The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Thursday, April 03, 2008

In Praise of Bill Gaston

by Tricia Dower

He’s been writing for years, but I discovered Victoria writer Bill Gaston only a few months ago at a reading at Bolen Books. His short story collection, Gargoyles, had just won the Butler Prize, and I bought a copy. I read a story or two every night and when I was finished, I read every story all over again. I had never done that before, not even with my beloved, secret mentor, Alice Munro. Oh, I’ve read a number of her individual stories more than once, but never a whole collection twice.

If I were a proper reviewer, I could tell you why the collection captured me so. All I can say is that the characters and the settings were unique and familiar at the same time. The male protagonists didn’t feel at all Mars to my Venus. I enjoyed experiencing how similar their emotions were to my own. The endings were both surprising and inevitable. A few stories had great impact on me: “Kite Trick” is devastating; “The Green House” brought me back to my insensitive childhood with remembered shame; “The Night Window” made me wonder how many times I had unwittingly wounded my children’s hearts.

You probably discovered Bill Gaston years ago. He’s been nominated for the Giller and the Governor General’s Award. He has published five novels, five collections of short fiction, a poetry collection, and a play, and he was the editor of The Fiddlehead once upon a time. He’s a professor of fiction at UVic now. A few days ago I finished his 2004 novel Sointula which will be made into a feature-length film by Victoria’s own Gumboot Productions.

CFUV had screenwriter Brian Paisley as a guest on this week’s Monday afternoon arts show (newly named “Wild Orphans” after an Allen Ginsberg poem). Paisley is best known for founding the Edmonton Fringe Theatre Event in 1982. He was interviewed by arts collective member Kimberly Croswell and he described his script of Sointula as a “road movie in a kayak.”

That could sum up the book, too, except it misses the depth to which the novel plumbs the protagonist Evelyn and the empathy with which Gaston portrays her fellow traveller, Peter, and her son, Tom. All three characters are deeply flawed yet worthy. One reviewer described the story as “zany,” a word I would not use. While the characters do things that make you laugh (especially the pitifully ill-prepared Peter), they’re too fragile to be comic and all too real. I’m sure Gaston was a woman in a past life and I suspect he’s a feminist in this one. He drops a load of pain on Evelyn then sets her free with the courage and confidence to know she’ll find her own way.

The book presents a gritty reality of life in the rough. Nothing romantic about it, except for maybe the whales that heave themselves on a rocky beach to scratch, but even they're a little scary. I’ve lived on Vancouver Island just over two years and have explored only small pieces of it. Colin and I are thinking of heading off this summer to do the Inside Passage: from Port Hardy on the island to Prince Rupert in northern BC. Along the way, we’d like to “pop over” to the Haida Gwai archipelago (“islands of the people”) —also known by its colonial name, the Queen Charlotte Islands. (Here’s a telling aside: spellchecker doesn’t recognize the words Haida and Gwai.) Before I read the book, we were considering checking out Malcolm Island’s Sointula, too, a small community founded by hapless Finns. I’m giving it another think, now. For sure, I’m not going by kayak.

Photos: Top, author Bill Gaston (credit ClownBog Studios) and, lower right, screenwriter Brian Paisley who’s on the third draft of his screen adaptation of Gaston’s novel, Sointula.


Blogger Antonios Maltezos said...

What a wonderful review. You've certainly peaked my interest.

Thu Apr 03, 07:52:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Thanks, Tony. I think you would relate to Bill's writing, especially the stories in Gargoyles.

Thu Apr 03, 11:59:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Andrew Tibbetts said...

I will be picking up a copy of that story collection.

Thu Apr 03, 01:17:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Andrew Tibbetts said...

And I did pick up a copy! There's another bookstore moving sale. I blogged about one over at Descant. Now, on Yonge street there's a discout book store moving somewhere else. I got three books for $10- and one was copy of Gargoyles. I hope Bill gets some of the tenner.

Mon Apr 07, 12:36:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

That's great, Andrew. Let me know which stories "speak" to you. Yeah, I guess Bill will get his 50 cents.

Mon Apr 07, 01:17:00 pm GMT-4  

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