Twice a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the recipient of many awards, renowned Shuswap author Gail Anderson-Dargatz has just released another book, The Almost Wife.
In an email interview with Observer reporter Martha Wickett, Anderson-Dargatz touched on details of the book and its creation, as well as her history in the Shuswap. That history includes a stint as a reporter with the Salmon Arm Observer, which she described as her “first writing gig.” Here is a portion of that Aug. 1 interview.
The acknowledgments say that setting the book on Manitoulin Island in Ontario was a thank you because you love the region so much. It sounds like a beautiful place.
My husband is Mitch Krupp, who many people in Salmon Arm will know from his days with the Shuswap Theatre (in fact, that’s where we first met). His mom lived on Manitoulin Island and for a decade we made an annual trek to see her and other family, driving across country to spend summers there (with our two youngest kids and their bunny!). I fell in love with the place and held writing retreats there. We even contemplated moving there, and did live there for a full year back in 2011, but I was so incredibly homesick for the Shuswap I couldn’t stand it! So we gave up on that idea, but continued to spend summers there with Mitch’s family. But even then, moving back and forth between the Shuswap and Manitoulin, I found it hard to fully commit to either location and was deeply homesick for both. While The Almost Wife is complete fiction, you will see that ache and indecision as an undercurrent… where the protagonist struggles to make a choice between two lives, one on Manitoulin and one in the city.
What were your influences for writing about domestic violence?
The domestic violence is part of the domestic thriller or psychological thriller genre, which is the genre I was working within for The Almost Wife. Domestic thrillers have gained popularity in recent years to the point where you often see them on the bestseller lists (and I’m delighted to say The Almost Wife has hit the top 10 Canadian bestseller lists two weekends in a row already). What I like most about the domestic thriller is that it takes the ordinary fears that most of us have (as the situations most often literally involve the domestic), say that our child might go missing, and magnifies those fears in such a way that we are entertained (those thrills!) but we can also face those fears. The protagonist in a domestic thriller is often undervalued both by herself and those around her and through the events of the story gains confidence in her ability to deal with the worst life can throw at her. If she can deal with this tough stuff, the reader can too. So the domestic thriller is often about empowerment. In short, the structure and reader expectations of the genre dictate its subject matter, that of domestic violence, in one form or another. It’s intrinsic to the genre.
How long did it take to write The Almost Wife? Was it an ‘easy’ book for you to write?
A literary novel can take a long, long time to write, in large part because the structure for each literary novel is somewhat unique. My last literary novel, The Spawning Grounds, took me nine years, in part because I was teaching within the UBC CW optional-residency MFA program, and, well, (middle) life happened. One of the reasons I wanted to write a commercial thriller was to take a bit of a break, to have fun, to play, and even though the subject matter of a domestic thriller can be dark, working with the thriller structure really is fun and play. As there is an established structure, or map, to follow, even for the character arc, writing The Almost Wife went much, much faster, two years. I’m now just about to hand my next thriller over to my editor and it went from concept to complete draft in a year. So while there is a ton of research on any book (which I enjoy), writing a thriller is easier on many fronts simply because there is a clear path to follow.
If I didn’t love the process of writing, though, I wouldn’t write. There really is no other reason to write. There is little status in being a writer, and there is a fair amount of stress involved in putting a book out there (particularly as most writers are introverts). A writer faces criticism from every corner (especially themselves). And contrary to what many people believe, writers do not make much money from writing, not even a living. There are only a few who do. So, if you write, write for the love of the process, for the act of writing itself, for getting lost in the flow, and that wonderful, satisfying feeling of mastery that comes after a day of writing.
Read more: 2015: Writing for everyone
I’m curious if you learned how to hunt as a young person?
No, I’ve never hunted. Readers will often assume that the writer is the character in the novel in some respect. For some novelists, and some books, autobiographical novels, that’s sometimes the case. But a professional fiction writer is more like an actor. We step into the shoes of others, putting on a mask, doing our research to build a character, to inhabit them as we write, much like an actor does. Hunting and fishing is a big part of life on Manitoulin, and Northern Ontario in general, so it was natural to make this an aspect of Kira’s character and background (and also useful to the plot). I find that so many of the traits of a character stem from the setting of the book. So, contrary to much of the advice that’s out there, I don’t start with character, I start with situation and setting, and then throw the protagonist into that. It’s through his or her actions within that situation and setting that characters reveal themselves.
Are you working on any other books now or do you take a break?
Like most professional writers, I never really take a break from writing. At any given time I have three or more books on the go. Right now I’m promoting The Almost Wife, completing the draft on the next thriller, working on the synopsis for the book after that, and I’m also working on another hi-lo middle school novel for Orca Book Publishers.
By the way, my last hi-lo book for Orca, The Ride Home, has just been short-listed for three children’s book prizes: a BC and Yukon Book Prize (the Sheila A. Egoff Children’s Literature Prize), the Chocolate Lily Awards, and the Red Cedar Fiction Award.
Is that you on the cover running away?
Um, no. I’m not that fit young woman on the cover. (smiley face emoji) I’m overweight and cruising on 60. I couldn’t run like that if I tried. In the novel, the protagonist, Kira, is a runner. The design and marketing teams at HarperCollins worked on several book covers and then showed them to booksellers for feedback before settling on this one. Again, the cover fits neatly within reader expectations for the domestic thriller genre. The only thing I have in common with Kira is the experience of “flow” which runners get while running and writers get while writing. You’ll see a reference to that in the first paragraph of the novel.
Your website shows about 17 books you’ve written. Is that about right?
Yeah, I have something like 20 books now. But I’ve been at this for quite a few years, and many of them are my little hi-lo books, which are novella length. But yes, my waking hours are all about writing or critiquing the writing of others. My work week is a juggle between mentoring, editing other writers’ work, and researching, outlining and writing my own stuff. I try to get in my own writing done in the morning, when my mind is fresh. To that end, I try to stay off email and social media, or my morning is shot. I devote weekends to meeting with my students as most work during the week. And I’m still parenting two teens (we have two other adult children out of the nest). So days off are hard to come by. But then they are for most people. I wouldn’t trade my lifestyle for anything. I have the luxury of working from home, and setting my own schedule. And I work with the most amazing writers. Many of them are my published peers, writers whose work I admire.
I was telling our new reporter that you used to work at the Observer. Do you mind telling me what year that was and how long you worked here? I think you were famous for mannequins in Salmon Arm Bay…
As I recall, I was a junior reporter and photographer (and sometimes cartoonist) with the Salmon Arm Observer from 1985 to 1988. My first writing gig!
Oh, the mannequins in the bay. A friend of mine and I were poking gentle fun at the wharf, which at that time, as I recall, didn’t go out far enough, so boaters would have to dock at the mud flats. So I borrowed some mannequins from the local museum and my friend and I set them up as if they were tourists swimming and playing in the mud. We took a bunch of photos of these “tourists” and published them in the paper. But then, I was in my twenties, and it was the ‘80s. We were always doing crazy stuff. I often wore costumes to work at the paper, just for the heck of it.
Do you consider the Shuswap home?
The Shuswap is most decidedly home. I grew up here, I live here now, as I have for many years, and have no plans to move. In the past, I’ve lived on Vancouver Island, in Alberta, and as I said, on Manitoulin Island, but I always come home to the Shuswap. Even when I’ve lived elsewhere, I’ve written about the Shuswap landscape, set my novels here. It’s my interior landscape, the one I compare every other one to. It’s the one I dream about. It’s home.
Author reading via sketch comedy:
Anderson-Dargatz and her spouse put together a little sketch comedy, The Almost Making of the Almost Reading of The Almost Wife, instead of a traditional reading for launch day of the book. She said it pokes fun at what everyone has been going through trying to work, and in this case record a reading, at home. You can see it on her website, gailanderson-dargatz.ca, under Resources for Writers, Author Reading.
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