a huge area to be writing about.
THOMAS: The original impetus for that story came when my daughter Claire and I saw an incident on a Greek beach. A little boy found this octopus. He was very excited about it. He kept shouting, “I’m the one who found it. I’m the one who found it.” Meanwhile there was this real jerk who used to strut around the beach in his Panama hat and his tiny bikini briefs. And he was very hairy. And he took the octopus away from the boy. And he started playing very sexual games with it which the boy didn’t understand. The boy was a little afraid of the octopus but he was certainly afraid of this man. And that’s how the story started. Claire said, at the age of fifteen, “Hmmm, there’s a story in that.”
T: The boy’s shyness about sexuality is quite convincing.
THOMAS: He’s jealous of the blind man in the story because a blind man can look towards a woman with bare breasts and not feel embarrassed. I’d like to make a film out of that. There’s too many films about young girls going into puberty. And not enough about young boys.
I’ve always been interested in boys, maybe because I don’t have any. Boys are shy and modest, I think. Much more than girls. And they have reason to be. Because their bodies really betray them. So I made Edward, the boy in the story, around eleven or twelve. He’s precocious and yet he literally doesn’t know where to look. I thought this could make a good film if you keep it from the focus of Edward, who is always turning his head.
T: You mentioned to Eleanor Wachtel that you thought women have a lot of advantages over men…
THOMAS: Well, they can fake an orgasm for one thing. It was about ten years ago that that occurred to me. That puts men at a terrible disadvantage. I think women have more control over their bodies in some ways. That story about Edward was the hardest story to write. It took me two years. But I really love that story.
T: I thought it was the most complex. Whereas some of the other stories strike me as being simply slices of life, reproduced.
THOMAS: Vitamin-enriched slices of life.
T: Well, putting it that way, I was intrigued to see how you rewrote your story “May Day” and “enriched” it with a second version called “Mothering Sunday.” But both versions about those two women in a restaurant made me think it was you and Alice Munro getting together…
THOMAS: That’s very interesting. Alice and I do often have lunch together. And I do often write stories to her. Because we have the same kind of perverse sense of humour.
T: And you both have three daughters.
THOMAS: Yes. Two older, one younger.
T: And you both left husbands who fathered the daughters.
THOMAS: I didn’t leave my husband. He left me. There is a difference. I’m the person who hangs on to the very end of things.
T: Well, anyway, I see Alice Munro as being very eastern, and you as being very western.
THOMAS: Even though I come from the east.
T: Yes. But the reason you came out to the west…
THOMAS: …because I couldn’t stand the east! That’s true!
T: Whereas Alice Munro came out west for a while, and had to move back to the east.
THOMAS: It’s interesting you’ve thought of this. I often write stories and I think, “Oh, Alice would like this story.” I also think this is funny. Maybe she was there in that story in my head?
T: Now that you’re an established writer, can you expect your money situation to change?
THOMAS: There’s no such thing as an established writer until you’ve been put on a pedestal and you’re dead. THOMAS: Very few writers make that kind of money that puts them above the poverty line. That’s why most of them teach. If you decide that your first commitment is to your family and your writing, if you’re a single parent and you also write, and you think that that’s two full-time jobs right there, it’s very, very hard. I really don’t make money off my writing. But I know how to live minimally and I don’t mind. I quite like it. It’s a challenge. No, that’s not true. Actually I don’t like it. But it’s a challenge.
T: What was the first story you ever sold?
THOMAS: It was about the seven hundredth story I’d ever written. The Atlantic bought it. We were living in Africa at the time. They asked where they should send the cheque. It was a lot of money then. Five hundred dollars in 1965. I felt rather embarrassed to be discussing money so I wrote and said if we must speak about a sordid subject like money, don’t send it to Ghana or we’ll never get it. Put it in our Canadian bank account. I got a letter back almost immediately from Edward Weeks, the editor, saying, ‘Get something straight right at the beginning. There’s nothing sordid about money except the lack of it.”
T: That’s a good letter to keep.
THOMAS: I kept it for years. Then I moved and I lost it. I’ve always spent too much of my time adding up columns of figures. I never know what my income is from one month to the next. And I’m not one of those writers who is drawn to teaching.
T: I would think teaching would be a drain on creative energy.
THOMAS: It’s exhausting.
T: It’s exhausting, that is, if you do it with heart.
THOMAS: And if you’re not going to do it with any heart, you just become cynical.
T: Despite the struggles, you sound as if you’re very glad that you went ahead and had your children at a relatively young age.
THOMAS: Yes! We didn’t debate it. I think it’s harder for women now. Our kids are almost grown up and we’re still relatively young. It’s a wonderful feeling. I feel like my daughters are three of my very best friends. We all get on really well. I can be who I am rather than the mother.
T: Although you can still play the mother role when it’s required. ..
THOMAS: You’re not playing. You are it. They still call me Mum. I’m not crazy about children calling me by my first name. My children. Occasionally they call me Audrey. But I am their mother after all.
T: You’re out of synch.
THOMAS: I was walking down the street with a couple of guys from the New Edinburgh Review. One said something like, “Do you feel like an alien in Edinburgh?” And I said, “All my life I’ve felt like I’m not in the right town.” I feel comfortable being an alien. I feel comfortable on Galiano. But in terms of society, I’ve never felt right. I’ve usually been out of synch.
T: How do you mean?
THOMAS: My mother kept giving me Tony home permanents because she wanted me to have curly hair. Curly hair was “in.” Then it became straight hair. My hair was wavy. It won’t straighten. When I was a teenager, Marilyn Monroe boobs were in. And I was really skinny, if you can believe it. Then when people were really skinny, I was nursing my children. I had children when I was a graduate student. Now everybody’s having children it seems. I was never in fashion. But that sort of thing no longer bothers me.
T: Well, I think it’s quite fashionable to be the author of eleven worthwhile books.
THOMAS: So do I.
“Graven Images” by Audrey Thomas
“I don’t type don’t even own a typewriter. I used to say ‘I can’t type’ until a friend pointed out that anyone with one or more fingers could type, that obviously means I don’t want to type. I like the feel of my pen moving across the paper, I like the near-silence. I like being able to tell what my mood I was in when I wrote a particular sentence. My poet friend Robert told me once that somewhere in England there is a private typewriter museum, full of ingenious machines. We were discussing whether people twenty, fifty, one hundred years from now will ever stand enthralled in a room full of word-processors and computer printouts. He thinks not. He thinks that someday there will be a museum for that stuff and the people who go to look at it will go because they are interested in displays of industrial design. It won’t be the same thing at all, he says, for those machines will tell us nothing about the writer.” –excerpt from “Graven Images” by Audrey Thomas 0-670-84769-0
[BCBW, Summer, 1993]
Tattycoram (2005) review
Having picked a character from the pages of Hudson’s Bay Company history for Isobel Gunn, her preceding novel about a woman who disguises herself as man in order to work in the fur trade, Audrey Thomas has deftly plucked a character from Charles Dickens for Tattycoram (Penguin, $29.95), a second penetrating novel about a relatively powerless woman struggling with her identity.
It’s not necessary to untangle the lines between fictional reality (Dickens) and fictionalized fiction (Thomas) in order to read Tattycoram, but the twin realms make for an intriguing comparison.
In the Dickens’ novel Little Dorrit, an insular English gentleman named Meagles magnanimously rescues a girl named Harriet Beadle from the Foundling Hospital, an institution that arose in imitation of the hospital for “found children” in Paris. Established in 1739, the original Foundling Hospital in London was sponsored by a retired seaman, Thomas Coram.
“Harriet we changed into Hattie,” explains Mr. Meagles, “and then into Tatty, because, as practical people, we thought even a playful name might be a new thing to her, and might have a softening and affectionate kind of effect, don’t you see?” By applying the nickname Tattycoram, the do-gooder Meagles and his daughter effectively ensure their maid will never be able to conceal her disreputable beginnings.
The Thomas novel tells it differently. After infancy in a caring foster home, our heroine Hattie is mired in the Foundling Hospital from ages five to fifteen, until hard-luck Hattie gains domestic employment in the household of Dickens.
The great author dotes on her and encourages her to read books from his library, much to the resentment of Dickens’ sister-in-law Georgina, who trains a parrot to tauntingly repeat the nickname Tattycoram. Then Hattie escapes servitude by running off with a Miss Wade in what can be perceived as a veiled lesbian relationship,
Thomas has Hattie marry her foster brother—only to have her happiness and security interrupted decades later by the news that Dickens has caricatured in her Little Dorrit. Having been stuck with the nickname Tattycoram was bad enough, but now Hattie must decide whether or not her ex-employer has taken advantage of her by stealing her identity for his work.
Should she risk confronting the great man? A fellow orphan named Elisabeth urges Hattie to take umbrage but Hattie is less accusatory and more worldly. “It’s not nice, what he’s done, but he understands my resentment,” she concludes, “and he understands about foundlings and children born out of wedlock.” 0-86492-431-3
Local Customs (Dundurn $16.99) 2014
Audrey Thomas followed her husband to Ghana where they lived from 1964 to 1966. There she wrote her first published story, “If One Green Bottle…” describing a confinement and miscarriage in a Ghana hospital. It won an award for debut fiction from the Atlantic Monthly and served as the basis for her first novel Mrs. Blood (1970). Later her Blown Figures (1974), set in Ghana, reputedly used Africa as a metaphor for the unconscious.
During a vacation in 1965, Thomas and her husband visited the remains of the Elmira and Cape Coast Castle slave-supply hubs, now both World Heritage Sites. There she saw the graves of the Cape Coast Castle manager George Maclean and his bride Letitia Landon, formerly a respected English author before her mysterious death. Thomas has brilliantly imagined the life of the transplanted authoress from 1836 to late 1838, in both London and at Cape Coast, for a stunning new novel for adults, Local Customs (Dundurn $16.99).
As the homeland of her father, ghana also figures into Esi Edugyan’s 48-page Dreaming of Elsewhere: Observations on Home (University of Alberta $10.95), which is derived from the Henry Kreisel Lecture Series. “Home, for me, was not a birthright,” she writes, “but an invention.” 978-1459707986;
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