Author Tags: Fiction
Biographer, critic and novelist Joan Givner has continually explored the overlapping connections between art and life, particularly in the realm of female artists--most notably Katherine Anne Porter and Mazo de la Roche. Although Joan Givner's literary oevre can be described as feminist, that label is far too restrictive to be definitive. Her widely acclaimed biography of Katherine Anne Porter was cited by the New York Times as one of the outstanding books of 1982. Now a retired professor living in Mill Bay on Vancouver Island, Givner is unusual in that her writing has been equally divided between her own fiction and her academic non-fiction.
Joan Givner was born Joan Mary Short on September 5, 1936 in Manchester, England. While employed as an English professor at the University of Regina, she edited the Wascana Review. She took early retirement in 1995, moving to Vancouver Island with her husband David Givner, Ph.D. Professor of Philosophy, 1965. They raised two children, Emily Jane Givner (1966-2005) and Jessie Louise Givner (b. 1967). In B.C. Joan Givner became a biography columnist for B.C. BookWorld and blossomed as a fiction writer. Her first novel Half Known Lives was optioned for film and TV by Gary Harvey and Shelley Eriksen. It’s speculative fiction about a group of women who kidnap a pro-lifer named Max and have him impregnated. For a synopsis of her second novel, Playing Sarah Bernhardt, see below.
In 2004 Joan Givner also published her first juvenile novel, Ellen Fremedon, in which a young girl innocently decides to write a novel based on people she knows in the village of Partridge Cove. It became a finalist for the Silver Birch Awards, the Hackmatack and the Diamond Willow Awards. In a sequel, Ellen Fremedon Journalist (Groundwood, 2005), the intrepid would-be writer tries starting a newspaper in Partridge Cover during her summer holidays. Ellen discovers that invading other people's privacy in order to uncover the differences between truth and gossip is easily resented. Larry, the village librarian, finds typographical mistakes and an incorrect muffin recipe doesn't help either, but trouble really starts brewing when she discovers some people are not exactly who they purport to be. Ellen Fremedon, Volunteer is scheduled for spring 2007 and others are in progress.
Katherine Anne Porter: A Life, Simon & Schuster, 1982 (Book of the Month Club Alternate Selection, New York Times Book Review list of Outstanding Books of the Year); Jonathan Cape, England, 1983; Touchstone Press (paperback) 1984.
Tentacles of Unreason, (short fiction), University of Illinois Press, 1985.
Katherine Anne Porter: Conversations, Ed. Introd. by Joan Givner, University of Mississippi Press, 1987.
Unfortunate Incidents (short fiction), Oberon Press, 1988.
Mazo de la Roche: The Hidden Life, Oxford University Press, Toronto & New York, 1989.
Katherine Anne Porter: A Life (Revised Edition in hardcover and softcover), University of Georgia Press, 1991.
Scenes from Provincial Life (short fiction), Oberon Press, 1991.
Special double issue of A Room of One’s Own on Joan Givner, Vol .15. nos 3 and 4, 1992.
The Self-Portrait of a Literary Biographer, University of Georgia Press, 1993.
In the Garden of Henry James (short fiction) Oberon Press, 1996.
Thirty-Four Ways of Looking at Jane Eyre, (short fiction and essays), New Star Press, 1998.
Half Known Lives (novel), New Star Press, 2000.
Ellen Fremedon (YA novel), Groundwood Press, 2004
Playing Sarah Bernhardt, Dundurn Press, 2004
Ellen Fremedon Journalist (YA novel), Groundwood Press, 2005
Ellen's Book of Life (Groundwood Press, 2008)
A Girl Called Tennyson (Thistledown 2010) ISBN 978-1-897235-83-6; paper; $12.95; 170 pages
The Hills Are Shadows (Thistledown 2014) -- second volume in the series: A Girl Called
B.A. Honours,University of London, England, 1958.
M.A. Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri, 1963.
Ph.D. University of London, England, 1972.
High School teacher in the United States, 1959-1961
Lecturer in English, Port Huron Junior College (now St Clair County Community College), 1961-1965.
Lecturer in English, University of Regina, 1965-70.
Assistant Professor of English, University of Regina, 1972.
Associate Professor of English, University of Regina, 1975.
Fellow of the Bunting Institute, Radcliffe College, Harvard University,1978-79.
Member of the Senior Common Room, Adams House, Harvard University, 1978-9.
Professor of English, University of Regina, 1981.
Editor: WASCANA REVIEW, 1984-1992.
Member National Endowment for the Humanities Seminar in Literary Theory and Feminist Criticism, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, summer 1985.
Mini-resident University of Nevada at Las Vegas, September 1985.
Member of the Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council adjudication committee 1989, 1990.
Adjunct Professor The Union Institute of Cincinnati. Served on doctoral committee in Women’s Studies. 1990-1992.
Chair, Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council adjudication committee, 1991.
Jury member, Governor General’s Award in non-fiction, 1991.
Jury member and chair, Governor General’s Award in non-fiction, 1992.
Judge, National Newspaper Awards, 1995.
Judge, National Newspaper Awards, 1996, 1997.
Jury member, Governor General’s Award in non-fiction, 1999.
Judge, Saskatchewan Book Awards, 2001.
Judge, Competition in non-fiction, GRAIN magazine, 2002.
[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2013] "Fiction" "Criticism" "Literary Biography"
Half Known Lives (New Star $20)
The stork doesn’t bring ‘em. Books, as W.P. Kinsella says, are born from 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration. For our continuing series called Origins, BCBW asked Joan Givner to discuss Half Known Lives (New Star $20) her novel originally titled The Foetus—about an ardent, male, right-to-lifer who becomes pregnant. With oblique references to Mary Shelley’s introduction to Frankenstein (‘dilate upon an idea’), Givner recognizes the contributions of her husband and her editor in the creative process and traces the genesis of her story to a 1983 Supreme Court case.
I am grateful for the chance to explain how I, a sober academic type, came to think up and dilate upon so wild an idea as a group of women taking a man hostage, impregnating him, and holding him prisoner for the duration of the pregnancy.
As to writing, the wonder is not so much that I have produced one now as that I have not done so sooner. For at regular intervals during our 35 years of marriage, my husband has said to me, “Why don’t you write a novel?”
David is by temperament, training and profession a philosopher. Although he has the most gentle and amiable disposition, as a practitioner of the Master Discourse, he tends to underestimate the complexity of other forms of discourse. And so, rather than giving serious consideration to his question, I generally replied, “Why don’t you?”
However, in his Socratic way, he rephrased the question as “Suppose you wrote a novel, what would it be about?”
I replied, without hesitation, “It would be about a man who got pregnant.”
I was probably thinking of a famous court case in Regina where I then lived. It involved the owner of a health food store in 1983 who brought a case against therapeutic abortion to the Supreme Court of Canada. The visual images resonated long after the case ended.
Perhaps I had recently pulled out my file of newspaper clippings, as I have done just now. They’ve yellowed over the years but they still form a remarkable collection.
The courtroom artist for this anti-abortion case was the cartoonist Brian Gamble who worked for the Regina Leader-Post before going to the Globe & Mail. I detect the satirical intent of the cartoonist in the drawings of the all-male cast. The faces are fatuous and smug, and there’s a deliberate suggestion of myopia in the glazed eyes of the lawyers, the judge and the so-called ‘expert’ on childbearing. This expert, Dr. William Liley, was brought all the way (who knows why) from New Zealand to testify.
Michelle Landsberg summed up the occasion well. “The thing to remember about the lunatic spectacle in Regina is that, in a case affecting the private sexual life of every fertile woman in Canada, the voices of women will barely be heard.”
Around the time of this case, my daughter Emily showed me a book. It
contained the following paragraph: “The foetus, scientists are discovering, is self-sustaining. Hormonal fluctuations, breast development, and most side effects of pregnancy are caused by the foetus’s influencing the mother and not by the mother controlling the foetus. Therefore, it seems to follow that if a man became the incubator for a foetus, the developing baby would give him weight gain, morning sickness, lactating breasts, and anything else a woman may experience. It would be like a tubal pregnancy and the man could face a risky delivery after carrying the foetus for nine months.”
No doubt various memories converged, harmonized and arranged themselves around a central idea. Once conceived, the idea so possessed my mind that I immediately wrote a scene that contained the germ of the novel. This scene was entitled ‘The Annunciation’ and it described the moment when a group of women (named for the French feminists I was reading at the time) inform a man that he is carrying a foetus.
Here are two fragments.
“I sometimes think the clearest memory I own is of that moment, an incandescent moment, frozen in time, all of us sitting around the white bed, with the white landscape outside the window. Julia, Helen, Simone, Monica and I, Lucy…”
“In the beginning, Max was befuddled by the anaesthetic and by the painkillers, but much more disoriented by the situation. He kept saying, “Where am I? How did I get here? What happened? Last thing I remember was being interviewed. I can’t even remember getting into my car to drive home. Did I have an accident? Is this a hospital?”
Perhaps if I had been less busy I might have sat down there and then and struck off the novel. But I was teaching, keeping abreast of the new literary theory, editing a literary journal and involved in other writing projects. All the same, the embryo conceived so casually developed a life of its own.
I became even more enamoured of the characters I’d created than my subjects as a biographer. These people were absolutely my own creatures. The pregnancy of the original scene ran its course and ended, but the story went on and on in my mind. The women quarreled, dispersed, regrouped and inevitably went on with their lives as I did mine.
“Have you not finished that novel yet?” my husband would ask.
“No, I have not.”
Perhaps I never would have finished it, if I had not had the good luck to find someone who quietly and effectively nudged it to completion.
I met Audrey McClellan when she oversaw the special issue of A Room of One’s Own on my work in 1992. She was a board member of New Star Books, a Vancouver publishing house. Although her plans for New Star to bring out a Canadian edition of Self-Portrait of a Literary Biographer were blocked by my American publisher, we kept in touch. A few years later I took Audrey a haphazard collection of essays and stories, a mix usually considered unmarketable. She and New Star speedily and amiably ushered them into print as Thirty-Four Ways of Looking at Jane Eyre.
I felt I was in good hands indeed. Accordingly I brought her the 20 chapters of The Foetus. She was able to take what I thought of as ‘a poor thing but mine own’ and make it into a better thing without making it any less ‘mine own’. This process was thoroughly enjoyable but I knew from experience that such enjoyment comes to an abrupt end with publication.
Now it is time to let the progeny go forth. It is a difficult parting because the pages of Half Known Lives contain so many conversations, scenes and memories from a world that I once inhabited—a private world that no longer exists. 0-921586-78-7
[Joan Givner / BCBW 2000]
In The Garden of Henry James (Oberon $13.95)
Joan Givner explores the relationships between mothers and daughters in In The Garden of Henry James (Oberon $13.95). In “A Short Story by Hemingway”, a young woman of 21 sails from England to Michigan, where she is to be married to an American in 1958. On discovering The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway, she decides she has a suitable American guidebook for traversing through the foreign landscape of neon signs, jumbo hamburgers and large orange Pontiacs.
Playing Sarah Bernhardt (Dundurn, 2004)
from BCBW Summer 2004
One of the most successful writers of the 20th century, Canadian novelist Mazo de la Roche, was also one of the most secretive. She raised children but she lived most of her life with her cousin Caroline Clement. Biographer Joan Givner has resurrected the mystery of the novelist’s personal life in a new novel called Playing Sarah Bernhardt (Dundurn $21.99), the story of a contemporary actress.
Unable to remember her lines while playing Sarah Bernhardt, Harriet assumes her career as an actress is over—until she’s offered a part in a new play about Mazo de la Roche, creator of the once-famous Whiteoaks saga.
The new theatrical show about Mazo de la Roche and her homelife is being mounted in Regina where Harriet grew up. The playwright is an amateur, but Harriet is willing to take the risk of further humiliation in the hopes of reviving her career.
It turns out the memory-challenged Harriet was selected for the role by the playwright because the playwright is also writing a biography of Mazo de la Roche and the playwright knows Harriet possesses key pieces of a sexual puzzle she is assembling: Harriet is one of the few people who has always known her favourite aunt was the biological mother of Mazo’s adopted daughter, Antoinette.
Antoinette and Harriet share the same birthdate. And Harriet, at age 12, once met Antoinette’s father in her aunt’s apartment in Vancouver.
As the playwright draws Harriet into the vortex of the past during rehearsals, Harriet becomes involved with an old lover and she returns to visit the neighborhood haunts of her childhood.
The rest is herstory. Make-believed.
The biographical information about the relationship of Mazo de la Roche and Caroline Clement is based on Givner’s 1989 book Mazo de la Roche: The Hidden Life (Oxford University Press).
Dramatic scenes are adapted from Givner’s play Mazo and Caroline, which was performed at the Saskatchewan Playwright Centre’s Spring Festival in 1992.
--by Joan Givner
Ellen’s Book of Life by Joan Givner (Groundwood, $17.95)
The latest installment of Joan Givner’s series about a klutzy, feisty, brainy heroine named Ellen (Ellen Fremedon; Ellen Fremedon Journalist; Ellen Fremedon Volunteer) presents the adolescent, would-be writer from Vancouver Island with her most heart-wrenching challenge.
At first, Ellen’s summer is full of promise. Pressured into competing in a provincial debating tournament and dressed down by the judge for wearing jeans and a juice-stained t-shirt, she goes home triumphant with the silver cup for best speech. So she’s off to Toronto for a glorious month of big-city shopping, museums, concerts and art galleries.
Best of all, Ellen will be leaving behind her little brothers and their ghoulish delight in spiders. Then a call comes: Ellen’s mom, who’s been bedridden with MS, has been rushed to the hospital. That’s the set-up for Ellen’s Book of Life.
After her mother’s death Ellen spends a lot of time down
at the marina where she stomps on washed-up baby crabs and kills them. She throws her best friend Jenny’s unopened notes and gifts in the garbage. She rages at her Dad for encouraging Gran, her mom’s mother, to come around more often.
Then she finds a hand-written letter that begins, “My dearest Ellen, One day you will want to find your birth mother…”
When Ellen’s resultant search leads her hesitantly to a lawyer’s office in Vancouver, she’s astonished to discover the lawyer is the same short-tempered, frizzy-haired judge who chewed her out at the debating contest. And more astonishing—and downright appalling—this woman turns out to be her birth mother.
Ellen hopes to never see her birth mother, Sarah Maslin, ever again, and she believes the feeling must be mutual, but she finds herself increasingly taking the ferry back and forth to Vancouver. In a matter of weeks she finds herself growing closer to a new grandmother who deepens her awareness of a Jewish heritage.
And so Ellen learns about eating kosher, the sham children’s opera performed at the Theresienstadt concentration camp, and the Book of Life, opened on Rosh Hashanah, in which the names of the righteous are listed.
Ellen’s Book of Life concludes with the celebratory Seder meal and its symbolic foods—the bitter herbs, the unleavened bread—and a girl moving on with tentative resiliency and a slowly healing heart.
A self-described “sober academic type,” Joan Givner lives in Mill Bay, a seaside village much like Ellen’s hometown.
[BCBW 2009] "Teenlit"
A Girl Called Tennyson
No rest for the witted
As a biographer of Katherine Anne Porter and Mazo de la Roche, Joan Givner left behind academia in 1995 in favour of early retirement on Vancouver Island—and has recently produced her fifth young adult novel in six years, A Girl Called Tennyson (Thistledown $12.95).
A fantasy quest in the British tradition, A Girl Called Tennyson has an overtly literary heroine whose middle name is Tennyson. Like Givner in her own girlhood, she loves poetry, stories and rhyme. Transported during a ferry ride to the fantasy land of Greensward, “Tenn” must rescue her friend Una from evil forces—and uses her knowledge of great writers to do so.
“If I have to explain the source of it,” says Givner, “I’m tempted to invoke my early years as a lonely only child growing up during the war in a small Lancashire village amid black-outs, gas-masks, and air-raid shelters. The movie theaters were closed, of course, and this was before television.
“That situation was more likely than most childhoods to cause flight into a world of make-believe—dressing up, play-acting, and hours of absorption in books. And I’ve enjoyed dressing up ever since.”
Before she sets out on her dangerous mission, Tenn is trained by the wise woman, Bethan. She discovers that there are many other children who must also be saved and returned to Greensward.
“However, I must come clean,” says Givner. “I must admit that my late-in-life turn to fantasy was inspired less by early habits of fantasizing than by incompetence. I am ill equipped to reproduce the idiom of today’s youth, or to depict their high tech games and skills. Creating a fictional world of my own from whole cloth allowed me to circumvent these difficulties. And it was wonderful to escape the confines of realism.”
Givner believes anyone who writes fiction for young people must reconnect with their own childhoods. With A Girl Called Tennyson, she is reconnecting to a pastoral world that was disrupted by World War II.
“I have peopled the story with characters from my village, even recalling long-forgotten place-names—Eastlea, Cross Hillock, Gin Pits. These I yoked on to my present life on Vancouver Island—the deep dark forests, the mushroom hunts of the fall, the Mill Bay-Brentwood ferry, and the magical geodesic dome, the home of a friend.
“It was so much fun to write that I don’t wonder why I produced a fantasy novel, but what took me so long to do it. 978-1-897235-83-6
A Girl Called Tennyson
from The Tennyson Research Bulletin November 2
Joan Givner, A Girl Called Tennyson (Saskatoon, Saskatchewan: Thistledown Press, 2010), pp. 260, $12.95 CDN, ISBN: 978-1-897235-83-6.
This is a marvellously literary book, written by a former university English professor, which contains echoes and resonances of George Macdonald, Rudyard Kipling, Bulwer Lytton (The Coming Race) and, a more recent influence, Philip Pullman. Its achievement is that it contrives, without compromising its literariness, to appeal to a modern Young Adult audience. The author is adept at grabbing the reader’s attention with an arresting first sentence: ‘The ferry had moved some distance away from the dock before Tenn noticed anything strange’. She also prepares cleverly for a possible sequel with an open-ended final sentence in which the heroine dreams ‘of walking back into her own house, and introducing Una to her family and her world.’ In between is a classic rite of passage story, in which the heroine, Anne Tennyson Miller, the ‘girl called Tennyson’, slips from her own well-realised contemporary world into ‘Greensward’, a parallel universe in which there is a ‘Great Dearth’ of children and in which families are made up of ‘borners’ (birth parents) and ‘dopters’ (adopters), in order to share the children around. The rules of this world are clearly set out to appeal to a young readership: at a council meeting, every teenage child must announce the name they have chosen to be known by in their future adult life. There is danger from wicked kidnappers and a perilous Pied Piper-like journey in which the heroine has to guide a group of rescued children through a series of perilous encounters with snakes, wolves and quicksands.
Behind all the action is Tennyson’s poetry. The heroine gains acceptance in her new home by retelling stories from the Idylls of the King, beginning with ‘The Lady of Shalott’ and moving on, through ‘Lancelot and Elaine’, to ‘The Passing of Arthur’. Story-telling is presented as the way to find one’s own true identity. Una becomes herself by composing and reciting ‘The Song of Tennyson’s Journey’, describing the daring adventures of her friend. ‘The Lotos- Eaters’, of course, looms large, as the heroine struggles with the inclination not to return to her own world. Frequent quotations from the poems engage and challenge the teenage reader.
This book, as well as being a delightful read in itself, provides yet another example of a strange and, as far as I know, little-explored literary phenomenon: the impact of Tennyson’s poetry on North American girlhood. This can be traced to the beginning of the twentieth century, but it announced itself most clearly in 1925, with the publication of Anne of Green Gables by another Canadian author, L.M.Montgomery. The University of Prince Edward Island, where the novels are set, now has a School of Montgomery Studies and runs a biennial conference at which the influence of Tennyson seems ripe for discussion. The Green Gables novels are full of Tennysonian quotations and even Tennysonian events, a climactic scene being the near-drowning of the heroine as she attempts to ‘float down to Camelot’ upon a ‘barge’ which springs a leak, and has to be rescued, to her chagrin, by the young hero, Gilbert Blythe.
However, the imaginative power of Tennyson’s poetry is presented as having to overcome what is done to it in schools. Montgomery provides a telling insight into 1920s educational methods:
They had studied Tennyson’s poem in school the preceding winter, the Superintendent of Education having prescribed it in the English course for the Prince Edward Island Schools. They had analysed and parsed it and torn it to pieces in general until it was a wonder there was any meaning at all left in it for them, but at least the fair lily maid and Lancelot and Guinevere and King Arthur had become very real people to them. (Anne of Green Gables London: George Harrap,  1953, 186).
The tension between the harsh adult world of ‘parsing’ and the dreamy, numinous world of Anne herself is redolent of the latter-day Romanticism of North American cultural life in the early years of the twentieth century. Montgomery’s belief in ‘Imagination’ is positively Coleridgean. Anne may be gently ironised, but her values have her author’s full support. Characters are judged by whether they are ‘kindred spirits.’ Landscape is mystical and richly personified: there are ‘books in the running brooks’. The Anne-books succeed largely because of this supreme confidence in their underlying Romantic philosophy, with Tennyson its moving spirit, interpreted entirely in terms of his Romanticism. It is heartening that, through Joan Givner, Tennyson’s influence, albeit purely as a Romantic poet, seems likely to reach another generation of Canadian children, and similarly disheartening that no British children’s writer has so far appeared who is equally steeped in his work.
Volume 9 Number 5