In the summer of 2009, I was working The Malahat Review’s table at an environmental literature conference, selling copies of their Green Imagination issue. At that time, I was in the middle of a separation. I had been sleeping in the basement of the family home for weeks. I didn’t want to leave my children but I didn’t want to stay with my husband. All of the parenting magazines I read focused on potty training, school lunches, soccer. That’s what parents are supposed to be concerned with. How to get your child to eat his leafy greens. Not how can I leave my husband with as little damage to the children as possible. I had no examples, no allies. But, at the table next to mine, Arleen Paré was selling copies of her BC Book Prize-winning first novel, Paper Trail. And we started talking. Somehow, we started talking about separation. She shared her story and I shared mine. She told me she had a book coming out, Leaving Now, in which she wrote this story. It launched in spring 2012, and I finally found the time to read it this spring. It is a beautifully written story, one I would recommend to anyone who has family, i.e., everyone.
“In any fairy tale, the mother is gone.”
In Leaving Now, you recognize that most fairy tales centre around an absent mother (and this happens in Disney movies too – Bambi, The Little Mermaid, Finding Nemo, etc.). What made you decide to incorporate the narrative of a fairy tale character—Gudrun, mother of Hansel and Gretel—into your novel?
There were several reasons to allow Gudrun to enter the narrative. First, she provided another character, a character with whom the narrator could reminisce, discuss her own intimate and philosophical concerns. This was important for the story’s lively progress; it’s difficult to sustain a narrator’s internal progress without a second character to talk to about what’s happened or happening. Gudrun also provided an echo character; someone who to reflect the narrator’s own life events and conditions, which allowed me to include suggestions that might have been awkward or otherwise heavy-handed. Gudrun also brought an element of fantasy which I enjoyed writing, as well as fairytale which elevated the narrative to a more universal level, I thought.
“The only good mothers who left were mothers who had died.”
How prominent was that opinion at the time that you left your husband and how prominent do you think it is now? Do you think you had more support back then, in the days of Consciousness Raising groups and women’s liberation, than women do now, when making babies seems to be the hip thing to do (e.g., Angelina Jolie, Princess Kate, etc.)?
That’s an interesting historical and feminist question. In my youth, in the fifties, no mother that I knew left their children without dying. In the seventies and early eighties, when I left, I believe it was rare, but more frequent because of the social changes that women’s liberation brought through that period of time. There wasn’t peer judgment, but there was a lot of family concern and confusion, which amounted to non-support, of course. Now, I wouldn’t know. It seems there’s a marketing push to bring back child- bearing as a hip thing, almost an imperative, in the way that advertizing in the fifties, post-war, encouraged women to be good housewives. On the other hand, society seems more fluid.
“Good, bad, we all have stories. How else do we know our lives? … How else do we all mend?”
When did you realize that the story of you leaving your husband was an important story for you to tell? Did you have to clear everything with your ex-husband, your sons, your extended family first? And how did the structure of it come about? Organically, as you wrote, or did you plot out the rhythmic repetitions of the kitchen table, the time line, the poems, the Gudrun narrative, before beginning?
I plotted out nothing. I just wrote the story at first, event by event. This fragmented style works for me and for the story, I think. Then Gudrun appeared. Then I noticed the kitchen table, the kitchen floor repeating their appearances, which I understood to be symbolically important. The returning to the kitchen, the site of the “trauma,” seemed to be a useful way to underline the intensity of the experience – for everyone.
For the longest time, I thought no one would be interested in this story, which is, I think, why I have Gudrun encourage the narrator with the sentence you quoted above.
I gave my two (adult) sons a final version of the narrative to read, vet. They were encouraging. I offered the draft to my former husband to read, but he didn’t want to read it until it was published.
Tell me a bit about your Consciousness Raising group. Do you see any organizing by women now that is comparable to what you experienced in the 1970s?
The CR group was extraordinary. The times were so heated and so much change was in the air and CR groups were part of the big picture. We were actually making history and we knew it. Heady stuff. I don’t think there is anything like that foment now and I don’t see a lot of organizing by North American women in the same way. I could be wrong – I’m not so much in the know now. On the other hand, I do read about large protests and actions by women in other parts of the world that are very encouraging.
At one point in the story Gudrun shows the main character how she can hide her foot and make it reappear. I’m curious to know what you intended the significance of this to be.
I think I was just fooling around, but I also think I wanted to emphasize the issues of being in charge of your own body, of bringing magic into the world, of trying so hard to make positive things happen.
“Stay, he says, it’s plain in here without you.”
This is something that would only come out of a child’s mouth. I imagine it’s something your son did say to you, verbatim. Did you do a lot of recording of your children’s utterances, your feelings, etc. as they grew up that you could use as a reference or did you have to recall from memory?
I didn’t journal (much) and I didn’t record what the kids said, but some of their words and phrases stuck. The above was such a poignant utterance that I could not forget it.
“My children memorized my palms
They tolerate the story’s arc.
I roll out mistakes like dice;”
I think we all have to tolerate our parents’ mistakes, in whatever form they come. In what ways do you think your kids and you are better for having the life you chose?
Well, that’s a hard one. It’s hard to know how they would have turned out, how I would have turned out, if I hadn’t left. They say that they benefitted, as I mention towards the end of the book. They have said that they are more compassionate and understanding of difference, that my action expanded their worlds. I believe that. They are both amazing and positive people. I would say I am a better person too, for having left, though I wasn’t unhappy in my marriage. I gave up certain things, but I gained immensely. Emotionally. On the other hand, I have to remind us that the character in the book is not exactly me. She’s a fictional character too, more dramatically drawn.
How did you begin writing? Did you always write and not take it seriously until later in life or did inspiration suddenly strike?
I enjoyed writing in high school, but after adolescence, I wrote very little. I began just before I turned fifty, after finishing an M.A. at UBC. The process of writing my M.A. thesis was exciting. I was working as a social worker at the time and taking the degree part-time, so the intellectual exercise of writing a large document challenged me, in a good way. When I finished the degree, I took up novel writing to fill the hole where the thesis used to be. One thing led to another and I was hooked.
You’re publishing a book of poetry soon. What projects are you working on beyond this?
Lake of Two Mountains is my first book of poetry, based on my M.F.A creative thesis (UVic). Brick Books will release it in April, 2014. It’s a themed collection about a lake near Montreal. I’m currently working on another poetry collection, this time un-themed. I have two more projects I’m working on too, but they’re very much in the formative stages. It’s hard to know whether they’ll take the form of poetry or mixed genre at this point.
Arleen Paré is a Victoria poet and novelist with an MFA from the University of Victoria. Her first book, Paper Trail, was nominated for the Dorothy Livesay BC Book Award for Poetry and won the Victoria Butler Book Prize in 2008. Her new novel, Leaving Now, was released in 2012 by Caitlin Press. Her third book, a collection of poetry called Lake of Two Mountains, is forthcoming from Brick Books in 2014.