April 07th, 2008
GEORGE BOWERING was born in BC’s Okanagan region in 1935. With the encouragement of UBC’s Warren Tallman and visiting American writers, Bowering and his friends founded a mimeographed magazine called Tish in 1961. Since then he has become one of the most prolific and respected “post-modernist” writers in Canada, receiving Governor General’s Awards for poetry in 1969 and for fiction in 1980 with Burning Water. His most recent novel, Caprice (1987) is a comic historical tale set in the Okanagan. He was interviewed in 1987.
T: You’ve equated being born in BC with being pure. As if growing up in an undefined region can be an advantage.
BOWERING: Yes. It has always meant a lot to me that even when I lived in a town as a kid, the town didn’t have any street names. Or there was a rumour that there were street names but nobody knew what they were, you know. In some plan down at the village office the streets actually had street names but there were no signs on street corners. I think that’s important.
T: I’ve read you were born in Keremeos, in Pen tic ton and in Oliver. Where were you actually born? I’ve read three conflicting things on this!
BOWERING: It’s more than three!
T: So I want to know.
T: Because I want to be accurate.
BOWERING: How do you know what I tell you is going to be accurate?
T: Fine. I’ll write that George Bowering said that he was born in such-in-such.
BOWERING: I was born in Penticton. The building is still there. It’s an old folks home now. My parents were living in Peachland at the time. Then we moved to Greenwood, where my Dad was teaching school. We were in Greenwood when they started moving the Japanese-Canadians there. Joy Kogawa is about six months older than me, so we were probably at the same school track meet in Midway.
T: So was Greenwood the place that didn’t have any street names?
BOWERING: No. Oliver, BC. We lived in two orchards south of Oliver and then we moved into Oliver. My father was supposed to be teaching math but he was teaching chemistry. He was a science teacher. He knew how to do everything. He knew how everything worked. But he didn’t like organic chemistry. He didn’t like those inelegant formulas.
T: Your father was obviously a key influence.
BOWERING: My father was a real quiet guy. He had a hardly-ever-smile wit. And he was a super athlete. When I was a kid I was really slow, but I got to know a lot about athletics. He was really smart and he settled for less than he should have got. That was partly because of the Depression. He should have been able to go farther than he did. But on the other hand he never complained about that.
T: This thing about athletics is obviously pretty key. ..
BOWERING: That’s why I’m playing ball now at the age of sixty-five, right?
T: Your father used to be the scorekeeper and he was really hard on all the hitters.
BOWERING: Me too. When I became a scorekeeper I was hard on hitters. Or they used to say I was. There’s a lot of things like that I have inherited from him. Like my intolerance for bad grammar and bad spelling. It’s an extension of his. One of the things I like about my wife is that she can spell. I keep seeing my father in me all the time.
T: Where’s your father now?
BOWERING: He died about ten years ago. Something like that.
T: What did your parents think of their son, the writer?
BOWERING: My father never talked about it. My mother always thought of it as something like a hobby. One morning at three a.m. I told her I would steal her mad money to get a book published. I told myself it was true at the time. But it was my mother who taught me how not to spend money and how not to show your feelings. She was the instructress. She was the one who taught me to be a puritan as a kid. And I really am a puritan.
T: Audrey Thomas says if I do an article on you I should talk to all the women who knew you.
BOWERING: Was she using a euphemism in that verb?
T: No. It wasn’t meant as a loaded statement.
BOWERING: The funny thing is I’ve always found it a hundred times easier to talk to women.
T: It’s because you’re so compulsively competitive with other men!
BOWERING: One doesn’t have to compete with anyone.
T: “Reunion,” your short story about your high school reunion, made me wonder if you ever think of moving back to the Okanagan.
BOWERING: Occasionally. Once in awhile. That story “Reunion” is one of my most directly transcribed stories. Usually I won’t do that at all. But there’s a certain power in doing that, like you’ve stuck your finger in something.
T: The truth has been known to have some power.
BOWERING: Yeah. But don’t screw around with it, right? You know the best scene in Hubert Evans’ Mist on the River? It’s where they’re fishing and Miriam is catching that fish.
T: They’re symbolically wed.
BOWERING: Yes. She’s got this fish between her legs and she’s grabbing it and he feels a strange sensation! The fish tail is slapping the water! It’s a really good scene.
T: I know you don’t like mundane narrative lines but this is not a postmodernist interview. Why are you fracturing the narrative here?
BOWERING: That was what you call anecdotal.
T: Well, I’m fond of organized thoughts. I think your father would approve.
T: Progression from A to Z. You’re back at your high school reunion. Then suddenly a fish is slapping between somebody’s legs.
BOWERING: Well, in every chapter of that novel you can see what Hubert Evans is trying to tell you. And he knows what he’s doing. He’s trying to tell white people down here in Vancouver about Indians. But then there’s this one chapter in that book when it gets loose, when it gets a little bit away from him. Like when you’re skiing too fast. That scene has got that quality to it. As a writer you give up a little bit. You say I’m going to let them hear this.
T: And you think your reunion story is the same way?
BOWERING: It’s something like that.
T: Another story like that is “Protective Footwear,” where you’re just speaking the truth about being out with your daughter walking in the woods.
BOWERING: Yes. It’s directly out of life. I wrote three more stories this summer, the first stories I’ve written in eighteen years or so, and one of them is like that. You’ll like it. You’ll hate the other ones.
T: I don’t hate any of your stories. It’s just that sometimes it’s irritating to feel this clever guy is so confident about whatever is coming into his head that he won’t go back and make it any easier for someone to get a hold of. .
BOWERING: Yes, but a story shouldn’t be easier to read than life is easier to live.
T: Why did you stop writing stories, and why did you start writing them again?
BOWERING: You get older and you haven’t got time to write them. The older you get, the less time you have for writing.
T: That’s if you’re teaching at a university. But you can make a choice.
BOWERING: I used to be able to handle everything. Now I can’t handle anything. I hate to think what it’s going to be like in another ten years. Maybe I’ll never write anything. It used to be I would justify myself to myself by writing every day. For years, every day, something. Now I don’t.
T: But this way at least you’re not manufacturing writing. “I am a writer. I will write.”
BOWERING: What about people who do other things, like make leather belts? They do it all the time.
T: So how many books have you done now? How much have you justified yourself?
BOWERING: I don’t know. Do you call a thing that’s “really” short a book?
T: Most writers do.
BOWERING: Fewer than bill bissett.
T: I think it must be over forty titles by now.
BOWERING: Fewer than bill bissett and more than Fred Wah.
T: It’s over forty, right? So now you can relax, stop, slow down…and write something really good!
BOWERING: You think I publish everything?
T: Oh, no.
BOWERING: Jesus, you should see my unpublished novels. No, you should not see them! One, two, three. ..six unpublished novels. Some of which are unpublished because I don’t want to publish them. Two because I couldn’t finish them. And one because I was only twenty-two when I wrote it. That was a long one.
T: Do you look back over the books that you’ve done and see major steps?
BOWERING: Yes. I usually think about that in terms of poetry.
Probably the turnaround book in terms of prose is that one called Autobiology. That was a real changeroo. I decided not to write in terms of any prose fiction I had already ingested. And that was the first book I wrote by hand. I wrote the first section of it in a backyard in an Irish section of London, England. Then I didn’t write any more till I came home to wherever it was, Montreal, I guess. I wrote the rest of it by hand. I’d never done that with prose before. That’s probably the most important book in that regard.
T: The book of yours I really like is A Short Sad Book.
BOWERING: Nobody ever writes on that. Everybody’s writing articles now on Burning Water.
T: I actually go back and re-read A Short Sad Book from time to time.
BOWERING: It’s an emetic for Canadian literature! It’s important. Then I stepped back and did the narrative for Burning Water. Then I stepped back even farther and did Bernice!
T: Caprice is acceptable experimental fiction. When I read it I thought, “Is Bowering having us all on here? Is he saying, ‘I’ll write something that they like and I’ll show them how easy it is to do it? And the laugh will be mine.’ ”
BOWERING: Yes. Now people will write about Burning Water and Caprice together. I even let Penguin talk me into putting in quotation marks for people talking. And all the reviews love it. They say this is wonderful. He’s smartened up and decided to quit that bullshit and write a book. I immediately went out and wrote a weird one just to satisfy myself.
Essay Date: 1987