Alan Twigg’s tribute to Rudolf Vrba

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The Astonishing Debut of Linda Svendsen

August 07th, 2012

Only two BC storytellers – William Gibson with Neuromancer and Douglas Coupland with Generation X – have received as much praise for their first books of fiction as Linda Svendsen with Marine Life (HC).

“An astonishing debut, order ” said The New York Times. “Her sentences adopted us, medications ” said the LA Times. Not to be outdone, the Globe & Mail declared, “It is hard to imagine that writing can be better than this.”

In eight linked short stories, Marine Life profiles a loving, dysfunctional Vancouver family in the 1960s. An unprecocious narrator, Adele, mirrors the author biographically as she moves to the UC, her own marriage dissolves, and she is drawn back to her hometown.

“Linda Svendsen’s stories are stunning – so easily embodying such terrific power,” says Alice Munro, “the last story left me shaking.” In a recent Ubyssey profile, Cheryl Niamath concurred, “Linda writes stories that make you forget to breathe.”

Linda Svendsen was one of the featured performers are the 5th annual Vancouver International Writers and Readers Festival.

BCBW: Did you always want to write?
SVENDSEN: From the time I was in grade two, writing was a way of being noticed, I would write to get what I wanted. If I wasn’t picked for a project, I would write a three-page protest poem. I certainly wasn’t cutting it in the acting class. I never got cast in good parts. I was always the ghost, going across the stage saying one line.

BCBW: Where was this?
SVENDSEN: Coquitlam. I went to Centennial High School. We were the middle class whose parents couldn’t afford Burnaby. Then later on becoming a writer has more to do with fear. I thought of being a lawyer but when I looked at the questions for the LSAT I didn’t take it. I might have been a psychologist but I thought that meant dealing with rats. To be a psychiatrist you had to be a doctor and take sciences. It was a process of elimination. I can’t do this, I can’t do this… so I guess I’ll write.

BCBW: Marine Life, for me, shows Vancouver wasn’t Nowheresville after all.
SVENDSEN: I’m really glad to hear that. There’s so much to be done with Vancouver. Do you remember things like Rolf Harris coming to The Cave? And Mitzi Gaynor?

BCBW: The big time.
SVENDSEN: I’ll always remember when we moved to Burnaby and we got KVOS, Bellingham! Suddenly we could get Funorama and Popeye. There were all these commercials with sunshine on the cereal. California and all that. I just thought, “Oh, I’d rather be there.”

BCBW: Growing up here, it was easy to feel you might not be good enough.
SVENDSEN: This morning I was reading Jane Smiley’s novel and now I am worried I don’t have anything good in me. Having good reviews has helped. It’s kind of nice to have some validation before you turn forty. Like, he, I guess it’s okay for me to be in this career. But I still don’t know if I’m good enough. It all depends how the next book goes.

BCBW: What will it be about?
SVENDSEN: I’d really like to write a really good novel. I’d like to do something wider, cast a bigger net. Not just write about family, not just the middle class. I want more of the weight of the outside world impinging on the characters.

BCBW: Do you think it was necessary to go to the States to appreciate where you came from?
SVENDSEN: Yes. I’d only written a couple of short stories before I left Vancouver. When I got to New York, suddenly Vancouver seemed really interesting. Days of Heaven was playing at the movies. It had that voiceover with the young girl, “Me and my brother…” Suddenly I could think about the North Road Esso as being the centre of the earth.

BCBW: While you were living here, you hadn’t realized it?
SVENDSEN: It would have never crossed my mind. But in writing class, we were all faced with the problem of how do you distinguish yourself in a group? The fact that I spelled colour with an ‘our’ made me a little different. And suddenly, just like a prairie girl going to the big city, I also had Vancouver. And I had my family.

BCBW: Does it bother you when some people assume Marine Life is autobiography?
SVENDSEN: No. Because in some ways I’m asking people to say, “Oh, it’s her life.” Columbia University is there. And it’s the architecture of my family. Even if the events are fictional, emotionally there are things which are true.

My own parents were divorced when I was five. Divorce is really hard and I think this book is all about divorce. It all goes back to the parents of the parents. How a divorce is handled is important, too. I think there’s ways of going about it. Not getting into a war. You can make the best of it. It doesn’t have to throw trust off. Do you know a functional family? (Laughter) I think we’re all getting along as best we can! (Laughter)

BCBW: How did you end up working as a publicist for Tri-Star Pictures?
SVENDSEN: The day I got offered the MFA program at UBC, I was also admitted to Columbia. So I went. Then much later on I was in a tough relationship. Grants had run out. So I thought, “Maybe I can make a living writing for film.” Actually that had been my plan in choosing Columbia in the first place. To do film and fiction at the same time. I saw an ad in the Times, so I went and said I could be a secretary. I was put into the president’s office where I did Xeroxing and freelance reading of scripts. I got to be there for The Natural, The Muppets Take Manhattan, and Places in the Heart.

BCBW: What did you learn?
SVENDSEN: Mostly I learned about myself. For instance, once I didn’t let Bernard Malamud into a screening of The Natural. They didn’t want Malamud to see The Natural because of what had happened with I.B. Singer and Yentl. No one wanted to let the writer, especially a novelist of stature, into a preview screening. They didn’t want him to go to the Times afterwards and say the movie had failed the book, so I learned I could be a company person. That was a big low.

BCBW: A big low?
SVENDSEN: I should have let Bernard Malamud see a screening of the movie of his own book. And I didn’t do it!

BCBW: A writerly sin.
SVENDSEN: Not only that, Malamud was one of the judges of a writing contest I had won.

BCBW: Double sin. What else did you learn?
SVENDSEN: Guest lists are important. And fame is fleeting. If Kevin Bacon is seated next to the president at the banquet, six years later he won’t be. And marketing people don’t always know what they’re doing. I remember Robert Benton having a meeting with the marketing people about Places of the Heart. They were going to call it The Morning After.

BCBW: How do you feel about the process of adapting Margaret Laurence’s The Diviners?
SVENDSEN: Well, it’s been through a lot of stages. I kept disbelieving that I would be the final writer. Why am I doing this? Am I cheap? Now I’m doing The Stone Angel. I only wish they were both feature films with bigger budgets. Margaret Laurence’s books deserve the treatment that Black Robe got.

BCBW: You’ve said Canadians are shy about self-promotion. How do you feel about the marketing of oneself?
SVENDSEN: I think I’m fairly savvy that way. I understand how Robert Redford gets onto the cover of Newsweek.

BCBW: Did you have any say in your book cover?
SVENDSEN: They were thinking of putting a picture of Adele’s mother going through a car wash. I thought I better start thinking about the cover! (Laughter) I’d seen that Alex Colville picture in The Sun once and I’d kept a copy. So I suggested ‘Woman on a Diving Board’ and they went for it.

BCBW: Meanwhile you’ve won the Atlantic short story contest. The Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford. The Bunting Fellowship at Radcliffe…
SVENDSEN: Well, in terms of getting grants, I don’t know whether I’m savvy or not. I’ll apply for anything, I apply for Guggenheims every year. It’s just the secretarial side of the brain, if you’re a writer, you do it. And I’ve been lucky.

Essay Date: 1992

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