Real-life events inform Gaston’s fiction

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October 17, 2012

Bill Gaston’s newest novel, The World, was released this fall by Hamish Hamilton. Gaston’s fiction has received many prizes, including nomination for the Giller Prize, the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, and the Governor General’s Award. Gaston lives in Victoria, where he’s Department Chair and professor at the University of Victoria. Julia Kochuk discussed Gaston’s new fiction via an email conversation. The novel knits together five tragic and beautiful stories that are full of wisdom and the inescapable complexities of the human condition. The World (355 pages, $32) will be launched in Victoria on October 17th at 6 p.m. at the Bard and the Banker.

What inspired you to write this novel?

Strangely enough, a house fire. Much like Stuart in the novel, I ignited my sun deck, and it spread, and in the morning, the whole side of the house was on fire. I did my research, you might say. So the start of the novel is non-fiction. After that, my writer’s imagination takes over.

The novel is broken down into three parts, told from each of the distinct voices of the three characters, as well as the researched strand of a woman living in the D’Arcy Island leper colony. How did the writing process differ in writing a novel with multiple points of view and voice from a novel with a single protagonist?

I once saw an interview with the actor Kirk Douglas, who had just written a novel. He went on to say that writing the novel was almost identical to being an actor, in that he got to play all the parts and also [be] the director. That rang true, to me. Writing a voice is much like being a method actor, in that you occupy, to the best of your ability, someone else. So that’s the difference. With a multi-voiced novel, you have to stay in the proximity of several voices, not just one.

How did you decide to structure this novel and did you run into any problems in doing so?

It wasn’t ever a “decision,” as it was a process that lasted three or four years. It’s complicated. Basically, the structure isn’t conventional and involves both the seemingly random intersection of lives as well as the nature of fiction. There are fictions within fictions in this fiction of mine. Books within books. There are five independent stories, but they all somehow intersect! And I hope that in saying it this way I’m not making people not want to read this book.

It seems a lot of research went into writing this novel: the way a body falls apart due to esophageal cancer, the way the mind breaks from Alzheimer’s, the way leprosy crumbles limbs and spirits. How did you research these many strands and how did you balance the research with fiction?

Well, as with the house fire, my own life did provide me with lots of research. I’ve had both throat cancer and Alzheimer’s in my immediate family. Nuff said about that. Most leper colony information came from an excellent book, A Measure of Value, by local writer Chris Yorath — though much of the leper colony story is whimsical, that is, imagination, being a fiction written by one of the novel’s characters. In fact, the female leper’s story was written by a character written by a character written by me. (Again, reader, please don’t run away!)

The World” is an ambitious title. How does the world within the novel reflect the larger world outside of it?

Well, it’s a seemingly ambitious title. A glance at the cover immediately reveals the title’s irony. The book is about small worlds — not just a tiny leper colony, but also our individual, private worlds. It’s also about the world that is our house that can burn down, and the world of our body that can die, and the world of our mind that can lose all awareness of itself, to dementia. The title is really not about the larger world at all.

Julia Kochuk is a fourth-year writing student at the University of Victoria.


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