Quill and Quire

Camilla Gibb

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Novelist Camilla Gibb looks back on troubled times in This Is Happy

Camilla GibbIn 2012, while eight weeks pregnant with her first child, Camilla Gibb was faced with devastating news: her spouse of more than 10 years announced she had fallen out of love and was leaving their relationship. In her new memoir, This Is Happy, Gibb reflects on rebuilding her life as a single mother and creating a new ad-hoc family for herself and her baby. Gibb, who holds a PhD in social anthropology from Oxford, and is author of the novels The Beauty of Humanity Movement and Sweetness in the Belly, says her unexpected situation made her realize her life had become “unrecognizable,” and forced her to face “urgent and imperative” questions about herself.

Q&Q recently spoke to Gibb about This Is Happy, publishing with Doubleday Canada in August.

How did it feel writing about yourself as a character?
One of the pieces I use when I’m teaching creative non-fiction is Philip Lopate’s “On the Necessity of Turning Oneself Into a Character.” Among his most important points is that the creation of character is not dissimilar in fiction and non-fiction – characters need to be believable regardless of the degree of inventedness – and that can only be achieved with some measure of distance. Of course, to render the self as a character might require more deliberate cultivation of distance.

Which helped more: your background in anthropology or in writing fiction?
Anthropology and literature are two disciplines that tend to attract and cultivate outsiders – they can put their sense of alienation to good use. I struggled with notions of authorship within anthropology – how can one possibly position oneself as an authority on anyone else’s experience? I became interested in autoethnography – a practice that turns the lens onto the subjective experience of the ethnographer. It demands you turn yourself into a subject – excellent preparation for writing a memoir. But I think years of psychoanalysis have helped most. That examination of the self, the identification of patterns and unconscious motivations, exposing the role of fantasy in our expectations and ideas of ourselves and others, developing a certain “comfort” with that which is discomfiting, unpleasant, avoided, denied, sublimated, repressed, or otherwise projected outward.

Your work has focused on the idea of the outsider, on belonging and identity. Why?
I’ve thought a lot about this question over the years, and given myself, and others, various answers to it. But the truth is, I think it’s constitutional. I find resonance in stories of upheaval and dislocation. I find myself in them.

In the prologue, you mention “memory, the most fallible of sources.” How did you feel working with that uncertainty?
I’ve since heard it said that whenever memory is at work we are engaged in an act of fictionalizing. You look for corroboration where you can. You ask your parents, your siblings, to clarify things, you find records – photos, report cards, journals (in my father’s case, even a psychiatric assessment). For the second half of the book, set in the present, I drew upon extensive notes, emails, texts. I’d written out entire conversations verbatim in the immediate aftermath. Wherever I’ve reconstructed a conversation and am uncertain about exact words, I don’t use quotation marks. But still, memory is all we have. In that sense, we are all, to some degree, works of fiction.

You refer to a “strain of nihilism” within yourself, and there’s a sense of loss – of self, friends, and relationships – that permeates this book. Is writing an antidote to that?
Not an antidote, exactly, but a companion. It has probably been the one constant in my life and it is how I see, make sense of, and engage with the world.

It’s also a story about connection.
Absolutely. About the search, desire, and need for human connection. We exist in relation to others, we become ourselves in the context of relationships, they reflect ourselves back to ourselves, make us known and knowable, and stabilize and ground us.

Have your daughter and the breakdown of your relationship affected your writing?
I don’t know if I can answer that yet. I haven’t written a sentence of fiction since my marriage ended five and a half years ago. I’ve had no appetite or patience for the conceit of the novel, the artifice of it, however beautifully rendered. Rather than seeking the escape a good novel can offer, I find myself seeking answers in more a direct way. The immediacy of a child no doubt contributes to this. There’s simply not the same kind of time to daydream in the way a novel requires.

Have your mother and brother read it?
My mother has read more than one draft and the final version. It was painful for her – no mother wants to see their children in pain. She worries about the degree to which I’ve exposed myself, but she appreciates that memoir takes these risks. My brother isn’t a reader. He’s never read any of my work. He knew the brother in my second novel was based on him, but still, he didn’t read it. He gives it to potential girlfriends, instead as a sort of manual.

What do you most want people to know about this book?
That I had to write it. As Isak Dinesen once said: “To be a person is to have a story to tell.”