Phillip Ernest has written two extraordinary and unique novels that have few comparisons in literature. Kenneth Radu explores the both real and imagined horrors found in The Vetala and The Far Himalaya.
From Sophie Legrand: Q & A with Katherine Govier15 November 2011
SL: Where does your interest in Japan come from, as in your novel The Ghost Brush (2010)?
KG: My grandfather was a trader, so he brought us things when we were children. I also had friends who were Japanese-Canadian when I was in Alberta. I just developed an affinity for the culture and the martial arts. I admire their aesthetics, and again it’s what I see and what I’m interested in seeing: this beautiful aesthetic but underneath there’s this very cruel, very hard, very cold, very dark world.
SL: Are you equally interested in Edo Japan and contemporary Japan?
KG: I think I prefer the historical Japan. It’s more approachable. Contemporary Japan goes so fast. When you write history, at least it has stopped – or slowed enough to get inside.
SL: Why did you decide to create bonds between your books, to connect them?
KG: Sometimes it becomes necessary because we have certain characters who have to come back. You just want them to reappear.
SL: You don’t do this anymore. Is there any reason?
KG: I was going to put Vera (Three Views of Crystal Water, 2005) in The Ghost Brush. She was going to be the print collector who found some prints of Oei. I still might do that. It depends on if these characters stay with me. Or if I find there’s another story with them. For instance, there is a Japanese-Canadian character in this new novel I’m writing. He’s a wildlife photographer. I’m just now writing about his background, how he came to Canada. There are possibly some links there.
SL: You have written about World War II several times, about Edo Japan. Is there any other historical period you would like to write about?
KG: I’m touching on World War II again in this new novel, or just some of the events that happened in the internment camps in Western Canada. But no, not for the moment. What’s interesting me in Western Canada now are these huge mountain areas, these national parks and the people who went through them who were hunters and miners and cowboys. There were concentration camps there, so this fabulous landscape, which is very empty of people, saw bits of violence. It’s part of the same dichotomy I worked with in Creation (2002), which is between the appreciation of the wild as necessary and the idea that the wild must be brought under control.
SL: Do you need to go back to work quickly after a book is finished? Can you spend a lot of time without writing?
KG: I don’t know what to do with myself! I really like to write. I’m quite driven so I feel strange if I don’t have a book to work on.
SL: Are historical characters the best to focus on when you want to talk about places you like?
KG: It’s a great question. Sometimes, as you know, I use real historical characters and sometimes I invent them. Sometimes a character from history is so attractive and interesting like Audubon, fascinating to write about (Creation). Audubon had this tortured past, he was a bastard child, he told lies, he abused his wife, he shot birds though he loved them, but you know he made these beautiful things. And in some cases his pictures are the only records we have of these birds. I think he was a fantastic genius. When you find a character like that in history, it’s hard to resist writing about him. Lord Beaverbrook in Angel Walk (1996) is another. He also was a funny guy, a very close confident of Churchill’s wife. He was the one who sent the artists into the war, that was his program. He was a bastard but he did that. I found he was attractive and so funny to use in the book. For me he was a vehicle to get a Canadian woman photographer into the field of war because the army wouldn’t send her. Using that kind of character can be a way to get a sort of historical accuracy.
SL: You really seem to like history.
KG: I do, but I don’t like history for its own sake. I like history because I can see it today. I didn’t like it in the university because I felt it was dead. I don’t like dead battles, dead Acts of Parliament. I don’t like it when it’s not linked to the present time. Although I might have if there had been more women in it.
SL: How about writing about Hokusai?
KG: Wherever I travel, I go to art galleries. I saw many by Hokusai. I was fascinated because his period is the same as Audubon’s. When Hokusai was making the 36 Views of Mount Fuji, Audubon was working on the Birds of America. So these printmakers were travellers and explorers, they brought the pictures back from these exotic places that ordinary people couldn’t go. I just happened to be reading a catalogue about Japanese women artists and I read Hokusai had a daughter. So I wanted to find out about her and was surprised to find out that a lot of people think she has done a great deal of work in her father’s name. It truly was a discovery for me. For most people she’s the great artist. That was a story I just locked on to.
SL: Is James Lowinger’s character in Three Views of Crystal Water a tribute to your grand-father and Vera’s a tribute to your own self when you were a child?
KG: Lowinger is a bit of a tribute to my grandfather. But no, Vera is more my mother. It’s what I wish for my mother. The beginning of that novel is something my mother told me. Her mother committed suicide and her father was travelling in Japan. She went to the ship to meet him and he had this Japanese woman on his arm. I don’t know what happened to the woman, but my mother told me that she said, “Oh Harry, I didn’t know you had a daughter!” My poor mother! She stayed in Vancouver with her father who was always travelling and who re-married. So she had a stepmother she didn’t really like.
SL: Do you have other hidden tributes to your family in your novels?
KG: There will be some to my parents’ marriage in my new novel. In Angel Walk there are references to my grandparents. I think we learn character from members of our own families. We can invent characters that we like but, in the end, they really are people that we’ve known.
SL: Angel Walk has been made into a script. Is there any other of your books you would like to see made into a movie?
KG: I’d love it for Creation. And The Ghost Brush too. In this case it would presumably have to be Japanese.
SL: If you had the opportunity to rewrite something, would you take it?
KG: Interesting question. There are some books I wrote when my children were small that I don’t think are particularly important, like Going Through the Motions (1982). I think the stories were better than the novels at that time. I wrote those books because I was afraid to stop writing. Seriously. I thought, when I had small children, “If I don’t write, I’m not going to be a writer.” So I wrote just to write, but I don’t think I had the emotional energy so much. Random Descent (1979) I wouldn’t change. Between Men (1987)is an interesting book because it’s set in Alberta. It’s where I started to develop what my interests were going to be, because my character’s a contemporary woman researcher in the past, it’s about the murder case of a woman. I don’t think it’s a terrific book but it was terrific to point me where I was going.
SL: Which one of your novels do you think the most polished and complete?
KG: I think they’re all pretty complete. I think Creation because it’s short.
SL: Is this one your favorite? Because you often talk about Creation…
KG: No. The recent novels are always your favorite. I have a hard time leaving The Ghost Brush behind because I love that world. But I think my real favorite is Angel Walk because of the roughness of the people, the realism in there. And I’m very attached to that landscape, which is where my grandfather came from.
SL: What literary legacy would you like to leave?
KG: I would like to leave my stories that bring real women out of the shadows, women who are active and brave. And also the places, the idea of characters in that place, how that place makes them act, how it influences their lives. I’d like to leave those places so that people remember them.
SL: How do you write about a landscape, compared to the way you write about a character?
KG: I like to go there, I like to experience landscape. I’m from the west of Canada, which is a big landscape. It’s prairie, first of all, and then it’s mountains. My city tends to be in the middle of a vast harbour playground.
When I went to Labrador, I just looked at it, I didn’t experience living there but it doesn’t change. Tokyo is a very difficult landscape to create because the Tokyo of 200 years ago is almost gone. But to create the Labrador of 200 years ago is easy, it looks exactly the same.
SL: Seeing Hokusai and Audubon’s works made you want to write about them. What about your own photographs? Do they sometimes inspire you too?
KG: I do take lots of photographs, but it’s usually working the opposite way. I’m going to take a picture because I think I might write about something there.
SL: When you started writing there was this raise of national pride, especially in literature. Was it your choice at the time to write about Canada or did you follow the flow?
KG: The first generation of Canadian writers living in Canada, writing about Canada concerned and being well-known in Canada is Margaret Atwood’s, so I’m not from the first generation. But yes, there was a certain pressure and a certain feeling in the culture that you had to write Canadian stories. It’s not the same anymore but still, the Canadians don’t really appreciate urban fiction. I don’t like it, I’m different.
SL: The only exceptions to this are Three Views of Crystal Water and The Ghost Brush. How was it then to write about other places?
KG: I enjoy setting things outside of Canada. It’s a freedom. I don’t care anymore about what people want me to write about.
© Sophie Legrand 2011
Born in Versailles, France, Sophie Legrand has an MA in translation (Université Paris 7) and has chosen Katherine Govier's works as the subject of her PhD. She is currently working on the translation of The Ghost Brush and on the publishing of Katherine Govier's works in French. Sophie Legrand has also translated TV shows for France Télévisions (the French national channels) and was part of the team that translated the science book Artifical Intelligence (Prentice Hall, 3rd edition). She works as an interviewer and translator for various French radio stations and websites.