April 07th, 2008
JACK HODGINS was born in the Comox Valley on Vancouver Island in 1938. His primarily comic fictions reflect rather than portray mostly non-urban characters, diagnosis in the short stories of Spit Delaney's Island (1976) and The Barclay Family Theatre (1981). His Vancouver Island-based novels are The Invention of the World (1977), the Governor General's Award-winning The Resurrection of Joseph Bourne (1979) and The Honorary Patron (1987). His frequently enthusiastic/innocent style has also produced the juvenile novel, Left Behind at Squabble Bay (1988). Jack Hodgins lives in Victoria where he teaches at the university. He was interviewed in 1978.
T: Where do you think you got the ambition to be a writer?
HODGINS: I don't know because I can't remember not having it. I loved books from the beginning. There weren't that many around the house and certainly very few around the school. The few books I had, I'm sure I read a dozen times before my childhood was over. The library, for most of my schooling, was just one shelf across the back of the classroom. But there was always something magical about books. The feel, the touch and the smell. I wanted to be one of the people who filled up those books, who did whatever the magic thing was.
So right from the beginning it wasn't just the writing, it was the book that was important to me too. I guess in some sense I would feel that you could sit and write all your life and if it never turns into a book then it isn't real. When I was ten I remember I wrote a murder mystery that was four pages long! I asked my babysitter to type it up, which she did, and then I folded the pages over and sewed them up the back and put a cover on it.
T: Is there anything significant about your family background?
HODGINS: My mother was one of six, my dad was one of thirteen. So every second person in the community was a relative. If he wasn't a relative, he was a friend. So that kind of an extended family is just part of the way I see the world. It's not something I've deliberately gone out of my way to create, except to some extent in Joseph Bourne. I knew everybody in my community. I went to school with the kids of everybody.
T: A lot of people have become writers precisely because they didn't grow up in that kind of social atmosphere.
HODGINS: Well, there was still the loneliness of knowing that what was important to me was something that had no relationship with the lives of the people around me. And if they only knew, they would think I was a real freak. Which I was! That created a problem in that I obviously didn't fit into the adult patterns I saw around me. I think in my childhood I equated this problem to a rural/ city question. I felt I probably didn't belong in a rural situation. Maybe all city people were like me. But when I got to university in Vancouver I discovered that wasn't true. You carry your own home around with you. This tuned up my defence mechanisms and then in turn my abilities to know what other people felt like.
T: In one of your novels there's a remark that the city of Nanaimo has gone from a frontier mentality to a Disneyland mentality. Has it ever occurred to you that you may be fortunate as a writer to be able to see your society change so drastically?
HODGINS: Yes. I think someone on the CBC radio once mentioned, in a derogatory fashion, that the BC Ferries brought Vancouver Island out of an essential hillbilly culture into the twentieth century. Well, that "hillbilly" culture was my whole life up until my twenties. I've gone from a childhood in a farmhouse without telephone or electricity to being gobbled up by the city of Nanaimo, which is bursting at the seams, creating subdivisions all around us.
T: Also there was a story of yours in Saturday Night once about a boy whose mother wanted him to become a concert violinist and his father wanted him to be a logger. Do you think it's an advantage for a writer to be a composite of two opposite parents? HODGINS: Yes, no question about it. If nothing else it gave me a good start at being able to see things from a different point of view. I'm not writing about myself as many do. I write about the people I see out there. If I'm able to do it at all, I think it's because I've developed a lifetime habit of being super-sensitive to the way other people feel, almost to knowing what's going on inside them. It may have begun as a child as a defence mechanism, as a timid kid trying to figure out where the dangers were in the world, trying to know what people were thinking before they ever got around to acting. T: Have you studied people's speech consciously?
HODGINS: Yes. And that's still very conscious with me. I think this is the result of having had to go through a very painful experience of quote, "finding my own voice." In my twenties all my writing was very imitative. I fell in love with the writing of William Faulkner and a few other American writers. Everything I wrote had to sound like them. Then when it did sound like them, it wasn't any good either. Towards the end of my twenties I decided I had to either find my own voice, whatever that was, or else give up writing altogether.
Well, the thing that happened was that I didn't find my own voice at all. But I started listening to the voices of people who live on Vancouver Island. I think that was much more important than listening to my own voice. I started to notice that no two people talk the same. Not only are voices different, but people have different speech patterns, different favourite expressions and different rhythms of speech. Once I figured it out, I thought that is probably the most powerful device I can use for making my characters seem alive.
Often if I've got a character set up and I know him very well, all I have to do is listen to him talk. I will worry less about the content of his answer to somebody's question than about the rhythm of his speech. Often, I suspect, what we say is controlled more by the patterns we're comfortable with than what we really think.
T: Most writers go through a period of finding their own self before they can go on to be writers. Was that a problem for you?
HODGINS: I don't know. I've never consciously looked to understand myself. I think I was at least thirty before a consciousness of myself got to any crisis point.
T: How do you mean?
HODGINS: I reached a point where I had to put up or shut up. Either produce or quit fooling yourself. You see there was a whole pile of people, whose names I now forget, who became overnight sensations when I was about nineteen. And I sort of took it for granted that if you didn't become a published novelist in your early twenties at the latest, it's like the old-fashioned girl who's an old maid if she's not married by twenty-two or something.
All right, I know that's a misconception. But remember, I had nobody to advise me. All I had to go by was the people who got the attention. All those overnight sensations! No doubt, all over the world there were people like me gnashing their teeth saying why do I have to wait? Thank goodness I did! I shudder to think what if somebody had published one of my earlier novels. And I suspect that at least one of them is publishable, though not very good at all. If somebody had given me the encouragement of publishing it, I think it would have been very bad. I might have thought, well, I guess I've got it made.
Now I think, if I've learned anything about writing, it's the result of the terrible frustrations of not getting anywhere for so long. I had to learn. Because nothing was happening by itself. I had to really work like a dog to make it happen.
T: It sounds like the toughest part of being a writer is surviving the apprenticeship.
HODGINS: During all those years there was that nagging suspicion that this was all a fantasy, all a dream. I had no reason to believe that I would ever have any kind of success whatsoever. I had no reason to believe I'd ever be published at all. I didn't know any other writers as a kid. I didn't know anyone else who wanted to write until I was well into adulthood. I didn't even know anyone else from my own generation who loved reading. So if I wrote, I wrote behind closed doors. I even read behind closed doors. This was just not acceptable behaviour for a growing boy in a rural community.
T: Most Canadian writers have had the same feeling. We're probably basically still a very young country with a pioneer mentality.
HODGINS: And we're suspicious of the written word, aren't we? That apprenticeship as a writer can be so painful that it seems to me if writers can do nothing else for aspiring writers, they should tell this fact about their own lives.
T: Would you agree the Protestant work ethic influences the reading of literature in Canada?
HODGINS: No question about it. I often get the impression reading much of the fiction written in this country that nobody in Canada ever laughs. Nobody ever makes fun of themselves, nobody ever takes life at all lightly. And yet I look at the real people around me and it seems that almost everybody I know laughs quite often every day. So if there are examples of humour in my work, it's not usually a deliberate attempt to be funny. It's simply a reflection of the way I see people, people who seem to spend a lot of their time laughing, often at themselves. Humour is a perfectly realistic part of life. But you don't get all that much comedy in serious Canadian fiction.
T: Along with that humour, I think the reader also gets a feeling from your work that the person creating everything is enjoying himself. And some of that pleasure rubs off.
HODGINS: That's good. And you're quite right, I am enjoying myself. This may be a case, ironically, of a weakness becoming a strength. I'm very, very impatient with my own work. I'm very easily bored. So I demand that almost every page entertain me. I can only hope that it will entertain the readers about one tenth as much.
Sometimes I just fly by the seat of my pants. That is, I want to turn the page to find out what happens next. I don't always know. I'm never happy if my writing seems simply beautiful or practical. It can do everything I want a scene to do, to serve the purposes of a novel or short story, but I still throw it away if it doesn't somehow get me so excited that my heart is pounding.
T: That would explain much of the audaciousness of your work.
HODGINS: Yes. But also I abandoned those safe little novels I was writing simply because it was obvious I wasn't getting anywhere by writing safe little novels. Some part of me said, all right, if I'm not going to get anywhere writing safe little things I might as well go way out and risk everything and either fall flat on my face or else maybe at last I might get a foot in the door.
T: And so you can risk having a title like The Invention of the World.
HODGINS: Sure. I thought, well, I've already taken all the risks writing this novel so why not go one step further? The interpretation of that title I find most people getting immediately is that the author is the inventor of a world inside a novel. But the one all important image throughout the novel is the image of all, they are decent people. The person who cares about creating a public image is so busy thinking about "Am I living up to it?" that he's going to be less sensitive to other people.
T: Would you agree then that the most striking aspect of your work is that it appears so unegocentric?
HODGINS: Yes. I write out of curiosity, out of the mystery of these people who are around me. Inevitably I uncover more mystery than I ever solve. Whenever I try a character who is quite close to the kind of person I may be myself, I find myself losing interest in the story. I don't know what this tells you about me! I don't even want to think about what it might tell you about me!
T: Do you think too much can be made of the fact that Jack Hodgins is writing about Vancouver Island?
HODGINS: Yes, it's dangerous to talk that way. Of course it's important to me that I get Vancouver Island right, but if I was only interested in writing about Vancouver Island I'd write a geography book or a history book. I'm interested in writing about human beings. I just happen to be writing about people who are close to me geographically. I try not to think too much about what makes people different here. In making too much of the uniqueness of a people in a region, there's a danger that a writer could write stuff which is nothing but regional. It's important for me to find the things that people in New York or London or South Africa can also recognize. To a small degree, that's starting to happen. People will write to me from far, far away to say your characters sound like my neighbours. That's what I want to hear.
T: Do you think too many Canadian writers place an inflated value on their own individualism?
HODGINS: That's a dangerous question.
T: But it's an important question.
HODGINS: Yes, it is. I know there is a school of fiction writing which believes very strongly that the only window left open on the world now is through yourself. That, I think, is perfectly legitimate for a person who sincerely believes it. But it doesn't happen to fit into the way I see the world.
T: Which is closer to Rudy Wiebe's approach to writing than say, Marian Engel's.
HODGINS: Yes. I think if all of us lived a hundred and fifty years ago, the Rudy Wiebes and Robert Kroetschs and Jack Hodginses would be writing the epic novels and the first-person novelists would be writing lyric poetry. Now we're living in a time when all the borders have been crossed. Some poets can be writing epic poems and some novelists can be writing lyric novels. It doesn't really matter. Basically I think it's a question of finding where your instincts lie. Probably you write the sort of thing that you enjoy reading yourself.
For myself, I often think of fiction as high class gossip. Really, what you're doing is saying listen, I've got a story I want to tell you about the guys who live down the road. This is what they did and isn't that something. That's partly why I like reading Rudy Wiebe and Robert Kroetsch, and also South Americans like Vargas Llosa and Marquez, and John Nichols, the American. They have this sense of community. Everybody's in on the story. It's not exclusively the story of one person. The whole world is alive and teeming with life. There's a sense in the novel itself that the novel is a complete world. When you open the first page, you're entering a new world. When you close the last page, you're no longer in it.
Essay Date: 1978