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Birnbaum v.

Photograph by Robert Birnbaum

Gil Adamson

Our man in Boston chats with author Gil Adamson about Toronto’s literary mafia, the fact-checking that plagues novelists, and the difficulty of listing 10 Canadian writers.

Canadian writer Gil Adamson previously has published two collections of poetry, Primitive and Ashland, and a book of linked short stories, Help Me, Jacques Cousteau. Her much-lauded first novel The Outlander, set in 1903, follows young Mary Bolton as she flees her dead husband’s sadistic twin brothers, who are seeking to avenge her murder of their sibling. Bolton’s flight takes her into the snowbound Canadian Rockies of Alberta where she recounts the details that led her to her homicidal act. Along the way we also meet an ensemble of wonderful characters—among them William Moreland, The Ridgerunner—against a setting of hardship, deprivation, and struggle for survival, and ultimately the possibilities for Mary’s salvation.

Gil Adamson and I spoke last year around the time of the American publication of her novel. We chatted about why it took 10 years to write her book, Marianne Wiggins, Canadian writers, and the Toronto literary scene. And much more. And by the way, it should not go unsaid that The Outlander was one of my favorite novels of 2008 and I hope to take Ann Patchett’s advice and read it a second time.


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Robert Birnbaum: You know, I don’t know why, I kept saying your name was Gil. [pronounced like “gill”]

Gil Adamson: Yeah. I answer to Gil. It’s OK.

RB: But it makes lot of sense: You’re a woman, so Gil [pronounced like “Jill”] is…

GA: Yeah. It’s short for Gillian.

RB: Wow. But normally, oh, I guess Gillian is spelled with a “g.”

GA: Yep, Gillian’s spelled with a “g.” That’s right.

RB: How ‘bout that for trivial?

GA: I was just telling somebody that the reason I spell it that way is because my mother and my grandmother shortened Gillian down to Gil with one “l,” so when I published my first book I decided to just go with that spelling.

RB: You’ve published books before?

GA: Yes, I have.

RB: I read somewhere that this book is 10 years in the making?

GA: Yeah, it was.

RB: What took you so long?

GA: I’m just completely lazy. [both laugh]

GA: Completely slow.

RB: Ten years from the first inception of the idea to the final draft?

I keep coming up with ideas and going, No, no, that’s cheesy Gil, you gotta leave it alone.GA: Yup. Ten years. Basically, I wrote it sequentially, so the first line to the last line, it was a span of 10 years. But in that time I did also get to write a poetry book and get that published. And I left this project alone for a little while and started writing another one—left that in a drawer—so I did actually have a number of other projects that I was working on, but this one was the main one.

RB: And you were revising and finalizing as you were going along?

GA: I don’t know if other writers do this, but what I would do is that when I sat back down to write again, I would go back over what I’d written over the last little while, say the last 20 pages—just to get up to speed, to remind myself what just happened in the book—and then get rolling again. When you do that you can fiddle and fix and edit as you go along. So every scene in the book I had gone over many, many times by the time I was done.

RB: So by the time you were done, you were really pretty much done.

GA: Yeah.

RB: And what you turned in was not radically different than what was published?

GA: Exactly. It was pretty close. When I handed it in, the publisher said it was one of the cleaner, more publishing-ready books they’d seen. And even then, the editor wanted to do some things with pacing. So in the book there are sections where we leave the main character and we go in and check in with secondary characters and see what is happening with them. There are two men that are following the main character—they are basically pursuing her for vengeance purposes—and so these little sections, I just needed to write a couple more. So really the difference between the first manuscript and what actually got published is a matter of about eight pages.

RB: And this is published first in Canada—you’re Canadian?

GA: That’s right. I am a Canadian. [laughs]

RB: I don’t know anything about editors in Canada, but you mentioned Daniel Halpern, and your Canadian editor?

GA: My Canadian editor is Lynn Henry. She’s extraordinarily good. She’s a really good fiction editor. I think she could probably edit anything if she wanted to; she’s just very, very thoughtful.

RB: And given the state of completeness that your book was in, why did you feel you needed Daniel Halpern?

GA: Oh, well, because I love him.

RB: [laughs] OK.

GA: How can you not love Daniel Halpern? I just think he’s excellent. But also, Halpern has been in this business for a long time, he has a really amazing pedigree, and he deals with authors in a way that just so—oh, what’s the word—you just feel very safe with Halpern. And he has also included me in decisions like what the cover was going to look like. And he’s under no obligation to do that. So really things like that were just lovely for me. In some ways it was very much like working with a small press. Ecco Press used to be a small press. And now it’s sitting on the cloud of HarperCollins, but it still has a real small-press feeling and that’s really great for authors.

RB: You come from Toronto, and I noticed Michael Ondaatje has blurbed your book. Is there a literary mafia in Toronto?

GA: Oh, yeah. [laughs]

RB: Is he the Don Corleone of it?

GA: I don’t know. That’s a good question: Is he the Don Corleone? Well he’s too furtive and shy to be the Don Corleone.

RB: Maybe it’s his wife, Linda?

GA: Could be, could be. Yeah, she’s pretty feisty…and a good writer in her own right.

RB: I made the mistake of reading the press materials, some of which I didn’t even understand, given that I’d read the book, but I take it that it was well received in Canada?

I know it sounds like a terrible thing, but I think if you can really ick somebody out, you’ve done a good job.GA: Yeah, it seems to have been well received, fingers crossed. So far I haven’t had any really bad-tempered reviews.

RB: And the blurbs come from really credible people who are not bullshitters, Jim Harrison and Ondaatje, and they say wonderful things.

GA: It’s a nice thing to see for me.

RB: I happen to like Harrison a lot, and his stamp of approval is a good sign. I thought Ann Patchett was right, that this book does deserve to be read twice.

GA: Oh!

RB: And if I had the time I would do it. Maybe it’s the mood I’m in, but—as an aside, I just got Salman Rushdie’s new book, and I’ve never been a fan of his—

GA: And you’re liking it?

RB: I’m loving it. The Enchantress of Florence. It’s this sort of a Thousand and One Nights; it takes place in this middle century in the Mughal Empire…

GA: You’re kidding. That would be great.

RB: It’s a wonderful story, as is yours.

GA: Because I’m like you, I recognize that it is extremely good writing, but I just tend to poop out after a little while.

RB: This has the voice…the prose is like someone is talking to you.… Sometimes I forget I’m reading.

GA: Oh, I love that.

RB: And it’s very funny.

GA: And he is. He is funny. He’s wickedly funny.

RB: Somebody just told me as I was reading his new book that his new wife left him. [laughs]

GA: Oh, no, really? Uh-oh.

RB: And there’s something—some of the references in the story, they make you wonder.

GA: His previous wife, Marianne Wiggins, wrote an amazing book called John Dollar. It’s kind of the female version of Lord of the Flies. It’s the story of what happens when you get a whole bunch of little girls shipwrecked on a tropical island…

RB: She’s gotten a lot of recognition. It’s funny, I started reading her, is it Eyeless Eden?

GA: Yup, that’s it.

RB: I remember talking to her about that time [1995]. And then she wrote a couple of books that made her sound like she had channeled Southern writers like Reynolds Price?

GA: Really?

RB: The one about—isn’t there some atomic bomb or atomic energy project that took place in Tennessee and the story has something to do with that? [Evidence of Things Unseen is set in North Carolina.—eds.]

GA: Really.

RB: And then her recent story about Weston, Curtis—which is it—about the Indian photographer? [The story is about Edward Curtis.—eds.]

GA: Oh, yeah.

RB: Which was told obliquely—she wrote about him but it wasn’t his voice in the story.

GA: Neat. I’ve only read the one book but I was so impressed. The writing was so graceful and it was so compelling. And she has a killer instinct, she’ll surprise you with how frightening and gross.… I know it sounds like a terrible thing, but I think if you can really ick somebody out, you’ve done a good job.

RB: Do you think about that a lot in your writing? I am just trying to remember if there was anything particularly—other than the aftermath of the avalanche, which is pretty gruesome. Bodies piled around, body parts.

GA: And you gotta think it’s not going to be a nice thing to look at.

RB: Do you spend any time in the wilderness?

GA: Yeah. My father used to take us canoeing and we would go for pretty good canoe trips. Not wildly long, but right out there. I think it’s good for kids actually to get out there and be in the wilderness. The area that the book is set in the Rocky Mountains—Crowsnest Pass is basically where it’s set—and I have lived in that area. Again, briefly, but I have a kind of visceral sense of what it is like to be out there.

RB: It seems like you have a visceral sense…. You know, in America, for people to mention you and Cormac McCarthy—

GA: That’s pretty good. I have to hide under the bed when people say that, because I just think he’s wicked.

Writing is one of those things that, for me, requires a long stretch of boring days, days in which you don’t have stuff to do and you don’t have things to worry about or places to be.RB: But you don’t come across—especially in this modern day—you don’t come across people very often who can place you with great authenticity and plausibility in that setting and you don’t doubt that what you’re seeing is what’s there.

GA: Well that’s a nice thing to say. That’s what I think I was worried about when I had finished the book, as I think any writer is: You get to the end of the book and the first thing you think is: I just know that someone is going to say that this is incorrect, these don’t exist there, you couldn’t get from here to there. You know there are the famous stories of Joyce writing to his friends and asking, “How long does it take to walk from here to there?” Even though he’d lived there most of life, it was so important for him to make that correct.

RB: Well I’ve come across a number of writers who will tell me the horror stories when they go to a reading, and some writer who’s written about Alabama at the turn of the century will have somebody get up and say, “Well, you know, armadillos didn’t cross the Mississippi until after 1900,” or, “The Lucky Strike tobacco tin was not round, it was square.”

GA: You know, it’s the kind of thing that the writer just cringes [at] because it’s already published, it’s already done. And as a reader, I know how great it is to be able to say, “I figured out there’s a problem with this. Aha! I know!”

RB: I only get that aha! feeling when reading the New Yorker.

GA: [laughs]

RB: They have a very infamous fact-checking department; they take great pride. The last time I nailed them I said: “Don’t I get a prize for this or something? Maybe you could offer me a job in the fact-checking department.”

GA: That’s right. “If I’m better than you guys, then I’m pretty good.”

RB: But you know, as Billy Wilder said, nobody’s perfect.

GA: No, that’s for sure.

RB: But let me ask you something. It could be the case that I didn’t read [The Outlander] carefully enough, and I’m not sure it matters to me except after the fact, but what in fact is the duration of the story?

GA: Well that is actually a good question, because that’s something that I and the editor went over. When I wrote it, my attitude was sort of that I didn’t care. But that being said, if you were to sit down and figure out basically how long it could be from here to here, it’s probably about three and a half months.

RB: One of the reasons it came to me was—

GA: Because she’s pregnant.

RB: No, because, of William Moreland, The Ridgerunner? He loses four years.

GA: Yes.

RB: And it made me think, what does time mean?

GA: I think that’s entirely possible, if you ever read old books about old people talking about their lives, quite often they’re not quite sure how old they are. We’re so attuned to exact time, and I think people like him would lose it.

RB: Well the only references would be the moon and the seasons, and it seems to me that the seasons were not really four seasons; I can’t imagine that there were really four seasons.

GA: There’s probably sort of two, two and a half. Really what he would do is, he would count the number of winters, and if you’ve been out on your own in the woods for he thinks nine years and it turns out it’s 13, the thing that upsets him is that he missed the turn of the century, which is crazy.

RB: Why did it upset him? It was funny, of course.

GA: It’s just that the turn of the century is supposed to be important.

RB: I have to ask, is this story over for you? Could you write more about these people?

GA: It’s a funny thing, I really could. I don’t know how I would, and I keep coming up with ideas and going, No, no, that’s cheesy Gil, you gotta leave it alone. But the feeling of it, the time and that sort of moment in human history is really interesting to me. I think people used to be allowed to be more eccentric. It wasn’t so much kind of smoothing over the way we behave and the way we talk and what we think is true. There were some serious kooks back then, and it’s very fertile for a writer.

RB: I just read an essay about how atheism was more acceptable even in the 19th century up until maybe the 1920s, atheism and other brands of non-conformity, and now—now you can’t get away with anything.

I loll around all the time. I’m not even good at cleaning.GA: Yeah, I wouldn’t be surprised if that was true. I think it was on some level considered private. It was your own private thing rather than…. I mean, there are little things like my grandfather, one of my grandfathers who was considerably older just because of generations and number of children and all that stuff, and he considered it extremely rude for anyone to say how much something cost or how much money they made for their living; and perversely, he also found it very interesting to try to get that information out of people.

RB: [laughs]

GA: He was very good at it, but he really considered it something you never told anyone. That was private. It was like talking about sex or something, it was shameful.

RB: Well it is sort of like that. People are more likely to talk today about sex than money, in some ways.

GA: [laughs] Yeah, probably.

RB: Why’d you write this book? Considering it’s your first novel—

GA: Well, I wrote it to see if I could. I wrote it to see if I could actually write a novel. Because I didn’t put a huge amount of pressure on myself, I just decided to sort of give it a shot, it was incredibly enjoyable and so I stuck at it. In fact, when I started, I used one of my own poems as an outline. I don’t know if you’ve seen this; it’s one of the things that gets repeated…that I wrote a poem first, and then when I decided I was going to try to write something longer than a short story, I was casting about for ideas, and I remember—I’ve said this so many times I feel like I’m repeating myself—but I remember seeing Tom Stoppard interviewed on Charlie Rose, I think it was, and he was making jokes about himself and saying he has no ideas, no ideas at all, I have an impoverished imagination so what I do is that I steal from others. You know, Shakespeare, he steals from Shakespeare to write Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and I thought, Well, I can steal from myself, that seems reasonable. So I took one of my poems and just literally used it as an outline, and obviously it very quickly departed from the poem and it had its own DNA and it had its own trajectory, and it just sort of drove itself forward.

RB: And the disclaimer at the end of the acknowledgments about real people, actual people…who would they have been?

GA: Well, William Moreland was a real person. And I wouldn’t have known about him [without a book] called Idaho Loners by Cort Conley.

RB: Idaho Loners. [laughs]

GA: Idaho Loners, yes. And there’s a surprising number of women in there actually. There are solitaries, individualists; there are all kinds of words to describe people who choose to live by themselves. And are happy—

RB: Hermits.

GA: Hermits, yes. And what is a hermit? Someone who hates people? Not really, just somebody who wishes not live with others. There’s these fascinating stories of these people who choose difficult lives, and I ran across William Moreland and he just was so…. There’s very little known about him, but the little we do know about him is quite charming and neat, and I found him, I don’t know, I just really like him.

RB: Impish.

GA: Yeah, he is impish. And there’s one or two photos of him and he just looks great, he’s got a mustache and his arms akimbo and he just looks like he’s full of beans. There was a point in the novel where I didn’t know he wasn’t going to be in the novel and I got to a certain point where I’d sort of written myself into a corner: Now what happens? And—

I remember seeing Tom Stoppard interviewed on Charlie Rose, and he was making jokes about himself and saying he has no ideas, no ideas at all, I have an impoverished imagination so what I do is that I steal from others.RB: Wait a minute, you came across reading about him independently? You were writing a novel and you came across this Idaho Loners and you—

GA: I just decided to drop him in.

RB: Because, where were you gonna go with her?

GA: Yeah. That was the question. What happens next? And when I got to about three-quarters of the way through the book, I gave the manuscript to my husband, who’s a pretty good editor all-around, and he’s also a poet. And he read it and he made comments and all that stuff and he said, “You’re basically writing a picaresque. It’s kind of a picaresque novel.” And I said, “Oh, what’s a picaresque?” [Picaresque is a literary genre that originated in Spain and features the often satiric or humorous adventures of a rogue.—eds.]

RB: [laughs]

GA: I have a vague idea, but am I really? Wow. And that’s all part of the picaresque is having people come into the constant movement of the plot and characters come and they go and sort of the point is—in a weird way, the secondary characters have a little more importance because they do come and go.

RB: Right. It’s hard to…. I mean, I understand that Mary Bolton is the protagonist and the main character but it’s hard to assign the twins and the Ridgerunner and the—

GA: The reverend. The dwarf.

RB: And even Henry the Indian.

GA: Which is funny! Because he almost has no lines, he’s in the book for maybe about eight pages. People remember him.

RB: Yeah, and I kept hoping he would come back.

GA: I guess he does. He comes back at the end in and he’s stricken to see the Ridgerunner acting the way he is. I think one of the reasons people remember Henry is because he so dislikes the main character, he’s so mistrustful of her…

RB: Well, given the circumstance in which he meets her, she does look like she could be the smallpox, or something.

GA: She could be. She turns up and there’s something about her that just makes him think this is bad. And he’s not wrong.

RB: She is trouble. I mean, consider what the miners thought what would happen. Somewhere in the press notes it says something…. Does the line “find me” appear more than once in this story?

GA: No. Just once.

RB: Somehow I got the impression from the press notes that—

GA: It was a repeated phrase.

RB: Right. But not.

GA: I think it’s just a funny thing because they essentially tell you—I shouldn’t say this—but they essentially tell you what the last line of the book is, which is a funny thing to do. But there is sense to it, it’s a long chase, so “find me” is a good way to sort of sum up the book.

RB: I think I took you away from a more complete answer about, I don’t want to say “sequel,” but about writing more about any of these characters. It’s [that] you’ve populated a book with a number of charming and captivating characters, I mean, you could write more about any of them, I suppose.

GA: Yeah, you could. For a while there I was thinking McEchern might be a good person to follow just because he’s so odd and he’s got such a bouncy personality—

RB: Going to the Yukon.

GA: Yes, going to the Yukon, or so he thinks. You know, as soon as my brother read it, he said, “Well, what happens to the child?”

RB: Oh, yes. Right.

GA: And then I started to do the math and I though well no, that would be the 1920s, and do I really want to write in the 1920s? So.

RB: 1920s Canada.

GA: That’s true, yeah.

RB: Or the Yukon.

GA: Or the Yukon, yeah.

RB: So now you’ve spent the better part of 10 years writing a novel and you’re out and about and if there’s any justice you will be adulated accordingly, so—

GA: I am a happy girl at the moment. I feel really quite blessed. Really sufficiently pleased with the whole thing.

RB: What do you want to do next?

If I’m in writing mode, I do find that I have trouble falling asleep because as I’m drifting off I’ll be dreaming the story.GA: Well, that’s a good question. Because I’m doing publicity for this book, I sort of can’t even think about—I’m sort of dying to get back to writing. But writing is one of those things that, for me, requires really a long stretch of boring days, days in which you don’t have stuff to do and you don’t have things to worry about or places to be…and that’s actually very hard to negotiate for a writer.

RB: Or for anyone.

GA: Yeah, that’s right. I sometimes look at my friends who have children—I don’t have children—and I know how much harder it is for them to schedule time. What happens, in fact, is that they get very good at it. They get very good at focusing on from this time to this time, I can write. And for me—as I say, lazy, I require a little more free time.

RB: What’s life like in Toronto these days? Is that where you live, Toronto?

GA: It’s great, actually. It’s got a very vibrant, really interesting literary community. Readings all the time, I mean there’s almost too many. Most of my friends are writers so it seems like we’re going to launches all the time.

RB: [laughs]

GA: And you know, it’s quite a big city. It has become quite a big city and it’s very, um, cosmopolitan. So, as I keep saying, there’s food from all over the world…. If you want some kaffir lime leaves to make your beautiful Thai food, you can find it. And my husband is a cook, so this is really a great place to be at.

RB: Wait a minute—your husband is a cook? So you basically just loll around all the time.

GA: I do. I loll around all the time. I’m not even good at cleaning. [laughs]

RB: Is the—what is it—the Waterfront Festival, is it still the big—

GA: Yup. It’s the Harborfront International Festival of Authors, and you get some pretty interesting people into that thing. I used to run—my husband used to run the magazine and I used to help him. It was a literary magazine, and every year that the festival of authors came in—really all these amazing authors from all over the world were there, and they were just available for interviews. So we got some fabulous interviews with Marianne Wiggins, for instance. So you can get some pretty international stuff there.

RB: And, setting that aside, is most of the activity local, like local Canadian activities?

GA: Yeah, it would be. It’d be local to Toronto with a little bit of stuff from Vancouver and Montreal coming in the sort of main centers…

I don’t like getting into trouble, but I like the idea that I could.RB: Who’s in Vancouver, Doug Coupland?

GA: Yeah.

RB: And who else? Let me see if I can name 10 Canadian authors: Doug Coupland, Wayne Johnston, Michael Ondaatje, Anne Michaels, Joseph Broyden…oh, God…

GA: I hate things like this, because whenever anyone ever asks me, I go completely blank. Can you name 10 of your family members? No, not really.

RB: [laughs] There was a woman in Newfoundland—Michael Ondaatje, I’ve talked to Ondaatje, and he told me there were a couple of women in Newfoundland who are excellent writers, but now I can’t remember their names.

GA: Lorrie Moore—you’d like Lorrie Moore [Alligator]?

RB: Not to be confused with the American Lorrie Moore.

GA: That’s right. No, I’m sorry, Lisa Moore. I always mix those two up. And I frighten people sometimes when I do that.

RB: I read part of Michael Winter’s book, which was on Rockwell Kent. [The Big Why—ed.]

GA: Yup, that’s right.

RB: So we’ve come to five.

GA: [laughs] Margaret Atwood. Alice Munro.

RB: Rohinton Mistry.

GA: M. G. Vassanji.

RB: Robertson Davies?

GA: Yup.

RB: OK, we’ve come close.

GA: Yeah, you did great. You did better than most Canadians.

RB: So, um, you’re not even thinking about the next thing, you’re on your book tour, but I got the sense that you’re sort of multitasking; and you write poems and you write short stories—

GA: Yup.

RB: So you probably have a drawer full of little snippets or paper?

GA: I do at this point. I do. And the question now is whether, after all this time—

RB: You can get the time that you need.

GA: Yeah. And there was a time when this book was a thing in a drawer that I’d been away from for several months, and when you get back to those things you wonder if you can ever care about them enough to get back to them. So that’s always a challenge.

RB: Is it a mystical experience? Do you go to sleep and then wake up in the middle of the night and you’ve got the first words or something like that?

GA: You know what, it’s weird. Yeah, sometimes. Yeah, it does happen. What happens to me is…aw, poor little baby…if I’m in writing mode, I do find that I have trouble falling asleep because as I’m drifting off I’ll be dreaming the story and I’ll bolt upright and be like, “Oh, you gotta write that down, don’t forget it.” And those always end up being good, those ideas I have when I’m starting to drift off—

RB: Nice.

GA: And lose my, I don’t know, faculties?

RB: OK. So, not quite the $64,000 question, but maybe something like it: Has any smarty-pants film producer bought this book yet?

GA: Well, we had one person in Canada who was quite interested, and it didn’t work out, mostly because my publishers wanted to see what would happen once it had been in the States for a while.

RB: Yeah, makes sense.

GA: So, short answer: No.

RB: First of all, I think any great story can be a great movie.

GA: I do, too.

RB: But the question for me is, if I was going to make this movie, would I make this movie with bankable stars, or would I look for total unknowns?

GA: Yeah, good question.

RB: For me, I know this is contrary to business, but I’d go for total unknowns.

GA: I would, too.

RB: I bet this story would make stars.

GA: That’s interesting.

RB: Because it’s powerful enough.

GA: It’s a neat thing. Also I think you might have to go—with the main character being as young as she is, it would be hard to find someone who could carry an entire movie, a young woman who can go from basically crazy and not quite all there to really solid on her feet and functioning well; it certainly would be a challenge. I’m sure there’s some talented young woman out there who would really like to do something like that. For me, I just want to hide and say good luck.

RB: Right; it’s not your problem. But that is the art and the skill of it, and one would hope somebody has it together, but who knows? If you’ve talked to enough people who’ve had experiences with Hollywood, they’d like to see it happen but they don’t want to get too close.

GA: A lot of people seem to survive it by just plugging their nose and—

RB: I mean, Jim Harrison, for example, writes hilariously in one of his memoirs about his experiences as a Hollywood writer.

GA: That’s right. And he had quite the experience, didn’t he? He’s such a wonderful writer.

RB: Have you ever met him?

GA: Yeah, twice, actually. He’s just a lovely guy. He’s so, um—he has such a huge heart.

RB: Yes he does.

GA: A generous soul.

RB: He loved my dog, oh my gosh, I thought he was going to steal her. He was seducing her with every bit of food he had at his disposal.

GA: You have to watch…. He wrote a beautiful piece in a Canadian magazine called Brick.

RB: Ondaatje’s magazine.

GA: Yeah. He wrote a beautiful piece, where the dogs have souls.

RB: Wow.

GA: It’s really quite a lovely piece.

RB: I wish someone would listen to me, but I keep telling people to anthologize his non-fiction.

GA: That’s a good idea.

RB: They did his food columns that he did for Esquire. But about eight or nine years ago he wrote this tear-jerking piece on the Mexican-American border—

GA: Really?

RB: He has a place down there in Arizona, and he started off—I guess he had read about the body of this young woman whose body was discovered in the desert. Then later, at the end of the story you find out she was pregnant, which is a sad story in itself. But then he runs through and insults everybody in Washington for their anti-immigration views, and he brings up the Gadsden Purchase, which was one of those times when America bought land for dirt cheap from Mexico, sometimes a nickel an acre…. It was just this great rant against our immigration policy. And it was so powerful and you know, it’s not online and I want to refer people to it because it’s a great piece. [The essay was published in Men’s Journal in July 2001.—eds.]

GA: Well we should see if we can find that. That sounds like an amazing thing. When he cares about something, he’s very powerful. His writing is very powerful.

RB: And he’s one of the sort of…. I don’t know quite how to place his iconoclasm, because he would knock the pedestal down and the statue down, but he’ll do it with almost this sort of French, slice-it-dice-it—he won’t take a mallet—

GA: No, no.

RB: He’ll go [makes chopping sounds] and then it crumbles.

GA: He’ll just make it disappear, yeah. He can make things seem small. I still remember reading his book of novellas, I guess it was called Legends of the Fall? Was the book called Legends of the Fall?

RB: Right.

GA: Oh, it was such a surprise to come across someone who could write like that.

RB: It’s amazing; he’s probably one of the only successful practitioners of the novella. If anybody could figure out what a novella is—

GA: I’ve heard somebody else saying that before, too, that he just seems to be the guy for novellas.

RB: He’s got I think three of four sets of novellas. And he occasionally brings back this Indian, Brown Dog or Brown Shoe or Brown Bear? [His name is Brown Dog.—eds.] I don’t think he was in Legends of the Fall. The Woman Lit by Fireflies I think is three novellas. There are two or three or four volumes of three-novella books.

GA: Have you ever seen an anthology just of novellas?

RB: No. But I have seen—I think Richard Ford edited a book, The Granta Book of the American Long Story. [He edited a follow-up New Granta Book of the American Long Story in 2007.—eds.]

GA: I think you’re right, that’s right.

RB: And he is a guy who I’ve asked on occasion the difference between a long story and a novella.

GA: And he is a good person to ask because I remember reading, is it called Wildlife?

RB: Yes.

GA: And it struck me as just the perfect example of a book-length short story. It had, to me, and I don’t know if he’d clack me on the head for saying this, but it had the DNA of a short story. It just had the heft of a novel or a short novel.

RB: I’m trying to remember, what difference does it make? I guess for the short story, people want to nail down a definition because it’s hard. It’s a hard form.

GA: It’s like, who was it who said, “I don’t know what art is but I know it when I’ll see it”?

RB: I think it was Justice Frankfurter or something like that? [It was Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, discussing obscenity in 1964.—eds.]

GA: You know the species but you don’t know quite why you know the species.

RB: Yeah, but is there something called a short novel, as opposed to a novella?

GA: Well, [laughs] are we gonna make a new genre?

RB: Yeah, new literary forms.

GA: Well, hell, why not?

RB: So how extensive is your American tour? You went to Naperville, Ill.

GA: Yeah, I did.

RB: Is there a college there?

It’s pretty rare when someone is 100 percent social or 100 percent hermit-y. I may be more hermit-y than the average person—it’s actually hard to get in touch with me.GA: Yeah, um, I went to a bookstore there and did a talk—Anderson’s Books. And I did Jackson, Miss., and…. It’s not a long tour, it’s only about, I don’t know, a week? But it’s long enough for me; it’s pretty exciting for me.

RB: How does it feel to come down here to the, uh—

GA: Down to Quicksmoke?

RB: What do you Canadians call us?

GA: [laughs] Down to the U.S.

RB: Quicksmoke. [laughs]

GA: Well, I have to say that my husband and I come down south quite a bit because it gets cold in Canada and we get—my husband in particular gets quite sick of it being cold. So we head down to the desert in the winters to go hiking. So we go to Utah, go to the Mojave, in Utah. And we’ve gone, actually a number of times this year, we’ve gone down to Big Bend National Park in Texas…

RB: So when you say hiking, what does that really mean?

GA: It’s really walking.

RB: [laughs] Oh, OK, but do you bring a cell phone with you?

GA: [laughs] No, no. You’re trying to figure out: Are there coffee shops there? No, it tends to be pretty…

RB: Is there still wilderness?

GA: There is still wilderness. And in Big Bend National Park, it’s quite a large park, and it’s right down by the Rio Grande so you can get down there by the river. And it’s hot, very, very hot. And if that’s too hot for you, you can just move farther into the park and go up into the mountains, there’s alpine desert, and its cooler up there and they’ve got black bear and cougar and all sort of… you know, it supports wildlife there. And you can walk all day and not run into anybody. I like places where you can, if you’re stupid, get into trouble. I like that. I don’t like getting into trouble, but I like the idea that I could.

RB: Are you at all like Mary Walton [the main character in Outlander]; are you social or very social? Do you find yourself getting sick of all sorts of people and all sorts of noise?

GA: Hmm…I’m sort of half-and-half. Maybe I’m more like William Moreland; I kind of really enjoy it for short periods, and then I need to kind of get away and I need things to be quiet for a while. I think most people are like that. It’s pretty rare when someone is 100 percent social or 100 percent hermit-y. I may be more hermit-y than the average person—it’s actually hard to get in touch with me.

RB: Meaning what? You don’t have a cell phone, or you don’t answer it?

GA: Um…I don’t answer it.

RB: So, before we close our lovely conversation and go onto other things, have you read anything recently that just stunned you? Just knocked you out of your shoes? Or not?

GA: Hmm, this may bore you. I’ve been having the most unusual reading experience, and it’s with Huckleberry Finn. And I say I’ve never read Huckleberry Finn before, but when I was a child, my father used to read to me and my brother every night of our lives until we told him to stop. You know: “I’m now old enough so that I can do it myself, I’m 13, and I think it’s OK.” And he would lie on the bed and he would hold the book up and he would read. And he read me and my brother all kinds of things, Huckleberry Finn, Animal Farm, all the kids’ books; he tended to avoid anything that seemed overly religious according to his lights, so those things I kind of had to discover later. It’s a weird thing because I’m reading Huckleberry Finn—it is incredibly beautifully written, and it’s almost like I dreamt the entire book because I had it read to me so long ago. I’ll be reading along and go, “Oh, this is when the ferryboat almost hits the raft; it’s all these little things….” Like later in the day when something reminds you of a dream you had, and the whole thing just bursts and you suddenly remember the dream. It’s a very strange reading experience and I’ll probably never have it again.

RB: Really. There are children’s versions of those stories. He read you the real one?

GA: My father read me the real one, and I know this because my brother said that when Dad started to read it to him, [my father] was excising the parts that had scared the hell out of me. The part where Huck’s father becomes psychotically drunk really frightened me.

RB: You know someone wrote a novel based on the father? It was called Finn. Jon Clinch I think wrote it.

GA: From Huck’s father’s perspective?

RB: From the perspective of the father, yeah.

GA: That is amazing.

RB: Yeah, it was a pretty gripping book.

GA: That’s a bit like the book Grendel.

RB: I don’t know that one.

GA: Oh, I can’t remember the name of the author, he wrote the entire story of “Beowulf” from the point of view of the monster. [It was John Gardner—eds.]

RB: Huh. I’ve seen a number of those books recently. There was a recent book called Silver, which was Treasure Island from the perspective of Long John Silver.

GA: Oh, that’s great. That’s great.

RB: Yeah, you gotta love that. Anyway, thank you very much.

GA: Thank you for having me.