Interview / Hubert Evans
April 07th, 2008
HUBERT EVANS was born in Vank. leek Hill, Ontario in 1892 and raised in Galt, Ontario. He worked as a reporter before enlisting in 1915. He married in 1920 and built his permanent seaside home at Roberts Creek, BC. His first novel, The New Front Line (1927) is about a pioneering World War One veteran in BC. He and his wife also lived in northern BC Indian villages, resulting in his acclaimed second novel, Mist on the River (1954). His 0 Time in YourF1ight (1979), written in his late eighties despite near blindness, recounts a year in the life of an Ontario boy in 1899. Revered by Margaret Laurence as "The Elder of our Tribe," the Quaker outdoorsman also published two hundred short stories, sixty serials, twelve plays, three juvenile novels, three books of poetry and one biography. Hubert Evans died in 1986, after seven decades of professional writing. He was interviewed in 1982 and 1983.
T: Tell me about how you came to write 0 Time in Your Flight.
EVANS: The second time I went to the hospital to get my heart pacer batteries renewed, they opened me up and found something else was wrong. I was in bed for weeks. I thought by golly, time's a-wastin', I better get some of the family history down. So my son-in-law brought me one of those Dictaphones from his office. I was awake a lot at nights so I just started in stream-of-consciousness. I could taste the food and smell the smells. Some nights I'd talk two chapters.
Those days I could still see to do a little hunt n 'peck typing so in the daytime I typed it out pretty well just as I said everything. It ran to sixty-five thousand words. I had a copy made for the children and then I sent a copy to the Ontario Public Archives. But in
the back of my oId free lancer's mind, I must have figured I might be able to use this. I told them I wanted it kept under wraps until 1980.
Then four or five years ago I couldn't go out and saw wood or go fishing any more on account of my heart. I was sort of at loose ends so I did ninety pages of the book. But the viewpoint I had wasn't any good. It was too subjective and modern.
You see, I'm an oldtimer. After sixty years I still see a story as a play. The characters are on an imaginary stage and I'm a member of the audience. I just try to get them to show themselves. This can be very limiting. On the other hand, I think it narrows down the focus.
T: So you needed a more objective approach to get you going.
EVANS: Right. So I decided to see the whole world through the yes of a nine-year-old that was me. Anything the boy couldn't comprehend at the time, I just left out. I tried to do as little interpreting as possible. It was like the title. I don't explain where
that phrase 0 Time in Your Flight comes from because I never knew it was from a poem when I was a boy. it was just something my mother said. This has been one of the main tenets of my writing all along: It's far better to have a reader miss a point than hit him over the head with it. If you get the reader concluding, "I know what that character is up to," then you've got participation. The reader becomes part of the story when he's seeing around corners.
T: I imagine writing novels for young people would have helped you learn that approach pretty quickly.
EVANS: Yes, it's been very helpful. I've often though that.
T: And it would also force you to simplify your language.
EVANS: Exactly. Now if I was running one of those creative writing courses in a university, I would have an exercise where people tell stories in Basic English. English has taken on far too many words. There are too many tools.
I know an old chap who retired near here who used to be a big time businessman. One day he decided he was going to take up carpentry. So he goes out and buys several hundred dollars worth of electric tools. But this is a guy who can't even sharpen a hand saw or a chisel! Both my grandfather and father were excellent carpenters even though they had very few tools. They knew how to sharpen them! By golly, they knew how to use them and when not to use them.
It's the same with language. We've got all these words, all these tools. Think of one of the Lake poets writing on the death of a child, then think of Issa, the Japanese poet in the 1500s. Issa on the death of his child uses only twelve words. Whenever I recite it, it still moves me:
All our world is dew
So dear, so fleeting
T: Reviews as far back as the 1920s mention your "spare, lean and vigorous style." Did you have to learn to write that way?
EVANS: I'm a two-time high school dropout. The second time I left school I went to work for a newspaper called the Galt Reporter. My boss there had been the editor of a prestigious paper called the Chicago Inter-Ocean. When I arrived he said two things to me. Learn to use a typewriter within two weeks or you're out. And as far as possible, use words that the boy who sells your paper can understand. Then you'll be writing good English. That's always stuck.
T: Would you say your approach to writing is very much like your approach to life?
EVANS: Yes, I suppose that's true. I knew my wife ever since we were thirteen and we both always had the same idea. To travel light. To not have any encumbrances. To own only what you can carry on your back. For instance, we said we would never own land. Then her home broke up back east and we got sent this piano. Then we had kids. We had to have a roof over our heads so I built this house.
T: How did you become a Quaker?
EVANS: It's a long, long story. My wife was a graduate of the University of Toronto. One of the books she got me reading was Carlyle's Sartor Resartus. That book really became my Bible. "Always the black spot in our sunshine. This is the shadow of ourselves."
You see, I went through two years and three months in the trenches in World War One. I tell you, I got pretty damned cynical. I had got to a stage where I would say how the hell does anybody know what beauty is? I remember saying this to myself. I remember thinking a tree may be as ugly as the hair on my arm.
In Sartor Resartus his protagonist reaches this point and says he's not going to put up with it. He decides the world is not a "charnel house filled with spectres." From that day on, his attitude changes. Well, in those days there was a thing in Philadelphia called the Wider Quaker Fellowship. My wife and I asked to join because we were universalists.
The Quakers have no creed. They have no minister. It's an attitude. If you believe in life and growth, you can be a Quaker.
T: Did you always want to be a writer?
EVANS: I always thought about it. After I came out of the army I went up north for a year and started writing. In those days, if you could put a short story together, you could sell it. But you couldn't make a living just by writing for Canada. So I wrote pulp stories. The most popular kind back then were war stories by American guys who'd never even been there. I couldn't write about violence so I wrote outdoor stories. Animal stories.
T: What made you start writing for kids?
EVANS: My wife said she'd rather have me digging ditches than writing pulp. Mind you, I've never written anything that I'm ashamed of, but I've written a lot of things that really didn't need to be written. She suggested I write for teenagers because you can still change a person's viewpoint up to the time they're twenty.
T: How old were you then?
EVANS: I was thirty or so. The first thing I did was a syndicated column about factual things I'd seen with animals. The Judson Press in Philadelphia wrote me and asked me to do a book about it. I wrote about sixty-five of these columns in six weeks. The book sold quite well.
T: Was making a living as a writer in the 1920s easier than today?
EVANS: Much easier. If you could tell a story, the market was there. Today I don't know how people can make a living with fiction. TV has changed everything so much.
T: Did you get much notoriety in those days?
EVANS: Well, listen. When I was doing those outdoor nature stories, I was living in a very fine house in North Vancouver. This was the late twenties. A piece ran in every daily paper across Canada saying Hubert Evans lives in a one-room shack far away from civilization! The truth was I'd never had it so good! I was really in the money.
T: But you've lived through long periods of being virtually unknown.
EVANS: Yes, yes, yes! Of course these days if a writer wants to make headlines he practically has to perform some unnatural act with a farm animal.
T: Perhaps if you hadn't separated yourself geographically…
EVANS: No, I'd had it up to here with cities. This is what I wanted. I wrote to various postmasters along the coast looking for a sheltered cove, a sandy beach, good anchorage and a creek. I came to Roberts Creek and bought this half-acre of waterfrontage for a thousand dollars cash.
T: If you hadn't always written for money, do you think you would have produced more than three adult novels?
EVANS: Maybe I would have. But I haven't got that intense perception and psychological imagination that say a Margaret Laurence or a Graham Greene has.
T: What made you write your novel about the Indians of northern BC, Mist on the River?
EVANS: Well, I had quite a number of chums in the army who were Indians. But it was really my wife's Quaker concern over Indians that took us north in the first place. She had this book by an American called Indians are People Too. This is what I wanted to do with Mist on the River. Just show them as people. Basically I was just being a reporter.
I could have written about the injustices Indians faced. You know, like The Ecstasy of Rita Joe. I've seen all that. I know all that. But I had commercial-fished and trapped and built dugout canoes with these people. I could roll a cigarette and sit on my heels and talk with them. I was one of them. I wanted to show how they were really just like us.
T: Donald Cameron has described that book as "a good man's compassionate regard for another's pain."
EVANS: Bertrand Russell said, "If we want a better world, the remedy is so simple that I hesitate to state it for fear of the derisive smiles of the wise cynics. The remedy is Christian love or compassion." D.H. Lawrence kept on this, too. What the world needs is compassion.
One of my problems as a writer is that I've never been able to write about middle-class, Kerrisdale- West Vancouver people. My head tells me they've got their tragedies and disappointments and dramas like everyone else, but this is one of my blind spots. I'm sorry to say I can't get inside their heads the way I do with older people or down-and-out people or children.
T: Maybe it's because those people will never allow you any communal feelings with them.
EVANS: It's true, I think we do all need to feel ourselves part of a larger family. Living with the Indians for eight years in the Skeena country taught that to my wife and me. The Indians have still got this. But most of us have really lost it.
Of course there are lots of Indians I don't take to, just like there are lots of white people I don't take to. But there's a quotation by Albert how do you pronounce it? Is it Camus? Is that the right way? He said there is no question here of sentimentality. He said, "It is true that I am different by tradition from an African or a Mohammedan. But it is also true that if I degrade them or despise them, I demean myself."
T: That hearkens back to that Camus quote above your writing desk.
EVANS: I can repeat that one by heart. "An artist may make a success or failure of his work. He may make a success or failure of his life. But if he can tell himself that finally, as a result of his long effort, he has eased or decreased the various forms of bondage weighing upon Man, then in a sense, he is justified and can forgive himself."
Essay Date: 1982