The Crooked Maid: both 'refuge and tonic'

Giller nominee Dan Vyleta on writing after his father's death

Todd Korol

THE 2013 SCOTIABANK GILLER PRIZE: Canada’s most distinguished literary prize awards $50,000 annually to the best Canadian novel or short-story collection published in English. In this series, Maclean’s highlights the work and artistic process of the five shortlisted nominees. In this edition, The Crooked Maid author Dan Vyleta discusses writing after his father’s death. Watch for interviews and book excerpts from Dennis Bock, Lynn Coady, Lisa Moore and Craig Davidson.

Once he’s hacked through the jungle of daily noise, Dan Vyleta finds real joy escaping into the minutae of his writing. “The difficulty is finding the door that leads to the magical space. Then you can sit with the personality of a character, working out the language; you step into it and allow yourself to be swept away.” He envisions a concrete moment—a woman on a train deciding to find her estranged husband—and steps through that magical door, concentrating on her motivations, the anxiousness she might feel. But starting with a concept first can lead to dead ends. “If I think, ‘What is history, what does this mean, I want to depict guilt,’ all that abstract stuff, I can’t do anything with that as a writer.” The Crooked Maid deals with a search for identity after trauma, which then became art imitating life when Vyleta’s father died during the draft phase. He used his writing to escape that reality and attempt to resolve it with a fictional lens. The result earned him a Giller nomination.

Dan Vyleta on writing

The first mention of the book that came to be The Crooked Maid dates from March 2009. “Reading Doc. Zhivago,” my notebook states somewhat cryptically. “Long train journeys. Hence—conversation. Cf. Kreuzer Sonata + The Idiot. Picture it: a wife returns home after the war. Hungry for talk.” I wrote this in Sackville, N.B., still working on The Quiet Twin. There are other jottings like it, other ideas. Most are red-herrings, leading nowhere. Possibilities, three-line sketches. Roads not taken.

I started the novel some time the following spring or summer. The summer after that, my father died. Maid—as we call the book in my house—was only half-written. It (she?) became marked by my grief. I doubt I will ever think of the book without thinking of that summer. But Maid also helped me, gave me rhythm and routine, a realm dedicated to life, not death. I am grateful for her shelter.

For here’s a well-kept secret. Writing is fun. Once you have stepped past your pain, your doubts, your inner critic; once you have put to bed your excuses like sugarhopped children (“Today’s not a good day,” “I only have an hour,” “I need to clear my desk first”); once you have stopped fiddling with the font and the line spacing, stopped checking your email, the hockey results, your answering machine, and managed instead to simply step into language, the first word of the first new sentence, writing is fun. More than fun. Magical. It is two or three hours spent submerged in the flow of a process so intuitive, it appears to have its own volition. When it is over—when the day’s writing is done—you emerge refreshed, your senses sharpened, alive to the textures of life, the flow of conversation, the expression on faces and the dance of people’s gesture. Thus a manuscript becomes both refuge and tonic; a place both to flee the world, and to meet it.

Then there is the fact that you live with a manuscript, day in, day out, for many months. It watches you, records your moods and shifting truths; holds up a mirror at once distorted and true. More diligently than most diaries, more penetratingly than our daily electronic correspondence, a manuscript bears witness, day after day, week after week, writes down the author as
well as their story.

Nor is it a silent witness. It clamours, wakes you up at 4 a.m., with a phrase, a sentence, an idea; laughs at you because (once again) you have forgotten to place pen and paper next to your bed. There you stand in your study—or perch, bare-assed, on the corner of your desk—scribbling down words. This can happen during the day, too. Restaurant napkins, movie tickets, shopping receipts: I have used them all to put down some sudden insight or half an undigested thought that hit me mid-stride and dared me to entrust them to mere memory. My wife is not a big fan of these spasms of inspiration; they wake her up, too, and often she has shuffled past me to the bathroom, shaking her head or suggesting I get dressed. We owe sleepless nights to our craft as well as our loves.

And so I wrote under the manuscript’s watchful gaze and let the grief speak when it wanted to, through the filtration systems of plot and character, in ways that I don’t understand and no doubt never will. I found solace in the fact that my dad, in all other ways a practical man, approved of my writing, as he approved of all ways of savouring life, in its beauty and complexity. He was that elusive being I so often wish to capture in my books: a mensch.

An interview with Dan Vyleta, conducted by Julia De Laurentiis Johnson

Q: Many writers claim to hate writing, but love having written. You talk about how you think writing, the act, is fun and, to me, that sounds as if you really like your own mind. But is it really always as magical as you describe? What is it like at the worst of times?

A: I think of it as more of an escape from my mind, in the sense that that’s one of the instances in life when I lose all sense of time. The focus is simple: searching for the next line. When I read my writing after it’s been translated, I can see how much I compose for the rhythm of it. The last thing I want to do is give the impression that it isn’t difficult, but I think the difficulty is finding the door that leads to the magical space. And then, when it works, it only lives when you read it or when you write. You step away from it in any abstraction—like trying to explain the plot to someone—and you can just see their face go, “Yeah, buddy.” And then you get preoccupied with the idea of criticism. But when you’re just sitting with the character, working out the language, you step into it and allow yourself to be swept away.

Q: Your books carry a theme of identity after trauma and, in your essay, you speak about writing this book as a kind of grief therapy after your father died. How did that unfold?

A: I find writing a novel a response, not to one feeling, but to so many. This novel was underway before he died, but when he did, I didn’t feel the creative part of me go away. When you’re grieving, your immediate reality is so overpowering, it shuts so many parts of you out of your own reach. But I am who I am and there was a hunger to express what I was feeling. Grief is hard to understand, and it’s hard to understand how it will affect a creative act.

There is a scene in the book of someone dying in a hospital—I wrote it before my father died. But afterward, it became almost impossible to edit for a long time. [In the scene], his son was in the room. When I finally looked at it again, it didn’t sound false. I was pleased I could enter the moment to write it that way.

Q: When you write historical fiction, especially since you’re a historian so intimately acquainted with the subject, how do you divorce your knowledge of what happens after the events of the novel from the psychology of a character? How do you forget what you know to achieve his or her reality?

A: The knowledge is useful, perhaps, but the approach is different. I didn’t want to include uniforms, recognizable names, exploitation of symbols. I tried to step into the concrete moment. If you start to think, “What is history? What does this mean? I want to depict guilt,” all that abstract stuff, I can’t do anything with that, as a writer. But I can do something with thinking myself into a train carriage with a woman who has been estranged from her husband who was a prisoner and she’s decided she needs to see him again. That I can get my head around.

Q: You often come back to the theme of the comfort of power or wealth at the price of human decency. Why does that interest you so much?

A: That’s a very good question. Part of it is that none of us thinks ourselves a villain. But we all know what it tastes like to contemplate seizing an opportunity without being sure how its repercussions will translate. Or maybe you justify it as looking after your family, or just doing what you were told, as was often heard around the period this book is set. So I’m interested in getting my head around this kind of collaboration; why these things happen. Part of the human answer, for me, is that these compromises we’re willing to make are easy to make—it’s easy to be on the side of the winners. I don’t know how much I could condemn anyone for that, it’s true, especially when we feel our own society isn’t upholding a democratic ideal, isn’t taking care of its citizens. That’s where I can touch it, understand it, think myself into it. But it’s dangerous, there’s a voyeurism there—an invitation to identify with the characters, but also observe with a self-satisfied distance. “I know I would never behave that way.” Do you?

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