canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Interview: Shaena Lambert

Shaena Lambert is a fiction writer and poet whose first book, a collection of short stories called The Falling Woman, was a Globe and Mail Best Book and was shortlisted for the Danuta Gleed Literary Award. Her work has appeared in many periodicals and literary journals including Descant, the Malahat Review, the North American Review and the Toronto Life fiction issue. She lives in Vancouver with her husband and two children. 

See Random House's Shaena Lambert website.

This interview was conducted in the early hours of Spring 2007 by TDR Montreal correspondent Mary Williamson.


TDR: You are a poet, novelist and short fiction writer.  Could you discuss how these forms relate and inform one another and how they might contrast within your practice?

Shaena Lambert: I do write all three, though recently novel writing seems to have taken over. Since finishing Radiance I have begun a new novel, which at present is quite amorphous. Getting inside that world seems to take up all my writing time. Novels have a tendency to spread, I think, and take up all available space – like big animals.

TDR: How do you experience the relationship between memory and fictional narrative?

SL: Key memories from my childhood do seem to end up laced into my fiction, but usually in altered form. Riverside Meadows, the Long Island suburb where much of Radiance takes place, came partly from research, but also from memories of the Ottawa suburb I lived in until I was five. There was the same marsh at the end of a dirt road. I even threw in the drainage pipe under the street, which kids used to crawl through, and the IGA grocery store my mother used to trek to, across several large fields. I turned that into "Strickland’s Groceries" out on the Jericho turnpike.

In my short stories I often start with a little snippet of something I remember – either something that happened to me, or a story I might have heard, and then I develop it.

TDR: This past Easter marked the 90th anniversary of Canada's involvement in the Battle at Vimy Ridge.  How do you feel about Canada's current relationship/involvement in war?  Why did you choose to write about the events of and aftermath of Hiroshima from the perspective of this novel?

SL: I guess I felt gripped by the idea early on – the idea of a Hiroshima survivor and the relationship she has with a conventional housewife, and the strange shadows the a-bomb survivor casts over a seemingly ordinary suburb. It was one of those ideas that wouldn’t let me go, though it took me years to get it into its final form, and it changed a lot as I wrote the novel. Exploring the strangeness of radiation was part of that for me. How it was such a new, potent force. People in the early Fifties were just beginning to develop a cultural relationship to it – part horror at what had been unleashed, part fascination.

TDR: How does your history as a peace activist inform your perspective within Radiance and in your writing practice?

SL: I came into adulthood in a world where the superpowers owned 50,000 nuclear missiles. Words like ‘mega-death’ and ‘over-kill’ were routinely bandied around, describing the mind-boggling surplus of weapons. I still remember how I felt, joining the peace movement –as though I’d stepped onto a geyser of bright liquid. (I gave that feeling to Daisy, one of my characters, when she decides to join the Hiroshima Project.) It can feel wonderful to take action on a global issue after worrying about it, alone.

Later, when I started writing fiction, I disliked the idea of writing politically – having a political agenda seems antithetical to good fiction. Still, with Radiance and The Falling Woman, global issues have crept in, either as background or as subject matter. And I guess this is natural, as people do end up writing about what concerns them most. I just think it is important, when writing fiction, not to be grinding an axe.

TDR: Have you ever been to Japan? 

SL: Yes – I went there to research Radiance. My brother was living there, with his family, working for the Department of Foreign Affairs. So he was able to show me around and arrange for a home stay family to look after us in Hiroshima.

TDR: Could you tell me about your memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki?  Do you remember how you first learned about these events?

SL: I heard about the a-bomb when I was in grade 3. This was in the late Sixties. I came home and asked my mother about it, hoping she’d say it wasn’t true. But she got a certain look in her face, the same look she’d get when I asked about other dangerous topics. (Why my aunt and her husband slept in two beds, for instance). She said: "Yes, it’s true, there was a massive bomb – and it was dropped on Hiroshima. But you’ve got to remember, it ended the war." And she told me about being a little girl on the day the bomb was dropped -- and how her parents, who had had their own share of persecution during the war (her father was a German immigrant in small-town BC) had hugged and cried when they heard the news, because the war was finally over.

TDR: I photographed an interview once between Douglas Coupland and Bruce Mau wherein Mau asked Coupland to discuss the issue of "history".  Coupland's response related his experience of growing up on the west coast and in  Vancouver (a relatively "young" city) to his relationship to history as an artist and writer.  It didn't make him contemptuous of history, however left him with the feeling that history was best considered an "art supply".

How do you feel about his statement?

SL: History is an art supply – it’s true. The biggest and most remarkable one I can think of. But calling it an art supply makes it sound a bit like a fridge, doesn’t it? "I went to the art supply and pulled out my Great War six pack." So I think while we do go to history for inspiration, we also have to honour it, live within it and do our best to it right. Not just consume it.

TDR: What is the role of history within your work? 

SL: The past has one advantage over the present: it’s over -- which gives it a satisfying completeness. So it’s easier to study – or at least it feels easier to study.

Early on in Radiance, the Head of the Hiroshima Project gives a speech about how the people gathered that night are staring into the dark unknown, possibly able – if they try hard enough – to shed light into the abyss, to change history. I enjoyed playing with this idea – that people then, as now, were trying to make things better, to change history. Then to look at what intervened, to complicate their good intentions.

TDR: What kinds of challenges do you face when re creating and/or fictionalizing a "real" historical event?

SL: Radiance did grow out of a ‘real life’ event – the arrival of 25 Hiroshima survivors in New York, in 1955, to have reconstructive surgery on their faces. My challenge was to draw on this material for plausibility and to ground the story, but not to let it dominate how I created my own plot. So I narrowed my focus from 25 girls to just one: Keiko. I was inspired by the real life events, but – I hope – not too constrained by them.

TDR: Could you talk to me a little about how "secrets" or "undisclosed" information (personal and otherwise) function within the novel?

SL: Keeping a secret, nurturing a secret, is a key part of the creative process for me. I didn’t tell anybody I was writing Radiance until I’d been at it for about a year. Even my agent and editor didn’t know at first. And perhaps because I was so involved in keeping my own secret, the idea of ‘secrecy versus telling’ did end up becoming a theme in Radiance. Everybody wants Keiko to be ‘the perfect atomic spokesperson,’ telling and re-telling her story of the day the bomb fell. But she finds a way to sneak out from under their insistence. She gets free. Or at least that’s the most hopeful way you can read the story.

TDR: Who do you identify with most in this novel?

SL: That’s a hard question to answer. I think I identify with both Keiko and Daisy. At first I found Keiko difficult to understand, to write my way into. But by the end of the process I was very fond of her. She’s secretive (like me) and she’s a trickster and a thief. Her dark side comforted me, perhaps because she was so determined to preserve it. And Daisy is the protagonist of the novel: a woman who longs to be a mother, and who finds her longings thwarted. She wants to be good – such a simple desire – but so hard to accomplish.

TDR: Your character Keiko becomes a confidant to a number of diverse individuals and is often subject to their stories of intense suffering.  Do you have a similar experience as a writer?  Do you ever find yourself in a similar role?   

SL: Not so much as a confessor. Maybe more as a conduit. As a writer, I love being part of the tide of gossip and connection that I get from listening to people’s lives unfolding. There’s a moment -- say when a friend calls, or when my mother is on the telephone and starts to tell me something interesting -- when I begin to feel a dark sort of satisfaction, of reconnection. "Okay," I think – "here comes something real." And out comes the story of so-and-so’s affair, or somebody’s fight with their sister, or a child’s peculiar behaviour…all of which ends up being interesting not only to look at, but also to dissect. The dissection is a large part of the pleasure!

Mary Williamson wears glasses and is a freelance writer and photographer living her life in Montreal, Quebec. She is working on a novel and is a Gemini.







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