Trillium Book Award Author Readings June 16

Helen DeWitt on Writing, Flin Flon and the Canadian Personality

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Helen DeWitt (Photo credit: Aileen Son)

By Jeremy Colangelo

The small Manitoba town of Flin Flon, located midway up the border with Saskatchewan, stretches around the tiny Ross Lake like a half moon, and barely fills the perimeter marked by the thin highway that encircles it. Heading south from the city centre takes you across the border, the line jutting east at 90 degrees and cutting off about 230 people within the city limits. Further west you find the copper mine that the town was built for — which has left a grey smudge amid the verdant countryside and a pair of pastel-coloured reservoirs to contrast with the dark and muted lakes that freckle the whole area. The town is not large; there are less than 6,000 people living there between both provinces, and the population has declined in every census since 1971. It is in this town that the novelist Helen DeWitt has chosen for the setting of her next book, which is currently untitled.

DeWitt?s literary career has been almost as divided as Flin Flon — in this case split between the critical acclaim her work has received and the difficulty that she has had getting it published. Her debut novel, The Last Samurai, came out in 2000 to great praise, but has since gone out of print. Her most recently published book is Lightning Rods, which came out in late 2011 but was completed back in 1999. Meanwhile, DeWitt has gone on to co-write a third novel, called Your Name Here, with the journalist Ilya Gridneff. Your Name Here was released online through DeWitt?s website in 2007 and stayed there until the publishing rights were purchased by Noemi Press, a small publisher in New Mexico. The novel was then pulled offline, and currently sits in purgatory while Noemi waits for the funding to print it. Elsewhere, DeWitt has been battling with agents and publishers for increased control over the technical aspects of how her books were published.
?If you are a writer publishing a book,? said DeWitt, ?then you never talk directly to the people working on the book — I meant the technical things. But agents would say that it just doesn?t work that way, which is absurd. [...]One reason all of these years have been lost is that I was trying to get something that the industry is just not built for.
?It?s a sort of machine for dis-empowerment, it?s horrific.?
DeWitt?s novel set in Flin Flon(see below for an excerpt) begins with a man, calling himself "Mr. Hintikka," waking up in bed without any memory of how he got there. His phone keeps ringing, but the voice on the other side speaks incomprehensibly. On the floor are copies of the Arabic newspaper Al-Hayat, as well as The Financial Times — neither of which one could acquire easily in the remote town. Hintikka spends much of the novel trying to discover what happened to him, stumbling across a number of strange items — including a briefcase full of Canadian and American cash and a manuscript written in Arabic — which seem to only complicate the question.
?He is not terribly worried, at first, about all the things he can't remember — reliable access to a vending machine seems more crucial to survival than mastery of personal history [...] It does seem worrying that he has no memory of [the briefcase], and worrying that his only access to information is presumably the people who keep calling, [and that] he doesn't know what he doesn't want them to know.
?[Hintikka] is in a very vulnerable state; all kinds of people want something from him and profess concern and his only safeguard is the intuition, despite the concern, that they can't be trusted.?
DeWitt chose Flin Flon for her setting in part because it best served all of the requirements of the novel?s plot — being small, and mostly isolated. She also found the town?s division along the provincial border ?terribly appealing.? DeWitt, who lives in Berlin, has not yet visited the town, and has researched it as best as she could remotely. Though the town is small and quite remote, DeWitt says that she ?naturally now long[s] to go,? though she did not say when she might try to.
The research for the novel has progressed oddly, in part due to DeWitt?s decision to only search out information when it becomes relevant to the story so as to put her in the same position as her protagonist, who, like her, knew nothing about the town at the beginning of the book and had to learn about it as he went. ?What I?m imagining,? DeWitt said, ?is that having been stripped of his memory his mind just fastens on to immediate details,? and this tendency to fixation (a trait shared by many of her other characters) has lead the path of the research down several strange roads. As an example, DeWitt describes one scene in which Hintikka stares at a snow-covered roof and compares the soft snow to the fur of an ermine. He then remembers, however, that ermine cloaks as depicted in heraldry are often covered in black speckles — which leads him to adjust the metaphor and say that the snow is like the fur of an albino ermine. Later, Hintikka looks into the matter further and discovers that the speckles on the fur are supposed to represent the markings on the tips of an ermine?s tail, and that the animal that he was actually thinking of was a stoat with its winter fur. The new comparison — so much less romantic than the ermine, whose name, DeWitt points out, even sounds more regal than the stoat?s — leaves Hintikka repulsed.
According to DeWitt, it is almost impossible to judge how long the novel will take to finish, and even when it is done it will likely be just as difficult to publish as her others. DeWitt described how, when she was looking for a publisher for The Last Samurai, she would rarely receive an outright rejection, but would instead be given advice on how to improve the novel — usually consisting of praise for whichever part of the book the editor liked the most, and an exhortation to rewrite the book in exactly the same way. These rejections were one of the reasons behind her tendency to work on several novels at the same time — her assumption being that if she works on several simple novels instead of one highly complicated one, then any editor who likes one part of one of the resulting books should also like the rest of it. Though she sees the process as a practical reaction to the nature of the publishing industry, she says that she also finds it ?a bit defeatist.? There is also, as DeWitt said, the danger of ?scope creep? — where an initially simple project becomes increasingly complex as it goes on. Hopefully, this new novel will overcome these dangers — the terrors of publication, and avoiding the fate of the 200-or-so manuscripts that DeWitt says lie unfinished and forgotten on her computer?s hard drive.
The following is an excerpt from Helen DeWitt?s novel, printed with the author?s permission. In this section, Mr Hintikka has gone down to the lobby of his hotel in search of a dictionary so that he can look up the word ?detritus.? There he speculates on what he calls "the Canadian personality," and the "unsullied niceness" that the climate makes necessary.
The door at the end opens onto a kind of, um, carriageway, that is, asphalt connecting two parking lots passes between him and a door labelled RECPETION under a low roof. Wind is howling softly in the outer car park. His feet are already cold.
He crosses the passage to reception. A kid at the desk is reading the Toronto Star.
?I need to buy some socks? breasts the warm air.
Kid: ?Will you be going out, Mr Hintikka? Will we have the maid clean your room??
He's tired. He wants to go back to bed. Does he actually need ?detritus??
Is this Toronto?
But why would he be in Toronto?
What conceivable reason could he have for
?Is there a place I can get Internet access?? floats from his lips like a paper plane.
?We can have the maid change the bed for you.?
He needs a sweater. He needs a jacket with sleeves. He needs to generate more utterances.
?I need to buy a sweater. I need a jacket with sleeves.?
The kid offers an unsolicited supply of fresh towels.
He has generated one utterance per requirement and made no headway.
He wants to go back to bed.
On the wall behind the kid is a framed certificate in watered-silk-effect pea green. Large black Gothic type states that the Red Moose Motor Lodge has won the blessing of the Flin Flon Board of Commerce. There's a lot of copperplate saying something he can't read, not that he wants to.
?Look,? he says to the kid. He's come this far. Tough it out. ?The maid doesn't interest me.?
He's unbelievably tired.
?What say we do a deal?? He hopes the thing he is doing with his mouth counts as a smile. ?You tell me where I can buy socks. I'll approve maid-change of towels. You tell me where I can get Internet access, I'll throw in permission to change the bed. You tell me where I can get a sweater. I'll also green-light vacuuming and dusting. You tell me where I can get a jacket with sleeves. I'll give the maid carte blanche to do anything else she sees fit to include under general housekeeping.?
He can hardly keep his eyes open.
The kid is not volunteering information. On the other hand, the stream of unwanted maid-sourced cleaning activity seems to have dried up.
He tries to prod the kid into the transaction. ?How does that sound??
The kid is looking at him with this
There's something about the Canadian personality that
These are human beings, primates, remember, who live north of the northernmost American mainland, south of an immense expanse of tundra and taiga stretching up to the Arctic Circle. An environment of pitiless hostility. They live with the everpresent danger of cabin fever, madness, frenzy among the fields of barren snow. The Canadian avoids this by cultivating an implacable, an unsullied niceness, an unfailing ordinary down-to-earth decency, an ordinariness, and this is the crucial thing, which is proof against lunacy should it arise. A Canadian is insulated by niceness. If the Canadian senses that you are, as it might be, mentally perturbed, not to say deranged, he will simply bunker down in niceness. A survival technique picked up from the natives. The jolly Eskimo toasts marshmallows in his igloo while the Arctic storms rage across the wastes.
The kid, anyway, makes some vintage Canadian contribution to the exchange. He offers directions to downtown Flin Flon, where socks, sweater, and jacket can be bought, and where Internet access may be found, as well as the upbeat assurance that he will have the maid see to the room.
His sockless feet would
Is there a way of getting a taxi that does not involve words and the mouth?
Walking through snow in sockless boat shoes, how bad can it be?

Jeremy Colangelo is an author and journalist living in St. Catharines, Ontario. His work has been published, or is upcoming, in several magazines, including The Dalhousie Review, Steel Bananas, and The Incongruous Quarterly. Jeremy has an degree in English and History from Brock University. He is currently working on a novel.

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