Jane Urquhart - The Cannon Interview

Monday, October 9, 2006

  • Photo By Elsa Trillat

    Photo By Elsa Trillat

Written by Adam A. Donaldson

Jane Urquhart has a very simple message to campus writers that want to come to her office in Massey Hall and get advice on their work: “Don’t be afraid. There are no authorities; advice is just advise and no matter how young you are there’s just something inside you that knows that you need the advice you are being given and that’s still true with me going through the editorial process.”

The award-winning Canadian author is currently taking up residence at the U of G, writer-in-residence that is. Guelph is forth school where Urquhart has held the prestigious position; she also served as writer-in-residence at the University of Ottawa, U of T and Memorial in Newfoundland. But Urquhart is a through and through Gryphon, she was here in 1968 studying English and she returned in the 70s to get her art history degree. “I remember with great fondness of having access to the faculty and being in extremely small seminars. But most of all, I remember how wonderful the library was, it was in Zavitz at the time, many of my fondness memories, although I was not a particularly good student, come from being in the library. It was here I learned how to browse effectively, and a lot of that has worked its way into my novels when I’m doing research and run across something serendipitous.”

For anyone hat was here a mere four years after the University of Guelph was incorporated it must surely come as a shock to see the school on the hill to being the one of the largest research universities in the country. “What I find most overwhelming is just the number of students on campus-it really was a shock. The first summer I was here it was beautiful, like living in a resort. There were very few people so we all got to know each other very quickly and very well. Bonding was not a problem and it was a very interesting mix of Agricultural and science and art students. Having said that I never cease to be amazed at how well the space has been organized; it’s not hard to tell that Landscape Architecture is a big part of the university. It’s like going to a European town, the way the human aspect is kept in mind.”

This marks the second time that Urquhart has returned to the U of G since graduation, the first was win she received an honorary doctorate of letters in 1999. “I like the feeling around universities and I’m very interested in seeing what people are working on. It allows me to reconnect with young people and partly because I develop some sense of discipline that I don’t have when I’m home all the time in my own little office, holed up and shut off from the world.”

Then there are the more practical reasons like easy access to an academic library and while Urquhart has full access to the library at the University of Waterloo it can be a chore to get to campus. So the benefit of being a writer-in-residence is regular access to an academic library, which Urquhart will be putting to good use in the next few months as she works to compile a Penguin Anthology of Canadian Short Stories.

But when not working on her own projects, Urquhart will completely available to give the writings of other a personal appraisal. And if you’re interested in getting her advice Urquhart assures you that she knows it takes a lot of courage to come and see her. “The kind of person that does come to me actually has the nerve and that makes them individualistic right away and because they are on campus carrying a full load of courses that means that they have to be pretty serious to visit the writer in residence. They willing to put in the extra time doing creative work even if they are in a creative writing course, but a lot of people that come to me aren’t in such a course. For instance, there was a young man at the University of Toronto that just published his first fiction book and he was in pre-med when he came to see me and he had no time and I think he had a part time job as well. It was incredible that he was still working on his stories.”

But what of the young Urquhart, if she had sought out her older self for writing advise, what would she be told? “The young me would not have come to me for writing advice, I was pathologically shy when I was an undergraduate. And I was the most forgettable student as I’ve learned from people who now teach my work not knowing that they taught me. I don’t think I would have survived a creative writing course either because any sort of criticism would have shut me down forever and having said that I’m very aware that when somebody brings their work to me that I’m holding their heart in my hands. I don’t believe in negative criticism and I think that encouragement is always the answer.”

Of course, one of the neat things about having Urquhart on campus is the fact that in some classroom right now one of her books is probably on the syllabus. Somewhere professors and students are discussing what they think the major themes of that book are. But it’s worth asking, while she’s in the building, about what the author herself thinks the theme of her books is. “Now there’s a question. About fifteen years ago somebody here was teaching one of my novels and invited me to come and sit in at the back of the class and I knew that I would not be able to answer the questions the professor was putting to the class about the novel.”

Sometimes the inspiration for a book comes from a subject that Urquhart becomes fascinated with, like the way the Vimy Monument inspired The Stone Carvers for example. “Some people’s fiction is character driven or plot driven so in the past I’ve said that my fiction is landscape driven. And beyond that I really can’t comment because from one book to another things alter so dramatically and who knows what will drive the next book.”

But there is one common denominator to her books and that is they way they get started. “I do research in the same way I was doing it when I was an undergraduate and not getting very good marks. But I love to read and do research; it’s like an Easter egg hunt and I’m lucky enough to do fiction so I don’t take notes. So how it works is I read and read and read and one thing leads to another thing and then I allow the process of natural selection to take over and that which remains enters the book. I don’t stop either as I’m writing because the world starts to cooperate as I discover things.”

As a writer though you can’t go hog wild with recreationist history, which I s why even fiction writers are still subject to fact checking, so as to not completely destroy the reader’s ability to suspend disbelief. Certain things that are common knowledge, like the fact that World War I took place between 1914 and 1918, can’t be messed with, but sometimes you can blur the lines. The town in The Underpainter, Davenport, was based on Cobourg. Urquhart had thought that she’d gotten away with fooling everybody and then five years after the book was published she went out with her mother to a hotel/restaurant and learned the ghastly truth. “On the back of the menu was a history of Cobourg and the last line of it was ‘Davenport is really Cobourg in Jane Urquhart’s novel The Underpainter.’”

Jane Urquhart will be reading from A Map of Glass and The Stone Carvers as well as talking about the creative process on Wednesday night in the George Luscombe Theatre in MacKinnon at 5 pm.

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