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Before After Goodlake

September 04th, 2012

There are always stories behind the stories. Over the last quarter century, BC BookWorld has frequently invited novelists to discuss the origins of their work. Here Terence Young, author, poet, and teacher, provides useful glimpses into After Goodlake’s (Raincoast), a follow-up to his critically acclaimed collection of 13 stories entitled Rhymes with Useless. The title of the novel refers to a fictional delicatessen in Victoria named Goodlake’s.

Most people don’t know what they’re going to say until they open their mouths, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

The act of speaking carries with it a certain creative energy, a kind of spontaneous dramatic power. It’s what good storytellers discover in themselves, and it’s what makes us listen to them. I believe there is a similar force in writing, at least I hope there is, because I’m never really sure what I will write before I write it.

This is not the case for all writers. Many are extremely certain of their subject and the manner in which they are going to approach it. In some ways, I envy such people, just as I envied those students in high school who knew exactly where they were headed after graduation. For me, in that regard, life has been one surprise after another, and I’ve had a pretty good time discovering my path, rather than inventing it.

This novel, After Goodlake’s, was very much a process of discovery, partly because it was my first foray into a longer work and — though it sounds strange to say it — partly because I had to look for clues in my own writing as to what I wanted to say. A character ends up forming patterns in action and in speech, and I found I had to look at those patterns to discover what the character was going to do next. Such scrutiny is the stuff of plot, of course, and a plot is necessary to engage the reader. Things must happen, or at least threaten to happen, as in Waiting for Godot.

The other major component of the book — what I like to call its mood — comes out of my own relationship with the town of Victoria, and I knew it far better than I knew the events of the novel. I’ve lived in this city all my life, and I wanted to base the book in Victoria, not simply because I’ve known it for so long, but also because I wanted to capture on the page a little of what it means to have grown up in this sometimes smug, sometimes charming creation of colonialism and commerce.

This urge to give a literary face to my town was part of the reason why I have two time lines in the book, one set in the near-present and another set in 1964. I guess I was greedy and unwilling to limit myself, but I knew, also, as a reader of such wonderful books as Atonement and The Hours, how taken I was with the broad canvas those writers chose to work with.

John Gardner, in his book The Art of Fiction, advises people to write not so much what they know, but what they like to read. I was doubly lucky writing After Goodlake’s, therefore, in that I was trying to write the kind of book I liked to read, and I was also permitting myself to explore a world I knew intimately.

Time is a strong element in the book, both past and present, and by strong I mean simply that the characters in the novel often express an urge to leave their own time, mostly in order to return to a simpler period in history. Part of this emphasis on time comes from my own sense of loss at the way we are always leaving one world behind to enter another — a kind of chronic nostalgia I suffer from — and the insertion of the earlier time line was one way of indulging my fondness for Victoria before self-serve liquor stores, one-way streets, convention centres and gourmet coffee outlets.

I chose the Easter weekend of March 27 to March 30, 1964 because of the earthquake that devastated Anchorage, Alaska, and its impact on me when I was young. It also provided a nice backdrop for the turmoil in the characters in both time lines, and its resonance in Victoria’s history as a kind of non-event — no tsunami swept through the streets of Oak Bay or flooded the downtown core as it did in Port Alberni — echoed my character’s frustration at being sidelined by life.

The modern time line revolves around a fictitious delicatessen named Goodlake’s, a business that has been run by the Goodlake family for over seventy years. I believed this business to be a complete work of my imagination, but I discovered after writing the book that my family once ran a successful business on Government Street for many years.

Although not a delicatessen — it was a drygoods store named Young’s — the coincidence shows me that much of what a writer thinks is fiction is often based on fact. I had probably been told about this store at some point in my past — there is a picture of it in one of our family albums — and an echo of that fact was probably bouncing around in my head when I decided to create Goodlake’s. The store serves to illustrate the counterpoint to my nostalgic tendencies: the understanding that a person needs to let go of the past in order to grow.

So, there was no single catalyst for this book, no ghost story competition as there was for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, no opium-induced dream as there was for Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan.” It came, as I said all things have come to me, as a surprise, and, for me at least, it has been a pleasant one.

Essay Date: 2004

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