John writes unusually open criticism, poetry, and fiction. He is one of the most welcoming writers I can think of--his writing gives, reaches out, beckons us to understand. His connected autobiographical stories, So It Won't Go Away, were shortlisted for the Ethel Wilson Prize. I remember sitting with him at Davison Orchards in Vernon when he was working on his most recent fiction, The Path to Ardroe (2012). We were talking about structure and the bones of narrative, which he's a master at disrupting and putting together again differently. He was wrestling with how to connect his four main characters' stories. He found many ways to do it, as he told me about recently when we spoke again about what turned out to be a brilliantly intricate book about time, journeys, cycles, family, friendship. The National Post said, "The Path to Ardroe more closely resembles a symphony, with a number of different movements circling around a central theme."
1. Did you have any alternative titles for this book? What made you pick THE PATH TO ARDROE? Did that come to you fully formed at the start, or later?
I’m a real title guy. I love titles, and, usually, I’m pretty good with them. But this big novel really defeated me, over and over again. The first title, so pretentious, was QUADRATURE. [Fellow critic and professor] Craig McLuckie straightened me out on that one very quickly. "Dreadful and tweedy," I think he said. But it was the working title and I know why I had reached for it in all my pathetic small enthusiasms: I was reading too much Umberto Eco and I liked the architectural image of the four panels…because it reflected the structure of the novel I was writing. Ah well. The next title for it was ONE MOON’S LIGHT because I thought it unified the four sections and the four characters through landscape. But it sounded too cute in the end, like a fluffy, fake realist Cher movie. Then for a few years I called it THE PIVOT. Again, I was looking for a word that indicated how the structure of the novel works, like a Russian doll, the sections pivoting, one against the next. But it was too cold. Finally, I gave up. I reached for THE PATH TO ARDROE because I knew in my bones that it was the hike I’d taken to Ardroe in northern Scotland that caused the fictional material of this novel to surface…so there it was…a reasonable journey or quest image with an exotic name. Consummatum est.
2. How did you start this novel?
I started writing this novel in Scotland, in Edinburgh, in the fall of 1994. It was published in 2012. So I had it for a long, long time. I was on a sabbatical, under a time restraint, so I wrote this novel more deliberately than anything else I’ve ever written. What I mean by that is that I decided to run four characters, one against the next, in a plot sequence that intrigued me. Each character would have two 50 page sections. Each of their stories would be suspended at the end of the first 50 pages, and resolved in the second 50 pages. The characters all knew one another in certain ways, but their stories were disconnected except for the important fact that they were happening on the same days. What excited me especially at the outset was the sequencing: if their characters were named A, B, C and D, then the sequence was as follows: Part One: A, B, C, D/Part Two: D,C, B, A. What fascinated me about this sequencing was the Russian doll effect, and the way the stories enclosed one another. As you can see, because I had
divided it up so deliberately, I could schedule the writing very tightly. One month per section; eight months flat out. Perfect. I returned from Scotland with a complete first draft.
3. How did you find the sense of an ending---did you know when to finish? Did the ending remain the same through different drafts?
It’s funny because I wouldn’t approach the ending to a similar novel now as I did back then. But one of my intensities as a writer in 1994 was that I had become bored and in some ways offended by too much irony and high-style in literary narrative. I was wary of irony and too much poise. I suspected insecurity in them. I knew the risks of another kind of boldness and I was willing to take that risk, especially toward the magic realist or some of the more metaphysical possibilities in meta-fiction. I had been working through writers like Joyce, Celine, Lowry, Vonnegut, Laurence…especially writers who experimented with stream of consciousness techniques… for a long, long time. I’m saying all this in order to provide just a bit of context for my answer to your question. The ending to THE PATH TO ARDROE is hopelessly and, I hope, wonderfully lost in an impossible metaphysical dream full of magic and coincidence…like the end of Shakespeare’s late comedies, especially THE TEMPEST. Nothing in it is possible;
everything in it is possible. Do you know what I mean? There is even the redemption of a child the character Peter never knew about. I wanted the whole, big, bloated, romantic machine to almost explode with hope and love and shameless humanity…no irony, no sniveling, no easy, safe exits.
4. You’re a musician, and music fills your work. Could you choose a piece of music to go with this book?
Oh my goodness. My life is so full of music. But my love and appreciation for music is very intuitive. I do not inhabit my world of music with the kind of knowledge I inhabit my literary world with. All I’m trying to say is that I will be all over the place in my answer. As far as literary narrative is concerned, I love spatial rather than temporal structures. That means I am drawn to a circuitry in fiction that is held by a sequence that runs on juxtaposition of panels. So I am obsessed by things that are like small symphonies or jazz suites in music: any musical structure that is doing what I think I am trying to do with landscape and character in fiction. Here are five pieces that might have inspired or accompanied a novel like THE PATH TO ARDROE: Glenn Gould’s GOLDBERG VARIATIONS (the one in which he mumbles over the music); Miles Davis’ SKETCHES OF SPAIN; Gustav Mahler’s Fifth Symphony; Pat Methany and Charlie Haden’s BEYOND THE MISSOURI SKY (SHORT STORIES); Randy Newman’s GOOD OLD BOYS.
5. ARDROE is built in sections that centre on different members of a group of old friends (we’ve seen some of them before in earlier books). I’m interested in how this became a novel instead of a set of short stories, and how you decided on this form.
In THE PATH TO ARDROE I was fascinated by the prospect of me moving away from autobiographical fiction in both short and long fiction and towards the almost daring freedom of plotting and invention. There are a lot of constraints in the genre of autobiographical fiction and I had written within those constraints for some time. So it was almost comical for me to invent freely, to plot out these characters and what might happen to them, especially the two women characters. The Oyama panel is the most autobiographical fiction panel in this novel. You can see those constraints there. There is a more static quality to those two panels. But the other three are, for me, almost wildly fictional. And I had a lot of fun reaching for that kind of fiction. I had done a lot of work on the short story form…I had more confidence there, but I wanted to write a novel. The solution was to write a novel that was built upon four novellas that fit together as one, even larger music. That was what I was trying for anyway. That’s what
it felt like. I had witnessed Joyce doing it in ULYSSES, Faulkner in THE SOUND AND THE FURY and AS I LAY DYING; Lowry in UNDER THE VOLCANO; Sheila Watson in THE DOUBLE HOOK. It was a form I had studied carefully.
6. Your characters are distinct individuals, but read as facets of a single person in some ways. I’m interested in your thoughts on that.
Well, I may have already hinted at an answer to that. I have four panels that I hope ARE distinct. But from the point of view of the whole thing, my hope was to create a meta-fiction within which these four revolving and distinct wheels told a larger, more singular story, a more impossible story that draws all the other stories within itself and is humming and rolling in an imperfect, straining desire to be told. And which can only be told in this rather sideways way.
7. Homecoming is a thread that runs through the book. Can you talk about this?
Yikes. I can just hear myself blathering on now in a carefully woven web of lies…this is such a great question, Alix. Fundamentally, thinking of literary thinkers like Northrop Frye, Joseph Campbell or Erich Auerbach, I see "homecoming" as this foundational element to so many "stories." The return of the "hero.’" All those beautiful motifs in all their variance. And another way of imagining homecoming is to see it in terms of landscape: a return to the "ground." Each of these four characters in THE PATH TO ARDROE has to "come back to earth." Return to their "ground." Whatever it might be. That is where redemption is. It might be as simple and as magical as the texture of the physical world that is right before us, including, maybe especially, our physical body. Things we deem as secondary all the time when they are in fact the real "grail," always primary, the "home" of a kind of sacredness in us, a dignity in each of us, something that cannot be taken away from us easily. Do you know what I mean? In that sense, in each of the character’s "quests," there is the homecoming to the body and the ground the body is nourished by. If there is a vision beneath this particular novel, that’s what it was. I remember writing in my notebook when I started writing this novel in Edinburgh: "Don’t forget that consciousness IS landscape. Don’t forget that." And that IS the homecoming I think, for each of these characters.