Quill and Quire

W.D. Valgardson

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The mystic storyteller

Victoria writer W.D. Valgardson's children's books offer hope - and a sense of life's wonder

In “Garbage Creek,” the title story from Victoria writer W.D. Valgardson’s newest children’s book, only Jim and Angie can see the natural beauty that lies beneath a detritus-strewn creek. All summer they labour, clearing away junk, raking out clay, preparing the way for the salmon to return. In the fall, Angie is given a pair of cedar masks carved in the shape of a beaver and a salmon and she brings them to the creek in the hope of luring the fish back.

W.D. ValgardsonAs is often the case in Valgardson’s works for children, adults exist on the periphery of the story – there, but not there – as the two children struggle to make something good of their world. A pair of misfits, Jim and Angie, like so many of the characters Valgardson has written over the past 20 years – first for adults, and now for children – believe in hard work and the power of myth to realize their dreams.

Like Valgardson himself, Jim and Angie come from mixed heritages. For the children, that means animal masks and Ukrainian dances; for Valgardson, who grew up in the Icelandic community of Gimli, Manitoba, it means blending Icelandic and Irish mysticism, as he has done in two earlier books for children – Thor and Sarah and the People of Sand River. (The former, the tale of a young Icelandic-Canadian boy’s moment of heroism while fishing with his grandfather, won the Mr. Christie Book Award in 1995; and Sarah, a historical tale of a young Icelandic-Canadian girl’s struggle to survive in 1870s Manitoba, was shortlisted for the Sheila A. Egoff Children’s Literature Prize and the Ruth Schwartz Award.)

“My father’s people came from Snaefellsness [Iceland],” says Valgardson. “It is believed that people in that area – those born in the shadow of the glacier – are by birth mystics. They can foretell the future. … My mother’s people are Irish and my grandmother was a fount of stories about Ireland. Dancing together in my imagination were both [Icelandic] Huldafolk and the little people [fairies]. Add to this the fact that my family are fine oral storytellers, [and] even today one of my favourite places to be is at my parents’ kitchen table as friends and family tell and retell stories.”

These storytelling influences shine through each of the eight new stories in Garbage Creek, which Valgardson wrote after Groundwood publisher Patsy Aldana told him she didn’t want to publish the title story as a picture book. That tale, and another one with the unpronounceable name of “Xplthgrdkja,” formed the foundation for this new collection, which explores the theme of self-reliance and the unique – and mystical – vision of its characters.

“There are those who can see only a very narrow band on the colour spectrum,” Valgardson says. “And there are others who see further. Children, in my experience, are very imaginative. Perhaps it’s partly a normal process but perhaps we, as a society, do something to children that diminishes their imaginations as they grow older. Mysticism to me is not playing party tricks or fooling around with Ouija boards. What I’m talking about is an active sense of the mystery of life.”

That mystery has become very personal to Valgardson since the birth of his two grandchildren, who have provided inspiration for his writing for children: “As adults we become jaded, lose the ability to see the beauty around us. By entering the mystery of existence, of the world around me, I’m better able to talk to children. [My grandchildren] lead me by the hand into their world of magic. When we go for walks around the neighbourhood, they are the teachers and I’m the pupil.”

Valgardson jokes that approaching senility has led him back to childhood concerns and an interest in creating stories for children. A bout of what he calls “automatic writing” (Thor, his first published story for children, came to him whole in one one-hour session; Sarah took three hours to reach a first draft) meant that “when the time was right, Thor appeared.” That first children’s book was rather different from the adult works that preceded it; in his children’s writing, Valgardson found that bitterness had made way for hope. “I think that literature for children [must] provide them with hope. Children are very dependent. They live in a world of adults who often are neither rational nor consistent. To their detriment and ours we make them unnecessarily dependent. So, yes, I’d like to tell kids that they are of value. There are things they can do. In a society of abundance, particularly in urban society, that isn’t always clear.”

The small victory that Jim and Angie enjoy when two fish return to Garbage Creek justifies their belief in the natural world. It also bespeaks a calmer, gentler Valgardson than one might expect judging from his earlier fiction for adults, which sought out the conflicts that arise between individuals and society. The new Valgardson, the children’s author of the 1990s, is an active and enthusiastic listener, full of “yeahs!” and friendly gestures. The tussles of the past – a censored book, a full-page newspaper ad refuting a lukewarm book review, denunciations of feminism and deconstructionism – seem far removed from his Victoria coach house where we chat. At the end of our interview, we tour his garden, and meet its statues, which Valgardson affectionately pats.

The moment is pure Valgardson. His writing concerns itself with the visceral, with things touched and felt, lived and made concrete through careful detail. He makes his statue breathe through the touch of his hand, just as in his creative writing classes, he lectures his students – who have included W.P. Kinsella, Eden Robinson, and Richard Van Camp – to create by leaving behind their computers and libraries: “Get lost, get blisters, get soaking wet!” Despite this belief in experiential creativity, Valgardson also believes passionately in the potential of electronic communication, and sees dramatic differences between the Internet and the technologies that preceded it. In a second interview – conducted via e-mail – he yields many more personal details than in the first. “Computers broke the mould,” he says. “There hasn’t been time for people to create a whole bunch of taboos and rules saying you can’t do this with computers until you’re 32.

“One of the complaints about the Internet is that you don’t know who is telling the tale, writing the letter, posting a notice. In that sense everything on the Internet is fiction. In a sense the people on the Internet are not much different than the people sitting around my parents’ kitchen table. We don’t tell stories at the kitchen table to be scientifically accurate. We tell stories to entertain and inform, to share, to express how we feel.”

In future, Valgardson is interested in turning his hand to a full-length children’s novel. He has been reading the triumvirate of award-winning West Coast children’s authors – Sarah Ellis, Julie Lawson, and Kit Pearson – “because their writing is good instruction.” On sabbatical next year from UVic, he intends to spend time in rural Manitoba researching his next book. “Where you grow up is where your heart is,” he concludes, despite his obvious fondness for his adopted home. “It’s very hard to write about a place where you didn’t grow up and go to school. If I live to be 100, I’ll still be an outsider here.”