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Fred Stenson on The Great Karoo

Can you tell us how you became a writer?

Fred Stenson: As soon as I discovered adult writing (at fourteen), I wanted to be a writer. I guess it was Catcher in the Rye that turned the switch. So I began writing then, and wanting very badly to be a writer for my profession. This resulted in my writing a novel when I was backpacking in Europe at age 20-21 (1972-73). The novel, Lonesome Hero, was published by Macmillan of Canada in 1974, and that confirmed it. I have continued to make a living as a writer up to the present (140 films and videos, many magazine articles, fiction and non-fiction books).

What inspired you to write The Great Karoo? Is there a story about the writing of this novel that begs to be told?

Fred Stenson: I was researching a non-fiction book about southwestern Alberta (my original home), at the same time as I was looking for an idea for my next historical novel. I had already written two historical novels, The Trade (2000), about the fur trade, and Lightning (2003), about the open-range ranch era in Alberta. For the third novel, I wanted a subject that would follow those two in time, a fin de siècle novel if you like, set in the turn-of-the-century west: a story that would convey the great sense of change that was being felt all over the world, but as it was playing out in the region of western Canada. For awhile I felt the subject might be the Klondike, for certainly that’s where the desire for a final wild-west adventure took many people, but I was reluctant since other writers had tackled that before. Then I started noticing in my regional history research how many people from the small towns of Alberta (Pincher Creek, Fort Macleod, High River) had signed up for the Boer War.

What made me return to that idea with full intent were three stories: one about a Boer War battle that claimed the lives of two Pincher Creek men; one about the accidental death by poisoning of a third Boer War soldier from Pincher Creek; and a third set of stories about Jefferson Davis, son of a whisky trader and a Blood Indian woman. Jeff Davis went to the Boer War and became a very successful scout. He stayed to the bitter end, finishing in a notorious unit called the Canadian Scouts led by Arthur Gatling Howard. The stories about Jeff Davis were probably the most compelling. He was a Métis soldier in “a white man’s war.” How did that work? In the Canadian Scouts he was fighting under an American who had come to Canada for the Riel Rebellion of 1885, to demonstrate the Gatling Gun on behalf of the Colt firearms company. How did Jeff Davis feel about this man who had demonstrated the Gatling Gun on Métis rebels? Soon I was launched on the novel that became The Great Karoo.

What is it that you’re exploring in this novel?

Fred Stenson: War is humankind’s greatest conundrum. Every day, somewhere, it takes lives and devastates lives. As a species, we keep demonstrating genius in countless ways, but cannot seem to make the slightest headway on this most basic of our problems. We cannot seem to find a different way to negotiate our differences as tribes and nations. With this set of beliefs, it was perhaps inevitable that I would write a novel about war. What causes wars? Why do people accept them in the moment when there is a choice? What is it about being a young man that makes war so attractive? Though I could have written simple answers to these questions rather than a great whacking novel, I think you need to write something like a novel to get beyond the obvious and the cliché. In a novel, the answers differ in surprising ways, perhaps most surprising to me as author. It has been said over and over that fiction begins to write itself, and that characters take on a certain independence relative to the author who created them, but this is probably the reason the answers aren’t the same in the end as they would have been if written in advance.

I also wanted to probe the ideas of nationalism and empire. It struck me as I researched the Boer War that the reasons it happened were not unlike the reasons there is a war in Iraq and a war in Afghanistan today. The Boer War was at the time called the Second South African War. There had been an earlier conflict (1881) when the British tried to rouse the foreign workers of Johannesburg into rebellion against the Boer leadership of the South African republics, and it had ended in a humiliating British defeat. In 1899, the British were trying to avenge that defeat. This reminded me of the U.S. returning to do battle against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, because they hadn’t finished the job in 1991.

Then there is the matter of resources. Though it is not popular to say, and many deny it, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq would very likely not be happening if there was no oil in the Middle East. The United States needs this most valuable resource and doesn’t want it to wind up in the hands of its enemies. In 1899, the gold and diamonds in the Boer republics were one of the great fortunes in the world. There was no telling how much more wealth lay beneath that ground. Hostility was rising in Europe between Britain and Germany, and Germany was a more natural ally for the South African Dutch than Britain was, despite Britain’s control of the Cape Colony. Britain’s desire to wrest power from the Boer republics by war had a lot to do with the gold fields of the Rand. In South Africa in 1899, just as in the Middle East today, the purported reason for the war was democracy. Britain claimed to be going to war because the South African republics would not give the vote to foreign workers in the city of Johannesburg and elsewhere. The U.S. and NATO claim to be in Iraq and Afghanistan for purposes of turning those countries into democracies. Religion was also a factor. The Christianity of the Dutch South Africans was far more strict and closely adhered to than the Christianity of the British. The Boers were fighting to protect their religion, their language, and their culture against the influence of British and other foreign workers who had flooded into the Rand. All these things echo events and forces in the present.

In terms of Empire, I wanted to know if the British Empire was a force in the lives of turn-of-the-century western Canadians – a force they considered worth dying for. If so, I wanted to know why. If not, I wanted to know why young men went to South Africa anyway, to fight and in some cases to die.

Who is your favourite character in The Great Karoo, and why?

Fred Stenson: The three protagonists, Frank Adams, Jeff Davis, and Ovide Smith, are a tight little group, and I don’t like to choose among them. Frank is the purely fictional invention, and this makes him quite dear to my heart. He is the son of Jim Adams, another fictional character who plays an important role in my previous novel Lightning. Doc Windham, the central character in Lightning, is Frank Adams’s godfather and friend. It is in no way necessary to have read Lightning in order to read The Great Karoo, but these connections were important to me in writing the new book. They probably strengthen my ties to Frank Adams.

But Ovide Smith and Jeff Davis, the protagonists I have drawn from the historical record, are dear to me in different ways. I might feel the poignancy of their fates more sharply because I did not make those fates. Parts of their lives were simply there and I did not change those parts, and perhaps I grieve more on that account for how their lives twisted away from what they dreamt of and wanted. My hope is that they will be known and remembered now that they are part of a present-day narrative, and that southern Albertans and other Canadians will find them interesting and be proud of them.

Are there any tips you would give a book club to better navigate their discussion of your work?

Fred Stenson: Besides my earlier comments about the Boer War and modern wars, there might be other useful comparisons. We all know that in 1900 people in western Canada were almost exclusively travelling on horseback or in buggies drawn by horses. I sometimes think that we don’t ponder this enough; that we should try harder to imagine what it would be like if our car was alive, if we had an affection toward it as strong as to the family dog or cat – or maybe stronger. We say that cars are extensions of personality and vanity; that we fulfill fantasies through them. This was the case with horses in 1900. You might be plain yourself, but with a handsome bay gelding under you, you felt much more presentable and exciting. In The Great Karoo, horses like Dunny and The Blue are characters of considerable importance. They are important parts of the emotional landscape and they are generators of the story.

Another possibly useful tip would be to remember that the sense of being Canadian in western Canada was different than it is today. That sense of national identity was powerful in some western Canadians in 1900, and just gelling (or not gelling) in others. Pincher Creek, Alberta, the town I went to school in from grade four to high school graduation, was, in 1900, a mini-cosm of central Canada. The majority were Anglo-Saxon and Protestant, and a large minority were French-speaking and Catholic. For these people, mostly from Ontario and Quebec (or French New Brunswick), Canada was their history and their present. But others in the area had been westerners before Canada acquired its rights in the west. Quite a few of these were from the U.S. and others were Métis. In these people, the concept of Canada and their allegiance to it had to be fainter. Frank Adams is a true hybrid in this sense. His father, Jim, is from Ontario, but Jim has been a cowboy and has lived on Alberta ranches since 1881. Frank’s mother, Madeleine, is a Métis whose family was driven out of Saskatchewan and into exile as a result of the second Riel Rebellion. She has no allegiance to Canada at all, and, in fact, is still angry with Canada for what it did to her relations. Jeff Davis’s mother, Revenge Walker, is of the Blood First Nation, and his uncle Red Crow is one of that Nation’s most powerful chiefs. Jeff’s father is an ex-whisky trader who became a Canadian Member of Parliament. So again, in Jeff, the meaning of Canada is complex and not easily ascertained. The question of why Jeff Davis overcomes racial obstacles to go to the Boer War is one of the novel’s mysteries.

Do you have a favourite story to tell about being interviewed, whether for this book or others?

Fred Stenson: My favourite interview story is about my first-ever interview. It was 1974 and my first novel, Lonesome Hero, was just out. I was living in Edmonton and got a call from CBC to come down for a live radio interview. I was pretty excited. In the booth when I entered was the veteran host of the program and another guest. I had expected to be the only one. The guest was a very well known CBC national sportscaster who had recently announced his intention to retire. The host briefly introduced us to the radio audience, then started asking the sportscaster questions. The two men went way back with the corporation and had a lot of favourite anecdotes to share. The host asked about the greatest game the sportscaster had ever seen, and he thought it was the Grey Cup where Jackie Parker recovered the fumble and went 90 yards for the TD. They agreed that they sure don’t make football players like Old Spaghetti Legs and Sam Etcheverry anymore. Then there was the Grey Cup that had to be played over two days because of fog. They went on and on and it was quite interesting. Then the host glanced at his watch and a look of panic crossed his face. He shoved a microphone at me and said, “So you’ve written a novel. Tell me about it.” I said, “It’s about a young man…” and he grabbed the mike away and said, “Well, folks, that’s all the time we have for today.”

What question are you never asked in interviews but wish you were?

Fred Stenson: I suppose my dream question would be: “How has choosing to stay in Alberta, your home province, changed you as a writer?” People don’t ask it because they either don’t know I actually made that choice, or they don’t think of it as important. There was a time in the early ‘80s when most of my writing work was in film, and there were many reasons to think being a motion picture writer would go better if I lived where more motion pictures were made. I had never stopped writing fiction since my first novel, and still counted it as the most important of my pursuits, so the decision when it came was made on the basis of fiction – well, not entirely. It was also made on the basis of local ties and my affection for Alberta. I decided that the type of writer I wanted to be was a deeply regional one. My freelance projects had led me into Alberta history and into all the province’s present-day economies. I kept on knowing the place better, deeper, broader. It struck me that there would be something ideal about being a novelist who stuck to one place and considered whatever subject he chose through that place. Out of these thoughts came a dream of writing a cycle of historical novels that would begin in the early 19th century and work forward–always in western Canada and more particularly in Alberta. Of my work, the last three historical novels are the fruits of that thinking.

Many young writers have taken exactly the opposite approach. They travel widely. They live all over the world and write from that global perspective. When I was in my twenties, that’s exactly what I wanted to do too. I loved the exoticism of Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, for example, and thought that would be the ideal kind of fiction to write. In the early ‘80s, a story of mine about climbing down into a cave on Crete (the birthplace of Zeus) was bought by a Dutch magazine and translated. I really thought I had hit the big time. But, while we do need global writers, we will always also need regional writers, who carve for the truth in one specifically defined landscape and society.

Has a review or profile ever changed your perspective on your work?

Fred Stenson: Sadly, I think the bad reviews have changed me more than the good reviews. I guess that is because good press makes a person feel self-satisfied. It makes you want to stay the same. The bad press makes even a confident writer reassess his or her approach. I remember a review of a 1988 novel that questioned my ability to write from the point of view I had chosen. It was an annoying review, presumptuous, because the writer of it did not know me at all and had made certain assumptions about who I was and what was possible for me. At the same time, I’m not sure I would have considered as deeply what it means to take on a fictional persona, what the responsibilities and limits are and should be, if that rotten, annoying review had not existed.

Which authors have been most influential to your own writing?

Fred Stenson: Because I started writing young, I’ve had a host of influences. They have changed not just with time, but with every shift of taste and objective. I’ve always had different groups of favourites, influences and models, at any one time. At the beginning, I emulated J.D. Salinger and Richard Bradford. I admired Hemingway but could not write like him without it coming out like a joke. When I believed everything should be funny, I shamelessly and helplessly emulated J.P. Donleavy. When I sought to mix humour and seriousness, Mordecai Richler was the perfect model. (In fact, Mordecai Richler is a lasting model of how to be novelist who entertains and furiously, passionately takes on the most important subjects.) When I became more aware of my region and sought to write from and through it, I discovered what wonderful writers western Canada had: Robert Kroetsch, Merna Summers, W.O. Mitchell, Carol Shields, Gloria Sawai, Andy Russell.

The Texas writer Larry McMurtry was important to me as a regional writer who could do it all: rural, urban, western, historical. Together with these other influences, I remained infatuated with what the Irish do with the English language. My two favourites were Flann O’Brien and James Joyce. Then I discovered in my own country the grace and fluidity of Alistair MacLeod. MacLeod’s Lost Salt Gift of Blood taught me the short story, as has the short-story work of Merna Summers, Gloria Sawai, Chekhov, James Joyce, Lorrie Moore, Rachel Wyatt, Lisa Moore, Edna Alford, Caroline Adderson, and Greg Hollingshead. My style hardened too early and I looked to stylists like Ondaatje, Kroetsch, Malcolm Lowry, David Adams Richards, Raymond Carver, Zsuzsi Gartner, Mark Jarman, and Cormac McCarthy to tear up that field so I could start again. When I turned to historical fiction, the emphasis changed to Tolstoy, Rudy Wiebe, Guy Vanderhaeghe, Barry Unsworth, Bernice Morgan, Wayne Johnston, and Kate Grenville. More recently, I’ve been schooled by Alissa York and Michael Crummey. I am very excited about what is happening in Canada’s literature in the past dozen years, and I am being taught now by the young: Lynn Coady, Lee Henderson, Anne Fleming, Annabel Lyon, Charlotte Gill, Pasha Malla, Jacqueline Baker, and Jaspreet Singh.

If you weren’t writing, what would you want to be doing for a living? What are some of your other passions in life?

Fred Stenson: I know the question is about desire, but maybe it’s the historical fiction writer in me that wants to go to the possible and the probable. If not a writer, I might have become a rancher, for I always liked cows and admired horses. Growing up in a mixed farm community left me with a lot of feelings of rebellion and inadequacy that writing helped resolve. But since most of the negative feelings I had that were attached to farming had to do with the mechanical aspect, and the repetitiveness, I could have changed our mixed farm into a straight-up ranch and perhaps been happy. But in order for this to happen, I would have had to live out a great many other possibilities first. If I could somehow magically become a rancher in this moment, I would. I would have a quarter horse with perfect manners who practically caught, tacked, and rode herself. I would have Hereford cattle. I would have a ranch manager who was a magic combination of mechanic, carpenter, veterinarian, horse trainer, and excellent storyteller. There would be a lake nearby for my wife to kayak on. I would have a big verandah that looked upon Chief Mountain to the south, and there I would write and read and perhaps smoke a pipe. My border collie would be nearby watching my every move. In this vision, I would also be a skilled fisherman, dry fly only, and friends from all over my life would visit often.

If you could have written one book in history, what book would that be?

Fred Stenson: Though this is an almost crazy question for an omnivorous reader with a wide range of writing fantasies, I will pick James Joyce’s Ulysses. I have always admired what the Irish have been able to do with English words: the rhythm, the invention, the anarchic humour; the deep drag and airy flights of mood. As for Ulysses itself, the fascination remains how Joyce could capture so many flavours of a moment, even a not very interesting moment, and give you back the intense feeling of life itself in that place and time.

I’m going to stretch the parameters of the question and say what my favourite short story is. First place goes to Alistair MacLeod’s “As Birds Bring Forth the Sun.” Listening to Alistair read this story, or more or less recite it, is one of the most pleasing experiences of literature I have known. Second place goes to James Joyce again for “The Dead.” The ending itself is enough.

© 2010 Random House of Canada Limited


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Posted by Pearl on Jul 27 2010. Filed under Author Interviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Responses are currently closed, but you can trackback from your own site.
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