Author Tags: Fiction
Written when she was a working single mother with two small children, Ann Eriksson's first novel Decomposing Maggie (Turnstone) concerns a woman who returns to face her past and come to terms with the death of her husband when family property is sold. This elegiac tale about the management of grief was inspired by the deaths of both an infant daughter in 1987, and four years later, her partner. Maggie Cooper still wears her husband’s paint-splattered sweatshirt three years after his death. She sleeps in her car, and gathers kelp to weave into the perfect basket for her husband’s ashes.
Ann Eriksson’s second novel In the Hands of Anubis (Brindle & Glass, 2009), follows a Calgary tractor salesman who, through an unlikely encounter in a Frankfurt airport, embarks on life-changing adventures in Cairo in the 1980s with a gusty septuagenarian named Constance Ebenezer.
Her third novel Falling from Grace (Brindle & Glass $19.95) concerns a three-and-a-half-foot tall female scientist doing entomological research in the tallest trees on Vancouver Island.
Her fourth novel, High Clear Bell of Morning (D&M 2014), with references to the the ecology of Orcinus orca, the killer whale, examines what happens to a family when a loved one requires help with a mental illness. "My interest in writing this novel," she says, "grew from the experience of watching a family close to me implode when one of their children became mentally ill and eventually drug addicted. I was struck by how traumatizing the mental health system experience was for the entire family and by how difficult it was for them to get and maintain the help they needed, both a result of the nature of the disease, (e.g., lack of insight, variability in response to medications, lack of compliance, etc) but also the inadequacies of the system (e.g., poorly understood disorder, lack of psychiatrists, legal privacy and rights issues etc). Stigma also remains a huge problem, toward both the ill person and the family. I heard and read many stories about parents who were made to feel they were the source of their child's problems by poorly educated health care workers, and sometimes shut out of participating in treatment. I was also shocked that a person could go into the system with a mental illness and come out a drug addict. This is unfortunately quite common, as ill, vulnerable and lonely young people, who may have lost all their other friends because of their bizarre behaviour, are exposed in the hospital, group therapy, and group homes, to other mentally ill peers with addiction problems. I was told about a group of parents who were considering a class action law suit over this problem.
"For the most part I was a helpless onlooker, and probably with all the stereotypes and misconceptions about mental illness in place. So writing about these issues became a way I could educate myself, but also, in some small way, to contribute to raising awareness."
Ann Eriksson’s fifth novel The Performance contrasts the worlds of elite classical piano and urban homelessness. Hana Knight, a privileged and talented young pianist, develops a tenuous friendship with Jacqueline, a homeless woman who collects empty bottles and cans to buy tickets to Hana’s concerts. Hana is blessed with a magnificent Steinway piano, a place at Juilliard, a Manhattan apartment and a patron who arranges everything, including a European tour. But there is a dark mystery from her past that needs to be faced, and she must put her privileged life at risk to do so.
Ann Eriksson's The Performance (Douglas & McIntyre, $22.95) was shortlisted as one of 19 finalists from Canada and the U.S. for the General Fiction category in the 19th annual Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Awards.
Eriksson was born in Saskatchewan and grew up in all three prairie provinces. Having studied and lived in New Zealand, Europe and Halifax, she came to the West Coast in 1978, living for ten years on Galiano Island. Moving to Victoria in 1990, she completed a degree in Biology with a minor in Environmental Studies at the University of Victoria. Her work as consulting biologist on biodiversity has had an impact on her writing. In 2007 she married poet Gary Geddes and they now divide their time between Victoria and Thetis Island, B.C. Ann Eriksson is a founding director of the Thetis Island Nature Conservancy.
Decomposing Maggie (Turnstone) $18.95 0-88801-283-7
In the Hands of Anubis (Brindle & Glass, 2009) 978-1-897142-35-6
Falling from Grace (Brindle & Glass 2010) $19.95 9781897142462
High Clear Bell of Morning (D&M 2014) $22.95
The Performance (D&M 2016) $22.95, ISBN 978-1-77162-125-0
[BCBW 2017] "Fiction"
In Conversation with Ann Eriksson
Margaret Thompson interviews Ann Eriksson for WordWorks. Summer 2010.
2010 was proclaimed The Year of Biodiversity by the UN. It’s a particularly appropriate time for Ann Eriksson’s third novel, Falling From Grace,(Brindle & Glass) to appear, and for WordWorks to ask the author some questions about it.
Ann, you are both a biologist and a novelist, an unusual combination. How hard is it to integrate science and the arts? Is there any special benefit in doing so?
I find the integration of the creative arts and science comes naturally to me and it is wonderful to be able to combine my two passions. My view of the world is very much focused through the lens of the natural world so it is not surprising that it appears in my writing and the topics I choose to explore. That’s not to say that science and/or natural history will always figure prominently in my books, I have a novel on the back burner that is set in a large city and focuses on homelessness. A different kind of ecology.
I think it’s fair to say that one of your preoccupations in Falling from Grace is smallness. What led you to make your main character, Faye, a dwarf, and her specialty the mites and other tiny insects that live in the rainforest canopy?
In 1987, my second child was born with a rare form of dwarfism. She didn’t live more than a few hours but I always wondered what her life would have been like as a person of short stature if she had lived. So when I found myself writing novels years later, it was a topic I would inevitably turn to. I did a lot of research: reading, watching movies, gathering information from organizations such as Little People of BC and Little People of America. I learned that there are over 200 forms of dwarfism, that some forms have health problems associated with them, other don’t, and that, not surprisingly, people of short stature want to be seen by the world as individuals with the same desires and emotions as everyone else. So I decided I didn’t want to write a simple examination of the life of a person of short stature. Instead I wanted to write a story that includes a main character who just happens to be small and who has her own individual perspective on life. Perspective became a main theme in the book. How we see the world, how the world sees us. Faye’s work as an entomologist came out of my research into canopy science where I went out into the ancient forests of Vancouver Island with a PhD student from the University of Victoria, Zoe Lindo, who was studying canopy mites. To a mite, Faye is a giant. It was sort of an aha moment early on in the development of the book. A small woman studying microscopic bugs in the tops of giant trees. What’s big and what’s small is a matter of perspective.
Obviously, most things are tall compared to Faye, but you make a point of emphasizing height: the old-growth trees are monsters; frequently you tell us exactly how far above the ground Faye is working; the activist Marcel is six foot five. Did you have special reasons for making us see this?
The old growth temperature rainforests on Vancouver Island, where trees can grow over 70 m tall and where we are all small, became a great setting in which to explore the theme of perspective. Part of my reason for specifying size was to evoke the majesty of the old growth trees which many readers may not have the privilege to experience first-hand, but also to emphasize different viewpoints as part of the exploration of perspective.
There’s a point in the book where Faye and her assistant, Paul, are looking up at a enormous old growth tree and Paul says, “ Sure makes me feel like a dwarf.” And Faye answers, “Me too.” An ironic moment that encapsulates what I was after. Marcel serves to offer a flipside viewpoint. He’s a very big man who suffers similar prejudices as those experienced by small people such as difficulties initiating relationships or with social acceptance and issues with an environment that is not built for someone his size. I was hoping to challenge society’s notions of “normal” by emphasizing size, both big and small, throughout the novel.
The trees Faye studies become characters in their own right. Each one has an individual designation; Rainbow gives them names; the clearcut and the felling of Bruce the Spruce read like a massacre and an execution respectively. What did you want the reader to understand about these trees?
Naming exceptional trees is a tradition here in BC and in other places. This personalization is an effective way, often used by environmentalists, to create a relationship between people and what otherwise might be seen as an inanimate object. Thus not so easily cut down. But we also know that trees are not inanimate but dynamic living beings that produce oxygen, store carbon, provide homes for a countless organisms, and play other important ecological roles such as nutrient and water cycling that benefit not only the forests that the trees inhabit but human beings as well. Forests are often referred to as the ‘lungs of the world’ and with climate change, the old wild forests are being recognized for their capacity to absorb and store carbon for long periods of time. Then there is the concept of intrinsic value, the right of something to exist for its own sake. I used to work as a park interpreter. I had a game I played with people when I took them out on a forest walk. I would pair them up and one of the pair was blindfolded and then led in a circuitous route to a tree. They would then have five or ten minutes to familiarize themselves with the tree before they were returned to the starting point. The blindfold was removed and their task then was to find their tree. The success rate was usually 100%. Like snowflakes and people, no two trees are identical, but individuals. There’s a wonderful book by Nalini Nadkarni, one of my tree climbing mentors, called Trees and Humans: Our Intimate Relationship with Trees that looks at the many ways trees and people are interconnected.
Your descriptions of rigging the trees and climbing them, and of the laboratory work preparing specimens, are convincingly authentic. Had this been part of your experience as a biologist, or did you have to embark on a lot of research?
I loved this aspect of my research. Before I started the book, I was aware there were scientists studying in the canopy, but I didn’t know much about it. It couldn’t have been more than a couple of days after I had come up with the idea of including canopy science in the novel that I was telling a friend about my idea. “Do I have the person for you!” was her response. She introduced me to Nalini Nadkarni, a professor at Evergreen State College in Olympia Washington and one of the founders of the International Canopy Network. She invited me along on several research trips into the National Forests in Washington, where I met Anne McIntosh, a Canadian working with Nalini. The following summer, I tagged along with Zoe Lindo, a Phd student at the University of Victoria, into the Walbran Valley on the west coast of Vancouver Island, where she was studying canopy mites in western redcedars. These three women became my canopy goddesses. They patiently answered my millions of questions, let me observe and photograph them at work, showed me how to rig a tree and most importantly, took me up into the trees on ropes. A fascinating, exhilarating and terrifying experience. I went as high as 40 metres, about the height of a 12 storey building and discovered the wonderful moss and lichen world that I describe in the book. The researchers I was with were climbing twice as high, appearing like spiders dangling from their webs against the giant trees. Zoe Lindo spent an afternoon with me in her lab showing me how to identify and slide mount a mite, and regaling me with mite facts. There really is a mite named Cyrtozetes lindoae.
The people who gather to set up the blockade are a motley crew. Was this diversity simply realistic, or a tactic to deliver a commentary on actions like theirs?
I have to laugh at this question. You can’t live in a tent with no washing facilities for more than a few days without qualifying as motley. But yes, the diversity of activists in the book is a reflection of the reality of most protests. The Otter Valley blockade was reminiscent of the many anti-clearcutting protests that have occurred in BC over the last few decades, the most high profile being the Clayoquot Sound blockade in the early 90’s, the biggest protest in Canadian history. Over 10000 people from around the world participated and over 900 people from children to grandmothers from all walks of life stood on the road to prevent the logging of the forests in the Sound and were arrested and charged with contempt of court for their civil disobedience. The protest resulted in the designation of Clayoquot Sound as a Biosphere Reserve. Protests like this, including tree-sits, continue today. I tried to capture this diversity in the minor characters—Mary and her children, the students from UBC, the militant Cougar, Mr. Kimori, Marcel, Grace and her friend Esther.
Many of the crucial incidents in the plot are later tidily resolved—Faye’s baby, for example, and custody of Rainbow. Why did you leave the identity of Paul’s assailant a mystery?
I’m not sure that I would agree that these issues are tidily resolved. Faye was left single parenting a child who faced potential health problems and delayed development, and another child whose mother could return at any time and challenge custody. There’s no guarantee her new research site would be spared from logging in the long term. But I’m one of those people who likes happy endings, so for the moment, Faye’s life at the end of the book had come to some state of stability and perhaps happiness. She is haunted though about the role she played in the loss of Paul, as well as the lack of resolution on the identity of his assailant. The decision to leave the identity of his assailant a mystery was largely made on intuition and I think was realistic. The protest and mass arrests and trials overshadowed the relatively minor matter, at least in the eyes if the police, of who shot Paul. The feedback from readers so far about this has been mixed. Some are dying to know ‘who dunnit’. Others say that by the end of the book it no longer matters to them. In the end, isn’t it the clear-cutting that deals the final blow? And I have to confess, I myself don’t know who did it. I have my suspicions … but hey, isn’t this supposed to be my book? It’s a wonderful thing when the creative process takes over and leaves the author in the dust.
It seemed to me that this story had a lot to say about the value we place on things and people. Was this your intention, or am I reading something into it that isn’t really there?
I’m not sure what the question is asking here. The story is certainly about relationships, our relationship with each other, with the planet we live on, the trees, the forests, and even our relationship with ourselves. The value we place on these relationships determines the choices we make in life. Or, in the case of the novel, the choices the characters, in particular Faye, make throughout the course of the book. She comes to value her smallness more than she had at the beginning of the story.
Would it be accurate to say that this novel is a hymn to biodiversity?
Absolutely, although I use the word tribute rather than hymn which to me has a religious connotation. More specifically I think of it as a tribute to big trees and small people. The biodiversity of the forest ecosystem, the interconnectedness and beauty of all the components, is something I wanted to illuminate. And don’t forget, humans are part of biological diversity in the same way as a tree or a mite. When Faye travels to Seattle to the Little People’s conference she thinks about the implications of genetic testing for dwarfism on the diversity of people. What would the world be like without people of short stature, without the full range of human diversity? A human monoculture?
I gather that you are on a Green reading tour at the moment. Tell us something about that concept. You’re not cycling between gigs, are you?
Now that would be a truly Green book tour and would be a lot of fun but I only had a couple of weeks so I wouldn’t get very far, although I’d be in pretty good shape, trailing a cart full of books across the Rockies. When I was thinking about doing a book tour, I balked at flying from city to city to promote a book that had an environmental theme and was printed on 100% recycled ancient forest friendly paper, and certified by FSC (Forest Sustainability Certification). So I did some enquiries and found some sponsors who were keen on the idea of a green carbon-neutral tour. Yes, I drove from Vancouver to Edmonton and back which doesn’t appear particularly green on the surface, but Volkswagen donated the use of a new Jetta clean diesel that has a fuel consumption of about 5 litres of fuel per 100 km. Offsetters, a Vancouver company that supports carbon offset projects, for example installing heat pump systems in schools to replace oil furnaces, offset the fuel I did buy which made the tour carbon-neutral for fuel consumption. There was a lot of appreciation amongst audiences throughout the tour for the concept. I’m going out east in the fall for readings and while it is too far to drive (or cycle) in the time I have, I will offset my flights to carry on the effort to travel as softly on the earth as possible.
Your website hints that you are continuing the ecological groove with two new novels, one involving orcas and the other, snakes. Anything you’re prepared to reveal about them at this stage? (Don’t worry, we know it can all turn out completely different!)
The killer whales of the southern Strait of Georgia resident population are considered the most polluted mammals on earth, contaminated with PCBs, DDT, lead, mercury and many other chemicals and heavy metals. This fact is both a tragedy and a signal that we must make some about faces in the way we treat the oceans, and inspired my desire to write about this in a novel. Woven into the ecological story is a human health story, the slow disintegration of a family when their daughter is diagnosed with schizophrenia. I’m fairly early on in the development of the novel but I wouldn’t be surprised if I discovered some links between the two issues.
I confess I am an ophidiophobe which means I have an irrational fear of snakes. As a biologist, this phobia has long embarrassed me. I took my young son out with me once to catch garter snakes from the shores of a nearby pond so I could accustom myself to handling them but I didn’t last long. Maybe writing a novel will accomplish the task. I find I need to write something humorous once in a while in between books about grief, tragedy and environmental disasters. In the Hands of Anubis was such a book. How about snakes and sisters? These two topics, when mentioned in the same breath, invariably elicit a laugh from women. It should be fun.
Ann Eriksson is the author of In the Hands of Anubis (2009) and Decomposing Maggie (2003). She was born in Saskatchewan and grew up in the Prairie provinces, eventually migrating to the West Coast. Ann lives with her husband, poet Gary Geddes, on Thetis Island and in Victoria. Visit www.anneriksson.ca
An excerpt from Falling From Grace, by Ann Eriksson, 2010. Printed with permission by Brindle & Glass Publishing.
I met Paul at the end of a long fruitless day of interviews. When he walked through the door into my office, I could have sworn I smelled cedar boughs, as if he trailed the forest into the room after him. I found myself reluctant to let go of his calloused fingers, which reminded me of the texture of bark. The way he folded his tall, lanky body into the chair gave me the distinct impression he didn’t belong indoors. His first words: “I’m thrilled to meet you, Dr. Pearson.”
“You have a great reputation.” His eyes were the same dusty shade of green as the lichen Lobaria.
“I work in a great field,” I answered, painfully aware of my reputation. The previous applicant had left no illusions, a farm boy from the Fraser Valley, his interview promising, until he asked if he would have to do all the climbing because of “your arms, you know.” “No, I don’t know,” I shot back. “What’s wrong with my arms?” I regretted the flush of embarrassment on his face. The irony of a person like me studying microscopic bugs at the top of massive trees does not escape me. I could imagine his skepticism. After all, I stood no higher than his navel, my feet propped on a stool under my desk. But I was tired of explaining myself, educating the ignorant. And I expected civility. He tripped over his own feet as he left the office. I scrawled a giant red NO! across the farm boy’s application form and filed it in the trash. I wished I were up a tree hunting for bugs. A task much less taxing than finding a suitable assistant.
“You’ve done a remarkable amount of research.” I flipped through Paul’s resumé, impressed by his credentials. “Arborist by training?”
“Tell me about your last position.”
“I climbed for Nadkarni on her cloud forest project in Costa Rica,” he answered. “We studied epiphytes.”
Plants that grow on plants. “Nalini’s a close friend of mine.” I smiled, my train of thought sidetracked when he smiled back. I forced myself again to the sheets of paper on the desk in front of me. “Eucalyptus forest in Tasmania, marbled murrelet nest sites in Oregon and Washington, arboreal lichens in Alaska,” I read with approval. “Contracts in Chile, Argentina, Ecuador. Impressive.”
“Climbing, yes.” He shifted in his chair. “But I’m no scientist. I have no degrees. You’re the pioneer.”
“Yes, well, no more than my colleagues elsewhere.” I fiddled around with the pen in my hand, flustered by the unexpected praise, and closed the folder. “I need a skilled technical climber. You’re more than qualified.” I took a breath and asked him the one question I really cared about. “How do you feel about working with me?”
He blinked, wrinkled his forehead, stroked a wispy, fledgling beard, and considered my question for a moment. “Not a problem.” He leaned forward. Flecks of gold in his irises caught the light. “I’m surprised you asked. It would be an honour to work with you.”
I excused myself and put a note on the door. Research Assistant Position Filled.
If I had known what would happen, I never would have hired him.
High Clear Bell of Morning
Interview supplied by publisher
Ann Eriksson is the author of three previous novels: Decomposing Maggie (Turnstone, 2003), In the Hands of Anubis (Brindle & Glass, 2009) and Falling From Grace (Brindle & Glass, 2011), which was awarded a Silver medal in the 2011 Independent Publishers Book Awards. Eriksson is a biologist and a founding director of the Thetis Island Nature Conservancy. She lives on Thetis Island, B.C., with her husband, poet Gary Geddes. You can read more about her at www.anneriksson.ca.
Q: In High Clear Bell of Morning, readers are witness to utter upheaval in the lives of a family when the daughter, Ruby, is diagnosed with schizophrenia. Why did you decide to tackle the topic of mental illness?
A: I have watched more than one family close to me experience the mental illness of a family member and was struck by how traumatizing it was for the entire family and by how difficult it was for them to get and maintain the help they needed. For the most part I was a helpless onlooker. Raising awareness of the issues through my writing seemed to be one small way I could make a positive contribution.
Q: The title of this book references a flashback to a simpler time, when Glen (the father) and Ruby (the daughter) were watching whales through his binoculars, “the sea, the air so still and pure it rang in his ears like the sound of a bell, high and clear.” What does the title mean to you?
A: I think anyone who spends time on the ocean in boats will recognize that special perfect moment at dawn when all is silent and the sun first tips over the horizon and sheds a soft light over the glassy sea. The title does refer to that experience shared by Glen with young Ruby as a healthy curious child the day they witness the birth of a whale, but there is also a play on the word morning, which can be heard as ‘mourning,’ lending a portentous sorrowful note to the title.
Q: This story is told from the point of view of both Glen and Ruby. How did you approach getting into the mindset of a character encountering the first stages of schizophrenia?
A: Ruby’s voice was certainly the most challenging to write. People with mental illness are so often stigmatized and wrongly criticized as making poor behavioural choices. By including Ruby’s voice in the narrative, I wanted to show that she was a victim of her illness, unable to differentiate the psychosis from reality. To develop the character, I interviewed people with mental illness and family members, read memoirs by authors who had experience with mental illness, and consulted technical references. In the end though, I had to put it all away and imagine myself in Ruby’s mind and body.
Q: In many ways, High Clear Bell of Morning is Glen’s story. Glen is a biologist studying the toxins present in the bodies of a pod of killer whales of the West Coast of Canada. How did your own experiences as a biologist inform his character?
A: In the early 1990s, while a student in biology at the University of Victoria, I volunteered with a marine mammal research group. During that time, I gathered all the toxicology data that had been collected on whales along the coast for a paper. I was struck by the number and levels of contaminants—many with toxic properties—found particularly in killer whales, and the potential health effects of these contaminants. A few years later the southern resident killer whales were declared the most polluted mammals on earth and their contamination remains one of the major threats to the population. I have maintained an interest in ocean contaminants since then and was appalled when the Canadian government recently shut down the entire federal ocean contaminants program and fired its seventy-five marine pollution scientists. I interviewed one of those scientists, Peter Ross, for the book. The scientists I know who study marine mammals are a rare breed, and all are very dedicated and wonderful people. It was a pleasure to create Glen, a fictional character just like them.
Q: In your research into mental illness for this book, what findings surprised you the most?
A: I was surprised by most of what I learned. I did a huge amount of research and my writing studio is cluttered with books and papers on the subject. I came into the task with all the commonly held misconceptions and stereotypes, but with an open mind. A few of the things I learned stand out. I’ve already mentioned the difficulties with treatment, and the high probability of drug addiction as a concurrent problem for those with serious mental illness. But I was also surprised to learn that schizophrenia is more common than I thought, a prevalence of about 1 in a hundred (1%). As an advocate of human rights, I was critical of involuntary treatment, but realized quickly that it is a necessary tool that has saved the lives of many seriously ill people who have no insight into their disease; they don’t understand they are sick because of a common and related brain disorder called anosognosia. On a positive note, I had always believed that a diagnosis of schizophrenia was a life sentence on medication or dead to suicide, so I was pleasantly surprised to discover that about a quarter of people with schizophrenia completely recover.
Q: Many aspects of the health care system in High Clear Bell of Morning stand out as important factors in Ruby’s recovery or lack there-of. It’s at group therapy through the hospital where she meets Kenny, who introduces her to the slippery slope of self-medication. And once she’s addicted, it’s extremely hard for the family to find assistance, as most clinics will only treat mental health or drug addiction. To what extent are these events based on problems in our own health care system?
A: This is a very real problem. I was told of a group of parents who were considering a class-action lawsuit because their adolescent and adult children were becoming drug addicts after they entered the mental health system. Studies have shown that about half of people with schizophrenia abuse street drugs and/or alcohol, and many of them have been introduced to these substances by peers they met in treatment when they were ill, vulnerable and often lonely, having lost all of their friends to their odd and often frightening behaviour. This situation was one I wanted to illuminate, as I don’t think it is widely known. Stigma continues to be a problem, even within the health care system, with an apparent lack of education for health care workers about the nature of serious mental illness as a brain disease, not a behavioural choice. I heard many stories of parents who were treated as if they were the cause of their child’s problems, and were shut out of the treatment process. The lack of psychiatric specialists and the difficulties with treating concurrent disorders are also serious inadequacies.
Q: One of the most interesting things Glen does to try to understand what his daughter is going through in her illness is to take some of her meds, which leave him feeling overcome by fatigue. Is that something you’ve ever heard of someone doing?
A: The scene where Glen takes Ruby’s anti-psychotic medications was inspired by a memoir, Hurry Down Sunshine by American writer Michael Greenberg, who took his daughter’s medications. Glen’s reaction to Ruby’s meds demonstrates the serious sedative effect of many of the medications used to treat schizophrenia, a common complaint among people who are prescribed them. One woman I interviewed told me her daughter sleeps fourteen hours a day and has an anti-psychotic hangover for hours after waking. This scene also provides an opportunity to reveal some of the other debilitating side effects of anti-psychotic drugs.
Q: What is the most important thing you want readers to take away from reading this book?
A: Someone (I wish I knew who) once said that writers should “conflict the comfortable and comfort the conflicted.” I hope in some small way that this novel will accomplish those goals by raising awareness about the plight of the families of the mentally ill in North American society, and about the potential impacts of environmental toxins on the health of humans and wildlife. I hope also that families experiencing the trauma of a serious mental illness will recognize themselves in the characters and the situations and find some solace in knowing they are not alone.
High Clear Bell of Morning by Ann Eriksson (D&M $22.95)
from BCBW 2014
Ann Eriksson’s fourth novel, High Clear Bell of Morning examines what happens to a family when a loved one requires help with a mental illness.
“My interest in writing this novel,” Eriksson says, “grew from the experience of watching a family close to me implode when one of their children became mentally ill and eventually drug addicted.
“For the most part I was a helpless onlooker, and probably with all the stereotypes and misconceptions about mental illness in place. So writing about these issues became a way I could educate myself, but also, in some small way, to contribute to raising awareness.
“I was struck by how traumatizing the mental health system experience was for the entire family and by how difficult it was for them to get and maintain the help they needed, both a result of the nature of the disease, (e.g. lack of insight, variability in response to medications, lack of compliance) but also the inadequacies of the system (e.g. poorly understood disorder, lack of psychiatrists, legal privacy and rights issues).
“Stigma also remains a huge problem, toward both the ill person and the family. I heard and read many stories about parents who were made to feel they were the source of their child’s problems by poorly educated health care workers, and sometimes shut out of participating in treatment. I was also shocked that a person could go into the system with a mental illness and come out a drug addict. This is unfortunately quite common, as ill, vulnerable and lonely young people, who may have lost all their other friends because of their bizarre behaviour, are exposed in the hospital, group therapy, and group homes, to other mentally ill peers with addiction problems.”
Ann Eriksson of Thetis Island was born in Saskatchewan and grew up in all three prairie provinces. Having studied and lived in New Zealand, Europe and Halifax, she came to the West Coast in 1978, living for ten years on Galiano Island. Moving to Victoria in 1990, she completed a degree in biology with a minor in Environmental Studies at the University of Victoria. Her work as a consulting biologist on biodiversity has had an impact on her writing. Ann Eriksson is also a founding director of the Thetis Island Nature Conservancy.
Ann Eriksson and her husband Gary Geddes will be featured at the Word on the Lake Festival in Salmon Arm, May 16-18. Also appearing will be C.C Humphreys, Carmen Aguirre, Gail Anderson-Dargetz, Diane Gabaldon, Ursula Maxwell-Lewis and Howard White—along with literary agent Carolyn Swayze, singer/songwriter David Essig and editor Shelagh Jamieson.
For more information, visit www.saow.ca
1. In the beginning, Hana Knight’s character is unaware of a lot, which makes her discoveries all the more realistic. How hard was it to keep her out of the loop so to speak? You of course knew what was going to happen but she did not. Was this a challenge?
Hana as a young woman in Manhattan is naïve and unaware, coming from a rather sheltered homeschooled life and fairly insular family, and of course, absorbed by her music. But the adult Hana, the narrator, knows exactly what has happened, and she strings the story of her naivety out for Tomas and for the reader from her own perspective almost as if she is writing the novel she appears in. I see The Performance as 3 embedded stories. There is the story that Hana tells Tomas, the story she tells the reader and then there’s the story she tells herself. Hana is not completely honest in the telling of any of the 3. Each involves secrecy, denial, self-justification and either naivety or downright lies. I wanted the reader to piece together his or her own version of the story of Hana and Jacqueline, including bits from the reader’s own life and experiences, and ultimately, I wanted the reader to start to question or doubt Hana’s story. I wanted to recreate the psychology that follows a breach of trust: the disability to trust again. Was any of Hana’s story true? Was she pulling the wool over her audience’s eyes? And for what end? How reliable is she as a narrator? Of course, such a structure is a balancing act to pull off. When should Hana start to realize what Jacqueline is up to, when should she reveal a key piece of information to the reader, to Tomas, to herself? I needed to provide motivation for each of the decisions she makes about what and when she tells who. The process, I imagine, was a bit like writing a mystery or a detective novel, rolling out the clues one by one so the reader thinks she is half a step ahead of the Hana, but still in the dark until the climax.
2. At an early encounter at Hana's apartment, Jacqueline refuses to accept Hana's free tickets to her concerts and insists on finding means to pay for them. I found this added darkness to Jacqueline's character, indirectly making the reader feel uneasy about her intentions. Before putting those characters in a scene together in which they speak, how did you carve out their separate worlds in the novel?
This novel lived in my head for quite a long time before I wrote anything down on paper. Hana, the young classical pianist, in my mind, stepping outside from a concert hall and seeing a woman, who became Jacqueline, watching her from across the street. A creepy moment. This scene played over and over in my imagination for months. Who were these two women? Why were they where they were, at that time, in that particular city. How would their paths cross? I knew there had to be a mystery. I had to answer those questions for myself and for them. My conception of character and plot is very much cinematic, both at first and during the writing and editing phase (Maybe I should have been a film maker). I see the characters walking and talking, moving through their lives, interacting. I’m always endeavoring, struggling to translate the pictures in my mind into words on the page. I seldom find the result completely satisfactory but that is what drives me forward, that translation of the visual into the literary.
3. Is there a bit of Hana Knight in all of us? Is there a bit of Jacqueline in all of us?
The simple answer to the question is yes. The more complex answer is that I believe every person is capable of anything, given the right circumstances, from the altruism of a saint to the most heinous act of evil, even murder. This human capacity makes writing literary fiction endlessly fascinating as it is all about exploring the range of human actions and emotions or as I recently heard Tim O’Brien describe it, fiction is an exploration of the human heart. Why do we do the things we do? How do we feel about it, about ourselves, before, during, and after? Why are we as individuals or as a society, a species, so capable of self-deception, or cruelty of the greatest degree? I know I’m never going to be a famous classical pianist like Hana, but I’ve been part of a family, been betrayed by a friend, betrayed a friend, been in love, fallen out of love, even told a few lies (my husband, the poet, jokes that he tells the truth, I tell the lies). As for Jacqueline, one thing I learned through interviewing street dwellers and reading about the homeless is how fine the line is between being okay and not being okay, having a warm home and having to sleep rough under a tree. For some the line is wider than for others, but a single moment can change a person’s life forever, whether it be the result of an accident, a death, an illness, the choices of another, or as in The Performance, a crime.
- Douglas & McIntyre, 2016
The Performance by Ann Eriksson (D&M $22.95)
from James Paley (BCBW 2017)
Ann Eriksson’s fifth novel The Performance contrasts the worlds of elite classical piano with urban homelessness. Hana Knight, a privileged and talented young pianist, develops a tenuous friendship with Jacqueline, a homeless woman who collects empty bottles and cans to buy tickets to Hana’s concerts. Hana is blessed with a magnificent Steinway piano, a place at Juilliard, a Manhattan apartment and a patron who arranges everything, including a European tour, but there is a dark mystery from her past that needs to be faced. She puts her privileged life at risk to do so.
Hana Knight’s mother is in the grips of dementia when the story begins. Clare, Hana’s sister, takes care of her mother back in Vancouver. Hana tells everyone her father is dead.
As Hana ascends towards stardom as a classical pianist, she feels some guilt about her aloof position in her family as a pampered musician with a rare level of talent and a passion for Chopin, but she tempers such feelings with thoughts of her struggles during her career’s outset.
Without any money of her own, Hana’s music career is being supported by her patron, Mrs. Flynn, whose billions come from mining. As one of New York’s most prominent elite, Mrs. F.—as she is sometimes called—provides Hana with everything from her apartment to her wages and her performances.
As her star rises, Hana starts to take more notice of New York’s homeless population. In particular, her attention is drawn to an older woman who reminds her vaguely of her own mother. This woman often waits outside Hana’s concerts to see her. Initially Hana only identifies her as ‘The Knitter.’
Although she is clearly impoverished, this knitter named Jacqueline is a proud woman who refuses any help, no matter how badly it is needed. When Hana runs into Jacqueline at Riverside and 72nd Street, she tries to talk to her and offers her some money, but Jacqueline packs her things and walks off without a word. Jacqueline will only accept donations in exchange for her hand-knitted clothing.
As for a love life, Hana has one friend remaining from her time in school, a Japanese cellist named Kenji. The two of them slept together a few times. Hana broke it off, to prevent any complicated feelings. At Kenji’s insistence, they sleep together again but Hana wants to keep her distance.
There is a dump of snow before Christmas so Hana seeks out Jacqueline with a sleeping bag. When her charity is refused, Hana remains persistent, going so far as to sleep outside with Jacqueline under a tree in Central Park. In the morning the obstinate old woman relents and accepts an offer of coffee and a shower.
Meanwhile Hana is getting closer to Mrs F.’s son, Michael, a confident rich kid who effortlessly sweeps Hana off her feet in only three meetings. Kenji quits school and goes back to Tokyo, rudderless and defeated, but Michael will soon discover Hana loves her piano more than she cares for him.
As Hana’s mother’s dementia moves towards a crescendo of its own, there is palpable tension between Hana and her sister Clare regarding their mother. Hana must pay a price for being the star pianist when she goes home to visit. The Knights are a musical family. The children improvise scores with each other, play songs backwards as an exercise, performing mini-concerts. It’s a playful but competitive atmosphere.
The contrast between Hana’s inability to take care of her mother and her increasing concern for the vagrant Jacqueline comes to the fore when Jacqueline is badly injured in a mugging. Hana tracks her down in the hospital as the staff is about to release her, regardless of her poor condition, during a harsh New York winter. Hana puts her up at her stately Manhattan apartment.
By this point, it would be giving away too much to say what happens next—so let’s just say it’s an astonishing and disturbing twist in the power dynamic between the two women.
Just as her mother remains on the periphery of Hana’s life with her illness, her father will remain afar for reasons that should not be revealed here. Will Jacqueline prefer the streets? Will Hana reconcile with her sister?
The Performance is a wise and deeply rendered novel about Hana’s evolution beyond the ambitions of a self-centred artist. Chopin can be perfected; charity cannot. Ultimately she gains an understanding that empathy is the soul-food for decency.
James Paley is a Vancouver freelance writer.