Published on October 22nd, 2019 | by The Editor0
Interview: Wendy McGrath (Broke City)
Please welcome our guest writer, Thea Bowering, interviewing prairie writer Wendy McGrath about her brand new book, Broke City, part of the Santa Rosa Trilogy.
Recently, on my CJSR-Radio program, WORD, I talked with Edmonton poet and novelist Wendy McGrath about Broke City (2019), the novel that completes her Santa Rosa Trilogy, which also includes the award-nominated Santa Rosa (2012) and North East (2014) (NeWest Press). Through the 1960s we follow a working-class family with Saskatchewan roots, that builds a life in the now defunct industrial area of Santa Rosa, Edmonton. Undisclosed family trauma, loyalties and tensions, as well as brief moments of happiness are mediated by the limited POV of the family’s ever-watchful young daughter, Christine. Her desire to “paint herself out of Santa Rosa and into the bigger world” is the redemptive element that drives forward the Trilogy’s uncompromising prose. This Q&A builds on our conversation.
TB: Like your Santa Rosa family, you come from Saskatchewan stock and have parents who lived in Edmonton’s Santa Rosa neighbourhood. However, this is not an autobiographical narrative, so what compelled you to set several scenes of your story in a small community in Saskatchewan, and primarily in a neighbourhood in Edmonton that no longer exists?
WM: I describe the Trilogy as prairie gothic, so small-town Saskatchewan and an Edmonton neighbourhood that has disappeared from the map made the perfect back-drop for Broke City, North East, and Santa Rosa. I first envisioned Santa Rosa as a ghost story, in the strict definition, but changed direction. Yes, the neighbourhood is a ghost now, and the family in the neighbourhood are, in a sense, ghosts, but their story haunts the present.
TB: The Santa Rosa Trilogy isn’t a ghost story in the conventional sense, but there is eeriness to it, an undisclosed tension or untold story that haunts the narrative.
WM: I’m glad that sense of eeriness comes through. Prairie gothic—that sense that something awful could happen at any moment, and probably will—is how I’d classify the Trilogy. There are terrifying things going on in the world outside Christine’s neighbourhood and family, but she senses that there might be something menacing going on right in her own family—she just doesn’t know what it might be. As I mentioned, I had intended for Santa Rosa to be a ghost story in a traditional sense, but that didn’t work. What came next was writing all three novels as if the characters were ghosts in real-life, haunting their own lives and their family’s with a sadness and menace that is often left unresolved. Setting the books in a neighbourhood that no longer exists helped that along.
TB: In the Santa Rosa Trilogy the theme of familial memory is central, as is has been across genres for you: since your earliest published work Common Place Ecstasies and Recurring Fictions. What do you find compelling about this kind of memory compared to other kinds?
WM: Families are repositories for their memories, their own stories, with unique trajectories. More often than not, the truth is narrated differently by each family member. Family memories are not absolute, they can be added too, subtracted from and erased. That’s what makes family memories so fascinating and so fun to work with and build on in prose and poetry.
TB: The Santa Rosa Trilogy is composed of three short novels. What can short novels do that the longer novels can’t, especially when making up a trilogy?
WM: I loved working with this short novel form. It is intense, demanding, and does not allow the writer any excesses. The short novels mimic a child’s memory, or the length of memory—by definition short because a child has not lived a long life, but that life has an intensity that will never be duplicated because of its intense experiences.
TB: I’m wondering if you talk about the relationship between trauma and repetition in the books. In some ways the prose is reminiscent of long poem structures or song cycles. Instead of a sequential poem, we get sequential prose that is, increasingly, from book to book, held together with recurring images, objects.
WM: My work tends to be image-driven rather than following a traditional linear narrative. Certainly, the books in the Trilogy are image-driven. I think this type of structure mimics the structure of memory—which can be triggered by an image, a song, a sound or a scent. These responses do not occur in a linear fashion and though random, still create strong connections. Objects also can evoke a strong, almost talismanic power as symbols of events, time, place.
TB: Many scenes are organized around food, meals; particular brands that seem to hold symbolic weight. Can you talk about how food works in the novels, particularly Broke City. How does it connect to the larger themes?
WM: Food is a marker of class and social standing in these books. Christine’s father receives a case of SPAM from the city because it is being distributed to families whose bread-winner (that’s a loaded term in this case, isn’t it?) is out of work. Christine’s mother tells her the cereal she’s having on Christmas morning is a happy tradition—but Christine sees it’s the only box of cereal in the cupboard. This speaks to the disconnect between the child-narrator’s world and the adults’. The child has a limited insight into what might be perceived as ‘posh’ food or even what having an empty cupboard means. If it’s a breakfast of bread and milk with a sprinkle of sugar on Friday, well, there’s no reason for a child to question it because there’s no frame of reference in terms of class or whether the family has money or is broke.
TB: Over the three novels we stay within a few years of the 1960s. Why did you decide on this period, and how did you bring the history and culture of the time into the narrative? For example, 60s music is very important in the novels, we hear it on the radio, in movies on the TV. At the end of Broke City you include a list of songs and films that you say are the invisible palimpsest to the trilogy.
WM: The 1960s seemed so full of hope and promise—but at the same time, there were also horrible things happening in the world, things that would be frightening for kids. Broke City is set in 1967—there was the Apollo I fire that killed three astronauts, the Detroit riots, and the constant backdrop of the Vietnam War. In August, 1967 there was a mass murder in Saskatchewan—which came to be known as the Shell Lake Massacre—nine people were killed. I immersed myself in this decade—watched 60s films, listened to 60s music and, of course, these elements found their way into the Trilogy. Music and film are critical to place and time in these books. They are like another character, in the same way that the setting is a character.
TB: After spending so many years with this family, is it difficult to let them go? What are you working on now?
WM: When I had finished Broke City, I was relieved to be done with these people. But, working through the proofs, I thought, I might need to check in again on them! I’ve been working with Danny Miles, drummer for July Talk and Tongue Helmet, on a collection of ekphrastic poems inspired by his bird photography. It’s ‘out in the world’ now making the publisher rounds. Edmonton-based musician and producer, Sascha Liebrand, and I have an album “Before We Knew” coming out November 3. It’s an experimental jazz, techno, spoken word project that I’m so proud of! It’s my second foray into music/spoken word and I love it. I continue to work in multiple genres: non-fiction, poetry, fiction…I consider myself to be a constant apprentice.
Wendy McGrath is reading with Kat Cameron and Katherine Koller:
Saturday, November 16
2 PM — Turning the Tide Bookstore —- 615 Main St, Saskatoon
Thea Bowering regularly interviews authors on her bi-weekly radio show WORD that can be heard live at CJSR.com. Her short story collection Love At Last Sight can be found at NeWest Press.com
Wendy McGrath writes in Edmonton on Treaty 6 Territory.