canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Interview: Elizabeth Hay

Elizabeth Hayís novel Garbo Laughs, was the winner of the Ottawa Book Award, a finalist for the Governor Generalís Literary Award, a Globe & Mail Notable Book of the Year, and a Macleansí Top Ten Books of the Year. Her other words include the award-winning novel A Student of Weather, and the short story collection Small Change. Her most recent book is the Giller short-listed Late Nights On Air.

Interview by Nathaniel G. Moore

(October 2007)


You worked for the CBC in Yellowknife from 1974-78. Did this experience directly inform your latest novel Late Nights on Air

I tried to recreate as accurately as possible the small radio station where I started out in 1974. I changed the layout slightly, but, in the main, itís the same place. I like to have a bit of real ground under my feet when I launch a fictional story and that station in Yellowknife was one of the most vivid worlds Iíve known. It was cozy, crowded, tense, and terrifying, the small and complicated kernel of a small and complicated town. 

Harry Boyd, who works at the station, seems like a noir-type, a bit of a lowlife with a hint of charm. Was he a difficult character to write? 

When I worked in radio, it was a young personís profession. There were a few older men on the sidelines who seemed over the hill to me, a bit pathetic. Harry Boyd is one of that type. Heís the sort of old hand you can learn a great deal from. First, heís not a snob. Second, heís known enough success and failure in his life to be careless of his tongue and of his heart. I enjoyed his company very much. Harder to write was Eddy, a scary and confusing loner. And Dido, with her less than transparent personality. 

How important was the work of George Whalley to you while writing this book? 

George Whalley was a Canadian academic and a poet. His field was Coleridge, but he also wrote a tremendous biography called The Legend of John Hornby. He got as close to the mysterious figure of Hornby as itís possible to get, and his tools were assiduous research and a sympathetic and far-reaching imagination. His book is so disciplined and generous that it makes most work look lazy in comparison. I read The Legend of John Hornby when I lived in Yellowknife, then canoed through the part of the Barrens where Hornby starved to death, and the book remains a touchstone for me. The quality of Whalleyís approach Ė his thoughtful persistence Ė actually reminds me of my editor, Ellen Seligman. I owe a great deal to both of them. 

What is Yellowknife like in the summer? Were you writing then?

I spent four winters and five summers in Yellowknife and one of those summers was the most glorious Iíve ever known. That was the golden summer of 1975. Itís rare to have a string of still, warm, luminous days like that. Usually itís cooler, windier. At that time I was writing poetry and taking stabs at prose in the form of journal entries. Iíve been back to Yellowknife once, in 1988. I didnít return for the purposes of this book. Yellowknife has changed so much since the 1970s that I thought a visit might throw me off my fictional track. Instead, I relied on memory and research and imagination, and on the memories and knowledge of others who were there. 

As you wrote Late Nights on Air did you ever think about how radio itself is a dialogical tool? 

I thought about radio as a personal and intimate medium thatís been important to me since childhood. Setting a novel in a radio station gave me the chance to write about the romance of disembodied voices, the importance of listening, the terror of being on air and the burden of embarrassment, the power of unseen connections, and the sounds made by all manner of things. 

Has traveling within Canada or abroad influenced your writing? 

I boast that by the time I was 23, Iíd traveled across Canada from Newfoundland to the Queen Charlottes and up to Yellowknife. In those days certain remote landscapes captured my imagination, the wilder the better, and I had a huge urge to see them. Living in Yellowknife then ignited my interest in what I thought of as its opposite, New Orleans. Later on I went farther south to Mexico and Latin America, completing my north-south travels. I was writing about the physical details of place and the emotional burden of homesickness and the difficulty of loving well. Iím not much of a traveler anymore. Iím older and rather anchored to my desk. 

Do you feel todayís media is making us more human or less human? Part two of this question is a statement you can agree with or disagree with: Media (including radio) is human-made weather.

Todayís media are making us stupider. Generally theyíre chatter-filled and audience-obsessed and less and less concerned with stimulating and deepening our thoughts. I like your notion that radio is human-made weather. The title Late Nights on Air is meant to convey the various meanings of air Ė as atmosphere, as elation, as exposure. Radio at its best is still a wonderful thing. Like a good book, it can make you feel more alive, more connected to the world.

Nathaniel G. Moore is Danforth Reviewís features editor.






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