Quill and Quire

Jacqueline Baker

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In a flat, tough Prairie landscape, Jacqueline Baker spies dark corners

Jacqueline Baker

When she was a young girl, Jacqueline Baker found in her grandparents’ attic a booklet on witchcraft filled with handy pastimes like casting spells. She was riveted. Then it disappeared, though hardly by any supernatural means. Her mother, who opposed Jackie’s penchant for the macabre, likely pinched it. No matter: her affection for misfits and mystery endured and finally found purchase in a novel.

Baker and I are sitting in the lounge of Edmonton’s grand dame Hotel Macdonald. She wears a grey cardigan over a black top and jeans, her long brown hair corralled into a loose ponytail. But her casual image is incongruous with The Horseman’s Graves, her dark and creepy first novel. The story unfolds on rutted roads and muddy riverbanks in turn-of-the-century Saskatchewan towns – the same setting as Baker’s 2003 debut, the critically acclaimed short-fiction collection A Hard Witching and Other Stories. She knows the landscape well. It’s where she grew up.

With her youthful charm and studded nose, you’d hardly believe Baker turns 40 this year. Her drive to write has carried her through a childhood in small towns with no libraries, through some bleak “twenties angst” poetry, through five post-secondary institutions, and through writing a novel with a baby and a preschooler at home. And now The Horseman’s Graves – published next month by HarperCollins Canada – may reward all that with a new, wider readership.

Certainly, some of her bookseller fans are hoping so. Laurie Greenwood at Greenwoods Volume II in Edmonton loved A Hard Witching and looks forward to the impending novel. She also finds Ontario publishers’ willingness to look west for new faces encouraging. “Perhaps it’s our turn,” says Greenwood, noting that more Prairie writers are gaining confidence. “I think we have a really active literary community here and it’s taken the publishers a while to figure that out.”

For her part, Baker doesn’t pay much attention to labels like “Prairie writer,” or to publishing trends across the country, preferring to ignore industry “noise” and concentrate on the keyboard. Nor is she planning to move to Toronto any time soon. “I don’t like the scene there,” she says. “I’m not interested in that. I like my solitude and I like to keep my distance.” Currently she lives near Valemont, B.C., nestled in the Rocky Mountains. Her location hasn’t hurt her; she feels that HarperCollins doesn’t treat her any differently than its eastern writers. “The only thing that matters is the quality of my writing.”

The Horseman’s Graves showcases the Herculean efforts of German homesteaders to wrench crops from a stubborn prairie and salvation from a cruel God. With an ensemble cast of village outcasts, “half-breeds,” and fallen women, the story explores the fears and secrets that underpin smalltown relationships and the many distorted truths that mingle and clash. “I just really wanted to write a good story,” Baker says. “The other stuff creeps in, your preoccupations end up on the page.”

For example, ever since she can remember, Baker has been preoccupied with the legends stitched into her own Russo-Germanic ancestry – and with the shadowy corners she spies everywhere else. She delighted in horror novels as a teenager, and if that wasn’t enough to spook her imagination, her first job out of journalism school was editor of the Calgary-based monthly Canadian Funeral News. But what currently fascinates her is the southern stretch of the Prairies that straddles the Saskatchewan-Alberta boundary – home to the homogeneous villages of the past, where superstition and Christianity made strange bedfellows and where conformity muzzled errant impulses and where families struggled daily with death and loneliness and damnable weather. Baker writes partly to record the echoes of that retreating past. “The old farm way of life is almost gone, and it’s very sad,” she says.

The Prairies also offer, almost literally, a blank canvas, a barrenness that makes any story possible. “I think it’s a fabulous setting – the hauntedness of the place and the people,” says Baker. “For some reason, as a writer and as a human being, it captures my imagination.” Yet she never felt much affinity with other writers from the west. As a teenager, she liked the craftsmanship of Sinclair Ross – and was tickled to discover that books could be set in towns like hers – but W.O. Mitchell didn’t thrill her. It wasn’t until she read Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner that she sensed a kinship: O’Connor for content and Faulkner for style. The southern U.S. has its own unique geography, history, and architecture, but she discovered a similar haunted atmosphere. “There’s a real weight there, a sadness, but something a bit spooky. There was always something ghostly about it and I loved it.”

And so, in The Horseman’s Graves, she set out to capture the taste of windborne grit and our fear of the dark. This despite two false starts and a miserable writing regimen that involved tiptoeing to her computer at 4:30 a.m., so as not to wake her two daughters (Gabrielle is now six and Julian four). Sometimes she’d pull a ballcap low and take her laptop to a café in Valemont, but she was often thwarted by the turnstile of greetings from neighbours. She managed to write a few pages at her babysitter’s mobile home, though sunshine and the muffled cries of her girls often proved irresistible distractions.

It had taken Baker years to summon the courage to quit stalling and start writing for real. After parlaying her Canadian Funeral News experience into a Kentucky-based communications job for the Loewen Group funeral home company, she realized she hated PR but loved the southern American writers. So she quit her job and pursued creative writing at Northern Kentucky University. She completed her BA at the University of Victoria – where she met her husband, John – then proceeded to graduate work at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, where she found a mentor in the novelist Greg Hollingshead.

“I said she had to discover her own voice in her own upbringing,” says Hollingshead. “I saw her make the transition over a couple of years. It was fantastic. It’s what holds the eye to the page and works in the mind. Her voice is completely in key.” Once Baker gained confidence, her own style spilled out. “She has a wonderful sense of the rhythm and pacing of a narrative,” Hollingshead says. With his encouragement, and with A Hard Witching under her belt, Baker retreated in 2003 to Tete Jaune Cache, a tiny town just outside Valemont, an hour west of Jasper. She was seeking isolation, and found it. Tete Jaune Cache has one community hall and about 100 acreages; a perfect place to write a novel.

HarperCollins has high hopes for The Horseman’s Graves, the first in a two-book contract for Baker. The book’s publicist, Debbie Gaudet, expects that a novel will be an easier sell than a book of short stories. Baker will appear on BookTelevision in April to coincide with the book launch, and HarperCollins plans to make an edited version of the interview available on its website. The publisher will also send Baker across the country – including a visit to Toronto.

Baker’s head swims with notions of publicity and press. The night before our interview and the BookTV taping with Rachel Harry, she went scrambling to find lipstick and a new cardigan in downtown Edmonton. She’s not really the lipstick type. Not boastful either: “Getting those short stories published was unreal,” she says. “It was more than I ever believed I’d accomplish as a writer.”

December’s early dusk brings flurries along with the gloom. Baker finds the Hotel Mac, now nearly a century old, a bit unsettling with its long, storied history and all those souls coming and going. I ask if she knows about the hotel’s grisly murder in the 1950s. Her lips part, eyes grow wide, then she smiles, realizing that I’m only joking. But you can almost see the wheels turning.