PATRICK LANE reading tonight (Thursday, October 30), 8 pm, at the Brigantine Room.
Though Patrick Lane is in his hotel room in Calgary and I'm uncomfortably curled over my laptop as we talk, I feel like we are sitting by a roaring fire discussing narrative, memory, publishing and the great accomplishment that is his first novel, Red Dog, Red Dog.
"I'm a year shy of being 70. I'm the oldest living debut novelist in Canada," he says warmly, with no trace of regret. "It's kind of nice to be writing a novel at my age. It took a long, long time to tell this story. I could've written it 30 years ago, but I wouldn't have done it justice. If you look back far enough, you get the distance that gives you permission."
Lane's aim is to bring to light the things he saw as a child and young man growing up in the 50s, and the harsh life of settlers in the Okanagan valley, as well as stories from the 20s and 30s. It was hardly an idyllic time in Canadian history.
Not that the sad, violent Stark family saga is autobiography, he says. "It's a great mélange of many things, part of which is my own experience. The parents in this novel are hardly my parents."
He uses a dead infant as narrator for parts of the book, an odd choice, I think, but one that works.
"I felt really comfortable with this little girl. She's wonderfully innocent; she never lived long enough to be hurt by anything. She has a wry knowledge, this little ghost."
Though Lane has been told it's a very masculine novel, he's proud of the strength the women characters show.
"The hope is embodied in the women in the book. The men are brutalized people. They get very tired of being men in the world, and like the men I've known in my life, for all of their violence, I've never seen such tired men, especially that old generation."
When we think of the 1950s, images from television sitcoms like Father Knows Best come to mind.
"The novel struggles with one salient issue of the 1950s, and that is silence. If there were happy families, I never knew any of them."
Lane says while he was reading in a bookstore, two women his age in the audience kept nodding their heads in agreement.
"They were saying, ‘Yup, that's what it was like.' They remembered. Younger women were looking at me and saying, ‘Jesus, it couldn't possibly have been that terrible.' But it was.
"One of the central driving forces for me is the act of witness. You have to bear witness to the world that you've seen and known. I've
always believed that. This novel is an act of witness."