THE WRITING LIFE ... June HUTTON
JUNE HUTTON is a former journalist and teacher whose short fiction has appeared in Pottersfield Portfolio, The Capilano Review, Other Voices and Contemporary Verse 2. Her first novel, Underground, is about the events that led a Canadian soldier to fight in the Spanish Civil War. A journey of self-discovery, the story of Albert Fraser begins in the battlefields of the Somme and then moves into the squalor and strife of the 1930s in Canada. Battle-scarred, Al searches for himself and, in a seemingly rash and contradictory act, returns to war—this time in Spain. Check out her website at www.junehutton.com for more details about her and her work. She lives in Vancouver, Canada.
In a Q&A with ERIC FORBES, Hutton talks about the process of writing her first novel and the kinds of books she enjoy reading, among other things.
Where were you born and raised? What was it like growing up in that part of the world?
I was born and raised in Vancouver, a city on the west coast of Canada, in the province of British Columbia. It’s part of the Pacific Rim, and that puts it in a temperate zone, unlike the rest of Canada. I think it was Rudyard Kipling who, after living here, remarked that Vancouver has the best climate and the worst weather. It rains a lot—every season except summer, and even then we get the odd shower.
Our city has two cores, the old downtown that includes the second-largest Chinatown in North America, and the new downtown with the financial district and shiny skyscrapers. I grew up in the old downtown and set many of Underground’s scenes there. I recalled that the old sidewalks were embedded with purple glass bricks to light up the storage areas below. With my novel’s underground themes in mind, I went looking for any glass bricks that might remain, to see if I couldn’t crawl underneath and photograph them. The results can be seen on my website, running as a banner across each page: www.junehutton.com. And of course, that underground area became a setting in the novel.
I have a fascination with earth, and you will note a lot of dirt and digging in my novel. Maybe that’s because you can’t travel too far from the city without reaching mountains and wilderness. Also, my childhood home sat on a double lot, a large piece of land for a city property, and while the immediate area around the house was a well-manicured garden with lilac and rose bushes, the back end was left wild. You can imagine which area I preferred. One year I carved a tunnel within the thick patch of jungle, and it led to a clearing where I could sit and smell the damp dirt and think, and where no one in my family could find me and bother me. I think the writer in me was born then. We also spent most of my childhood summers either camping in a tent or staying at a cabin about a four-hour drive inland. We hauled our water, cooked over a fire and lived simply those months. My brother, sister and I would go exploring along the railway tracks, the old dirt roads, or up a mountainside of fir and pine trees to a former prospector’s cabin. It was an old log structure that was sliding into the earth, and next to it a simple grave that we assumed was his. The centre of the burial plot was caving in, and we used to dare each other to stick our hands in. The blades of grass along the edges brushed our arms and we liked to imagine those were really strands of the old man’s hair. I think every child has a writer’s imagination.
What made you a writer, and when did you realise you were going to be one? Was it something you had always set your heart on?
I stumbled into writing. The imagination was always there, and I was a daydreamer, so maybe that was the start of it. I tried writing a novel when I was a teenager. It must have been inspired by Animal Farm because it was going to be a political satire called “In the Green,” in which wee green folk were the IRA. I can’t recall who or what would represent the other side, but I’m sure they were orange-coloured. I didn’t get further than nine pages before I’d exhausted all ideas for the project. But after high school graduation I took a night school writing course, only because a friend had signed up, and I liked it. I applied for journalism school next because that seemed a practical way to both write and earn a living. I was turned down because my high school English marks were merely average. So I took a couple of night school English 100 courses, got top marks, and got into the journalism program the following year.
I landed a job on The Whitehorse Star daily in the Yukon, Canada’s sub-arctic region. That’s the land of the midnight sun in summer, and days of near-total darkness in the winter, along with temperatures 40 degrees below freezing. It was a foreign land to me, and I was smitten. The raw landscape appealed to my love of dirt, too. But I wasn’t as keen on the formulaic structure of news writing. I was after something more creative.
I went back to university and became an English teacher, with the goal of writing fiction in the summers. But two months isn’t much time to write a short story, let alone a novel. So I went part-time, and that’s when, finally, I was able to complete several of the stories and see them published in literary magazines. I guess that was a defining moment for me. Another was being accepted into the Booming Ground writers’ workshop at the University of British Columbia, for which I had to create a portfolio comprised of the opening pages of Underground. There, I met two other writers, Jen Sookfong Lee and Mary Novik, and we formed the writing group SPiN (www.spinwrites.com). But I don’t think I seriously thought of myself as a writer until I was signed on by an agent and through him found a publisher for Underground.
When you decided that you wanted to be a writer, did you imagine what a writer’s life would be like? What do you enjoy most about your life as a writer? Are there any aspects of it that you do not enjoy?
I imagined that to finish my novel I would have to work long hours, often into the night, which I did. I expected that getting published would be one of the best moments of my life, and it was. I had a great launch party and thoroughly enjoyed appearing at literary festivals. It’s been great meeting other writers. Readers have been wonderful, too, coming up to me afterwards to ask questions and to get their copies of Underground signed. That always makes me feel like a rock star. The downside of writing is that there’s little money in this business, and an author must find another source of income in order to continue producing books. I’ve turned to the teaching of writing, as have many other writers. But there are times when I wonder if a non-writing job wouldn’t be better for the brain, in that it would provide a break from words. My fantasy job is to work in a flower shop, surrounded by beauty and numbers: Daffodils, 99 cents a bunch. Something like that.
What’s your writing process like? What part of it do you enjoy most as a writer?
When I am between novels, as I am now, I write whenever inspiration strikes—on a bus, while going for a walk, doing the laundry, preparing lessons. I carry a notebook with me and it doesn’t take long to fill one. From there I move to my computer, a laptop, and begin piecing scenes together. With Underground, I would print copies and edit, then go back to the screen, then back and forth, repeatedly until I was satisfied. Then I’d put it aside and move on to the next scene.
The part I enjoy most is the beginning, after perhaps a draft or two, when I have a vague notion of where the story is heading, but free to add whatever I want and just see what happens. It is the most intensely creative stage of novel production. At that point anything is possible. A new character can appear. Or an old one, disappear. The chronology can shift. Anything at all can happen in the story, which can still move in unexpected directions. At one point in this process I was logging 16-hour days and loving every minute of it.
Was it difficult getting your first novel, Underground, published? Did you experience much difficulty in finding an agent or a publisher?
My husband and I moved to Toronto, Ontario, for a few months for his work. Toronto is the publishing centre in Canada, so I decided that while there I would look for a literary agent. While still in Vancouver I phoned John Pearce of Westwood Creative Artists and described my novel to him. He asked me to send sample chapters, which I did. He then agreed to meet me once I got to Toronto. Rather than send the rest of the manuscript, I simply brought it with me to our first meeting.
During my stay in Toronto, both my SPiN pals, Jen and Mary, who already had agents, announced their book deals, and I’m sure that was the clincher for John. He already liked my book, and now I was part of a writing group that appeared to be heading for success. I had thought I would have to try several agents, but John signed me on right then.
He asked me which publishers I was most interested in, and I named two, one of which was the small but award-winning Cormorant Books. Publisher and editor Marc Côté read Underground in one weekend, and by the Monday was on the phone to John saying he wanted to buy my book. At the time, I was back in Vancouver teaching a writing workshop to visiting students from Hong Kong, and when I walked through the door my husband said John had called with good news. Within minutes, Marc called, too. What a day!
Could you tell me a bit about Underground? What was the genesis of the novel? How did you go about creating a protagonist like Albert Fraser? What are some of the themes you dealt with in it? Were you conscious of these when you first set out to write the story?
Underground is about Al’s search for identity as he journeys from the battlefields of the Somme, through the Great Depression, and into the Spanish Civil War. Marc says that Underground is a highly teachable story because along the way Al learns to shed his many prejudices.
Two distinct and yet similar images were the genesis for the story. My father told me that his father had been buried alive in a trench at the Somme, and had to claw his way to the surface, then punch a fist through, hoping for rescue. To me, that fist was a powerful symbol of defiance. It said: I will not die. Later, a co-worker told me that her father had fought with Canada’s MacKenzie-Papineau Battalion in Spain. I was curious and began reading up on those soldiers, and found that their salute was a raised fist, a symbol of defiance against fascism. A lightning bolt of ideas began zapping between the two images of the raised fists. How could I connect them? What sort of man would fight in both wars? And why? The story grew from there.
Al Fraser is purely fictional. I felt he had to be an ordinary guy, a worker, not a famous person from history. He couldn’t be a pilot, either, because pilots are the knights of the skies, of the armed forces, in fact, and that’s a romantic role. I wanted him in that mud, a common foot soldier fighting in deplorable conditions, and returning to a hard life back home, damaged by what he had experienced. What I hoped to show by the end of the novel is that despite his ordinary status, Al is an extraordinary man.
Canadian involvement in the Spanish Civil War fascinated me because so little has been written about those soldiers. There have been about four nonfiction books written on the subject but, as far as I know, not one novel from the Canadian perspective. Several have referred to the war in Spain, but in Underground the entire last third of the story is set in that country during that conflict. Also, a good number of the Canadians who fought against fascism in Spain had taken part in Vancouver marches to protest the treatment of unemployed men during the Depression. So, from their perspective, the war involved our own class struggle, as well as Spain’s.
While developing Al’s character, I moved away from black and white reasons for motivation. To me, shades of grey better reflect the ambiguity of being human, and of being at war. That meant he couldn’t be a take-action Hollywood sort of hero. He would be a shell-shocked soldier, withdrawn, who would have trouble fitting back into society. In keeping with the title Underground, and with the themes of subterfuge and burial, I decided that much of what motivates him comes from the dark experiences of war. I began the novel with the explosion that buries him alive. Still, I felt it unlikely that the explosion would have been his first grim experience of the war.
I decided that immediately before this scene, something else has occurred, and it haunts Al. The enormity of the blast, however, causes him to literally bury that previous event from his consciousness, even though the memory of it is always seething just below the surface. I use rising shrapnel as a physical symbol of that memory—the bits of war that he has brought back home with him—and this motif runs throughout the novel. There is one scene in which he feels the shrapnel pushing up through his skin and literally runs across a field, as though he could somehow get away from it. The irony is that as long as he runs from the past, the answer to his identity will elude him. His eventual acknowledgement of that earlier event will lead to his decision to go to Spain, to make up for the past and to do it right this time. So war becomes a means towards Al’s personal redemption.
As I wrote the novel, yes, other sub-themes emerged that connect to the overall theme of identity. Love, for one, which I wasn’t expecting. Also, the camaraderie among workers. Only after the novel was nearing completion did I realise that the camaraderie extends to men in war and on protest marches, too. But each of these is a world without women and, increasingly, as the story grew, so did Al’s longing for a female presence in his life, for love, as a means of becoming whole.
Did much research go into Underground?
Some of the research involved reading books and going online, but a lot of it involved physical research. I rode a two-man boat down the Teslin and Yukon rivers, from which came the idea of fishing by lamplight, and a scene of the same. I travelled around the Aragon and Catalunya areas of Spain, and walked through the bombed-out streets of Belchite, a civil war ruins site. Even in my own city, I crawled around in those basement areaways beneath the streets, taking photographs of the purple glass bricks. That exploration began with the uncle of a co-worker. Jack Chow Insurance Company is housed in one of the thinnest buildings in the world, just on the edge of Chinatown near Shanghai Alley. I remember, as a child, peeking down the shop steps that led underground, for a glimpse of red leather barber shop chairs. It was where Chinese bachelors living in single rooms could go for a bath and a shave. Those chairs are gone now, so are the purple bricks, but Jack Chow took me down to see the underground space itself, and I noticed two cement plugs in the walls on each end. He told me doors once connected some of these areaways, forming spaces like tunnels that ran under the streets. Wow, I thought, I could create a scene from that, and I did.
Did you know where you were going with the novel as you were writing it or did it evolve on its own?
It took seven years, so much changed along the way. In the early stages, a page in my notebook simply read, “goes to Spain.” From those three words grew a third of the book.
How do you know when your manuscript is completed? Do deadlines determine this or do you feel a sense of confidence that there is no way you can improve on the text anymore?
I love deadlines. That’s probably my journalism background. There are many deadlines along the way, and reaching each left me feeling immensely satisfied. But in the SPiN group we joke about the concept of being “done” because there is the draft that is done to the point of showing writing pals, who make suggestions to further improve it, then there’s done as in ready to show your agent, who might make a few small suggestions, then done to the degree it’s ready to be seen by an editor. And the editor, of course, suggests more changes. But when each revision became a matter of polishing words here, correcting punctuation there, I knew my manuscript was nearing completion, if only for that particular stage. Many writers say that they would keep rewriting forever if the editor didn’t yank the manuscript from their hands. There’s always room for improvement.
What did you learn about yourself in the process of writing your book?
I learned that it was important for me to have an identity, too. I don’t think there are many people who don’t find self-identity through work. You go to a party and people ask, “What do you do?” I wondered what it would be like for a man like Al to have to answer, “Nothing.” I soon found out. When I took a leave of absence from teaching and focused on finishing my manuscript, I was no longer a teacher, and not yet an author, either. What if my manuscript was never accepted for publication? Who and what would I be, then? That shook me. It also fascinated me that I had come to inhabit my character so thoroughly—or was it he who had inhabited me—that we shared the same anxieties.
What kinds of books did you read when you were growing up? Who are some of your literary heroes, so to speak? Were there any books that had a significant impact on you at an early age? Have they in any way contributed to the making of who you are as a writer today?
I was raised in a home with few books. I wasn’t deprived of stories though, because most members of my family sat around the kitchen table telling great stories about their blue-collar jobs, the war, the Great Depression. That fed my love of narrative, and influenced the way I wrote Underground. It’s a novel about the working class, so I wanted to write the novel on two levels: one with a straightforward plot and strong narrative push, so that anyone in my family could read it and enjoy it, and the second with deeper literary themes that might appeal to readers more familiar with fiction.
I learned about books from outside the family home—school, friends, the library. It was at a house party that I encountered my first literary hero. I had wandered into a room lined with bookshelves. In one section were the orange spines of Penguin books, several of them by D.H. Lawrence. I sat down right there, the room on the other side of the wall shaking with dancing and drinking, and began reading about the grime of the coal miners’ lives, their plain homes and equally plain meals. This was a different experience from reading Animal Farm, which got me imitating something I knew nothing about. This was a story I knew a lot about. I saw my own family in those pages, and realised that I could write about them one day.
What are some of your favourite Canadian classics?
Margaret Laurence’s The Diviners, Robertson Davies’s Fifth Business, and Timothy Findley’s The Wars. Then there is the fiction of Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood, which are classics and yet, as the two authors are still writing today, also fit under the category of contemporary.
Who are some of your favourite contemporary novelists? What are some of your favourite contemporary novels?
I’m glad you said “some of your favourite” because there are too many to list in full. Contemporary novelists: Margaret Atwood, Pat Barker, Jack Hodgins, Michael Ondaatje. Contemporary novels: Gil Adamson’s The Outlander, Gail Anderson-Dargatz’s The Cure for Death by Lightning, Joseph Boyden’s Three Day Road, A.S. Byatt’s Possession, David Chariandy’s Soucouyant, Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, Shani Mootoo’s Cereus Blooms at Night, Mary Novik’s Conceit (full disclosure, she’s a fellow-member of SPiN) and Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. As a reader I like to immerse myself into fictional worlds and each of those novels has a texture and lush quality, whether rich or grim, that is perfect for plunging. I also like how Steven Galloway purposely did not name sides in his novel, The Cellist of Sarajevo, but simply referred to the men in the hills firing upon the citizens in the streets. Brilliant. Lastly, I love how Lawrence Hill embraced the big, epic narrative in his novel, The Book of Negroes (also published as Someone Knows My Name).
Could you suggest a couple of novels (Canadian or otherwise) that you think haven’t received as much attention as they should?
Jen Sookfong Lee’s The End of East. A lyrical novel about three generations of a Chinese-Canadian family, The End of East, set in Vancouver’s Chinatown, seemed a perfect nominee for a number of awards, in particular the City of Vancouver Book Awards, and its absence surprised me. Disclosure again, she is also a writing pal from SPiN. But I should add here that if we didn’t like each other’s writing we wouldn’t be in a group together. Another novel that I would like to see get more attention is Grant Buday’s Dragonflies, a tale about the siege of Troy, told in fine, muscular prose.
Do you think more competitions or creative writing courses are imperative in increasing the number of good writers and/or improve the quality of writing?
I wish I had studied creative writing. I learned a lot about writing and editing from the workshop I took at Booming Ground, but I have never taken courses towards a degree in creative writing. It’s not that I think courses can turn you into a writer. You’re either a writer with a writer’s eye and sensitivities, or you’re not. But writing is like any other profession. You need to practice to perfect it, and writing courses are the perfect place to do so.
Writing competitions are good for all writers, both nominees and writers in general. Contests raise the profile of the finalists, and for this reason, I wish more competitions would publish their longlists. Most important of all, though, is that competitions bring books to the attention of the reading public. Not just the books on the list, but all books. The finalists make the headlines, and draw people into bookstores looking for this title or that, where they will find all sorts of other books, as well.
What are the elements in fiction that take your breath away? In other words, what do you think are the essentials of good fiction? What distinguishes the great novels from the merely good?
A good story holds my attention but fine writing takes my breath away. You need both for a book to be great, I think. I have to feel something for the characters, too, and if I can’t see that they are essential to the story then I cease to care for them. Setting can be as important as one of the characters, and vivid descriptions help paint the scene. As a reader, I need to know right off where the scene is set. A room? Fine, but is it in a shack or a mansion? The writer has to put me there, and wake up all my senses. Otherwise, I’m watching from a distance and, pretty soon, my attention will drift and I’ll put the book down.
Do you have a favourite short story or short-story collection?
I have many, but my all-time favourite short-story writer is Ernest Hemingway. It’s probably because of my background in newspapers that I enjoy his spare journalistic style. For instance, his description of dust and leaves and light in “A Clean, Well-lighted Place” not only brings the scene to life (pardon the pun), but plays up the themes of death and nothingness. At the end of the story, he, through the character of the older waiter, inserts the word “nada” or “nothing” into the Lord’s prayer, and with each repetition the prayer is rendered into gibberish, or nothingness. Even the droning tone of the repeated word sounds like nothing. Each time I read that story I’m in awe.
Do you think there are differences between writing short stories and full-length novels? Which form do you personally prefer as a writer?
I like them both. Brady Udall’s short story, “The Wig,” won the Story magazine competition a few years back. It’s only 300 words long, a single magazine page, but it managed to convey the grief of a son, as seen through the eyes of the father. But sometimes I want more than a moment. If I wanted to see what sort of man the boy would become, or even to see what would happen in the following days, let alone hours, I’d need a novel. As a writer, I find that a novel allows a greater sweep as well as depth, and as a reader, I find it allows me that “plunge” I referred to earlier.
What do you think of the suggestion that writing short stories is good training for novelists?
All writing is good training for novelists, whether it’s essays, letters, or blogs. Each teaches you to organise your thoughts. Short-story writing is particularly good training, I think, because it teaches a writer how to tell a story. It’s also a great way for a writer to build up a portfolio of published work. That’s one of the things agents look for in a resume: has the writer had any material published in literary magazines?
What are you reading at the moment?
I’m about to borrow a friend’s copy of Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda. Most recently, I read Anthony De Sa’s Barnacle Love, a short-story collection about Portuguese immigrants. Also, Annabel Lyon’s The Golden Mean has been getting a lot of attention, so I’m eager to read it, too.
What are your thoughts on the future of books, particularly on e-books and e-book readers? Do you think they will replace physical books one day?
I think the future of books is fantastic. E-books and e-readers will bring words to even more people, and will supplement, not replace, the paper kind. Think of movies, which can be viewed on a laptop, a larger TV screen, or the full big-screen of a theatre. I think a similar thing will be true for books. Electronic versions will be great for agents and editors and other readers on the run. But for the beach, the bath, or reading by the fire, we’ll reach for the paper kind.
What are the things that inspire you in life?
This interview has made me realise that inspiration often comes from something in my surroundings. Don’t laugh, but dirt isn’t far off from what I’m getting at. A few years ago I visited a friend in New York City and remarked that while I had a wonderful time, it didn’t inspire a single writing thought. She found that remarkable, given that NYC is home to many writers who have penned volumes on their city. Yes, I said, but it’s their city, not mine. I think every writer carves out a literary landscape and keeps mining it for ideas. For me, it’s a physical landscape, the rugged mountains that ring this city and dominate any vista of British Columbia and the Yukon. I don’t limit my stories to that landscape, but it’s a jumping-off point to other places, such as Spain, and even, briefly, New York City. Yes, a walk up Fifth Avenue eventually made its way into Underground, but only after I had returned home to this raw corner of the world, my writing place.
Reprinted in The Malaysian Insider of August 28, 2010