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Are You Ready to be Lucky? — a dialogue with Rosemary Nixon

Are you ready to take a chance on life?

Or, in the words of Rosemary Nixon, Are you ready to be lucky?

These are the questions confronting the characters of Nixon’s lively new book.

Told as a collection of linked stories through the perspectives of several narrators, the book moves back and forth through time and space, from Calgary to southern Spain, from Scotland to a remote village in the mountains of British Columbia. What binds the stories is not so much plot points or intersecting narratives, but the giddy, dizzying role that chance plays in each of their stories; the slow-motion roulette that moves their lives from one year to the next.

I found the book compulsively addictive and impossible to put down. Rosemary has the ability to pack a single paragraph with laugh-out-loud humour and deep, soul-invigorating pathos. I was rooting hard for these characters, even as I was gripping the edge of my seat wishing they’d smarten up and take action to turn their lives around.

I’ve known Rosemary for a few years now, since we studied together with Zsuzsi Gartner at UBC. We’ve kept up a correspondence in the intervening period, and I’m grateful she was able to take some time from a very packed schedule to engage in a longer dialogue about her new work.

Rosemary Nixon is a short story writer, novelist, and freelance writer. Her collection Mostly Country was shortlisted for the Howard O’Hagan Award. Her collection The Cock’s Egg won the Howard O’Hagan Award. Her novel Kalila was shortlisted for the Georges Bugnet Award and longlisted for the ReLit award. She has published in literary magazines across Canada and discovered the beginnings of Are You Ready to Be Lucky? on a fellowship at Hawthornden Castle, Scotland. Her home is in Calgary.

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Congratulations on the publication of Are You Ready to be Lucky? How does it feel to have your fourth book out there in the world?

It feels wonderful and humbling and a little surreal.  Add a dollop of sadness, as once a book is released the writer suddenly no longer shares her days in the company of her characters.  And I grew pretty fond of mine, flawed as they are. There’s always that loss. But life takes over and you just get on with living.  I trust they’re out there entertaining other people now.

I’m still a bit startled though, as Freehand contacted me, having heard I had a book ready to go, before I had organized myself to send the manuscript out.  So a part of me is surprised it isn’t still in manuscript form lying on my messy desk.

The collection is a marked contrast, in both style and tone, from your recent novel Kalila. What was it like to move back into short fiction –and humour – after your experience with the novel?

I am a firm believer that in the most powerfully-told stories, the story’s structure will emulate its content.  Structure is a significant part of the emotional resonance of a story.  Every story demands its own form.

Kalila is a novel I am very proud of.  It was difficult to write as it is a painful topic – the story of an extremely ill baby and her distraught parents.  I melded form and content throughout — the book made up of an interplay of short snippets from the stunned mother and father, and the no-nonsense doctor, whose lives barely intersect in the face of the dreadful “present”.  As the story progresses, and the parents sink deeper into grief, there is more blank space on the pages as communication shuts down. When they get the worst news imaginable, I shift from first and second person into third person, to reveal their inability to communicate.

I was talking with my brother when Kalila was still an idea in my head.  I said, I don’t know if I can write this book.  How would a writer write such content without falling into melodrama?

And my brother said philosophically, Well, that’s your task, isn’t it.  To write this impossible book – and to do it justice.

Aritha van Herk, one of my first creative writing professors encouraged me to write the book as well.  I read somewhere that the book a writer should write is a book that is not on the shelf.  Stories about ill children are out there, but not in the form of Kalila, to my knowledge. So I did what I longed to do and needed to do and feared doing.  I passed on this painful story.

Toni Morrison says in Beloved, “This is not a story to pass on.”  But she does pass it on.  I was very influenced by Beloved.  Morrison gave me the courage to write a story that is hard to name and hard to hear. I did everything in my power, out of respect for its content, to present it in a unique and powerful way.  When Robert Kroetsch read it, he not only wrote a beautiful endorsement on the back but wrote to me, “This multitude of worlds, lamentation, beauty, snow, and silence.  What a gift your writing is.” Then I knew I’d got it right.

Are You Ready To Be Lucky? demanded a different form.  It falls somewhere between a novel and a collection. It’s not straight short story.  More like a novel-in-stories.  I have a pinball machine as a central image in one of the chapters, “In Which Floyd’s Speedometer Surpasses the Million Kilometer Mark and Friends and Acquaintances Reduce Their Clutter”, replete with pinball footnotes.

That pinball machine grew into a symbol for me for how to present these stories — One of the great pleasures of writing the book, and hopefully, of readers reading it, is that one never knows which character is going to pop up with his/her own story, then race out of that story in pursuit of happiness, only to pop up again in someone else’s.  That, and the image of this mishmash of wacky characters trailing each other, swirling around each other, like the exhaust from Floyd’s tailpipe, become analogies in the book. I joyfully broke lots of rules writing Are You Ready To Be Lucky? — because the characters demanded I do.  The characters walk the story’s terrain.  They know more than the author.  I had to listen!

After Freehand accepted Are You Ready To Be Lucky? the editor for the press, Barb Scott, who has a very discerning eye, said to me, Have you read Olive Kitteridge? (I hadn’t, but I did then). It’s by Elizabeth Strout.

Barb said, Like Olive Kitteridge. Are You Ready To Be Lucky? is a hybrid.  She said, I’m not asking you to turn it into a novel.  It already is one, just in an unusual form — And that’s how we approached the rewrites — as Robert Kroetsch so aptly says in A Likely Story, mindful of “the long stories behind the snapshot…” They’re all part of each others’ stories.  That’s how I’d describe the structure of Are You Ready To Be Lucky?

When I began writing what became Are You Ready To Be Lucky? I didn’t start at the beginning.  First Duncan tumbled out, ridiculous and entertaining and fully formed – something that rarely happens to me.  I was rewriting Kalila at Hawthornden Castle in Scotland over the time I was living in Spain.  I didn’t know what the appearance of this humorous Duncan-excerpt was – short story, novel, mere character sketch.

I don’t focus on form initially.  I open to a character, or sometimes just an image.  In this case out popped Duncan, driving on the wrong side of the road in Spain, loudly denying that he was.  Then the Mediterranean reared its head as a character – petulant and disturbed at the dysfunctional foreign holidayers lining its shores.  Then Roslyn turned up, wrestled her way into the driver’s seat, and suddenly she and Duncan were together in the car driving in Scotland, arguing over the absurdity of chocolate bars vs biscuits, and their marriage was born.  I wrote the scene, then put it away and continued with Kalila. It was a few years before I returned to Duncan and Roslyn and began to discover the story that became Are You Ready To Be Lucky? But they were fun characters from the get go.  I want to keep doing new things – I don’t want to keep writing variations of the same book — and absurd Duncan and Roslyn were a decided shift from the sadness I was exploring in Kalila.

Are You Ready to Be Lucky? is a collection of stories loosely based around the same group of characters. How did the book come together? Did you envision, when you set out writing, that their lives and stories would intersect?

I didn’t initially envision the kind of intersection their stories took on.  I would say the chapter I just alluded to: “In Which Floyd’s Odometer Surpasses the Million Kilometre Mark and Friends and Acquaintances Reduce Their Clutter” is kind of a microcosm of the whole.  The description on the back of the book is, frankly, a comment on how the larger story came together:

“The characters ricochet off one another, trailing a mess of family and friends, all of them trying to beat the odds and find happiness.” 

Literally, I would write a character and an ex-wife would pop up, or a son, or a dysfunctional friend.  And that character would demand his/her own story, or alternate viewpoint. In the center of the mayhem, there was Floyd, bouncing around the country in his old truck, and he became the pivot – pretty much all the characters, one way or another, find their connection to each other through Floyd.

The humour in the stories is often loud, bawdy, at times even trashy – and yet there are quieter, more introspective moments of humour, such as Roslyn’s frantic efforts to reach her son Theo’s wedding in the story “A Lovely Hind, A Graceful Doe”. Yet the humour is never slapstick and overlays the complicated, often dark situations in which the narrators find themselves. Can you comment more on humour in the book?

Humour is a tricky concept. It’s at its best when not approached straight on, I find.  It’s less successful when a writer tries to be funny.

What makes something funny, I’ve come to recognize, is the unexpected, the element of surprise.  I didn’t focus on funny, writing this book.  Rather, I was interested in delving into life’s absurdities, having encountered enough of them myself and having endless friends who—to listen to their stories—have, too.

I have one friend who writes me when she’s really down and upset, bitterly pouring out her frustration, and her letters, when she’s in this state are fall-over funny.  She hones in on a scathing description, or recreates a ludicrous action by some irritating person in her life.  She’s not trying to be funny.  She’s mad! I think that’s how to capture humour – come at it slant.  Recognize and appreciate the absurd in life.

George Saunders, a very funny, yet poignant writer, is right when he says, “The litmus test is language.” Attention to language. The writer’s choice of diction and syntax, emulating the rhythms of speech, the sound a word makes and its connotations.

“The sounds of any sentence are its bones,” Jack Hodgins says in A Passion for Narrative.  One character will “sweat” and while another haughtily “perspires.”

From language choice evolves complexity of character. Work those sentences like we work those thighs in the gym, I tell my students – it’s the only way to get tighter and stronger and better looking/sounding sentences! Flannery O’Connor was brilliant at this.  Not ha-ha funny; wacky funny, honing in as she does on the tragic-comedy that life is.

You’re able to so convincingly inhabit the hearts and minds of a wide range of characters – obnoxious Duncan, the British con-man; soft-hearted Floyd, the lonesome handyman, and of course Roslyn, the generous, vivacious woman who often finds herself at a crossroads. Were any of the characters more difficult than others to make come to life?

I would say Roslyn was the hardest, as I initially placed her in roles reacting rather than acting, which doesn’t make for a strong vibrant character.  Reacting to the men instead of focusing on who she was and acting accordingly. But each situation revealed new aspects of her, and I would rewrite backwards and forwards (the very last piece I rewrote was the first chapter) until she grew into a full-fledged character who, by the book’s end, has grown enough to face some difficult truths about herself. But yes, she, as a character, came slower.

The others? You know, they were a writer’s dream!  This doesn’t often happen in my experience, but one fed off the other.  They were like a group of friends egging each other on. Bringing out the most entertaining aspects of the other.  They really did take over their stories, overrode my plans for them – defiantly did what they wanted to do.

I talked of this briefly already.  But while writing at Hawthornden Castle for six weeks, we had to walk for kilometers to get to a small town to use the internet which wasn’t up a the castle.  I’d make the trek every few days, often in pouring rain.  There I was, immersed in this verdant rain-drenched April Scottish landscape and I know that’s what brought this idea that started taking hold: a middle-aged British man going back to his Scottish roots.

Duncan and Floyd in particular fell enthusiastically into their roles, embracing their characters, like an actor proving he’s the best for the part.  I don’t mean the book was easy to write.  Writing is never easy.  The book took me four years of intense focus. But despite the hard hard work, these characters made it fun.

What strikes me as one of the central themes of the collection is the notion of forgiveness. In my reading, there’s the suggestion that when we hold onto something too tightly and for so long it can become toxic and self-destructive (the many grudges between the ex-husbands and wives a notable example). Ultimately, many of the characters struggle to find the ability to reconcile or make amends with their own pasts, their regrets and their mistakes. How do you understand forgiveness in the stories?

What an interesting question, Trevor.  This is why interviews are intriguing.  The writer finds out what she did!  I never focused directly on forgiveness as I wrote  — hopefully that’s why it works.  I think if a writer is “on point” with a theme, there’s a danger s/he will wax polemic; it’s better to go off and write a sermon about it, get it out of one’s system.  The most poignant concerns of a work of fiction, I think, peep around the shoulders and between the knees of the characters.

I would say Floyd is the most forgiving person of the lot.  He’s good-hearted.  He wouldn’t even think there was something to forgive. He just tries to live well and do his best and accept what happens without blame.  I’ve had a lot of people tell me they love Floyd the best, his gentle sincerity coupled with that foul mouth and love of a randy tale.

Roslyn finds it less easy to forgive.  She remains irked at her ex-husbands, for instance.  At her sister, Margaret, at times at Stella. But she finds hardest forgiving herself.  She is devastated at how she abandoned her son in the throes of her excitement over Duncan.  That’s why, for a lot of people, the chapter of Theo’s wedding is poignant.  The day and its litany of (funny) disasters, brings her by nightfall, to a moment of recognition.  Theo, who has the right, if anyone does, to be unforgiving, gently absolves her – his life is moving on; he could almost be Floyd’s son in that respect.  He has no desire to stay in a warp of anger or blame — and Roslyn, absolved by others, is left trying to forgive herself.

Though you startled me into thinking of forgiveness as a notion through the book, I do think the line as she sits out under the stars on the empty dance floor: “The day has left her with a feeling that is hard to name, as if her chest cavity has split open, and the Milky Way is rushing in” is recognition on her part of forgiveness at work within her, and the painful cleanse it brings.

In some of the relationships in the book – most notably among the British ex-pats in “The Costa Blanca News”, you portray women who are neglected and bullied and abused by their overbearing husbands. This is the darkest story in the collection, and although she’s a peripheral character, we find Roslyn herself at a low point, wondering what she’s gotten herself into. I kept rooting for Nell and Mavis, wanting them to escape. Was this a difficult story to write? Did you know characters such as these?

Stylistically, this section was hard to write for a variety of reasons.  It was also exhilarating to write. I was trying things I hadn’t tried before because the piece called for them.

An English professor I know made me happy when he wrote me: “The second chapter is amazing in the disappearance of the author as the characters generate their own dialogue.  The Brit-talk is utterly authentic.”

Then beyond the Brit-talk, I pictured almost a ghostly Brit presence, like some hovering voice-over in Spain that spoke around and of the characters and their landscape when they weren’t speaking themselves. So the voice comments on the characters at times: “Nell’s bloody knackered.  Why’s she even here?” or “There she sits, addicted to disaster.”

Other times, in its own short section, the voice of the story will pull back into a kind of omniscient gaze: “White lizards scrabble.  Spanish sun plunges from a blood-scraped sky…The Mediterranean reeking of corroded iron, whacks its shores like the snap of a dishrag.”

As for the women in the piece, probably most people know someone like Nell or Mavis.  Or perhaps, at some point in their lives, have been Nell or Mavis.  I wanted a section that slammed against Roslyn’s expectations of living the good life abroad.  I wasn’t sure how it was going to play itself out.  But then dispirited Nell stepped out onto the stage with her bottle of gin and took it away – around the same time that the Mediterranean revealed itself an almost malevolent presence.

As for escape.  I may be alone in this, but don’t think the last page of that section is the end for either of the women.  I’m rooting for them too.  Nell isn’t so far gone that she can’t chastise Bert in her head, at least.  She knows her feelings.  She needs to gain the courage to act.  Her inner diatribe against him tells me her time will come.

And feisty Mavis puts up a fight and, does, after all, step down those stairs with the gun.  People will read this ending in different ways. I’m rooting for the women too, but I didn’t want easy resolutions.

The title of the collection – Are You Ready to Be Lucky? – suggests the role of chance and choice in our lives, and is perfect for a cast of characters who often take great, sometimes wanton personal risks, uprooting their lives on a whim for love or adventure. Yet in the last few stories, we find both Floyd and Roslyn shying away from risk, unable or unwilling to cross over the great divide to admit their feelings for one another. Was risk—the roulette of our own lives—something front of mind for you as you worked through the collection?

Definitely the roulette of our lives interests me.  Risk has always interested me.  Both in life and in writing.

I love the John Hawkes’ line that begins, “I am only interested in fiction that reveals its risk…” And, as I said, I do take structural risks to find a form that best emulates voices and their content.  I love the risk you take in the form of your stories that I’ve seen, Trevor.  Yours are proof that structure is an emotional part of story.

In terms of Roslyn and Floyd, I wouldn’t say they entirely shy away from risk at the end.  In her own way, Roslyn risks, trying to speak to Theo what’s in her heart near the end of “A Lovely Hind, A Graceful Doe”, and at the very end, in facing what she has brought upon herself and Theo by her choices.

In terms of her relationship with Floyd, I see her as risking by not taking the easy route of falling back on a man to look after her.  Roslyn faces Theo’s wedding on her own, she gives up security and love to be alone in life, so she can evolve into a person who doesn’t lean on others. I see that as a bigger risk than ending up in yet another marriage.  And she does reveal to Floyd her fondness for him.  She just chooses to take responsibility for herself.

And Floyd? He’s a gambler at heart.  He does his damndest to show Roslyn he cares for her, but when he realizes he can’t have her, yes, it continues to hurt, but he’s not a man like Slim or Bert who would force a relationship — he just damn well keeps on playing the pinball machine of life, no matter what life doles out.  Maybe that’s less risk than determination but I admire him for it.  No question, these characters are flawed, at times even hopeless.  But I think they risk more than is evident on the surface.

Will you be travelling in support of the book? Where can readers find you this fall?

I’ve had a fabulous launch and lots of media attention here in Saskatoon where I’ve just started a nine-month writer-in-residency.  It’s been a great way to introduce Are You Ready To Be Lucky? to the world – especially since Saskatchewan was home turf for the first 18 years of my life.

I’ll be reading in Toronto October 15th, Waterloo, October 16th, Montreal, October 17th and Windsor, October 21st.  Then I’ll come back to Calgary for a party/launch/celebration November 21st.  Everybody’s welcome!

It’s all on my website along with a periodic blog. Please check it out.

Finally, what projects are you working on currently?

My book came out literally two days before I left for Saskatoon.  I had a year of intense rewrites on Are You Ready To Be Lucky?, then the minute the manuscript was out of my hands, I taught classes in all spring, then took students to Greece, the Island of Samos for 16 days of creative writing in July, and spent August frantically renting out and organizing my house, dragging boxes across town, finding a place in Saskatoon – and now a three week whirlwind of a new position in a new city with a lot of media attention.

Before the end of September I hope to sit down, breathe, and try to catch hold of some of the ideas that are sprinting through my brain.  I just haven’t had the opportunity to go inside myself and see who’s waiting, though a few characters are waving at me.  I’m definitely looking at another work of fiction and possibly a book about writing.  I keep getting prodded to write one, so that idea is percolating as well.

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To find out more about Rosemary and her work, or to learn more about where she’s reading through the fall, visit her website. Buy a copy of Are You Ready to be Lucky? here.

Rosemary’s Calgary launch will be held at 7:00 p.m. on November 21st at the National Music Center in Calgary, 134-11th Ave S.E.

(Author photo: Ryan Schmidt, Saskatoon Public Library)

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