From Hemingway to Las Vegas:
Frances Backhouse in Conversation
with Kelly Bouchard

Kelly Bouchard

Malahat creative nonfiction board member and UVic Writing instructor Frances Backhouse talks with Kelly Bouchard about his experiences at a Las Vegas homeless shelter. Bouchard explores the delicate nature of homelessness, recovery, and moral compromises in his nonfiction piece, "Women and Children," which appears in the Malahat's Summer 2016 issue. His essay was the recipient of the 2017 Charles Lillard Founders' Award for Creative Nonfiction.

 

Kelly Bouchard grew up in Prince George, BC, and graduated from the University of Victoria's creative writing program in 2012. He's travelled throughout Canada and the United States and worked as a wildfire fighter, a tree planter, a forester, a demolitionist, a scaffolder, a landscaper, a farmer, a tutor, and a handler for a professional dog sledding kennel. His work has appeared in Canadian Running Magazine, Island Writer, and The Malahat Review. He currently lives in Toronto. 

Let's start with the genesis of this story. In the footnote, you explain that it came out of the month you spent living in and around the Las Vegas Rescue Mission in 2012. Did you go there with the idea that you would write about it at some point? Did you take notes or write anything about the experience at the time? How did your in-the-moment writing (or lack of it) help or hinder you in writing "Women and Children"?

Yes. I went to the Rescue Mission with the idea of writing about it. The notes and journal entries I made have proved invaluable in writing this piece and in my general reflections on the period. But the fact that I went to the Rescue Mission in order to write about it, and not because I had to, is also one of the most problematic and complicated factors I have to consider whenever I reflect on my time there. It's an additional layer of the experience that makes writing about it much more complex.

I'll explain a little further. I'm a middle-class Canadian. I went to Vegas because Vegas seemed to bring together so many of the contradictions of not only American, but North American and global society. It's a place where so much is promised and so little given. It's a place where a very few thrive at the expense of many. A 2013 homeless census for Clark County (which includes Vegas and its suburbs) counted 7,355 people in a single night. There are other American cities with higher homeless populations, but there is no other American city that is simultaneously home to such evident gluttony and excess. I went to Vegas, and ultimately the Rescue Mission, because I wanted to see the dark side of Vegas'—and, by extension, America's—glittery promise.  

This exploration came with its own attendant moral compromises. I lied to the workers at the Rescue Mission for the 12 nights I stayed there. I continued to eat my meals in the shelter kitchen even after I moved into a nearby storage locker. I had enough money to stay at a hostel or eat in a restaurant. I didn't. I took a bed and food from a homeless shelter. I took measures to make sure I didn't take a bed that would otherwise be taken by somebody else, and all of the friends I made during that time know that I was not really destitute. Nonetheless, what I did involved lying and deception.

What I did also looked a lot like poverty tourism. There is something incredibly entitled about a person born into privilege thinking that the best way to learn about poverty is to go and pretend to be poor for a while. Such a position would seem to invalidate the experiences of all the people who live in poverty every day. In my defense, I never believed that by spending a couple weeks in a homeless shelter or a month in a storage locker I would know what it was to be homeless. I knew I couldn't replicate the experience, but I thought I might be able to at least understand it a little better. I also did it because I thought it would allow me to meet people who my socioeconomic position seemed to prevent me from meeting, or meeting in a way that the discrepancy in our positions didn't seem to intrude and obscure us from one another. Of course now I realize that my relative privilege ultimately continued to inform how I perceived events and interacted with those around me.

So, to return to your question: how did my in-the-moment writing help or hinder me in writing "Women and Children"? I've been trying to write about my experiences in Vegas for four years. Everything I attempt tends to expand drastically (as the above indicates) in order to provide a context within which my experiences can be properly understood. And, if I'm honest, to provide a context in which I don't wind up looking like a poverty tourist or a predatory writer looking to get a story at any price, both of which accusations I am still unsure if I deserve. I've written literally hundreds of pages and spent months chained to my computer. Through all of it, the fact that I went to Vegas and deceived people with the intention of writing about it has been an earned and deserved curse.

On the other hand, it took me three days to produce the draft of "Women and Children" that I submitted to The Malahat Review. Start to finish. Largely this was because my journals and notes provided an existing body of scenes I could draw on. But another massive factor was that looking at my time in the shelter through a male lens made me less ambivalent about speaking for more people that just myself. I didn't feel it was unjustified for me to use 'we' in the way that I did in the story, because I was talking about what if felt like to be a man in the Rescue Mission shelter. Examined from this perspective, I felt confident claiming to have experienced certain things very similarly to many of the other men. This seems to hold true in discussions I've had with friends I made in the shelter.

So. Yeah. Writing about my experiences at the time was of certain practical help. It has also been a massive philosophical and moral complication.

One of the presumably few possessions you brought with you to the Rescue Mission was a paperback copy of Men without Women by Ernest Hemingway, and your prose style is reminiscent of Hemingway's. Like him, you often employ deceptively simple syntax, wield to-be verbs in a way that gives them uncommon potency, and favour the conjunction "and" over the comma. To what extent has Hemingway been a literary influence for you?

I have the Hemingway's "In Another Country" framed on my wall. I probably read it once a week. Hemingway writes the way I wish I thought. Clear. Concise. Purposeful. Unfortunately my mind doesn't actually work like that. Aping him for this piece was a conscious stylistic choice. I don't always try to emulate him. That would only lead to disappointment and tears.

Joan Didion, whom you cite in the footnote as an inspiration, is famous for saying that she writes to find out what she is thinking. Is this also true for you? In terms of this particular essay, did you know what you thought about your Rescue Mission experience before you started writing "Women and Children" or did your thinking gel as you wrote?

Sometimes my writing is a very conscious process of parsing ideas and scenes until I've come up with what I deem a presentable representation of my best thoughts. Other times what comes out doesn't seem to have all that much to do with me. "Women and Children" is sort of a combination of these styles. I had a lot of established ideas and scenes I wanted to try to work into the story before I started writing, and I knew roughly what I wanted the final line to be. But how that final line and my thoughts came together was a complete surprise. The final draft contains more ideas than I knew I had when I started writing. I don't really know how that happened.

Much of this story is conveyed through the broad strokes of representative descriptions and scenes illuminated by evocative details—in the showers, for example, where you begin with "All body types packed into a cavernous tiled room" and then zero in on details such as "coarse whirls of animal hair" and "arms inflated from years in penitentiary weight rooms." But there are also the two specific scenes that draw the piece toward its conclusion: the evangelical outburst during chapel, prompted by one woman's testimony, and the snapshot of the moment when the Inuit youth tells you about being raped. Did this movement between representative and specific emerge in the first draft or did it come later in the process?

As I said, this particular story came together really quickly. Pretty much all the major parts were in place by the end of the first evening I worked on it. I knew the final line would be about my Inuit friend before I started writing, so maybe on some unconscious level I knew I needed to end with specifics if the story was going to have the impact I wanted. I also remember cutting a scene in which two women show up in the food lineup covered in bruises, and substituting it for something more general. Again though, I don't think that move was all that conscious. It just seemed right.

At the centre of the story are two sentences that stopped me in my tracks with their perceptiveness and deft use of metaphor: "I'd look at the security guards and feel the danger implied by my own body, as if, somehow without knowing it, I'd been a weapon all along. It made it hard to look a woman in her eye for fear that doing so might pull some hidden trigger inside me that couldn't be unpulled." What's your relationship with metaphor as a writer? Does it come easily to you or do you have to strive for it and, if so, how do you do that?

I'm really happy you liked that part. I messed with the phrasing a bunch of times.

Metaphors (not necessarily good ones) come almost too naturally to me. It's a problem. A lot of times I have to go through and cull them out of my writing. I'll use them as a kind of crutch to avoid saying a thing outright, even when doing so muddies the water unnecessarily. I speak in metaphors too. Pretty much every one of my close friends has had to deal with the speech in which I compare their predicament to being on a leaky life raft and extol them to strike out for shore because it's better to drown swimming than clinging to a mess of sodden rubber. I'm just realizing this now. I've used that on, like, all my best buds. This is where my idolizing of Didion and Hemmingway comes in. Unlike me, they only use metaphor when it aids clarity. They'd probably be way more help to my drowning friends.  

According to your web site, you've worked as a wildfire fighter, a tree planter, a forester, a demolitionist, a scaffolder, a landscaper, a farmer, a tutor, and a handler for a professional dog sledding kennel. What effect has this diverse work history had on your writing?

My work experience isn't always applicable, but in this case it was. I've worked a lot of jobs that predominantly employ males and a lot of my experiences in those jobs would seem at first to affirm the "male" ethics Hemingway affirms in many (although not all) of the stories in Men without Women. What the Rescue Mission did was show me that putting a bunch of men together did not create the kind of positive societies I had been a part of as a firefighter or forester. One of the things I wanted to get across in "Women and Children" was that gender is a far less important factor in determining how people act than social context is.

More generally, my diverse work experience has given me a catalogue of characters and a lot of interesting life experience. It's probably also reflective of the fact that I grew up in the Internet age when constancy was becoming a thing of the past. A lot of friends my age all have the same tendency to flit from one thing to another. Maybe it's the natural outgrowth of all that click click clicking.

 

Frances Backhouse

Frances Backhouse

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