What do you know of Saskatchewan? Why set a novel there? Simple answer: it was where my main character, the girl Alberta, took me. I’m sure, given how many writers have gone through the Sage Hill Writing Experience, there are many who might recognize, or even correct, my attempts, apart from the nearly two thousand town residents. Not that I’d never been. An afternoon in May 1998 with Joe Blades, and Brenda Niskala, as I rubbed the smell of sage through admiring forefinger, thumb. The same trip, spent a night in Dundurn, where we visited writers Allan Safarik and Dolores Raimer; a few month later, watched the Grey Cup from a room in the Hotel Bessborough, Saskatoon, with David McGimpsey, Marnie Woodrow and others. Let John Newlove’s “Ride Off Any Horizon” sing through my veins as a trio of us drove, even Douglas Barbour’s Story for a Saskatchewan Night (1990). Once picked around the office of the Saskatchewan Writers Guild, discovering that one year, their Christmas cards held a painted image of husky snow, fir trees and snow-capped peaks. I knew enough then, even, to know that such only existed in Saskatchewan there, on this bafflement of prairie holiday greetings. Or were they just dreaming? Cypress Hills, the highest point in Canada between the Rocky Mountains and Labrador. The Cypress Hills, not that far from Wood Mountain, relatively speaking. Or Craven, where great-great-uncle John McLennan added an “a” to last name, and then disappeared from our view, for nearly a century.
Despite the lack of name, there are hints throughout the novel, from the Andrew Suknaski quote that opens. To know enough about Saskatchewan to both discuss and hide:
A few miles to the south, the valley. Invisible until you were in it. The two sides folded together like an envelope, sealing everything in. A swath in the brown earth and then a green scar where a stitch of water ran. Beneath the earth. Beneath her view.
Earlier on, I was attempting another novel with a mess of disconnected characters, including a young woman I didn’t know enough about. In her mid-twenties, she arrived in the city after the remains of an earlier trauma that I felt didn’t need to be mentioned specifically, but I needed to better explore so I could further her story. Call this a prequel to a novel that never got finished, a prequel that eventually took over. Starting the yet-unfinished “Signal Fires” around 2000, this is what I first wrote of the twenty-something Alberta:
There is a dream that begins in fire, and blisters its way past bone. Alberta in the dry fields she left behind, standing still, a prairie forgotten as protection. Erased from the surfaces of her skin. An unbroken line of sage, as far as the eye.
In her dream, she sees her mother, her father, her baba, her brother, as they had been. Once. The yellow glow surrounding them, to the circular sky, growing brighter. Like canola at first, soft and full, but then darker. Threatening. Their bodies like paper that curl and darken before turning to flame. The burning sensations on her arm that repeat themselves.
There is the dream that begins in fire, and the nightmare too. For Alberta, they are one and the same. For Alberta, these are the images she sees when awake, the images she struggles to record, to excise from the dungeon of her cold body.
There were parts of the story of Alberta that the reader didn’t require, but Alberta did, as did I, even to write out a single gesture, or the way her eye might have moved. The landscape was as much a part of her body as the people that surrounded her. What do I know of being a fourteen year old girl in the prairies? Specifically, little, but I can imagine. There’s an ethos to fiction, and working to write it. It’s the little details that end up meaning so much, sometimes more than the larger ones; it’s the small details that allow credibility. But growing up rural as a pre-teen and nursing a loss over years is something I do understand, quite specifically, and has nothing to do with gender. Perhaps many more do understand than one might be comfortable knowing.
In “Signal Fires,” attempting a novel that referenced the summer of rural building fires deliberately set, just west of Ottawa, and a group of individuals that connected, even if they didn’t, much like the film Magnolia. What is it about well-written film or television that triggers me, far more than well-written fiction? Am I so jaded about fiction that what impresses has become such a rarity? Or are there simply few challenging novels? Oh, to write like that dream of novels, Sheila Watson’s The Double Hook (1959), or Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter (1976). In Missing Persons, writing out a series of moments, of gestures, woven together to make up a story. Not to write a whole life, but to build a window into a life, just enough to suggest what you’re missing, outside the frame. Just enough to know what you’re seeing makes sense, even without further details.
There is something about the name that reduces, that somehow takes over. That I didn’t want the idea of the book reduced to the phrase “Saskatchewan novel,” an idea I’m not qualified to write either way. A phrase that would dismiss, for never having lived there. In the end, only John Lavery’s blurb on the back even names the geography, shocked when I told him. Leaving it be, when I caught the proof of the cover. He swore, he said, he had read that somewhere inside. Should I take that as compliment, able to influence between the lines? Telling him without speaking it? What do I know of Saskatchewan?
She walked slowly back to her house along the dark road, counting telephone poles. Four, five, six. The only sound in the air the hum of the phone wires. Sixteen, seventeen. The cold air crackle of electricity; the cold air steady buzz of everyone talking at once, and no single voice a sound. Hearing her boots crunch prints in the snow.