Giller Prize 2020 Special: The Chat with David Bergen

David Bergen

We’re thrilled to begin this year’s special Scotiabank Giller Prize coverage in conversation with David Bergen. David appears on this year’s shortlist for his short story collection Here the Dark (Biblioasis).

Jury citation:

"A dying woman asks an aging rancher to become her last lover. A fishing boat sputters to a halt off the coast of Honduras, compelling its owner to decide the fate of his repellent client. A young woman in a puritanical religious community glimpses the coloured world outside, and must choose whether to close her eyes, or to run. Sexual loneliness and moral confusion pull at the delicately wrought characters in David Bergen’s latest work, a story collection of masterly skill and tension. His third appearance on the Giller shortlist—including the 2005 winner, The Time in Between—affirms Bergen among Canada’s most powerful writers. His pages light up; all around falls into darkness.”

David Bergen has published eight novels and a collection of short stories. His work has been nominated for the Governor General’s Literary Award, the Impac Dublin Literary Award, and a Pushcart Prize. He won the Giller Prize for his novel The Time in Between. In 2018, he was given the Writers’ Trust Matt Cohen Award: In Celebration of a Writing Life.

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What was the first thing you did when you found out you were a finalist for this year’s Giller Prize?

Double take. And when I realized it was true, I texted my wife. 

Here the Dark is one of two short story collections on this year’s shortlist. What does the short story offer the reader that a novel cannot?

Short stories are like quick jabs that are felt as stinging blows. And with each jab a pause is required. Gather yourself and dive back in. The immediacy is gratifying, and because the form demands a more elliptical and open-ended form, there is a greater sense of imagining what might happen after the story ends.

The stories are set in locations as diverse as Vietnam and Honduras. Your recent novel Stranger took place largely in Central America. In what ways does setting inform or inspire your work?

Setting will influence both character and story, and in the case of Vietnam and Central America, the narrative hinges on the misapprehension of the other, the assumptions one makes due to hubris and privilege, and how those assumptions sometimes lead to poor decisions and dire consequences. And sometimes death.

In this difficult year, in Canada and worldwide, what does literature offer us? 

Literature should confront the biggest question: how should one live? And during a pandemic this becomes even more crucial. The best literature does not offer easy answers, it does not shy from darkness. But it is artifice that raises literature above the fray and the banal. I recently read a dystopic novel that has just been published, Strange Labour, and though the circumstances in the novel are bleak and forbidding, I was left with a tremendous sense of hope, a lightness of spirit. It was the art in the story telling, it was the writing that lifted me.

What’s the last Canadian book that changed you in some way?

Strange Labour, by Robert G. Penner. Just published. A beautiful and aching portrayal of a young woman’s quest for how to live when all seems lost. I don’t know if I changed, but when I finished it I was absurdly and strangely happy.

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Excerpt from Here the Dark

She spent Sunday mornings reading novels that she had picked up at the town public library. She had gone there one day and asked how to borrow books and she had been given a library card and the first time she had only taken one book, a novel chosen at random, and when she learned that she could check out as many books as she liked, she signed out ten and took them home and stacked them by her bed. She was more brazen now with her books. She left them on the night table, or in the living room, and when Johan picked one up and turned it around in his hands, he did so as if it was an offending and mysterious object. He did not understand the allure. Or he understood it very well.

Every weekday morning at ten, always at ten, Johan’s mother Elmira entered the house without knocking or calling out. She looked like a root vegetable, a parsnip that had been uprooted during an early harvest and left abandoned to the heat of the day and the cold of the night, and had shrivelled. She suffered back problems, and this being so she shuffled around Lily’s kitchen and the dining room with her head curled towards the ground, as if looking for some object that might have dropped, a pickle perhaps, or a fork that might have slid off the table. The effect was such that Lily inevitably also bent her head towards the ground to seek out that pickle or that fork. Finding nothing, Elmira moved through the rooms, now seeking dust, or a chair out of place, or a plant that might be dry, or a dirty tablecloth. When she found fault, she corrected it. She did not speak, she would just look sour and tssk, and then she would water the dry plant, or she would get out the dusting supplies and spray Lemon Pledge and scrub at the coffee table, or she would remove the offending tablecloth and replace it with a clean one, taking home the dirty laundry to wash it herself. Rumour was that Lily was not a good housekeeper. She was sloppy. She did not have a passion for spotlessness. The fault of this might have fallen onto Lily’s mother, who had not trained Lily well, but in this case the fault for all the disorder was blamed on books. One day, Mrs. Gerbrandt said, just before stepping out of the door to return to her own gleaming house, "All these books are making your home dirty." Mrs. Gerbrandt was breathless, and her hands were shaking, and her mouth moved but no more words came out. For a brief moment Lily felt for her. The word that came to mind was apoplexy, which could mean stroke or extreme anger. It wasn’t clear which one Mrs. Gerbrandt might be suffering. In order to help, or perhaps to be free of her, Lily walked her across the yard to her own house and by the time they had reached the door, Mrs. Gerbrandt had recovered and she was saying to Lily, “Come back. Come back. I see all sorts of tribulation.”

Lily held Mrs. Gerbrandt’s elbows and looked her directly in the eyes and said, "I am no different than before. There is no tribulation."

Here the Dark, copyright © David Bergen, 2020. Reproduced with permission from Biblioasis

 

October 19, 2020
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