Theresa Kishkan, Writer

Writer Theresa Kishkan

Author of 9 books, including the novel THE AGE OF WATER LILIES (Brindle & Glass, 2009) and a book of essays MNEMONIC (Goose Lane, 2011), Theresa Kishkan lives on the Sechelt Peninsula with her husband, poet John Pass. Her writing covers the range from poetry to fiction to non-fiction, including memoir and literary travel essays. Her work engages itself both with the natural world and the forces that history imposes on us.

1. Tell us about your new book, MNEMONIC: A BOOK OF TREES (Goose Lane). I love the idea that you write about the relationships between certain trees and ideas. I have yet to read the book, but there is something both poetic and technically precise about the concept.  What excited you as you began it and as you completed it?

Two things led me to write Mnemonic: A Book of Trees. I had in mind a sylva, a detailed inventory of the trees on the property where I’ve lived for 30 years. Many years ago I read John Evelyn’s Sylva, a Discourse of Forest Trees, first published in 1664. Evelyn was an interesting man, one of the founders of the Royal Society, and passionate about trees. His book encourages landowners to grow trees for the use of the Royal Navy, among other things, but it is also a quirky and illuminating natural history. Evelyn’s wide-ranging curiosity makes the book a wonder – he’s constantly stepping off the path to explore an idea, offer a phrase of poetry, the connection between a tree and its weather. I imagined somehow that by looking at our trees, numbering them, mapping them, I might find out something about this place and my relationship to it. I’d barely begun to do this when I got side-tracked (a common occurrence for me, I’m afraid) by other material I was reading and thinking about, most of it to do with memory.  I was intrigued by Cicero’s notion of the memory palace, the use of spatial relationships to train and organize memory, and when I tried to imagine myself into architectural space in order to organize my own memory hoard, it seemed that the palaces quickly turned to groves. Closing my eyes, I smelled spicy cedar or the bruised bark of walnut.

The two notions – trees and memory – became entwined and led me to writing about trees and how my life has been shaped by them, shaded by them, nourished by them. I couldn’t have anticipated some of the paths I ventured down but I have to say I loved writing the individual essays and really enjoyed the process of pulling them together into a book.


2. Do you have the experience of discovery when you write? I don’t mean interesting research, but rather insights that may come to you as you are writing—maybe about the subject of the book or about the people you are describing.

Oh, yes. Writing is always a process of discovery. For instance, when I began the essays that make up Mnemonic, I thought I would be writing about native trees of British Columbia. After all, I’ve spent most of my life here. I thought the pieces would concern themselves primarily with natural history. But in many ways, natural history leads one to cultural history; what we do with where we are. We shape the place we live by what we find there. Sometimes this is a process of destruction as much as creation. I think it’s true that our earliest stories involve plants – the forbidden fruit of the Old Testament, the golden apple tossed by Eris at the marriage feast of Peleus and Thetis which precipitated the Trojan war, the living olive tree at the heart of the marriage bed in the Odyssey, the branches of the three magical trees in the Brothers Grimm fairy tale, The Twelve Dancing Princesses. Closer to home, I remember being entranced by the bark of Garry oaks on Vancouver Island when I was a child and I remember watching long curls of cedar falling to the ground as Mungo Martin (I think it must have been him) carved at Thunderbird Park. When I was writing, I wasn’t conscious of the echoes that kept sounding in the work and afterwards I was delighted to discover that certain themes or patterns had repeated themselves, with variations and modulations.

3. Your work very much comes out of and honors place. One can see it in the slow, patient descriptions of flora and fauna or seasonal changes. Getting the details right in the way you do it also reminds me of Annie Dillard’s dedication to exactitude. In your novels, plot development and dialogue take secondary place (though of course they are present) to setting and to the weave of image and allusion. Is that partly because of your background as a poet or is it also that you may be a contemplative person?

I think it’s vitally important, as writers, as citizens, to know where we are. Where does our water come from? How old are the trees? Prevailing winds? Plant cycles? Animal cycles?  I believe that there is a grammar of place, a vernacular. Gary Snyder says, in The Practice of the Wild, that, “our place is part of what we are. Yet even a “place” has a kind of fluidity; it passes through space and time – “ceremonial time” in John Hanson Mitchell’s phrase…The whole earth is a great tablet holding the multiple overlaid new and ancient traces…Each place is its own place, forever (eventually) wild. A place on earth is a mosaic within larger mosaics – the land is all its small places, all precise tiny realms replicating larger and smaller patterns.” These are things I think about all the time – how to pay enough attention in order to know the places I love in time and in space, and to find a language which does justice to their particularity as well as their spaciousness.


4.  Are there any Canadian writers you feel an alliance with, a common way of looking at the world, perhaps, and of thinking about literature.

I am a great admirer of the work of Anne Carson, the way she crosses the usual boundaries of genre to produce work that is consistently challenging and engaging. I also read everything I can by Michael Ondaatje, Elizabeth Hay, Helen Humphreys, Harold Rhenisch, Terry Glavin. I think that Hugh Brody is a national treasure. Julie Cruikshank, too, for her work in the area of First Nations storytellers. I also read ethnobotanical texts  – Nancy Turner is wonderful, for instance, in that she understands how natural and cultural history are inextricably connected and provide us with a durable way of understanding a landscape.


5. Two of my favorite writers are Annie Dillard and John Berger. I like the way Dillard seems to reinvent the flora and fauna within the sentence so that it comes alive. John Berger has a kind of sublime imagination of place and a compassionate sense of how ordinary working people live, particularly in rural conditions. You seem to share some of these qualities. True? Not True?

I have to say that I think of both the writers you mention as companions and I thank you so much for including me in their company. I first read Annie Dillard when I was still in my teens and found in her work, still find in her work, a clear intelligence and congenial approach to language and structure. I think I’ve read every book she’s published and count a few of them — The Living, for example, and Holy the Firm — among my favourite books. Her writing pays such fine attention to the world around her and I remember an observation she made about her journals, that looking at them, she had the sense that time had accumulated and not merely passed. What a wise and amazing thing to say.

And John Berger! Again, yes, I’ve read all his books, have them near to where I work so I can console myself during difficult times with the beauty of his prose, the compassionate focus of his mind. I love that he doesn’t seem to worry much about genre.   Books like And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos and Here is Where We Meet move from poetry to meditation to fiction, sometimes over the course of one page. And readers are richer for it.  I recently bought a beautiful edition of Cataract, a brief lyrical reflection on his recent cataract surgery that is as lovely as anything I’ve ever read.

6. Tell us about your creative process. What conditions are necessary for you to work well creatively? Many writers like working with bustle around them. They like occasionally disparate influences or harsh sounds washing over them or else ten conversations within earshot or the selected sounds from their Ipod.  Can you work just about anywhere?

I have a small cluttered room with a window facing south. Wisteria and a climbing rose frame the small porch I look out to and in winter the chestnut-backed chickadees find me here on mornings when I’m late filling their feeder. This is where I work best, with my books and files around me, and a dark blue ceiling stenciled with gold stars overhead. Lots of strong dark coffee.  I don’t own an Ipod but I do like to have music on the stereo – often Bach (the cello suites, sometimes the Rostropovich recording, sometimes the Casals), or anything sung by Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. I know some writers find music distracting but I love it. And depending on the work I’m doing, I might also play some Steve Earle or Emmylou Harris! They’re particularly good for editing or proof-reading – a lively rhythm for that kind of work!

When I travel, I make notes and sometimes scribble drafts in my notebooks but mostly my writing happens at this desk. I often think about the material for ages before I do anything with it. I love that Adrienne Rich title, A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far. It could serve as my mantra! I know now that ideas and possibilities don’t go away. If anything, they mature, like wine, and are worth taking time to develop.


7. These days the novel is under siege and literary novels have to compete with the more popular genre novels for attention, both from publishers and the public. I see that some writers have taken on more sensational themes (mass murder, or child abuse, or war victims) to increase their chances of attention. As well, there is a renewed interest in the importance of plot elements in novels, perhaps through the influence of movies. Narrative that depends heavily on introspection or imagistic patterning is not favored in North America at this time, though of course there are exceptions. Do you have any thoughts on this topic? What would you tell young writers who seek direction from you on whether to emphasize narrative through plot or narrative through other means, assuming they can do each equally well?

I’m a firm believer in writing the books that we need to, however unfashionable they might turn out to be. There is an assumption among many commercial publishers and the agents who serve them that readers want one (or maybe two) kinds of books. Fast plots, sharp dialogue, with a narrative arc you can plot on paper. I like those books, or some of them at least. But I’d never want them to be the only books available to me. I am pretty stubborn about following an image, a moment, a possible story-thread wherever it leads. I don’t expect my books to be best-sellers but I’m gratified to get letters or calls from readers fairly often and know that others feel as I do.

8. In THE AGE OF WATER LILIES (2009), you portray history as a context and a force in all people’s lives. Some of us just don’t know it. The notion that you can combine an isolated community like Walhachin in the BC interior with World War I in Europe reminds us of those connections to momentous shifts in the world and suffering that all of us could find in our own lives with a little bit of prodding. The fact that many of the details—certainly B.C. soldiers fighting in France—are historically true just makes it all the more significant. That novel is about so many things.  The love story (love and death and exile); the way you bring together the different kinds of lilies, in part as a metaphor, to show how Old world and New world begin to come together in Victoria; your descriptions of crafts from needlework to weaving to tile-making, all historically accurate giving us an understanding of the world that Tessa occupies.  The personal and the public, secrets and natural mysteries, all seem to co-exist well in this novel. Can you talk a little bit about it?

When I was a child, my family would pass the remains of Walhachin on the Trans Canada Highway between Cache Creek and Kamloops on our annual trek to visit our grandparents in Edmonton. My father always pointed across the dry hills and told us what he knew about the place. As it turns out, he knew very little and made some stuff up. Never mind. The name stayed with me and I was always curious about that little arid place and its role in B.C. history. And during my childhood, my mother constantly required my brothers and me to help out elderly neighbours in our Fairfield neighbourhood with errands. I remember sitting in utterly still living rooms with photographs of men on horses on the mantles and what I realize now was a curtain of absence in the room. For these were widows. They’d lost husbands in the Great War and had lived their lives in that shadow. These two elements agitated in my imagination until I had the kernel of a story, two stories, one with a basis in fact, and one an act of contrition for never having asked those women about their lives. Once I knew the dimensions of this novel, I was able to figure out what I needed to know to write it. Research should never be entirely visible but should serve as a quiet but convincing scaffolding on which a narrative might unfold, secure in its support.

9. In A MAN IN A DISTANT FIELD, you present characters in Oyster Bay, near Sechelt, and in Delphi, Ireland. I am tickled by the fact that the novel tells us the name of the Irish Delphi was chosen by the Marquess of Sligo , under Byron’s influence. Change a place by re-naming it ! The difference between Sechelt and Ireland doesn’t present itself to me in a really defined way. Both settings are rural and both have some relationship to the sea. The love of Gaelic among the Irish of Declan’s acqaintance is balanced by his love of Ancient Greek, so both places are experienced and measured, in a way, by a third place. Greece, and by the living myths of Homer. Myth is real to the extent one is connected to the earth and to the place of one’s ancestors. Declan has a chance to teach a young girl, Rose, who shows interest in the myths. Does education in this novel have both a heroic and a tragic dimension?  I am also thinking of what has happened to Declan,  a teacher, and that symbolically his experience represents the failure of the Classical ideal.

This novel began with an image in a dream, a man curled up in a small boat which was being washed up against a rocky beach. Who was he? I had no idea but kept him in my mind. Then one day I was talking to an old man in the community where I live and he told me the story of being a small boy on a boat bringing Pacific oyster seed (Crassostrea gigas) to our area in the early years of the 20th century. (Eventually those Japanese imports would threaten the survival of the native Ostrea lurida but that’s another story…) He remembered the voyage being at night, the weather wild. He said his father had tied him to the gunwales so he wouldn’t be washed overboard. He had a map of the community and showed me where people had lived in those years. I recognized many of the names, particularly the Scottish ones. Some of those families still live here. Anyway, I remember the hairs on the back of my neck tingling and I realized I wanted to write about this, that it somehow belonged with the man in my dream, and for the next five years I lived in that world, where a man from Ireland washed up on Oyster Bay, and where the old stories of Homer found a new form. I loved every minute of it, even trying to puzzle through passages of the Odyssey in Greek, parsing and translating as I imagined Declan might have.  It is such a particular poem, full of weather, plants, geology, and so lovely in its long cadences. I’m not surprised that Declan found elements of his own story there, from ghosts to beautiful women to asphodels.

The Irish Delphi is haunting. A narrow valley, green and damp, with long dark lakes down its centre. I first drove through it on my first visit to Ireland in 1977  and never forgot it. It has something of the mystery of the Greek Delphi, dense with presences and history.

You ask about education in this book – does it have a heroic and a tragic dimension. Remember Caliban’s comment in the Tempest?

“You taught me language, and my profit on’t/Is, I know how to curse. The red plague rid you,/For learning me your language!” There are two sides (at least) to every story… But I have to say that everything I’ve read about how the Irish survived the terrible years of the Penal Laws and after, when Catholic education was forbidden, and the Irish language vilified, insists on the primacy of knowledge and respect for learning. I knew fishermen in Ireland who could quote long passages of bardic poetry, and stories and myths were part of the atmosphere, as present as rain.

10.  You have an attraction to the essay form. PHANTOM LIMB and RED LAREDO BOOTS and MNEMONIC are all quite different presentations of what is possible in the essay, covering a range from what is called creative non-fiction to literary travel essay to memoir to non-fiction. Is it that you are able to weave personal history, archeology, ancient history, art history, biology, gardening, myth, and literature through ordinary observation or quirky incident without having to have an elaborate narrative?  This is what happened to me in this place and this what I thought and this is what I later learned about it.

I’m not quite sure why I’m drawn to the essay. I do think it’s wonderfully flexible, though, and lends itself quite willingly to the materials I’m constantly attracted to or wrestling with or exploring in whatever way I can. I read essays all the time – Evan Connell, Wendell Berry, John Berger, Susan Olding, Gary Snyder, Walter Benjamin, Kathleen Jamie, Virginia Woolf (of course), Anik See (whose Saudade deserves to be much more widely known); each of these writers makes the form his or her own. What I’ve learned from them is to trust my own interests and instincts. And to allow my own voice to say what it needs to say, including the reader as much as possible.


11. Your characters are often from Ireland or Great Britain. Is your family from Ireland? Kishkan doesn’t see terribly Irish or Scottish.

My father’s father came from Bukovina, which straddles the Ukraine and Romania. My paternal grandmother came from a tiny village in what was then Czechoslovakia but I believe that her parents were probably Polish. My mother never knew her biological parents but knew that one of them was a MacDonald and one a McDougal, from Nova Scotia, which suggests they were Scottish! There’s no Irish blood that I know of but I studied Irish literature at university and went to live on a small island off the west coast of County Galway for a year when I was in my early twenties. I dream of that island still and when the wind is right, I still hear the quavery notes that a neighbour played on his tin-whistle after he’d finished milking his cow. Yet I’ve never been to Bukovina.


12. What are you working on or planning to work on now that MNEMONIC has been published?

I recently completed a novella called Winter Wren (a difficult thing to publish) and I’ve begun work on a book about my mother and my paternal grandmother. Both women are mysterious to me and I have many regrets for not asking questions of them when it was possible that I might have received answers. This work-in-progress is tentatively called Blue Portugal, which is also the name of a delicious Moravian wine. I’m not sure yet of the dimensions of this book but I do look forward to sampling the wine on my next trip to the Czech Republic, all in the name of research of course.

And on a recent drive through the Grand Forks area of B.C., I felt a familiar shimmer as I looked at what remains of the Doukhobor settlements. I wanted to know more about life within those pink brick houses, wanted to know how it felt to share a plough with other women, breaking open a field. We’ll see if anything comes of this.

Thank you, Theresa.

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