Prairie Pride from Both Sides of the Border


By Harriet Zaidman

Prairie pride burst onstage during a marquee event at the Winnipeg International Writers’ Festival Tuesday evening. The literary stars of the themed evening were American novelist Richard Ford and Winnipeg’s own David Bergen, both powerhouse writers and engaging personalities. A rolling panorama of gorgeous prairie photographs projected on a screen behind the stage added colour to the conversation on the couch. Photographer Mike Grandmaison stood modestly in the darkened wings, his contribution to the evening speaking for itself.

David Bergen

Giller-award winner David Bergen (for The Time In Between)  read excerpts from his latest novel The Age of Hope, which traces fifty years of the life of Hope Plett, a woman born in 1930 in the small Mennonite town of Eden, Manitoba. While outwardly Hope has an ordinary life, she feels she is an outsider – even small differences matter in a religious community where the wealthy are considered to be the most pious. Her poor economic circumstances, along with a Scottish-born mother and a father who drinks and eschews the church are enough to set her on a journey of self-doubt. The novel is an exploration of her quiet but complex response to events in her life. Bergen divided the book into four sections, beginning with “The Age of Innocence” and ending with “The Age of Hope.” Even at the end of her life, despite disappointments and grief, Hope realizes she has passion and can look forward, that she has positive experiences ahead of her.

Richard Ford

Richard Ford’s genteel southern drawl, muted by time and distance, made his reading all the more engaging for the packed house of literary fans. His latest novel, Canada, begins by referring to a big event in the past, a bank robbery by two seemingly ordinary parents of two teens in Great Falls, Montana. One of those teens was Del, the narrator, and his life changes forever when he is taken to live in Saskatchewan, not coincidentally one of Ford’s favourite vacation haunts.

Ford won the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award in 1995 for Independence Day and remains one of America’s most respected novelists. In Canada he writes how big events (there are murders, too) shape the life of one individual. “For us, life in our house seemed normal” is an understatement, Del’s reflection later in life about how people survive within circumstances they’re given.

Charlene Diehl, artistic director of the Writers’ Festival, led the question and answer session in the second half of the evening, which was both illuminating and full of chuckle-filled repartee between the authors. Questions were directed to both Ford and Bergen, but Bergen finally encouraged Ford to take the leading role. “I’d like to learn from you,” he said generously, bowing to Ford’s track record.

Ford said he writes about a topic that “creates a commotion” in him, something that he feels he needs to give language to. Referring to Del’s mother and father, he also said that children love their parents in spite of the terrible things they may do, that forgiveness is something they seek to offer.

When asked if their own lives are written into their characters, Ford debunked the notion, saying “I once was sixteen. But unlike Del, I was never studious and I didn’t like school.” Bergen noted that he wasn’t a woman, and said he thinks it’s disingenuous to think a novelist can only write about extensions of himself, that his creative imagination can’t produce a character independent of his own. He acknowledged that he brings his emotions to his character, but that it’s simply empathy for others, a natural process.

Ford said the characters are “the instrumentations of the novelist,” that the writer infuses into them what he “needs them to do,” but that he doesn’t outline his stories in advance. He has “absolutely no idea what’s going to come off the end of the pen” (in his case a pencil for his first drafts). He revealed the lighter side of the serious novelist when he said he often chooses names or words simply because they appeal to him. The title ‘Canada’ was instinctually right because the word has three syllables, two short ‘a’ sounds, and also that coming to Canada gives him a sense of elation – fewer people here are armed, he deadpans.

The prairie connection? Both books are set on the wide expanse of the plains. The vast quiet of the landscape helps shape the space in Del’s and Hope’s minds as they wrestle with decisions.

The audience’s appreciation for Grandmaison, Ford and Bergen was expressed in long, snaking lines for autographed copies of their books.

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The Readings Report

Harriet Zaidman

Harriet Zaidman is a teacher-librarian in Winnipeg.