IFOA: You brought Mary “Mouse” Bradford from The Wives of Bath back in your latest novel, The Western Light. When you finished writing The Wives of Bath, did you know there was more to her story you wanted to tell?
Swan: The editor Gordon Lish once told me I hadn’t finished with my father after he read The Wives of Bath. And he was right. I wanted to write a story about the mystery of goodness. Are you good if you give your life to the community and ignore your family? What is a hero anyway? My father was a hero in the small town where I grew up. Next to the minister, he was the town’s most important citizen. He was also one of the most compassionate men I’ve ever met and yet I can’t remember having a real one to one conversation with him, or knowing where to place my need for him when other people’s needs of him were often a matter of life or death.
So that led me back to Mouse, my favourite alter ego. She’s wise and she’s vulnerable and she finds a dubious father substitute when her own father is too busy to pay attention to her. By the way, you don’t need to have read The Wives of Bath to understand The Western Light.
IFOA: You’re participating in a round table discussion about reading. As a writer, how do you choose which books to read?
Swan: I follow my nose. My interest in a non-fiction subject like women writing about their fathers has directed me to memoirs like Swing Low by Miriam Toews and The Shadow Man by Mary Gordon and I also read as much of the current literary fiction that I can get my hands on. I just finished The Purchase by Linda Spalding, a masterfully told tale about slavery, and yes, goodness. What is it? And can good people do terrible things? The answer seems to be yes.
Swan: There isn’t enough room here for the answer to that one. But early fiction by writers like Margaret Atwood, Graeme Gibson, Marian Engel and Timothy Findley was a revelation when I was young because these wonderful books said my own experience and landscape were suitable subjects for literature. And yes, they were permission giving too since I wanted to be a writer.
IFOA: What’s your idea of a perfect day?
Swan: A morning of writing, cross country skiing in the afternoon and a glass of excellent Pinot Noir by the fire with my loved ones.
IFOA: Finish this sentence: What surprises me the most…
Swan: …is the recent and extensive research by the Canadian Women in the Literary Arts. It has changed the way I think of literary life in our country. Women writers get only about a third of the reviews in most of our major magazines and newspapers books. Imagine. In the literary land that produced Margaret Atwood, Carol Shields and Alice Munro. I was inspired by CWILA to do some research of my own and found that only a third of our literary prizes go to women writers. Only 34 per cent of the winners for both the Giller and the English speaking Governor General’s Award for fiction have been women.
In some awards, the percentage figure for awards going to women writers is as low as eight or 20 per cent. For instance, in the case of the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour, only five women out of 66 have won that prize. Only three women out of 15 people have won the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction. The critical neglect of women’s writing affects not only women’s careers but their livelihood as writers.
IFOA: Bonus question: International Festival of Authors in one word:
Swan: A bonanza.