The Chat with Zsuzsi Gartner

Gartner_Zsuzsi

Zsuzsi Gartner’s debut novel, The Beguiling (Hamish Hamilton), is a stunner. It was a finalist for this year’s Writer's Trust Fiction Prize, and the Globe and Mail calls it "exquisite."

2020 Writer's Trust jury citation:

“A lapsed Catholic, curbside confessionals, and quantum realities come together in a one-of-a-kind romp in Zsuzsi Gartner’s The Beguiling: an exquisitely crafted, profoundly readable novel about the human compulsion to seek absolution in strangers, a page-turner so compelling, so inventive, so weirdly weird, readers will feel like they’ve been to a party that leaves them wondering at the genius of the host who pulled it off. A book as full of imagination as heart, its structure like a nesting doll, a scrappy, unforgettable narrator, a multilayered look at stories as both connection and mode of transformation — this is Gartner at her best.”

Zsuzsi Gartner is the author of the fiction collections All the Anxious Girls on Earth and Better Living through Plastic Explosives, which was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. Her fiction has been widely anthologized, broadcast on CBC and NPR, and won numerous prizes, including a National Magazine Award. Gartner is the founder and director of Writers Adventure Camp in Whistler, British Columbia. She lives in Vancouver.

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Trevor Corkum: The Beguiling is your debut novel, coming on the heels of two acclaimed and celebrated collections of short fiction. It’s hilarious, witty, superbly intelligent and laser-like in its cultural observations. How was the transition to novel form? What joys, challenges, sidetracks, and celebrations did you experience along the way?

Zsuzsi Gartner: Oh, Trevor, thank you so much [pausing to blush].

The biggest challenge was structural—I’m a bit of a structure freak, I even have a workshop I run occasionally called “The Geometry of Fiction” (focused mainly on the short story but recently incorporating the novel as well). I loosely modelled the book on Saint Augustine’s Confessions, which worked for the main chapters, but there are also a lot of what I call “interstitial bits” that repeat, and progress, and then loop back on themselves throughout—some are lists of questions, or rather, answers to questions Lucy, the protagonist, imagines people asking her, or ones she asks herself; others are in a kind of personal essay form; some are mini-narratives.

It was my wonderful editor and publisher, Nicole Winstanley, who said, riffing off of the Catholic conceit of the novel: “I think that right now we have rosary beads without a string: we need Lucy to be the connecting line that holds the “decades” together, so to speak.” So, if we were to imagine The Beguiling as a three-dimensional object, let’s say it’s a rosary forged in the cauldron of the Scottish play’s Weird Sisters.

TC: This has been such a surreal, impossibly anxious year. How does satire help us make sense of the world in difficult times?  

ZG: Yes and no—I used to think so, but the world has become almost completely self-satirizing and there are such precious, precious sacred cows today that you dare tip over at your peril (although I do take on a few in The Beguiling). Saturday Night Live is struggling with satirizing Trump and falling flat. As people keep shaking their heads and saying, “You just can’t make this shit up!”

Which might be why I pulled back from all-out satire with this book, as compared to the short fiction collections, and went at things more off-kilter, slant, and darker—going for the balance of tragedy and comedy I enjoy so much in my favourite books.

TC: The book is structured around a series of confessions by random strangers drawn inexplicably to Lucy, the novel’s protagonist. There’s a delicious irony to all these confessions, given that Lucy’s a lapsed Catholic. Is the confessional structure—based on the writings of Saint Augustine—how you structured the novel from the outset? Or did the confessions begin to reveal themselves over time?  

Short answer, yes! See above. I should also mention that while each chapter contains what I call “an embedded confession” from a stranger, it also reveals something Lucy is hiding, or wilfully deceiving herself about as well.

TC: The novel is set in part in Vancouver (with fab cameo appearances by China, Ireland, Germany, Toronto, Calgary, and other locales far and near). Vancouver is such a moody, irrepressible character here…and the neighbourhood of Commercial Drive in particular. Can you talk a little more about setting and why and how Vancouver continues to be such a force in your work?

ZG: I’ve lived here 30 years now, the longest I’ve lived in any one city, and I still sometimes feel as if I’m experiencing it from the outside; an anthropologist from Mars sent here to observe the local customs, tribes, flora (so much of it!) and fauna. Every city is distinct and a character in its own right if you get beyond the surface and penetrate its various idiosyncrasies, and using those and sharply detailed specificities to ground your fiction makes it all the more believable, no matter how strange and hyper-real the happenings in a book might become. For example, Vancouver, like Portland and Budapest, is a city of bridges, and bridges are wonderful things to make use of in fiction.

Another example, weather—we are at the edge of a rain forest, which is very different from a city at the edge of a desert, or at the foothills of a mountain range, or one that is buried in snow four months of the year. But every place is also like that Indian parable about the elephant described by the seven blind men (the beast is a thick snake! a tree trunk! a spear!).

My Vancouver is not the Vancouver of Wayson Choy, or Timothy Taylor, or Douglas Coupland, or Charles Demers, or Ashley Little; in the same way the London of Zadie Smith is not the London of Martin Amis or of Monica Ali, or of Allan Hollinghurst.

TC: There’s also a lovely dog in the novel. Tell us more about the dog.

ZG: Three lovely dogs, in fact—and some canine bit players as well! There’s the mutt Gimli (né: Dickens) who Lucy inherits (“much like you might inherit an ex-roommate’s spider plant”) and who—along with the prescient German Kromfohrländer, Krumpli (né: Walter), and the very brave black pug called Otis—is the moral centre of the novel. Becoming a dog person changes Lucy, as my own dog, Banda, changed me when he came into my life seven years ago. If he hadn’t, I don’t think any of the beguiling dogs in the book would be there.

As Lucy notes: “When I looked into Gimli’s eyes, when I could see them through his wild mass of fur, that is, what I saw was not the eyes of the “other” but my own reflection. I am dog, therefore I am. Ergo. Etc. Woof.

“Not true. Not true at all. What I saw was my better.”

Thanks so much for this, Trevor. It was great “Chat”ting with you.

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Excerpt from The Beguiling

If this were merely another story of domestic or maternal discontent, there would be little point in dredging back through it all as if dragging a lake for a long-decomposed body. Oh, wretched me oh my, first-world problems, smart women bad choices, blah blah blah. Leave it to the fishes, the bottom-dwellers with their prickly whiskers. Leave the bones in peace to settle into the silt. But immediately following Zoltán’s burial, my life took a most unexpected turn.

In the slow-moving elevator at Vancouver’s Sylvia Hotel an aging mountaineer told me how two decades earlier, during an ascent on Mount Elbrus in the Caucasus, he’d passed a climber encased in ice. In his eagerness to summit he didn’t tell anyone even though he knew the woman’s remains had been sought for five years. “She looked just like a wax doll. Like a giant Barbie with yellowed braids.” In the washroom at the Vancouver airport a woman in the next cubicle, as our pee sang against porcelain, divulged that she’d told her young children their father was Santa Claus and that was why he couldn’t live with them anymore and only visited on Christmas Day. It wouldn’t be fair to all the other children of the world.

Back in Toronto there was the man waiting beside me for the southbound train at St. Clair West station who told me about his powerful urge to murder his beloved and most excellent Muslim mechanic—a man from Fiji with tiny hands who always called him “Mister”—which he sublimated by running great distances in bad weather. A private-school girl in my Zumba class revealed that during a class visit to the National Gallery she had smeared a small amount of menstrual blood (her own) on A.Y. Jackson’s Red Maple. Now she felt the painting was somehow hers, but didn’t know what to do about it, and so her grades and weight plummeted towards oblivion.  

Sometimes people told me ridiculous or terrifying things in languages I couldn’t possibly understand—Mandarin, Oji-Cree, American Sign Language—and yet I always seemed to know what they were saying.

I had transformed into some kind of confession magnet, a lay confessor. A flesh-and-blood Wailing Wall.

The burdened came at me much like the New Testament’s disaffected and leprous swarms in a scene straight out of Jesus Christ Superstar. They didn’t seek absolution; it was more akin to a divestment. Like snakes twisting out of their old skin in order to rid themselves of parasites.     

You would think all this would have made me feel despoiled or at least perpetually gloomy. But it was the confessions that gave me succour during this time.

In fact, I felt chosen.

St. Lucy. Patron saint of the blind leading the blind.

Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

November 23, 2020
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