Interview with Giller Prize winner Elizabeth Hay

Elizabeth Grace Hay is a Canadian novelist and short story writer. Her 2007 novel Late Nights on Air won the Giller Prize. Her first novel A Student of Weather was a finalist for the Giller Prize and won the CAA MOSAID Technologies Award for Fiction and the TORGI Award. She has been a finalist for the Governor General’s Award twice, for her short-story collection Small Change in 1997 and her novel Garbo Laughs in 2003. His Whole Life was shortlisted for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. We were very happy that she took the time out for an interview with The Hickory Stump.


His Whole Life was influenced by your children’s attitude toward Canada and regrets about a dog you once owned. Alone in the Classroom features a murder based on what happened to a schoolmate of your mother’s and incorporates the experiences of your friends in dealing with learning disabilities in the family. What is your take on the old saw “write what you know?” Is there anything to it? How often is this a factor when you generate ideas?

I have to start with something that touches me deeply. In the case of His Whole Life, various long-standing regrets opened up large emotional territory for my characters to enter and explore. Alone in the Classroom had various seeds, including some stories my mother told me about her vivid childhood in the Ottawa Valley. An earlier novel, A Student of Weather, was set mainly in the 1930’s, not a period I’ve lived through, but it resonated with my own life because the Great Depression shaped my mother’s character. I use various aspects of my life in fiction, always with the intent of getting beyond myself into the lives of others.

Writing has given me a way to live my life. I write because it makes me feel alive.

You quoted V.S. Pritchett’s book about Turgenev, The Gentle Barbarian. “When in doubt, increase the difficulty.” How can Scribes readers use this to improve their work?

For the longest time I used to fall back on the first person whenever I had doubts. I tried the third person, I tried to invent, but anything I produced seemed fake. So I would return to what was familiar, the first person. Ultimately, this was unsatisfying. I was tired of writing about myself. In A Student of Weather, which was my first novel, I gave myself three challenges: writing only in the third person; inventing characters who were not like me; setting the story in a time and place I did not know directly. I think it was later that I read V. S. Pritchett’s advice: “When in doubt, increase the difficulty.” But it rang true. When you’re having trouble with your writing, the answer isn’t to make it easier for yourself. The answer is to rise to a bigger challenge, to take risks, to stretch your imagination. Again, the idea is to get beyond your small, limited self.


The settings in your work are stunningly well drawn. What’s the secret?

Perhaps a kind of physical and emotional attention. It’s a marvellous thing when you can respond to the physical world in all its detail.


You provide remarkable portraits of families in crisis, for example in A Student of the Weather and His Whole Life. Why is this, and where does the emotional energy from your work come from?

I said above that I have to start with something that touches me deeply. It’s actually a kind of pressure that comes from regrets or worries or my failure to understand something. I let the pressure occupy me and a couple of characters usually appear and so does the place they inhabit. In A Student of Weather it was the antagonism between two sisters, the tension between them. In Alone in the Classroom it was the losses my mother endured in childhood. In His Whole Life it was the deep bond between a mother and her small son. The latter may not seem like pressure, but in the sense that I wanted to do the bond justice, it was.


Your characters are unique and unforgettable. How can we best learn from your example?

I get to know the characters over time, the way you get to know someone in real life over time. I try to give them room. I try not to judge. Pauline Kael, the wonderful movie critic, used to correspond with a playwriter friend of mine. He sent her one of his plays and she told him it didn’t work because he didn’t love his characters enough. They had to be smarter than he was, even the dumbest had to be smarter than he was. I believe she meant that he had to let them out from under his thumb, let them escape his agenda, let them surprise him. Only then would they become real with lives of their own.


How does what you read influence what you write?

Reading for me goes hand in hand with writing. I like to read poetry first thing in the morning. It loosens me up and opens my mind. I do a certain amount of research for my novels, not that I’m really much of a researcher. But what I read fuels my imagination. I keep a steno pad handy and a pen, and jot down the thoughts that come. My notes then become my raw material. Whenever I feel blocked I open up a book that I admire – Coetzee’s Disgrace or anything by Lydia Davis – and read a few pages – and slide back into writing.


You knew you wanted to be a writer at fifteen. Can you describe your learning journey as a writer?

I started out as a poet, by accident really, thanks to an exercise in English class when I was fifteen. From that point I knew I wanted to be a writer, but I was very slow. I didn’t believe I had the imagination or powers of invention to write stories, yet that was what I wanted to do. I didn’t publish my first book until I was in my late thirties. One of the ways to increase the difficulty, to go back to Pritchett’s advice, is to rise to the challenge of believing in your material. That means getting out of the way of your doubting self, which is very hard to do. Perhaps the hardest thing of all.


What is the most difficult part of writing?

I always think endings are the hardest, though beginnings are also devilish. You set something in motion, you try to sustain it, you bring it to an end. How to do that without being pat? How to manage the ending so the story and the characters linger in the mind? How to have enough resolution but not too much?


And the easiest?

Writing in my notebook is easiest. No pressure. Whatever I put down is companionable and good enough.


Why do you write?

Writing has given me a way to live my life. I write because it makes me feel alive.


What is your dream as a writer?

Well, I hope I don’t run out of steam. I hope it sustains me until the end. I hope it opens me to new and larger dimensions.


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