In Conversation with Christine Fischer Guy
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 21/02/2015 (2836 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Christine Fischer Guy is a Toronto-based writer and journalist.
Her first novel, The Umbrella Mender, is the story of a TB nurse in northern Ontario in the 1950s, when the Canadian Public Health Association estimates more than a third of Inuit were infected with tuberculosis. (TB remains a problem in the north — some northern Manitoba First Nations have recorded some of the highest TB rates in the world.)
The umbrella mender of the title is Gideon Judge, an American drifter searching for the Northwest Passage.
Fischer Guy will be in Winnipeg with fellow Wolsak & Wynn author Claire Caldwell on March 5. She recently spoke with Winnipeg writer Ariel Gordon.
Q. What do you want people to know about The Umbrella Mender?
A. Hazel MacPherson was an idealistic young nurse who went to the North at an exciting time in the history of medicine — there was finally a cure for tuberculosis, and they would use it to help the disease-ravaged northern communities — hoping to find what she was looking for. She got her wish, but not in the way she expected, and kept secrets about her year there for 60 years. The Umbrella Mender is her reckoning with those secrets.
Q. Tell me about that strange object/phenomena called ‘the first book.’
A. It certainly is an out-of-body experience for a lifelong bookworm. I was one of those kids for whom the perfect Saturday was a trip to the library and the rest of the day flopped on my bed reading what I’d brought home. I spent close to ten years writing this book, so of course I was thrilled when Wolsak & Wynn wanted to publish it, but I had a keen awareness as I worked on the edits of those who went before me. It was both humbling and comforting to be connected to them in the struggle to say what I meant to say with this book. My editor, Paul Vermeersch, was my favourite kind of editor (I’ve been a journalist for decades, so I know what I like.) He’d point something out that wasn’t working and trust me to fix it, and he was always available as a sounding board. W&W made a beautiful object for me and it’s a thrill to see it on bookstore shelves.
Q. How did you find yourself in northern Ontario in the 1950s? Was the TB epidemic among the Indigenous peoples of that region where you started or where you wound up?
A. This novel was inspired by a memoir written by my great-uncle through marriage, who was a TB doctor in the North at the time of my novel, 1951. After we’d met for the first time and he became aware that I was the family writer, he gave me his memoirs. It was the most exciting medicine he’d practiced in his career and he wanted to share it. I know he was very happy that I became fascinated with that time and place because he was enthusiastic in response to my requests for more information, and I interviewed him several times before he died in 2006. Besides being a consummate healer he was a wonderful storyteller and loved to talk about the time he spent in the North.
Having said that, this novel is an act of imagination, not a fictionalization of his story. It’s about the campaign on TB in the same way as Atonement is about the Second World War: it’s a historical scaffolding for some questions I have about the nature of love. It was very important to me that my novel and his memoir be separate entities, and I spent the first three years after reading the memoir wandering into a frustrating series of blind corners and alleys that were largely due to cleaving too closely to his story. Once Hazel and then Gideon came along, my own story took root and I could begin to move.
Q. What were the challenges of writing about the setting of Moose Factory? Had you spent much time there? Or is it a completely imagined place and time?
A. Thanks to an Ontario Arts Council grant, I was able to spend a week up there in 2008, researching and learning the place with my feet. I interviewed many who had worked in the hospital at the time my novel is set (some are in the elder lodge now) or who were patients there. So I did know it by experience, but I will always be grateful to Google Earth for its views of Moose Factory. They helped me root myself there and so it was often open on my desktop as I wrote.
Q. What are you reading right now? What are you writing right now?
A. I usually have a few things on the go at any given time. I just finished Martha Baillie’s new novel The Search for Heinrich Schlgel, which was as wonderful as I expected it to be. Her metafictive approach is more elegant than any other I’ve read. Ayelet Tsabari’s short story collection The Best Place on Earth is also in my reading pile: She has a voice I know I can trust to help me better understand Israel and Palestine. Poetry fills the language well for me and right now I’m reading Paul Vermeersch’s Don’t Let it End Like This Tell Them I Said Something, Kayla Czaga’s arresting For Your Safety Please Hold On, and Catherine Graham’s beautiful Her Red Hair Rises with the Wings of Insects. I’m also reading, belatedly, Adrienne Rich’s incredible On Lies, Secrets, and Silence.
I’ve been working on a new novel for about a year now, and am also finishing up a short story that may or may not be connected to it. Both are set in New York, a complete change of pace in time and setting.
Ariel Gordon is a Winnipeg writer.