30 Novels, # 3: The Double Hook


The Double Hook, by Sheila Watson
"There's things to be done needs ordinary human hands."

I was trying to write a novel. I was in the MA program at the University of Alberta, and I’d decided that instead of writing my thesis on James Joyce’s Ulysses I would take the creative writing option and try to become a novelist myself.

The problem was, I couldn’t seem to write a novel. I kept starting them, and after a couple of chapters I’d lose momentum, or direction, or interest, and I’d abandon the thing. Then I’d start again. I knew I wanted to tell a story set in the Canadian Rockies, a place that I’d lived and that haunted my imagination, but I had no story. I had no plot. I was sure I had to have a plot all worked out first, but every plot I came up with seemed stale, familiar, clichéd. My plots bored me.

Two crucial encounters showed me the way. I went to see Kristjana Gunnars, who taught fiction-writing in the department at that time, to ask her if she'd be my thesis supervisor. I explained apologetically that I was trying to write a novel set in the mountains but all I’d come up with was this mess of fragments.

She said, “Fragments. That’s good. You can work with fragments.”

It was a bolt from the blue. So it was possible to write a novel without starting at chapter one and writing each chapter in sequence until you got to the end? Without having a plot all worked out? Yes, it was. I could take these unfinished fits and starts and treat them like jigsaw puzzle pieces, moving them around, finding links between them, shaping them to fit together. I could stitch a novel together out of fragments. I could find its shape, its plot, its story, as I went along.

The other crucial encounter was with a book. The book was Sheila Watson’s The Double Hook. First of all, this was a story set among mountains, about an unstoried part of the world. It was Canadian. It was western Canadian. It meant I wasn’t writing in a void, but in a tradition. And this was a novel unlike most I’d ever read. Its language was sparse, pared down, but poetic. It seemed to have been put together the way I was trying to put a novel together: out of brief flashes of lightning illuminating a moment, a person, a landscape. A book of fragments, tied together by mood, and by place.

And perhaps most important, the author had lived and taught and written here, in Edmonton, in the place where I was struggling to become a writer.

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