Interview / W. D. Valgardson
April 07th, 2008
W.D. VALGARDSON was born in Winnipeg in 1939. He passed most of his childhood in Gimli, Manitoba, a hardy fishing community that emphasized his Icelandic-Canadian roots. He received his MFA in creative writing from the University of Iowa in 1969 and currently teaches at the University of Victoria. A poet and scriptwriter, Valgardson is best known for his bestselling fiction collections, Bloodflowers (1973), God is Not a Fish Inspector (1975) and Red Dust (1978). His first novel, Gentle Sinners (1980), earned the Books in Canada First Novel Award and became a successful film. More complex than his dramatic short stories, Valgardson's novel is about a country boy learning to interpret the danger signs for surviving town corruption and adulthood. W.D. (William Dempsey) Valgardson lives in Victoria. He was interviewed in 1981.
T: The schoolteacher in your story "Beyond Normal Requirements" says, "Tragedy is all around us. We must get to know it so we can guard ourselves against it." Is that a fair explanation of why you write?
VALGARDSON: Yes. I would say that really sums it up. I think there is a real danger in not looking at things. Mostly yourself. For instance, I believe in the rather Jungian statement that North Americans will never deal in a successful way with the Russians until they deal with the Russians within themselves.
T: So has Bill Valgardson dealt with the Russian within himself?
VALGARDSON: I've spent a long, long time confronting what a Jungian would call my shadow. I've recorded hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of dreams. I've accepted the fact that I'm capable of any crime.
T: Goethe once said exactly the same thing.
VALGARDSON: Yes, it's particularly important for writers. I tell my students that there are two journeys that every writer must take. The first journey is into the lives of others. But the second journey is the most terrifying. It is the journey into the self. I think what happens with a lot of people is that they turn away. They suddenly become aware of their motivations and they realize some of the things they are capable of. They don't understand that just because they're capable of something, they don't have to do it.
T: Gentle Sinners began with a dream you had, a dream that became the final scene in the book. How did you know enough to trust that dream?
VALGARDSON: It was just the intensity with which it came. You see, I believe in sitting down and writing out of emotion. I don't know where I'm going. For me writing is like an Eskimo carving. The form is in the stone. The trick is for me to find the form. And so it's a case of exploration. I write to discover what I think. I don't think and then write. If you think and then write, you often get propaganda. For instance, I think one of the worst things any writer can do is impose symbols. That's a dreadful thing, to nail them on. It should be like driftwood. You don't nail the knots on. The water washes and erodes and what's left are these hard knobs. That is the way that symbols should be. They should rise out of the material naturally. Then you go back over your material and see what you've got. Then you heighten it. You see connections. Because one's genius is often in spots. It's not necessarily coherent all the way through. So you try to make it coherent. It's like painting. You add touches.
T: Your characters aren't analytical and you are. Do you feel that people who lack that analytical sense are more prone to tragedy?
VALGARDSON: …I think that people who lack that analytical sense are often drawn into tragedy like people who are drawn into a vortex. Like a helpless swimmer in a whirlpool who is only cast out by luck. But there's a danger on the other side and that is to be like Hamlet. To be so analytical that one no longer can act. I think that always what one is doing is searching for balance.
T: Is that how you've changed over the years? You've become more balanced?
VALGARDSON: Good god, how have I changed? That would take years to answer! I think maybe I've become more perceptive. And I think I've become much more accepting of other people. I can be pretty intolerant. You see, I was brought up Missouri Lutheran. I cannot say, with any sense of honesty, that the Christianity I was brought up with in any way made me into a better person.
T: Many of your stories seem to strip people of the frills of life. The characters are put into situations where they must make a difficult choice. Usually it's a choice of animal survival, of practicality.
VALGARDSON: Given the environment, yes. Where I grew up was for a long time a kind of Appalachia of Canada. People were very, very poor. And also the emotional choices people had were incredibly restricted. When Icelanders moved to Ontario from Iceland, in one year every child under the age of four died. There was nothing to be done. The helplessness and the rage got trapped inside a group of people for whom stoicism was the ultimate virtue. The poverty, the foreignness, the displacement from an ocean environment, a sense of loss of identity, an idealization of the past all those things went towards creating a society in which there weren't very many choices. So people were living, in a sense, at a pretty primitive level.
T: So what was it like to grow up in Gimli, Manitoba?
VALGARDSON: My father was a commercial fisherman who also had a barbershop. My mother was a housewife. She was seventeen when I was born, my father was twenty-two. My mother's parents were Irish from Ireland. Everybody thinks of me as being Icelandic, but that's only part of the picture.
It was small town country living in the 1940s and 1950s. Rural Canada in those days seemed to me an incredibly good time and I had the kind of parents who were always taking us on picnics in the summer. Gimli is a beautiful place in the summer. A kid could spend the evenings playing tin can cricket or going fishing at the dock. I got my first rifle when I was twelve. It was one of the high points of my life. I had my own snare line. I
loved it. It was a wonderful life. And in the winter we spent an awful lot of time skating on the lake or skating at the rink.
T: Why did you need to become a writer?
VALGARDSON: Well, I grew up in an environment in which an awful lot of emphasis was placed on physical strength and being big. People made livings as farmers and fishermen and they required tremendous physical stamina. I'm all of five-seven, five eight. I'm slightly built, light. And with poor eyesight. In prairie towns, the way to succeed and have power and be admired is to be good at hockey and football and be able to fight. I obviously don't fit those categories.
I was a dreamer and a reader. At some stage I obviously learned that you can fight with words. You can lay people wide open with words! You might have to learn to run like hell after you've said what you said…but I think there's a lot of people who become lawyers for that reason. And politicians. And writers.
T: So there's an element of revenge in success.
VALGARDSON: Yes. Now I love winning contests. I'm very, very aware of the fact that when I do win something, who I'm winning for isn't Bill Valgardson, Associate Professor. I'm winning for the guy who always got chosen last for the baseball team. When you're in school and you're the best pitcher in the grade seven class, what is so wonderful about it is that one is admired. That's the wonderful thing about being an adult and being fortunate enough to be a writer or a painter or whatever. Most people go into jobs and nobody ever knows what you do. You file stuff or something. This other kind of job means you still continue to be admired.
T: What were your ambitions as a kid? Were you always interested in being a writer?
VALGARDSON: Not really. I don't particularly remember having great aspirations. When I was sixteen I got a job in a warehouse in Winnipeg, unloading boxcars. I did that for five summers. It never occurred to me to go to university.
In those days people didn't just go to university. It was for the doctor's son or the dentist's son. I was busy working at the warehouse when a bunch of these city kids, who were much more sophisticated than me, came in with their grades one day. Everybody was showing everybody else their grades. They were all going to university. I looked and I thought, 'Jeez, my grades are higher than anybody's here." It was a real shocker.
T: So it was off to United College.
VALGARDSON: No. I went to the University of Manitoba the first year and that was a disaster. It was a bloody disaster. It was the wrong place for me. I didn't know that most country kids went off to United College because it was smaller. I was plunged from a small country school where we didn't have a real library into this huge university with classes of two hundred people. I'm sure it was a perfectly good university. It just wasn't the right place for me. The next year I went to United College and that was much better.
T: Were you writing stories by this time?
VALGARDSON: In third year I joined the Creative Writing Club and began to write poetry. I wrote a tremendous amount of poems. Finally somewhere I actually did write a short story and it got published in an Icelandic-Canadian magazine. I also got married in my third year. It was a real scandal in those days to get married so young. I went off teaching high school on a permit. By that time I was really writing a lot, evenings and
weekends, while I was teaching high school.
Teaching high school was wonderful at first because I got a chance to learn all the things I'd missed when I was a student. I mean, I didn't know any grammar, didn't know any punctuation. But I had to teach it. So you have to learn. Gerunds and participles and commas. I've talked to a lot of teachers and heard the same thing. At first they learn more than the students.
T: You said "wonderful at first."
VALGARDSON: Yes. After I got my teaching certificate I went and taught art full time at the Transcona Collegiate. That was baptism by fire. The low man on any totem is the art teacher. I didn't know that. I went from there up north to Snow Lake to teach. That was a very good year. Except that the only people paid the same amount of money as the teachers were the garbagemen. And the miners earned double the money that the teachers and the garbagemen were making. The prices in the town were controlled by the two stores. Everything was so expensive. By that time we had two kids. I ended up with a severe case of scurvy by the end of the year. We didn't know what it was. Because we were feeding the kids and we were skipping things for ourselves. ..You couldn't get fresh milk. Fruit juice was so expensive you just gave it to the kids.
When I went to Snow Lake it was the end of the world, up in the bush. I was still writing. I managed to get a story in Alphabet with James Reaney. The name James Reaney didn't mean anything to me at the time. And Fiddlehead took a story. I very wisely realized my deficiencies. I wrote away to the University of North Dakota for correspondence courses. I took those courses for the next couple of years. Things like grammar, composition and feature article writing. They were wonderful courses.
T: How did you end up studying writing in the States?
VALGARDSON: Are you into romantic stories? I'll give you a couple of romantic stories. When I went to teach in Pinowa, two very important things happened. I was in the library one day and I came across a book by an author I'd never heard of before named Al Purdy. It was Cariboo Horses. Every writer I've talked to has had this kind of experience where they have suddenly been given permission to be Canadian. And Al Purdy did that for me with Cariboo Horses. For the first time I realized I didn't have to be T.S. Eliot or Ernest Hemingway. I didn't have to be an Englishman or an American. It was okay to write like a Canadian with Canadian content, As a Canadian, what I had to say and what I had to talk about were important. It was like a logjam bursting. At university we had only studied English and American literature, so there was a whole denial of who you were. I had been trying to write "The Wasteland" for years. Suddenly I was writing a dozen poems a day.
The next thing that happened was that I was ordering books for the school library when I came across a book on how to write by Paul Engel. I'd never heard of him or the University of Iowa but it said he was the director of the Creative Writing program there. Hell, a Creative Writing program! I'd never heard of such a thing in Canada. That was like Underwater Basketweaving.
I had all these poems. And in the meantime I had sold every lesson from the correspondence course in feature article writing. So I had this coalescing of success. That was tremendous adrenalin. So I bundled up all these poems to send them to Paul Engel. But I was so bashful that when I went down to the mail I didn't mail them. I went through this three times. Finally one day I went down there, closed my eyes at the mail slot and shoved it in.
Nothing happened. A month went by. Two months went by, I thought, "Famous people like that get all kinds of people writing. Who is going to reply to a Canadian living on an island in a forest reserve?" One day this envelope came, I'd got a whole bunch of crap in the mail that day, advertisements and stuff, and this looked like an advertisement. I threw the whole goddam thing in the garbage. As I was going out the door I thought, 'Jesus, I shouldn't do that." I walked back, looked through it more carefully. I opened it. It wasn't from Paul Engel. It was a letter from George Starbuck, the Yale poet. In typical American fashion they said they really liked the poetry, we've accepted you for graduate work, we've obtained a halftime teaching position even though you haven't asked for it, but we figured you're married so you're probably going to need it, when are you arriving?
That to me is typically American. That's what I love about the Americans. That whole enthusiastic quality that if you want to do it, do it. As opposed to the Canadian defeatist attitude that has certainly existed in the past on the academic level. You'd never get Canadians getting a strange letter and responding like that. I mean, they enrolled me, they got me a job and said when are you coming?
T: So in Iowa you learned your craft. What about style? Do you see where yours comes from?
VALGARDSON: No, I don't think so. I have all these pet theories but I think that if you learn from other writers you never have to worry about becoming a copy of them. I think everybody goes through romances with other writers. You love Hemingway, you love Updike. But ultimately, time is like water. It erodes. What I learned from Updike was to really love the complex sentence. What I learned from Hemingway was to love the simple sentence. What I learned from both of them was to love an eye for detail and yet both of them use totally different details. From Jane Austen I learned to love a complexity of structure from what appears to be an easily told tale. And from Hardy, a love of description.
T: I see similarities between the world view of Hardy and your own.
VALGARDSON: Except I don't believe in fate as a determiner the way he does.
T: There's a poem of Hardy's to the effect "if only there was a God to blame all this on."
VALGARDSON: Well, I don't know that particular poem but let me give you mine. "If God is a white-haired and bearded old man, when I get to the gates of heaven or hell I'm going looking for him with a six-shooter." Maybe in the end one does not assign blame for all the suffering in the world. But if there is an old man with a white beard, I'm going looking for him.
I think my mother said recently she has now gone to my step-grandmother's fourteen times to get together before going to the church for a funeral. In one summer when I was six the baby in the family died, my grandfather died and my great-grandfather died. Two of my great-uncles were drowned on a boating trip for a picnic. Eight years ago my brother, who was first mate on a boat on the Mackenzie River, was working on a forklift and went over the side of the barge and was trapped inside, couldn't get out. Left a wife and two little children.
T: When you were confronted with death as a boy, did you have resources to help you deal with that?
T: So is there a connection there to the earlier quote about the need to recognize tragedy?
VALGARDSON: Sure. It hasn't been until very recently that you have academics studying death and the needs of the survivors and what needs to be done to help people cope. Even well-intentioned people wanting to help often weren't helpful. Even today, it's amazing. You have a death and people say, "Oh, we don't want the kids to go to a funeral. It'll be too upsetting for them." Not realizing what they're really saying is that it will be too upsetting for them to have the kids there. The adults put their needs ahead of the kids' needs to participate in the grieving.
There are tremendous failures in North American society in coping with a lot of the elements of life that other societies have dealt with ritual. The use of the wake or the use of public mourning. As opposed to a kind of dismissal in our society of all ritual. Ritual exists for a reason. It didn't just happen. It happened because of people's needs. We've dismissed ritual but we haven't replaced it with anything. I guess in Gentle Sinners I said something along the lines of, "it's not whether one will have gods but which ones one worships." Often if we're too quick to dismiss the rituals of the past, we leave a kind of vacuum into which the behaviours that we substitute are not really adequate emotionally.
Essay Date: 1981