The Chat with Carleigh Baker

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Next up on The Chat, we speak to Carleigh Baker, author of the sensational short story collection Bad Endings, a finalist for the 2017 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize.

Of the collection, the Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize jury said, “In Bad Endings, Carleigh Baker has created a skillfully woven tapestry of stories, centred on strong, contemporary female characters battling for agency over their own lives .… These stories are not about happy endings—they are about powerful endings, and we found them nothing short of electrifying.”

Carleigh Baker is a Cree-Métis/Icelandic writer. She was born and raised on the traditional, ancestral, unceded territory of the Stó:lō people. Her first collection of stories, Bad Endings, won the City of Vancouver Book Award in 2017 and is a finalist for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. She won the Lush Triumphant award for short fiction in 2012, and her work has also appeared in Best Canadian Essays, and The Journey Prize Anthology. She writes book reviews for The Globe and Mail, The Literary Review of Canada, and The Malahat Review. She currently lives as a guest on the traditional, ancestral, unceded territory of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples.

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THE CHAT WITH CARLEIGH BAKER

Trevor Corkum: Bad Endings received a ton of great press in 2017, and was a finalist for the 2017 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Award. How does it feel to receive so much positive attention for the collection, and were you surprised at all by the WT nod?

Carleigh Baker: I think a writer always hopes to get some fancy accolades—I certainly do—but I’d have been crazy to expect that my little book baby would get the reception it did. And I don’t say this in a self-depreciating way, I’m proud of my writing. But there’s a ton a proficient writing that goes out into the world and never gets any significant recognition. It seems like there has to be this magical alignment beyond blood, sweat, and tears: somehow your book gets into the hands of somebody important who likes it and recommends it to somebody else, a couple of jury members happen to take notice, and suddenly you’re kind of a big deal. For a little while, anyway. So, yes, I was surprised by the WT nod, completely bowled over in fact.

It seems like there has to be this magical alignment beyond blood, sweat, and tears: somehow your book gets into the hands of somebody important who likes it and recommends it to somebody else, a couple of jury members happen to take notice, and suddenly you’re kind of a big deal. For a little while, anyway.

I’m not sure if this is an appropriate story to share, just don’t picture it in your head or whatever, but I found out about the WT nom when I got up to relieve myself at 6 a.m. and noticed my Twitter was blowing up. So yeah, I was on the commode, which is an appropriate image for the average level of writerly glamour in my daily life. Anyway, I don’t normally let myself get too excited about these things because excitement just feels like anxiety to me, but I definitely indulged in a bit of that tingly feeling. Also, I read the well wishes from friends on Twitter and that just felt wonderful. I called my parents, who had to Google the Writers’ Trust because they’re civilians so they don’t know about these things, bless their hearts. Dad just kept telling me not to get a swollen head. They’re very pragmatic.

I’m so grateful to Anvil, who made the book happen and provided all kinds of support, and for everyone at the Writers’ Trust for being so kind to me in what was kind of a zero-to-sixty situation. Not to mention the fiction prize judges, Tracey Lindberg, Michael Christie and Christy Ann Conlin, for giving the book the thumbs up. The last few months honestly felt surreal, but they were very real, and whoo boy am I thankful!

TC: Many of the stories are ironic in tone, and deal with relationships ending. Your characters often find themselves in situations familiar to many of us, in the stormy far shores of desire. What drives you most in your writing?

CB: Yeah, it seems that I’m doomed to write about my divorce about a million times in various incarnations before I finally get it out of my system. I didn’t actually realize there were so many breakups in the book until I was trying to find an order for the stories in the manuscript, and then I was very, very embarrassed. But at the time I was writing Bad Endings I was definitely most driven to try and figure out bad decisions, apocalyptic relationships, and why people in love behave badly and even cruelly towards each other. And that includes me. I had to hold myself accountable for some of my own digressions, but also forgive myself.

The stories in Bad Endings involved a lot of navel gazing, but I had a lot to recover from before I could turn my attention outward. I would say that I’m driven by different forces these days: building bridges of empathy and understanding that allow non-Indigenous readers to see Indigenous peoples as people, and therefore worthy of basic human rights, the complexities of self-identification and Metis identity, how conservationist politics is used to displace Indigenous peoples and rob them of their land and fishing/ hunting rights ... My next book is about all of those things. Looking at that list, I estimate it will be about 40,000 pages long and will take 250 years to complete.

I would say that I’m driven by different forces these days: building bridges of empathy and understanding that allow non-Indigenous readers to see Indigenous peoples as people, and therefore worthy of basic human rights, the complexities of self-identification and Metis identity, how conservationist politics is used to displace Indigenous peoples and rob them of their land and fishing/ hunting rights ...

TC: I noticed that several of the stories feature a connection to beekeeping. Is that a coincidence, or is that another interest?

CB: There are so many reasons why bees appear in my stories: they’re necessary for human existence, they are tireless workers (and matriarchal communities!), and they are being eradicated by Colony Collapse Disorder. I’m no scientist, and I don’t pretend to understand why they’re dying off in such numbers, so I’m not going to write exposés on the situation, but I can spread awareness in a soft-sell way by including them in my stories. Maybe readers who didn’t know about the situation will Google it.

Also, like the protagonist in "Chins and Elbows," I happened to take a job at a honey farm when I began my self-imposed detox and recovery from a drug addiction. Not gonna lie, that was a horrible summer that almost broke me, but the result was an increased confidence in my own resilience. Bees are crazy resilient. Aside from Colony Collapse Disorder, mite infestations can be very problematic for honeybees, and I remember pulling the top off a hive one day that had been colonized by Varroa mites, and basically watching a bunch of partially cannibalized honeybees still working away at their tasks. Legs and wings missing, antennae gone—and they just kept going. I was so angry I couldn’t help them! Anyway, this image may be a little heavy-handed for fiction, but it did the job for me IRL. I limped my way to the end of the summer and sweated myself clean.

Aside from Colony Collapse Disorder, mite infestations can be very problematic for honeybees, and I remember pulling the top off a hive one day that had been colonized by Varroa mites, and basically watching a bunch of partially cannibalized honeybees still working away at their tasks. Legs and wings missing, antennae gone—and they just kept going. I was so angry I couldn’t help them!

TC: What scares you as a writer?

CB: Being truly honest and vulnerable on the page. Not hiding behind self-depreciating humour and irony, which are entertaining, for sure, but they’re part of a protective shell between me and the reader that I’ve indulged in because in fact the stories in Bad Endings are all very personal. Most of them are just lightly fictionalized non-fiction.

True vulnerability always reads as cheesy to me, not in other people’s work, but in my own, and I’ll usually go back and revise a section that is too raw, and present it from a safer (and usually somewhat sardonic) distance. Or, you know, just slap a punchline at the end of it, something that lets the reader know that I know how sappy and self-indulgent I’m being.

TC: What projects are you working on now, Carleigh?

I’m trying to finish my Master’s degree at UBC, which will result in my next book. Most of my projects revolve around UBC right now: I’m a member of Unceded Airwaves, a weekly radio show on CiTR 101.9FM dedicated to elevating Indigenous voices and self-representation, I run a weekly Indigenous lit reading group for faculty and students, and I’m still writing reviews whenever I can. I’m a busy lady!

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Excerpt

"Grey Water"

The ocean is still this morning, and I can’t even tell you what a relief that is. Those waves have been pounding away for days, maybe weeks, who the hell knows? Drowning out every thought, every sound. Those MP3 files you sent? Couldn’t hear them. Tried to sit outside and listen, sun on my face, smashed remnants of a crab shell gathering flies beside me, but I got only the faintest inkling of your voice, the slightest rhythm of your poems. New poems! You’re so prolific.

Who knows where my earbuds are. At the bottom of an unpacked box somewhere. I was holding the laptop up to my ear until thoughts of brain cancer washed away all other attempts at concentration. On your voice. That’s what I really wanted to hear. Finally I gave up on the romantic image of listening to you read poems while I gazed at the ocean and went inside. But I can hear the waves inside, too, just enough to bug me. Finally I got in the closet, laptop pressed against my ear again (screw cancer!) and could just make out your dulcet tones. Something about a train. And bugs. And sex, I think, though it’s so hard to tell with you. Those fancy metaphors. At one point you mentioned trying to capture the (non-sexy) simplicity of an afternoon of mid-summer rain. What I wouldn’t give for some rain right now. Amanda says the well could dry up at any time, and then what?

Amanda is a pain, even when she’s not here. She texts every day, asking if it’s rained yet. Like she couldn’t just Google it. She wants me to take three-minute showers to conserve water, but it’s hard to wash everything in three minutes. Impossible, really. I do upper body on Monday and Friday and lower body on Wednesday and Saturday. That includes hair washing for upper body and leg shaving for lower body, and as you know I have very long hair and legs. Damn, that didn’t sound as sexy as I wanted it to. Anyway, yeah, two showers in a row on weekends. You never know when you might get lucky—not that I’m looking—but hopefully it’d be on a Saturday, when my hair is reasonably clean and my legs are baby smooth. You’d like me on Saturday. You’d take the 5:20 ferry over, and walk from the terminal to the bookstore, and I’d pretend to be a little surprised that it was already 6:30, even though I’d have been waiting the whole day. We’d go to the pizza place after work and have a couple glasses of wine and an appy outside on the patio.

I’d have my nerd glasses on and my day-old hair up in a bun, kind of like a sexy librarian, only like a sexy bookseller. That’s me. We’d leave the pizza place before it got too dark, since it’s a long walk to the pub. Maybe I’ll get a car someday. Somebody might pick us up, a good-hearted local, somebody I served at the bookstore that day. If not, we’d take the path that runs alongside the road. It’s fine during the day, but a little too creepy at night. There’s no predators on the island. Just deer and raccoons. A local told me that the deer might take a run at me during rutting season but he might have been joking. Most of the time they’re just running away. Or sometimes they hang out in the backyard and watch me, big watery Bambi eyes, tails twitching. Anyway, we might see some deer on the way to the pub. When we arrived, some islanders would be smoking a doobie outside, off in the trees a little. Neither of us would feel uncomfortable—it’s the island!

I’d know the bartender, and he’d bring my martini over and shake your hand and ask you what you’d like. You’d be a little suspicious of how well he and I seem to know each other, and I’d reassure you that although he’s quite handsome, and he does have a way with words, he’s not my type. You are. There’d be a reggae band playing, and you’d remark that reggae seems appropriate for the island. You’d be right.

At one point you’d pull something you’d written on the ferry out of your pocket and read it to me: a new poem or piece of flash fiction, or an excerpt from a novel in progress. I’d listen rapturously, chin cradled between my fingers, running my foot up and down your leg under the table. You wouldn’t even stop to thank the bartender when he brought your beer, you’d be so into it. The bartender would nod approvingly and wink at me. Because we’re friends, and I’ve told him all about you. And you’re every bit as good in person as in my stories.     

This is an excerpt from “Grey Water” from Bad Endings by Carleigh Baker, published by Anvil Press Publishers in 2017. Used with permission of the publisher.

January 11, 2018
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