“I imagine there are people who don’t have a sense of humour. There are, actually, but I don’t know how you’d live.”
Susan Musgrave is the kind of woman who defies the rapid-fire Just the Facts section of an Egregious Interview. She does not give one-word — or even one-sentence — answers; she often interrupts herself, climbing over words to get in as many stories as possible.
Born in 1951, Musgrave grew up on Vancouver Island, dropped out of school at fourteen, and was committed to a psychiatric ward a few years later, yet still managed, by nineteen, to publish her first book of poetry, Songs of the Sea-Witch.
In 1975 she married a defence lawyer. She later fell in love “from across the courtroom” with an accused American drug smuggler whom her husband was defending. When he was acquitted, she took off with him to Mexico, then Panama and Colombia. By 1983 Musgrave and her daughter were living in Ontario, where she was a writer-in-residence at the University of Waterloo. It was there that Stephen Reid, convicted bank robber and member of the infamous Stopwatch Gang, sent her a manuscript from Millhaven Institution. She became his editor and, in 1986, his wife. Reid’s novel, Jackrabbit Parole, was published that same year.
In 1987 Reid was granted full parole. The couple had a daughter, moved to a cottage on Vancouver Island, then to another on Haida Gwaii. In 1999, battling cocaine and heroin addictions, Reid robbed a bank in Victoria, which was followed by a dramatic shootout and car chase through the city streets. He was arrested and sentenced to eighteen years in prison. He was released on day parole last year.
Feathertale editor Corina Milic caught up with Musgrave over the phone at her home in Masset on Haida Gwaii, where the Governor General’s Award-nominated poet writes novels, children’s books, essays and even cookbooks. She also runs the Copper Beech Guest House.
JUST THE FACTS
Born: Santa Cruz, California. My parents were travelling. As my mother has always said, “If a cat has kittens in the oven, it doesn’t make them cookies.” I had a libel suit once that called me a former American, come here to take advantage of Canada Council grants. I can’t help where I was born! Maybe I’ll have a little more control over where I die, though not much.
First story you ever wrote: “War Glory’s Fury.” War Glory was a horse. My teacher in grade five, Peter Seale, was an Irishman. That’s probably where I first fell in love with Ireland; I was absolutely in love with my teacher. War Glory was a racehorse and all the characters had Irish accents — brogue — but the stable hand, who was supposed to be Irish, had more of a Mexican accent. War Glory, of course, stumbled at the finish line and broke his leg and didn’t win the race. I was pretty melodramatic in my horse stories. I had this story, and Peter Seale put “10/10.” He had this beautiful italic script. A few years ago I really needed money and I sold it for fifteen hundred dollars to some collector in Vancouver, and I really want it back.
Reading right now: I just finished a novel by John Banville, who writes thrillers under the name Benjamin Black — not thrillers, they’re Irish crime — Holy Orders. I’m also reading a book by Charles Montgomery, Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design, so that’s my non-fiction at the moment. And poetry, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, her book called Song. I read quite a few genres all at once.
Working on now: A cookbook that’s coming out in the spring. It’s a book about food foraging and feasting and all the foods we gather [on the island]. Of course when I started ten years ago it wasn’t a big deal, but now there’s thirty-four books alone in BC on foraging. But none of them about Haida Gwaii! It has recipes in it but also lots of stories. Like, there’s a guy who gathered all the wood for my house, Paul Bower, a famous beachcomber and ne’er-do-well. We used to have exotic dancers at the Singing Surf Motel in Masset and he offered one fifty pounds of shrimp to spend the night with him. She refused. So I have a hand-peeled shrimp recipe.
In your pocket: I don’t put things in my pockets. Well, I do. If I find change I have a bank account for my granddaughters. I collect beer bottles out of the ditches to subsidize my poetry royalties, which I’ve always done, and now the money goes into an account for them. Actually that’s a lie — I do have something in my pocket. I have nasturtium seeds from the abbey on Clare Island in the west of Mayo [Ireland] where Gráinne Mhaol, the pirate, is supposed to be buried. So I took the seeds thinking, I’m going to plant those and then I’ll have a bit of her, a bit of that energy in my garden. I forgot those — they’ve probably rotted in my pocket. Yikes!
JUST THE ANSWERS
Feathertale: I was just reading one of your essays about your pillow and how you take it everywhere because it is your security blanket.
Susan Musgrave: Where did I write about my pillow?
FT: In Fifteen Years, a prison guard refuses to let you take the pillow with you during an overnight private family visit with your daughter and husband to celebrate your anniversary.
SM: Oh yes, that’s right. So I had to get special permission. I had to call it my therapeutic pillow, with a doctor’s note. Oh God. I’m quite germaphobic. If I started thinking about the world I’d probably just live in a bubble. Putting my head where other people had dreams and I just wonder what you’re picking up. It’s like taking a piece of home with you. When you are away from home, that secures you, that anchors you.
FT: I was excited to read that. I need my pillow too and have met very few people who understand.
SM: It takes a bit more room in your suitcase but it’s really worth it. My mother, when I was four, burned my security blanket.
FT: She burned it?
SM: She threw it in the fire in the middle of the night because I kept losing it and I’d wake up and start crying. I’d call it my Lally. It was actually a rabbit called Charlotte, but I couldn’t pronounce Charlotte and so I would lose it and she would come and find it, and I guess she just got fed up and didn’t know anything about child psychology. I remember feeling completely desolate.
Emotionally, I can’t get over it. Intellectually, I joke about it and write about it and talk about it but there’s still that. With my own kids, I was fanatical about their security blankets.
FT: I opened with the pillow because I felt that essay encompassed your approach to humour. You have this line: “Stephen shaking it rough for eighteen years is small beer compared to the three nights looming ahead of me without my pillow, but I vow not to make an issue over it.” You’ve written about difficult times in your life and still use wit to do it.
SM: It would be too depressing if I didn’t have a sense of humour. Our culture does that: once you start making jokes about a disaster, it’s people’s way of deflecting when things are too painful. I don’t think with the Twin Towers there were any jokes. I remember thinking this is a measure of how serious something is when people don’t make jokes. I imagine now there probably are some. But that’s just how we turn unpleasant things around and deal with them. So in my own life, when I can laugh about something, it ceases to plague me. Until I can make a joke it’s pretty troubling.
FT: When you’re writing about pain, it’s not that you are trying to undermine the episode, but it’s almost like you’re winking at it.
SM: It’s naturally how I approach things. Nothing is really too sacred. While I say that, there probably are things that are too sacred, and I’ve been lucky enough not to experience real horror, only from a distance. My life’s been pretty lucky when I think of the battles so many people fight.
That, of course, is a classic depressed person: What have I got to be depressed about? My life is great, so something must be wrong with me. And then it goes round and round and round.
FT: Does humour lift you out of depression or is it a coping mechanism?
SM: It’s complicated. I don’t plan to say something funny, it just comes out. I think I was pretty much always that way. I don’t remember because I don’t remember any of my childhood. I don’t remember the first eighteen years of my life.
SM: I do, but not the way I want to. There are huge gaps.
I know by the time I got to grade five I started writing plays and I got in trouble because I had so many props, the whole cloakroom was filled up. I seem to remember [the plays] were quite funny. I wish I had them still.
FT: Is there anything you can’t laugh at or won’t write about?
SM: I’m sure there is. Things I’m protective about I don’t even know I’m protecting because that’s how deep down, how guarded it is.
I’ve written a whole series about my daughter’s heroin addiction, ten years on the street. It’s the worst thing you can imagine, having somebody you love — one time, this awful thing, some girl, some drug dealer made [my daughter] shave her head in front of all these people. I don’t know what that was about, something about a boy or money or just — that world is horrible.
Then she told me, “Well, mom, she’s going to donate it to a good cause, like cancer.”
So in the poem I write, “Trust you to find a drug dealer with a social conscience.” For me it was one of the bleakest moments, but I couldn’t just write bleak poems. I mean, the poems are pretty heavy but there are these lines where I just bring myself out of it and I can make a joke, or make light of it. The poems need that.
FT: When you are writing, do you think about who will be reading this?
SM: No, I don’t. It’s always a surprise who’s reading. When you’ve written for years there’s a sense of an audience but I have no idea.
I had an incident this month where a friend of mine who is bipolar, and quite ill, was reading all four of my novels and he phoned up my brother and said, “I have a gun and a bullet and I’m going to kill Susan and if I can’t find her I’m going to kill her daughter.”
So I called the police and the police called my daughter and she had to leave the house in the middle of the night with her kids. And now I’m feeling really guilty because he was reading my books. I’ve known him for about thirty-five years. A really, really bright guy. A lawyer, who lost his job. He goes off his meds and gets drunk.
It’s really scary, but then I think, well, no wonder he did that, he’s reading my novels!
I almost feel like I brought it on myself. When you’re writing you can’t think this might have that kind of effect. You can’t! You wouldn’t write a word otherwise. You can’t live your life around one person who has a mental problem. But it is scary.
I write a lot about violence because it is something I find abhorrent. I’m not a violent person. I don’t like violence. I have to plug my ears and close my eyes if there’s a violent movie scene.
FT: It’s interesting you can write about it but you can’t watch it.
SM: When you’re writing it, you are trying to get the right word and the right intonation and the soft ending or the hard ending and where does the semicolon go. So the craft almost upstages whatever horror you are writing about.
Now, maybe the real trick is to write the way Toni Morrison does in Beloved, where she describes a really horrible scene but with restraint. I have the word restraint at the top of my page when I’m writing sometimes, because I tend to want to go absolutely overboard and tell everybody every graphic detail. And I’ve noticed a lot of really good writers don’t. They hint at it. So what you are left with in your mind is much worse than anything you could have written about.
FT: I always think of poetry as using restraint in that you are trying to get across your point in a few, very carefully selected words. When you are writing poetry, do you feel that you need to scale back?
SM: In poetry, it’s a natural distillation. In prose you have to fill up four hundred fucking pages. It’s horrible! A poem, a page and a half, and poof! Your writing day is over. You can go out and do what you want. But a novel goes on and on and on. It doesn’t come easily to me at all. I assume it does to other writers, but then I talk to them. Turns out, no, it doesn’t.
Maybe your first book comes out that way. You can’t stop it, it just pours out of you. But after a while it’s not that way. I haven’t written prose for a while, so I forget. But I think if you don’t do it every day it is really hard. Because of the nature of my life, I just don’t do it every day; I have too many other things I have to do to make a living. So it takes me ten years to write a book instead of two.
But with poetry, I understand the art of it more than I do writing fiction.
FT: In another essay you describe rereading an old poem and you say, “Thirty years later I still can’t tell you what it meant.” Poetry is a really hard sell for a lot of people. What, if any, argument do you have for people who are intimidated by poetry?
SM: Well, I teach poetry now in the M.F.A. program at UBC and at least half the class each year writes to me saying, “I’m taking poetry but I’m terrified.” I write back saying, “My job is to make panic leave but fear stay.” My husband says that about being in a bank robbery. Maybe it’s the same with poetry.
You want to be a bit in awe of poetry because it’s about things that are big. It’s about life and death and sex and love, the huge things we’re always trying to grapple with and grasp.
I have a poem in an anthology called The Best Canadian Poetry 2014, and I started reading the proofs and I would say a lot is poetry that I, in quotes, “don’t understand.” It’s like a different language. When I’m on juries I often defer to another juror because this isn’t poetry that I connect with. So it’s hard for me to say whether it’s great or it’s shite.
I can edit that kind of poetry, oddly enough, because it doesn’t take any emotion out of me. It’s mostly about language and I can hear whether something works or not. But in terms of understanding — I think understanding is the wrong word. You don’t really understand poetry; it’s something you feel.
FT: It’s a more physical experience versus an intellectual one.
SM: For me it should be. It’s more about the heart and gut than the brain. Of course you need to bring some brain into it when you are rewriting. But it’s not about ideas, it’s about emotions.
I guess what I tell people [who are intimidated by poetry] is, get an anthology, read until you find somebody you like, and when you find a poet you like, get one of their books. But people aren’t going to really bother working that hard at it. That’s the problem.
Poetry for me is about connection. That makes me feel I am at home in the world, when there is a sense of connectedness.
FT: What do you find funny?
SM: I read a lot of Irish writing. The humour is quirky. I like humour that involves language. In novels I like plot, but I like interesting, beautiful language. I need both.
There’s an Irish writer called Joseph O’Connor, Sinéad O’Connor’s brother. He wrote a column for The Irish Times for years and has quite a few books, [including] The Irish Male at Home and Abroad. He’s really, really funny.
I love Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin. A book that won the Booker — because I don’t usually like prize-winning books — but I thought that was amazing. There’s levity in the despair, I guess.
FT: What don’t you like about prize-winning books?
SM: I know from being on juries the book that often wins is the one on the bottom of everybody’s list, but it’s the one you all have on your list.
FT: The common denominator.
SM: And that’s kind of scary. Usually the one that’s number one on your list, no two people agree on it. There are so many really wonderful books that don’t get any attention because they didn’t win a prize. It just seems so unfair.
You look at the Giller, all the G awards — I think there should be one called the G-String Award — and they will be completely different book lists, so what does that tell you?
FT: Sometimes it’s a way for the wider audience to pick books. Nowadays so many books come out every year that navigating what to read is overwhelming to people.
SM: Oh, it is! When I go into bookstores — well, I don’t even go into bookstores, it’s too overwhelming! I’d rather order them online. I’ll read reviews or someone will recommend something. And I tell people that. What are you thinking? Because they’ll say, “I bought this book, it won a prize, and it’s awful.”
I’ll say, “Well, it may not be awful but you don’t like it, and what did you expect? Because it has a gold seal on it you are going to like it? Get a grip!”
The problem is that now the book that gets the prizes sells far and wide, and the same author’s next book doesn’t sell at all and you feel like a failure. It’s not good for writers. I think what’s good for writers is to keep plugging away, and after thirty or forty years you have a bunch of books you’ve written and that’s your life. But when you get a prize it must be kind of scary, especially for a first book.
FT: What’s more important to you, the process of writing or the final product?
SM: The process, by far. I’m not really interested in the final book other than what it looks like and whether they spelled my name right. I tell students that if you don’t care about the process you’re doomed because there is no such thing as a happily published author.
FT: So what does the process mean to you? What does it give you that the finished product doesn’t?
SM: The process is something you engage with. You are bombed into another plane of being. I’m in the world of the book with my characters.
The product is not mine anymore. It goes out to the world and has a life. I don’t feel very connected to it. It’s always been that way.
FT: When you talk about the process and escaping to this other world, for a lot of people that’s what they enjoy so much while reading books: it takes them to another place. It’s interesting that when you are done with the book it begins to give that same experience to somebody else that you got throughout the process.
SM: I certainly get that from other people’s books. But it takes me so long to write that by the time I’ve edited it, I’m just so tired. I still am attached to characters in my last two novels. They aren’t finished with me and I’m not sure what to do about it.
FT: If you prefer the process, how do you make a living as a writer, which is based on the product? Do you make a living as a writer?
SM: That’s why you keep publishing, why you keep applying for grants, why you keep sending out to magazines. Why I do readings or why I do workshops. It’s all just to keep the thing moving so I can make a living. I can’t say that I don’t enjoy the public part, but I enjoy it less than I used to.
FT: Are you an introvert or an extrovert?
SM: I read a wonderful description of writers as “gregarious loners,” and that’s totally how I am. When I want to be with people I suddenly really do, but most of the time I don’t. I’d much rather be at home reading a book, watching a movie, on Facebook, than going to a party where I’m going to sit in the corner and talk to nobody and wonder what I’m doing there.
FT: The difference is between people who get their energy from being social and others who enjoy being social but need that alone time to recharge.
SM: It’s nice to have a combination. I was just in Ireland for ten days by myself. I met people in the guest houses I was staying in and sometimes I wish I hadn’t. They were nice people but I didn’t know what to say to any of them.
FT: It’s like poetry: you connect or you don’t connect.
FT: You travel to Ireland quite a bit, don’t you?
SM: I do. I used to go with my mom but she doesn’t want to go anymore. She’s eighty-eight and it’s too much for her.
FT: What draws you back to Ireland?
SM: I lived there in my late teens, eighteen to nineteen, and I think the places you go when you’re that age, if you like them, they really stick. I came [to Haida Gwaii] around that time too. Both the west of Ireland and Haida Gwaii have been prominent my whole life. I just go back and forth.
FT: As I’ve been doing research for this interview, as I read about you and listen to people talk about you, there seem to be two versions of Susan Musgrave: The one who lives on Haida Gwaii, the earth mother who cherishes the West Coast. And then the other one. Your biography is almost movie-ready: your marriage to a drug smuggler and living in Colombia and then marrying a bank robber. How do you see yourself?
SM: You live with yourself twenty-four hours a day. It doesn’t always seem that exciting. I’m lucky that people have told it in ways that make it sound interesting. I mean, living with a drug smuggler, a lot of it is just sitting in a van by the side of the road, not being able to go inside a house because it’s too dangerous. It wasn’t all that glamorous.
I wrote my second novel when I was living in South America, but the lifestyle wasn’t really conducive to writing. I wasn’t very happy. I didn’t have any friends, I just had the man I was with. I didn’t speak Spanish.
I guess I have the ability to pull the best anecdotes of what happened or else to invent them sometimes. It’s hard to remember what happened and what I made up.
FT: Do you see this mythology around yourself building up?
SM: I see it more with my husband. People will meet him and spend some time with him and nine times out of ten they’ll say, “You’re nothing like I —” and they don’t finish their sentence, which is “thought you’d be.” They don’t do that with me because I probably am like what they thought I’d be.
Stephen has a way bigger myth and he’s so far removed from the Stopwatch Gang and all that stuff that I just think he doesn’t know who that person is. Yet, people want to hear about it. He’s way more in the folkloric sphere than I am. And it’s odd being alive and being a myth. People will stop him in the street and in hotels.
FT: A lot of your work has an autobiographical feel to it, whether or not it is factual. How much should readers take as fact?
SM: Because I use the first person, it confuses people. I think saying “this story is true” is very different than saying “this is a true story.” It’s true in that it has integrity.
One of my favourite poems is called “Mute Swan.” It’s about two children drowning because the father is too addicted or out of it to save them or watch them. For me it was a metaphor because I felt that my family fell apart and died when Stephen went back to prison in 1999. When I read the poem, though, people think I have had two children that died. They’ll come up to me afterward and I don’t know why I can’t say to them, “It didn’t happen, I made it up.” It seems like that takes away from the poem and what they are feeling. But I also feel like a total fraud. It sounds so personal, this poem, and I did experience those feelings. I felt like there had been a death and it comes across in the poem. So I just try to get away from the person quickly. “Thanks! See ya later! Gotta go have a bottle of whiskey now! Drown my sorrows!” Oh God.
I probably do the same, listen to people read and think, this happened to them? It’s a natural thing to do. That’s actually testament to the fact that there is a real feeling there.
FT: Is it true that you found a line from one of your poems in a bathroom stall once?
SM: Not a bathroom stall, somebody’s house. And it was, “Is there really this much desolation or is it just that I have found it all?” [from] a poem from a series called Songs of the Sea-Witch, from 1969. There it was on the wall, with Anon written under it.
FT: Anon! Well, that’s mythic status right there.
SM: I suppose. Those things are kind of neat. I liked that. I like that something has gone into the realm that it doesn’t matter who wrote it. That’s a good feeling for me. Because in the end that’s what it’ll be anyway: people quote people all the time and they don’t remember who said anything, it just becomes out there.