Snag a Bystander with a Hook:
Jay Ruzesky's Bicoastal Conversation with Bill Gaston and Mark Anthony Jarman

Bill Gaston

Bill Gaston came to the University of Victoria's Writing Department in 1998 following a dozen years in the Maritimes, mostly at UNB, in Fredericton. There he was Director of the Creative Writing Program, and, for a time, editor of Canada's oldest literary journal, The Fiddlehead.

Mark Anthony Jarman

Mark Anthony Jarman is a graduate of The Iowa Writers' Workshop, a Yaddo fellow, has taught at the University of Victoria, the Banff Centre for the Arts, and now teaches at the University of New Brunswick, where he is fiction editor of The Fiddlehead.

As I remember it, Mark, you were a sessional instructor at UVic and left to take a position at UNB in 1998, and Bill, you were a sessional at UNB and left to take a position at UVic in 1998 so you switched east for west and west for east. Have I got that right? Do you feel at home where you are now?

BG: That’s more or less what happened, though Mark was here for a year or so after I arrived, and we became friends.

Do I feel at home here? That’s an interesting question, because I have my own weird little theory about the west coast in that regard, which is, there’s an edginess to this coast, which I think is geologic, but which manifests in the people, too. The result is a feeling of unsettled-ness, and almost of unwelcome. I’ve always felt that of the west coast, even when I lived here before (about 10 years in North Vancouver). Over various periods I’ve spent maybe 30 years on the west coast and, no, I don’t feel at home. I felt more at home during my 12 years on the east coast, and this had very much to do with my feeling comfortable in the landscape. And, call me flakey, but I think that Victoria’s semi-famous unfriendliness also comes right out of the ground.

MAJ: Bill is right; he moved to Victoria while I was still there and lived around the corner from me and our kids hung out. Bill gave my name to Ross Leckie at UNB to try and get rid of me; I went to Fredericton for a temp position and thought I’d be back to Victoria, but in 2000 I got the permanent job and have been at UNB for more than a decade now.

I wonder a lot about a sense of home, since I was born in Edmonton, my parents were immigrants, and I’ve moved around a number of times. I’ve grown to really like Fredericton and the East Coast; I still feel a bit of an outsider, but a very comfortable outsider. I think a move and a new world is always good for a writer. The move has broadened me and made me a bit of a hick at the same time; I really like a smaller scale now and big crowds throw me off. I’m never in rush hour here, the highways are almost empty, and my kids and I can kayak and canoe right in front of my house. In June I drove up to the Gaspe Peninsula and I loved it: thousands of crazy gannets diving into a bay, Minke whales breathing and feeding right below my motel balcony, and islands that reminded me of the far west of Ireland. But I remember flying back into Victoria from an overseas trip, staring down at the strait and islands and thinking "This place is better than anywhere I’ve just been to." The west coast is a beautiful part of the world.

How would you describe the culture generally and the writing community in particular in the place you live now?

BG: Yikes, I don’t know if generalizations are wise any more, seeing as we’ve all been watching the same TV and reading the same books for decades now. I know more fishermen here than I did back east, and I knew at least as many tofu-eaters in New Brunswick as I do here. When given the chance, because of climate and job opportunities, more people do choose this coast than that one, and it’s no different with writers. A lot of writers end up here. There are a whole lot of poets living in this city and in this region. Don McKay, I think, once said that if you close your eyes, spin around and throw a rock, you’ll probably hit one. So that’s how I’ll describe the regional difference, simply by quantity. Or maybe by weight: BC has 11.3 thousand pounds of poets, and the Maritimes has a measly 3 thousand pounds of them.

MAJ: Culture, community. Not sure what to say. I’ve always felt more of a loner writer rather than part of a community. Hermann Goering is supposed to have said, "When I hear the word culture, that’s when I reach for my revolver." Not exactly sure what that means, but I think I have some of that suspicion, though I am glad there are others who are more community minded. Martin Amis wrote a piece where he said he had trouble reading reviews of others, that the book reviews should be totally about him every week. That made me laugh because it was so honest and may be typical of a lot of writers. There are many writers around here and on the East Coast, especially if you include all the Atlantic provinces. New Brunswick is more bible belt, more old-fashioned. In fact, poetry is not allowed on Sundays, and offending poets (they can’t help themselves) are rounded up and sent to the internment centre out by Minto, where they are better off and the rest of us can get a break from poetry voice.

Do you have any regrets about leaving? Do you think about what would have been different if you could have stayed where you were?

BG: I was forced to leave Fredericton for a job in Victoria (I had four kids and needed a dental plan). But I loved Fredericton and didn’t want to leave. I loved New Brunswick. I felt at home, in that geologic sense—rock and trees seeping into my own bones—as I’ve described. Nothing to do with people, actually. But if I had stayed I don’t know that anything in my writing would be different, though my last two, in fact last three, novels have been mostly set on the west coast, and “place” in fiction certainly does contribute an essential quality. So that’s a difference, and it feels choiceless. As far as lifestyle, and housing prices, well, if I were a full professor in New Brunswick, I could probably afford to retire into a grand house, maybe almost as grand as Mark’s. I believe his has pillars out front.

MAJ: I really worried about the move, that I’d regret it and not be able to get back. Henry James has a story about a man who wonders what his life would have been if he hadn’t left, and that idea interests me. But I’m not pining for the fjords, as they say. In terms of real estate, the most I can hope for if I moved back west, is that I can rent space in Bill’s carport and live in my car there. I have always said that I can write anywhere. In Belfast last year I made a temporary office at a large table in an old pub. But living on the east coast has definitely influenced my writing. I use day to day details all the time and my last collection, My White Planet, has a lot to do with New Brunswick. Right now I’m working on a book set in Italy, but I find local details and incidents slip into the pages. I have a short piece called “Hallway Snowstorm” on Doug Glover’s site, Numero Cinq, and it is definitely influenced by winter in New Brunswick. They can be hard, but in that piece I tried to write of the kind of beauty in the storms and in the snowy walls and bright light in the aftermath. As I said, I can write anywhere, but I’m a sponge, definitely influenced by locals and locale.

How do you feel about caffé latte?

BG: I do and don’t like the convenience that a wealthier population brings, I admit it. It’s almost like Montreal here now, in that you can buy cold beer, even on a Sunday, if you drive a few blocks. My wife can find her puffed millet and choose from several kinds of dried seaweed. Pub food here is all organic loganberry reduction on your hand-massaged free range halibut. At the same time, I liked it when I first moved to Halifax, in 1985, and couldn’t buy a bagel there. I liked it in Fredericton when everything was closed on Sunday. It slowed things down, it made you have to stop and think for yourself. Out here, it’s almost too easy to indulge, and be entertained to death. Maybe it’s no different back east, but I have this feeling that it still might be, a bit.

MAJ: As I said above, it is more old-fashioned here, but I feel it’s also mellower in a way, though the west coast is supposed to be the mellow spot. I felt less intimidated here to try and join a band and play harmonica. I don’t think I’d have done it in a larger centre.

As for beverages, I drink tea for part of the day and beer later in the day, so no need for fancy cafés, but Bill is right about a wealthier population or lack thereof. I used to wonder why there weren’t more restaurants or pubs on the water here, but there isn’t the money or population that there is in Granville Island or Victoria’s Inner Harbour. On the other hand, I really like the low population, the lack of traffic jams, the calm. It’s a trade-off. There were, however, the famous Samosa Wars in the farmer’s market a few year back, so it’s not all calm and zen.

If you don't mind generalizing a little, what kind of quirky differences do you notice between the east and west coasts?

BG: This comes at it from an odd angle, but I believe The Fiddlehead is publishing a story of mine, “Cake’s Chicken,” in their autumn issue [#253, Essential West Coast Poetry & Fiction]. It might be interesting to note that, in writing it, about these rather quirky and near sociopathic pizza delivery guys, I didn’t know if it was an east coast or a west coast story. In other words, these guys could be lurking on either coast. I ended up setting it out west, but only because a similar incident happened near a place I know here, beside the Cowichan River.

But, seriously, some generalizations: Criminals out west are harder to spot. It’s easier to get laid back east. West coast beer is superior, as is the wine, but drunkenness produces less guilt back east, so let’s say it’s even in this regard. People are more suspicious back east, but ultimately friendlier. Poets on the west coast are smarter but make less sense, so let’s say that’s even, too. Angels in the east are well-read (the classics) but moralistic. West coast angels left morals behind long ago.

MAJ: I respect Bill’s taste in beer, lots of excellent west coast beer, but Propeller in Halifax, Pumphouse in Moncton, and Picaroon’s in Freddy Beach brew beer that can stand up to any suds in the world. I’m told New Zealand is the place for wine, so maybe we can give that to the west coast to make up for the lack of sex that Bill reports.

But yes, as in Bill’s story (which, unfortunately, I had to pull from The Fiddlehead to make room for Justin Bieber’s cerebral essay on squid-jigging), people are people, one coast or another or in Munro’s Ontario, Flannery O’Connor’s Georgia, or Isaac Babel’s Russia. I don’t really think in terms of region, though it is real. I like regional writers, but because they are good, not because of a region.

Do you see regional qualities in each other's work, or in the work of other writers from B.C. or the Maritimes? Do either of you think you express in your writing a connection to the place you live?

It’s a difficult question, this one of place, and how it affects the writing and then, after the writing’s done, becomes emblematic of it. My novel Sointula did well on the west coast but not so in the rest of Canada. Penguin is bringing it out in an attempt to flog it again east of the Rockies, and so I’ve been thinking about it, and see how it’s chock full of west coast tropes: kayaks, madness, orcas, utopia, B.C. bud, wilderness, bikers, hermits. But, beyond place, is it a west coast book? I don’t know. You could say that David Adams Richards is an archetypal Maritime writer, because both the voice and content of his fiction is superbly rural east coast. But nobody else there writes like him, not at all. If he were to set a novel in Toronto (which I heard he has threatened to do), my guess is that its setting might be Toronto, but its humour, outrage, and insight into tragic flaw would be Richards’. As for Mark Jarman’s affinity for place, I’ve long considered him place-less. Since his style is, let’s say, the smooth-talking lovechild of Raymond Carver and Garcia Marquez, where would that “place” him? Some remote island between Seattle and Brazil? Some dreamship hovering over a random freeway?

MAJ: How did Bill know of my island and secret dreamship? Is he in the CIA? As he opines (writing lesson: never use “he says” when you can use “he opines”), each writer will have their distinctive take on a place. I have a story “Swinger” and a story “Flat Out Earth Moving” set in the same Victoria neighbourhood and beach that Bill mentions in Sointula, but we each have our own nightmarish versions of those rather dreamy places.

What happens to you when you hear fiddle music?

BG: I open a beer and, like Mark, think of Ireland. No, actually, there was a time just after leaving Fredericton when I’d be missing it and have to listen to a couple of Rankin Family albums back to back. I’m not a huge fan of Celtic, but when I left the east I got nostalgic for it.

MAJ: My grandfather played the fiddle and I wish I could, but I don’t know that I’ve heard a live fiddle since I’ve been here. A lot more guitar than fiddle. Cape Breton might be a different story. When I moved here I noticed a lot of blues played in bars and restaurants and discovered the Harvest Jazz and Blues Festival, a great event every fall. I think, like in Ireland, there is Celtic music that is almost packaged, produced on schedule to make groups of customers or tourists happy, and there are also very serious musicians having a session, turned to each other and for each other and whoever is lucky enough to hear them.

How important is The Fiddlehead to east coast writers and The Malahat Review to west coast writers?

BG: I think I can lend evidence to suggest that they are both truly “national” journals: I first got published in Fiddlehead when I was living in Vancouver, and in The Malahat when I was living in Halifax. How tidy is that? I would say the main difference between the two is that, historically, The Fiddlehead was the nurturing-ground for lots of young writers. That’s where I first published (a story and two poems in the same issue, and I thought I’d died and ascended to Valhalla), and there are plenty of older Canadian writers who can say the same thing. Not sure if it’s the same now. To tell you the truth, I think its standards have risen.

MAJ: My experience is similar. My first poems and stories were taken by The Fiddlehead while I was in the west. My teacher W. D. Valgardson got me reading litmags at UVic. The Malahat was close by, down the hall, but seemed unattainable for a rookie. I never thought I’d end up as an editor at The Fiddlehead and there were times I wondered if I’d ever get into The Malahat, though I did eventually. At The Fiddlehead I remember jealously thinking that The Malahat attracted the strongest writers, but then Lorna Jackson, reading for The Malahat, complained to me that The Fiddlehead got the interesting stories. I was glad to hear that we were both thinking the other mag had it better somehow. I hope they are both national. I don’t tend to look at an address, the writing is more important, but we do get submissions from all over; we seem to be getting more stories and poems from the USA and Ireland, perhaps because of reviews on the net. I hope both mags prosper; I can be competitive, but I think it’s smart of Ross Leckie and John Barton to want to cooperate more and collaborate and try for a united front in the face of attacks on culture (dare I use the word?), rather than having Canadian mags compete or fight.

How's the fishing where you are now?

BG: Funny you should ask, seeing as I own a boat and am a serious salmon hunter, in fact used to be a guide years ago. Funny because it’s tragically a case of the west coast following the east down a road of government spinelessness and criminal mismanagement. We have such opportunity to make things right, largely as a result of having witnessed what can go wrong, and we’re blowing it. I use the pronoun “we,” because I still have faint hope for democracy coming to play, rare as that might be these days.

MAJ: I don’t fish, but every day I see people fishing in small boats very near my house or on the bank on the north side of the river, and cyclists will pass by with a disassembled fishing rod sticking out of a backpack, so it’s part of the local scenery. I cycle trails along the Nashwaak River where people fish for trout and salmon and a man just caught a huge muskie. He didn’t release it, as it’s considered an invasive species, ate it, and said it tasted like haddock. Last night I had a beautiful soft-shelled crab and I am addicted to smoked salmon; perhaps Bill will guide me to some or give me a discount.

But a caveat. Maritime means “by the sea,” and technically Fredericton is not by the sea, it is up river. Certainly it is influenced by the ocean and not far from the Bay of Fundy (I was swimming in salt water and eating lobster rolls in St Martin’s just a few days ago), and the St. John is a tidal river replete with seals and eels, but as I said (or opined) in a Salty Ink interview, we might be as much Swiss Duchy as we are fishing port. There is not much salt in my socks and I never snag a bystander with a hook (unless they ask nicely).

Jay Ruzesky

Jay Ruzesky

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