Quill and Quire

Bonnie Burnard

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A woman of influence

Bonnie Burnard’s first novel hits home

Where in the world is Bonnie Burnard? Moments ago she won the $25,000 Giller Prize for her first novel, A Good House. Now, with the gala dinner crowd swirling around the room eager to bestow praise and congratulations, Burnard is nowhere to be seen. Typically, she has crept away and is sitting quietly in the lobby sipping a glass of white wine. She is not shunning her fans, she is simply seeking her own comfort zone – out of the spotlight.

Bonnie BurnardAll the years when Burnard was quietly writing short stories in Regina, she never pushed her ambition beyond the possibility of being published. She wanted readers, but the idea of becoming a literary personality was not so much repugnant as impossible to imagine. Reviews yes, interviews no. Readings perhaps, profiles never.

That was then. Her first collection, Women of Influence, won the Commonwealth Prize for best first book. Her second collection, Casino and Other Stories, was shortlisted for the Giller Prize and won the Saskatchewan Best Book Award. Her first novel, A Good House, is already an international success. Even before publication, she had a rave review from Carol Shields in The Ottawa Citizen – “the finest novel published in some years in our country.” Next came the announcement that Burnard was shortlisted for the Giller. The prescient Globe and Mail gave her 3-2 odds to win the country’s most lucrative fiction prize. At the same time, foreign rights sales started pouring in.

She never expected to be a popular novelist, but now that her writing may actually provide her with financial security, she thinks about risks instead of gains. She could have had a normal career with a decent living and a pension and now that there is something coming from her writing, she realizes what a chance she took for her kids as well as herself.

Now, too, with a Giller Prize to her credit, she realizes what an artistic risk she took by writing a novel that is deliberately plain – not unsophisticated – but plain. But that was the way this novel demanded to be told. Set in southwestern Ontario, A Good House is the sweeping history of the extended Chambers family. It begins in 1949, stretches through a dozen main characters, three generations, five good houses and 10 chapters until 1997. The novel is not autobiographical, but it is about “the way I understand life to be,” Burnard says. This is her terrain and her decades and her sense of community. Commendably, she remained true to the times and the sensibility by resisting the impulse to tell her story in an artful way. Even more commendable, the jury recognized what she was doing and rewarded her.

Never having anticipated acclaim, Burnard never prepared herself for the threat that success would pose to her privacy. Nevertheless, she wants the best for her book. So, on a shiny autumn day, a few weeks before the Giller dinner, Burnard is sitting in the lounge of the Westin Harbour Castle Hotel in Toronto, smoking cigarettes and talking into a tape recorder as the coffee gets cold and the Styrofoam croissants deconstruct. I can tell she is good at conversation from the way we have been discussing Daphne and Margaret and Sylvia, as though they are women we both know instead of characters in A Good House. But nudge the conversation toward her own life and the portcullis clangs down. She tells me, for example, that the minor characters in A Good House are named after her daughters’ friends, but she won’t break her cone of silence about the name of the town near Lake Huron where she was born that is the model for Stonebrook in her novel. In different circumstances we could be friends; for now I am the hunter, she is the quarry.

At 54, divorced, the mother of three grown children, Burnard has a rich, busy communal life with her extended family and a circle of old friends, her private working life, and every so often the torture of public appearances to promote her books. She is not a snob; she certainly wants the best for her books and she knows the importance of nurturing her intellectual children in the marketplace. The problem is that she has, by her own admission, no public persona.

For a long time she wanted to hire a double, “someone who looks like me and who could go out and pretend to be me so I could just stay home and write, but that is not likely to happen,” she says with a laugh. “I’d love to do a riff: I can talk on a boat, I can talk in a bed, I can talk in a bathtub, I can talk almost anywhere.” Except standing up, that is. At a cocktail party holding a glass of wine, Burnard says she becomes absolutely inarticulate.

Two very different circumstances made it possible for Burnard to contemplate becoming a writer. The first was spending a couple of decades in the West, mostly in Regina, where she lived with her then-husband and their children. Saskatchewan was a fiction writers’ nursery school in the 1970s. It had the country’s first provincial arts council, the literary magazine Grain, a well-used public library system, and a culture of mutual support.

“I would go out to Fort San [a sanatorium that was transformed into an artists’ colony ] in the summers when the kids were little,” she remembers. “My husband would hire a sitter and I would go out there to write. I could finish things at home, but I had to go there to get started.” At Fort San she met other writers. Novelist and poet David Helwig, who edited a short story anthology for Oberon Press in Ottawa, gave a course there one summer and encouraged her to send stories to magazines. The late poet Anne Szumigalski, to whom A Good House is dedicated, made all sorts of things seem possible, including launching a literary magazine on the prairies.

As Burnard told Val Ross in the Globe and Mail in 1995: “The expectation is that you will do underpaid teaching, you will sit on boards and do committee work. Taxpayers give money, not a lot, and we put in the sweat equity.” Those were the days when Burnard and her writing friends would gather at the Hotel Saskatchewan after a reading. “If you stayed for one drink, someone would have an idea,” says Burnard. “If you stayed for two drinks you were on the committee, if you stayed for three, you were the chair.”

Another big, although unwitting, influence was Marian Engel. In the late-1970s, Engel was travelling across the country on a Canada Council grant and reading from her novel Bear. Burnard, who was pregnant, was auditing a creative writing class and was sitting at the back when Engel visited. “She was middle-aged, she didn’t have on expensive, floaty clothes, she wasn’t wearing a suede suit, she was just what she would have been at home,” says Burnard, her eyes moving away, as she recalls that scene. “She just walked in and sat down and read – and the seriousness with which she listened to the questions, and tried to answer them…. She respected them,” Burnard says, her face reflecting her pleasure at the memory.

Engel never knew the impact she had on “a pregnant woman in Regina,” but Burnard paid her a public and eloquent posthumous tribute in her acceptance speech for the Marian Engel Award in 1995.

“I have never been an arty type, never been a woman who dressed like that, and I saw that Marian Engel had been able to do it as she was. She had not altered her essential self and I thought, ‘Okay, maybe it is possible.’ I would not even have engaged in this if I thought I had to do all the romantic arts stuff, the garret, all that nonsense. I wanted a middle class life, I loved my husband, I loved my house.”

Was it a good house?

“A very good house,” she replies with a smile. It was where she became a writer and where her kids grew to young adulthood. They commissioned a ceramic replica from an artist in Regina as a Christmas present for Burnard. It sits in pride of place on the mantel in her new house in London, Ontario.

Auditing the creative writing class, sitting in the back, listening but not speaking are all comfortable places for Burnard to be. That is not to say she seeks a subservient position. Not at all. Her stance is to watch and then to mull over what she has absorbed.

As a writer she is like a filmmaker with a hand-held camera, roaming around the characters she has created on her narrative stage. Sometimes she zooms in, other times she writes with a panoramic sweep. She doesn’t realize intellectually what is happening during the writing – “I just have to go to that place and do whatever it is that wants to be done.” Afterward, she describes her method as locating the camera: Is it inside people’s hearts? How much can it see? How close can it go? She doesn’t like the camera to be omniscient for fear the narration will pontificate in a “very wise 19th-century kind of commentary on society.”

This technique is especially strong in A Good House, which is the sweeping history of the extended Chambers family beginning in 1949 and stretching through a dozen main characters, three generations, five good houses, and 10 chapters until 1997. The book is episodic in the way that the British television series 7 Up takes the same set of people and visits them for an in-depth analysis every seven years. Burnard likens these close-ups to the way she would make periodic visits home during the 20 years she lived in the West. Things changed over the years, of course; for her family they changed gradually and everybody adjusted to death, divorce, a child in trouble. But for her it was like a play in which the curtain raised only when she arrived back from Regina and had to quickly find her place in the ensemble and scramble to figure out her lines.

Burnard hasn’t let anybody speak in the first person in A Good House, so the narration has required a ventriloquist’s skill and a gymnast’s flexibility to release characters’ voices and sensibilities. The nucleus is simple enough. Bill and Sylvia Chambers and their three children, Patrick, Paul, and Daphne, live in a small southwestern Ontario town named Stonebrook. Bill and Sylvia grew up during the Depression, then Bill went away to war and came back, mostly intact. What Sylvia wants is a good house, a safe place to raise her children, and a husband who doesn’t have to go to war. Burnard takes this 1950s vision of family life, one that has been roundly ridiculed, and gives it dimension, nuance, and emotion. There is Daphne’s accident, the slip from the trapeze that robs her of the gift of trust, Sylvia’s death from cancer, and Margaret’s insinuation into the reconstituted and expanding family, first as friendly neighbour, then as stepmother, and finally as emotional and moral compass. Quietly, unobtrusively filling in her canvas, Burnard revels in the small moments and incidents that are passed like rolls around the dinner table from one woman to another in the construing of family history.

Although she seems the inverse of a radical activist, Burnard is actually a very political writer who champions quiet determination and hard work rather than flash. She made this clear in her Giller Prize acceptance speech when she paid tribute to her editor, Phyllis Bruce, and her agent, Jan Whitford, by saying, “We are three middle-aged women with grey hair and it’s not a bad thing to be.” Her first book, Women of Influence, which was about women’s strength and resilience, was written in an era when victimhood was paramount. Casino and Other Stories celebrated men in a time when reviling them was the norm. Now, in A Good House, she has championed the biggest scapegoat of all: the WASP family. It is appropriate that the final good house in the novel is not the church, but the town hall, which is both a monument to civic virtue and the ceremonial house that binds all those other good houses together in the community. Sixties boomers scorned the hypocrisy of the pristine family home and the genteel lies and evasions of the 1950s generation. They demanded cruel absolutes of truth and honesty, but fudges, half-truths, and even outright lies are often the honey that spreads a sweet gloss over fractious relationships and binds families together.

Families tell each other lies to make it easier to absorb truths about infidelity, sex before marriage, children born out of wedlock, birth defects, homosexuality, senility – all the differences that make for a richer and stronger unit. What makes a good house is not its style or architecture, but how expansive and inviting it is and how many lives it can shelter. In that sense, Bonnie Burnard is a master builder.