Trevor Corkum interviews Samuel Archibald about his Giller-nominated collection of short stories, Arvida.
Fresh off great interviews with Giller finalists Anakana Schofield, André Alexis, and Heather O'Neill, I'm pleased to turn the spotlight to Samuel Archibald, author of Arvida, a book of short stories that was originally published to great acclaim in French in 2011, then translated into English by Donald Winkler and published this year by Biblioasis. Arvida is actually a town in Quebec, and Archibald is from there. The Biblioasis team describe the book as follows:
"Samuel Archibald’s portrait of his hometown is filled with innocent children and wild beasts, attempted murder and ritual mutilation, haunted houses and road trips to nowhere, bad men and mysterious women. Gothic, fantastical, and incandescent, filled with stories of everyday wonder and terror, longing and love, Arvida explores the line which separates memory from story."
THE CHAT, WITH SAMUEL ARCHIBALD
What did you immediately do when you found out you’d made it onto this year’s Giller shortlist?
I shouted and screamed like my favorite football team had just won the Superbowl on a Hail Mary pass. Then I took my seven-month-old son in my arms to soothe him, because I had just scared the beejesus out of him.
How was Arvida born?
One summer, when I was 28 or 29, I spent a month helping my father cutting wood and opening trails around is log cabin, deep in Saguenay’s backwoods. We would spend the morning and early afternoon working like dogs with chainsaws and axes, and then I would go fishing until nightfall. One week, it rained for three days straight and we had nothing to do except for playing Texas Hold’em with funny money and read a worn-out anthology of Hemingway’s short stories I had brought along with me. It was like the perfect reading for this weather and these whereabouts, and one evening, after rereading “The Big Two-Hearted River,” my father, who knew I secretly wanted to be a writer, said: “You should write a book like that, made of short tales, about here. About us.”
And I think this is when Arvida was born.
What’s a question no one has asked about your book yet, that you wish they would ask?
I think no one yet, except two friends who are Montagnais Indians, ever asked me about the importance of Native Canadians'—and especially Ilnu’s—myths and beliefs in Arvida. It’s kind of a big Easter egg hidden right there.
Your stories center around the town of Arvida in Quebec’s Saguenay region. Imagine you’re spending a day with one of your protagonists. Who would you choose? Where does he or she take you? What do you talk or argue about? What’s the one thing you learn from him or her?
Many of my characters being real, I’ve already spent many afternoons with a lot of them. If you’ll excuse me for being overtly sentimental, I would choose my grandmother (mother of my father) for although she passed almost twenty years ago, I still miss her everyday. She practically raised me and I have learned all I had to learn from her, but I would love to take her to a baseball game and to introduce her to my daughters and son.
From Arvida ("Jigai"):
I came from the ends of the earth with pebbles in my pockets. They may have told you. They couldn’t have told you why. No one ever knew. Other than Reiko. I brought them to sow, like seeds, and carry with me a bit of my native landscape. You can plant pebbles where you like and nothing of them will sprout, nothing of them will grow, and that’s perhaps a sad notion for people here and elsewhere, but not for me. I spread them on the road one night, among pebbles just like themselves. The pebbles, like the landscapes, were the same. There was nothing of myself to bring here, and I didn’t come for that. I was far away now, where no one could ever find me, but I soon realized that I’d chosen the identical land, that I had always been, as here, remote from the world, and there would be no elsewhere, never an elsewhere, until I transcended myself.
What was going on for you when you wrote this passage? How does it relate to the story at large?
I think I wrote this passage while coming back from exile. I lived in France for a few years starting in 2007 and it was for me some kind of an existentialist journey. I sold or gave away everything I had in Montreal before leaving and went away without knowing when I would be coming back, if ever. I didn’t know anybody. I didn’t belong anywhere. I made new friends and realized that these new people had no expectations whatsoever about me. I came back, ultimately, but, to all my close friends and relatives, it appeared very clear that I had left a lot of things behind, and kept only what was really important, beginning with the haunted memories and dreams of my childhood of which Arvida is made of.
I no longer felt the obligation of being me, of being loyal and true to a certain idea people had of me. It felt very liberating and made me a believer in radical change.
I think the passage from “Jigai” reflects that, as the character of Misaka is about to undergo a very drastic and literal self-transformation (she and her pupil will experiment with some rather stomach-churning forms of ritual self-mutilation): the possibility of becoming someone or something else entirely. And I think the peculiar force of the story springs from the impression that Misaka and Reiko are experimenting something that is not, from their own viewpoint, evil or insane. However horrible their actions, Misaka and Reiko are becoming angels and monsters at once.
Samuel Archibald’s stories come from over there: way, way over there. They live in the woods, hunting for creatures that may or may not exist, and they sometimes go surging down the highway at reckless speeds. At other times, they freeze, paralysed by the strange sounds that should not be coming from empty rooms in very old houses. This writing – so wise and funny and impeccably crafted – is the best kind of gossip: it tells us everything we need to know, the real dirt, about this place and about all the people, the true ‘characters,’ we meet wandering up and down the cryptic streets of a real but mythic Arvida. There is a lot of whispering going on in this town, a lot of information that strains credulity, a lot of laughter, a lot of suspense, a bit of fear. Arvida is just like life: a tender, sometimes terrifying, mystery unfolding before our eyes.
For a long time, it’s true, there were only good people in Arvida. Honest and industrious Catholics, and the Protestant owners and managers of the aluminum plant, who were basically, if you could believe my father, good human beings. You could leave your tools lying around in the garage. You could leave car doors unlocked and house doors open. There was a very beautiful photo from after the war, which was, like all beautiful photos, an empty picture, with practically nothing in it and everything outside it. In it, a dozen bicycles were strewn over the lawn in front of the clinic. Outside the photo, in the building’s basement, children were lined up before a large white curtain, waiting to be vaccinated against polio. Outside the photo, the few times I saw it, my grandmother pressed her finger down on it, saying:
“You see? There are no thieves in Arvida.”
That’s what she said all her life, my grandmother, mother of my father. Except for about twenty years when, from time to time, she looked at my father and said:
“There were no thieves in Arvida. Now there’s you.”
It’s true that almost all the family stories relating to my father were tales of larceny. Including the very first. At the age of three my father was overwhelmed for the very first time by desire for the giant May Wests beckoning from the baker’s basket. They were called Mae Wests then, after the actress. Vachon kept this spelling until Mae West’s estate sent them a legal letter, in 1980. May Wests cost five cents, and the family budget did not allow for this kind of extravagance. After being told no by his mother a good dozen times, my father decided to change his strategy.
It’s true that almost all the family stories relating to my father were tales of larceny.
A bit later that year, my Aunt Lise received fifteen cents from her godmother Monique for her birthday. One morning, while his mother was dealing with the baker, my father entered the girls’ room and stole the money from their chest of drawers. He went downstairs on tiptoe, snuck outside without his mother seeing, and hid behind a tree. When the baker went to get back in his truck, my father came out of hiding and intercepted him, hanging onto his legs.
He opened his hand and held out fifteen cents.
“My mother forgot to give you this.”
“Some May Wests.”
“What you have there would give you three big May Wests.”
“It was my birthday this week.”
“How old are you?” “Ten.”
The baker knew perfectly well that my father was lying about his age and everything else. But he’d seen the little man drooling over his basket for so long that he didn’t want to play the policeman. He sold him the cakes. My father went and hid himself away in the shadows under the porch. He crouched down among the dry leaves and the rotten boards along with the spiders and centipedes. In no time at all he devoured the May Wests, taking huge mouthfuls, like a starving creature that had had nothing to eat all winter. When his mother began calling him he went into the house, certain of having perpetrated the perfect crime, until she asked him why he had chocolate all over his face and even in his hair. He spent the entire afternoon in solitary confinement, and was freed only once, to give rein to a colossal diarrhea. So began a long series of weeks that my father spent in his penitential bedroom.