Frequently Asked Questions
Q: When did you realize that you were going to be a writer?
SB: I have always written, but never thought of myself as being a writer. Even following the publication of my first book, I was reluctant to call myself a writer in the same way I’m reluctant to call myself a gardener although I spend as much time as possible outdoors coaxing flowers to grow in this Saskatchewan wind and the deep shade of my yard. I was astonished recently to hear myself being referred to as being a seasoned writer. With only seven books out there, I feel as though I’ve just begun.
Q: Why do you write fiction?
SB: I love the surprises, the process of uncovering a story which usually turns out not to be the story I set out to write. It’s an unscheduled stumbling into foreign territory and into the minds and hearts of people I’m meeting along the way.
Q: How has your Metis and Mennonite background affected your perception of the world and your writing?
SB: The most profound influence would be that both groups are marginal groups, made so by language, culture, religious beliefs and practices. My perception of the world as viewed through the eyes of these vastly different cultures seems to have put me on the edge of things. However, being a mix of both marginal cultures, being not of one or the other, has put me between both worlds. Consequently, I have the notion that I’m really at the centre. The centre of the edge. Because I believe that I’m writing from the centre, I’m often dismayed or startled by a critic or reader’s misunderstanding or ignorance of the people and things I write about.
Being on the outside of both cultures has made me a watcher I suppose, as much as being born female and the fifth child of a family of ten children. I have also come from a generation where sexual discrimination, discrimination against minorities (my mother’s family was viewed with suspicion for speaking German, my father’s family found it necessary to deny their native blood) was more overt and didn’t require a lot of skill to deal with, except to fight against it, fume over the injustice and ultimately, I became determined to try and understand that world and the people around me, by writing about them.
Being at the centre of the edge, is kind of like living in the cracks in the floorboards. Which, I suppose is a good place for a writer to come from.
Q: Often your stories connect in a kind of suite, but are not truly novels and somehow they tend to be more than just short story collections. Do you plan this sort of continuity, and if so, how?
SB: Often what I’m doing is playing. In “The Two-Headed Calf,” for instance, I made oblique connections between characters and places to see if readers were paying attention. But it’s more than that sometimes. “Night Travellers” was going to be a novel but I didn’t have large enough chunks of time to write a novel.
At the same time I found the short story form frustrating. I knew as much about each character in a short story as I would if they had been central figures in a novel. It was impossible to use all that I knew about them in a single short story and that’s likely why they would appear later in another story. I wanted another look at them further down the line.
I wrote “Ladies of the House,” to continue the characters and introduce new players. My idea was to write a trilogy, a kind of triptych that when unfolded, formed a whole picture. There was a lot of pressure after the second book of short stories for me to write a novel and so I abandoned the short story form and didn’t return to it until The Two-Headed Calf. In The Two-Headed Calf, all the stories address the push and pull of duality and was written with that in mind and so in that sense the collection does have a kind of cohesion a novel.
Q: “The Man from Mars” (Ladies of the House, Agassiz Stories) deals with a number of Mennonite issues including European backgrounds, the land, displacement and so on. Could you say more about the idea of dislocation and displacement and why you keep returning to this as a topic?
SB: On my mother’s side I’m a first generation Canadian and so her stories and those of my grandparents have special significance. I find that the immigrant experience is still one of displacement and dislocation and one, given my particular background I find intriguing.
“The Man From Mars” is a Manitoba story. What happens when a young man who has learned a language, learned to appreciate and count on certain amenities in life, finds himself in a different country, living in a time warp of the 17th century? When he flees from it and returns to the country he was born into, he discovers that he doesn’t fit there either. It seems rather fantastic but that’s exactly what did happen to many Mennonites who left Manitoba for Paraguay and Mexico. Our country is made up of people with memory of, or at least family connections to other countries.
Despite our enormous geographical size, we’re a mouse compared to the elephant south of our border. The themes of dislocation, displacement and isolation, I would think, are logical themes for a Canadian writer.
Q: When do you write?
SB: In the morning.
Q: Do you write on a computer?
SB: Notebook, typewriter, computer, whatever the works seems to want at the moment.
Q: Do you have special items around you when you work that are of importance?
SB: Yes, I have a living breathing, flatulent Border Collie dog curled beside my chair as I write. I have a sculpture of a Border Collie on my desk. I have several photographs of the same dog on a wall. I am a Border Collie. I stare a lot. I become fixated on the story and worry it ragged. I like to work, and I’ll work without requiring periodic pats on the head or a treat. Presently, I also have on my desk several native scraping tools, an arrowhead, a stone that looks as though an eye is peering out from it, a piece of driftwood, the imprint of my grandson’s hand.
* Several of these questions were answered to a greater extent in Rampike magazine,vol. 10/no.2 issn. 07 11-7647, “Two-Headed Talk: an interview with Sandra Birdsell.”