Today I was here. Do you recognize this place? I took this photo in the atrium of the CBC building in downtown Toronto. I was at the CBC to record a “riff” for The Last Chapter, a book show that airs on CBC Radio. I have no idea when/if it will air. I’m glad it wasn’t live. To be honest with you, I can’t remember what the heck I actually said. I sat in my own little room with headphones on and answered questions into a microphone while a friendly producer smiled at me through the glass. I wondered, at one moment, whether she was giving me the sort of smile you’d give to a skittish horse or anxious child. As in, you’re doing great! No really, you are! No really! The whole interview tilted in a direction that was personal; but that’s that nature of the book that I wrote. I understand why readers are interested in those aspects of the book. I understand, but I’m not sure I’m qualified to talk about that part, at least not with any kind of objective perspective.
Here’s what I thought about after the interview. When I was writing the book, it felt like an entirely fictional creation. I couldn’t even think of it as having any relation to my actual childhood experiences. But now, when I’m asked to reflect on the personal connections, I can see the many links between my actual experiences and what turned up on the page. It’s complicated. And in writing about real experience, fictionalizing it, it’s become muddled. Even in my memory. So much of what happens in the book — the stuff of plot — didn’t happen. But then, so many little details were things I actually experienced. The wind through open car windows, driving through a cloud that had come down to the ground, playing on the flat roof of our house, bomb shelters at the school and just down our street, listening to grownups play and sing beautiful music, the sound of the ocean at night, and on and on.
My brothers had the chicken pox, and I didn’t. We moved around the city, much like the Friesens do. We attended the same schools.
Yet when I was writing it, I didn’t see my own family in these places and circumstances, I saw the Friesens. I didn’t want to write about my own family, and my own circumstances. That’s why I invented the characters. But I see how wound together the real and the invented became in the telling. I think it may have been wiser to say, as Alice Munro would have, that I made everything up. I did. But not from scratch. Maybe it was like making bread from a sourdough starter. The bubbling beginnings were there.
Anyway, that’s what I “riffed” about, though I suspect much less coherently, in a studio in Toronto today. And they recorded it. And who knows what they’ll take out of it. Ever feel like you’re swimming further from shore than you meant to go? I felt that way today.