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David Bergen

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In Country

David Bergen went to Vietnam in search of a true story. He came back and wrote a novel

In the fall of 1996, Winnipeg writer David Bergen and his wife, Mary, packed up their four children and flew to Vietnam.

This was no tourist vacation: the Bergens had volunteered through the Mennonite Central Committee to teach English at a teachers college in the city of Quang Ngai. They were familiar with overseas volunteer work, having taught English to Vietnamese refugees in Thailand in the late 1980s, and they believed in broadening their children’s horizons.

But Bergen also had other motives for returning to Asia. “I wanted to understand the people who stayed in Vietnam instead of fleeing,” says Bergen, who has incorporated what he calls this defining experience into his fourth novel, The Time in Between, to be published by McClelland & Stewart in August. “It was incredible how they managed to move past that war experience. They were living – living with generosity and a sense of forgiveness. They had moved on with no bitterness.”

There was one other motive for the trip as well: Bergen had a non-fiction project in mind. In a Winnipeg library a few years earlier, he had stumbled across a novel, The Sorrow of War, by Vietnamese writer Bao Ninh. The book, a harrowing tale set in North Vietnam in 1975, left a huge impression on Bergen, and he decided to track down Bao, a man both elusive and famous in his native land, and write an account of his quest.

Little went as planned. For one, the teachers college was so riven with bureaucracy that the Bergens couldn’t get an apartment. The actual job did not pan out. They moved to Danang and stayed six months, until their visa expired. Still, Bergen filled notebook after notebook with details of what he encountered in Vietnam. And he did not give up on his literary quest. “I got close,” he says. “Imagine walking into a country of 70 million people and saying, ‘I want to meet this author.’” He went to Hanoi and found Bao’s elderly creative writing professor, Hoang Ngoc Hien. “I came to this guy cold,” Bergen says. “He welcomed me into his house. He sat down with me for two hours. He didn’t speak English. We communicated in French. He told me wonderful stories.”

Many of the stories Bergen heard in Vietnam, including Hoang’s, would later find their way into The Time in Between in altered form, and some of Bergen’s Vietnamese friends became models for characters. But he never did meet Bao. “Everyone I asked knew who he was, though,” Bergen says. “It’s a highly literate country.”


Back in Winnipeg, where he returned to teaching high school English to support his family, Bergen wrote 300 pages recounting his trip. His agent, Denise Bukowski, shopped it around. “Nobody saw any value in it, and maybe they were right,” says Bergen, now 48. “I discovered I wasn’t a non-fiction writer.” He filed the Vietnam pages away and got back to the business of writing novels set in Canada. In 1999, he published See the Child, his second book with editor Phyllis Bruce at HarperCollins Canada. It was a downbeat story of a Manitoba furniture salesman dealing with the death of his son.

Needing what he calls “a jump start,” Bergen switched to McClelland & Stewart, working with fiction publisher and senior vice-president Ellen Seligman for 2002’s The Case of Lena S., a moodily existential novel about a Winnipeg teenager and his relationship with a pretty waitress. It received strong critical response and was nominated for a Governor General’s Award – despite, Bukowski says, being underpromoted by M&S. “They lost a publicist at the wrong time,” Bukowski says. “Ellen admitted to me that they didn’t do a better job with it than HarperCollins.” (Seligman, for her part, doesn’t dispute that account: “I think, unfortunately, the promotion of Lena S. did suffer because of staff changes in the publicity department at the time,” she says.)

Meanwhile, the Vietnam experience percolated in Bergen’s mind. Bukowski urged him to try to find a novel in it. So did a close friend and fellow English teacher, Larry Paetkau, with whom he meets weekly at Tim Hortons to talk books. “Larry said my next novel should begin with a scene of a young woman, in a hotel room, looking out a window, in a foreign country,” Bergen says.

Paetkau’s prodding did the trick: that’s exactly the opening Bergen uses for The Time in Between. It is 1997, and Ada Boatman and her brother, Jon, have travelled to Vietnam to locate their father, Charles. An American-born draftee who moved from Washington State to B.C. with his three young children after the death of his wife, Charles Boatman has returned to Vietnam 28 years after the war, compelled to exorcise the ghosts of his own wartime past. Bergen tells the parallel stories of Ada and Charles in his characteristic prose, emotionally freighted but devoid of ornamentation.

The novel’s two voyages – Charles’s and Ada’s – both mirror Bergen’s original search for Bao. Indeed, Charles reads and identifies with a novel within the novel that echoes The Sorrow of War. And as in all of Bergen’s writing, eroticism and carnality electrify the surface calm: looking for her father, Ada meets and has an affair with a Vietnamese artist.


At McClelland & Stewart, expectations are high. “This is David’s breakout novel,” says Seligman. “He has taken a huge leap forward, in language, in subject matter, and in setting. All the ingredients are there.” Bukowski has already sold the rights to Albin Michel in France and to Random House U.S., where Canadian-born associate editor Stephanie Higgs worked with Seligman in editing the novel. The Random edition will appear in December. “We’re treating it like a first novel,” Higgs says. “David’s books have never been handled properly in the U.S.” In 1997, The New York Times named Bergen’s first novel, A Year of Lesser (published by HarperCollins in both the U.S. and Canada) a notable book in its year-end wrapup, but by that time bookstores had already returned most of their copies. Simon & Schuster bought the American rights to See the Child in 2002, but it, too, sold poorly.

In Canada, The Time in Between is one of M&S’s three top-priority novels for the fall season (along with Jane Urquhart’s Map of Glass and William Weintraub’s Lili). “He’s getting absolutely star treatment,” says Bruce Walsh, marketing and publicity director. With a first printing of 25,000 copies, the novel is being given a $40,000 advertising push. Advance reading copies – 25% more than M&S normally prints – were ready in March, well ahead of the August 16 street date. Bergen will be in Toronto for BookExpo Canada: he is slated to appear at an author breakfast on Saturday, June 25, and to sign ARCs at the M&S booth at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday, June 26. In September, M&S will send him on a 10-city tour from Vancouver to Halifax, including a second stop in Toronto. “We are definitely pulling out the stops,” Seligman says. “The response we’ve been getting so far has been fantastic.”


In Manitoba, Bergen has already been a star for some time. All of his books have been nominated for top prizes in the province’s Writing and Publishing Awards, and A Year of Lesser won the McNally Robinson Book of the Year prize in 1997. “David is one of the hardest working writers I know,” says Andris Taskans, founding editor of the Winnipeg-based quarterly Prairie Fire. Taskans says Bergen is part of what he calls the “Mennonite miracle,” the largely Manitoban explosion of writers that started with Patrick Friesen and Sandra Birdsell and also includes Di Brandt, Miriam Toews, and Armin Wiebe. “This blossoming of largely secular Mennonite writers is what people will remember about writing in Manitoba during the final quarter of the 20th century,” Taskans says.

But Bergen chafes at being labelled a Mennonite writer. “It’s too confining, too narrow,” he says. “I don’t want to be pigeonholed.” His debut book, the short-story collection Sitting Opposite My Brother, published in 1993 by Winnipeg’s Turnstone Press, portrayed several
Mennonite characters afflicted by moral rigidity. Since then he has moved on to explore wider communities. “I grew up with a lot of baggage,” he admits, “but I don’t think I display that baggage.”

Born in the B.C. fishing village of Port Edward, the fourth of six siblings, Bergen landed in Niverville, Manitoba, in Grade 6 when his father took a job as a high school teacher. Bergen couldn’t wait to escape Niverville, with its atmosphere of religious and social conservatism. After high school, he moved back to B.C. for two years to attend Bible college. Then he came to Winnipeg and took a creative communications diploma at Red River College, planning to be a journalist. “But I couldn’t stand the thought of knocking on doors and talking to strangers,” says Bergen, who has a monkish bearing despite his 6-foot-4 height. “It tied me up in knots.”

By this time he was married to Mary Loewen, a Manitoban he had met in Bible college, and he had opted for the writer’s old standby, teaching English while writing in his spare hours. For years, living in a small house with a growing family, Bergen displayed remarkable tenacity and discipline in carving out time to write. He often huddled with pen and paper in his car while waiting for one of his children to complete a dance or swimming lesson – writing much of his first two books that way.

But since the family returned from Vietnam, Bergen has adopted more prosaic patterns, usually writing at home on the computer. The kids are now aged 11 to 19. Two months ago, he took a huge step: he moved his computer into an office in a converted warehouse downtown. “No guarantee that it will produce finer writing,” he says. “It’s just nice to have a room by myself.” Bergen gave up high school teaching three years ago. His advances for The Time in Between easily totalled into the six figures, and with Mary now working full-time as a family therapist, he may have left the classroom for good. He does, however, augment his income by teaching writing online with Toronto’s Humber College and with the Banff Centre for the Arts.

His parents, he has acknowledged, wanted him to follow a religious path. Bergen does not attend church, and he and his father have agreed to disagree about the contents of his books. In his personal life, though, Bergen seems to be bound by the same strict ethic in which he was raised: duty to family, to community, and to work. He recently wrote a witty piece for The Walrus mocking his attempts to shield his children from the coarsening effects of popular culture.

“I love the books I write and I will continue to write them,” he says. “Wasn’t it Samuel Beckett who said that with every book you are bound to fail? But the next time, you hope to go out and fail better.”