Estella Kuchta is a writer, researcher, and postsecondary instructor, currently teaching at Langara College in Vancouver, Canada. Her first novel, Finding the Daydreamer, was recently published by Elm Books in the US. She has worked as a writer and researcher for international management consultants, a research assistant to renowned author Dr. Gabor Mate, and an editor for Susila Dharma International. Her creative writing and journalism projects have been published, aired, and broadcast in newspapers and literary magazines, and on radio and TV in Canada and the United States. Her current academic research centres on experiential ecocriticism and the biological impacts of reading love stories. She is the winner of the UBC Undergraduate Creative Writing Award and her ecocritical research into Canadian love stories earned a SSHRC award.
Though set in the past, how does the novel still reflect social issues such as equality, abuse, etc?
The novel works through tangled layers of secrets and secrecy, unknowns and taboos. One of my goals was to tell—to reveal—the unheard stories. I hope people will forgive me for doing this. I tread into some ‘unmentionable’ territory. My goal is to expose these injustices to light, to make some survivors of those abuses feel less alone, and to draw attention to the complexities surrounding these issues.
People have told me the book also deals with many issues of women’s rights. This happened almost by accident. I simply wrote, based on my own experiences as a woman, some of the events I suspected my protagonist might encounter.
A great many of the social issues reflected in the book have, unfortunately, not changed very much in the last hundred years. We’re still coping with the fallout of the residential school system, with the oppression of women’s and children’s bodies, and with a culture that prioritizes individual egos and economics at the expense of love.
What books did you read earlier in life that helped shape your debut novel?
I think a novel is like a gift, and each sentence can be a treat, a tiny present that might delight, inspire, or clarify. As a poet, this idea came naturally, but I saw it enacted in vivid way in Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha. The protagonist’s childlike and poetic worldview is evidenced in her description of her childhood home, the fishing village, and a decaying moth.
I’ve always been drawn to books that deal with magic, the supernatural, intuition, and the many invisible links between us all. A couple of my favourite books are Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony and Isabella Allende’s House of Spirits. Two of my writing mentors, Stan Rushworth (Sam Woods) and Joseph Stroud (Country of Light) taught me to write with honesty. Although they write memoir and poetry, respectively, I’ve discovered that fiction can be as truthful as nonfiction when written with emotional honesty.
When did you know you were writing a novel? Did this story start off as anything else? A short story perhaps?
This novel began as a CBC radio documentary interview with my grandmother who lived in the Cariboo during the 1930s and 40s. I developed the idea to interview her after attending an English class with Laurie Ricou at UBC where I first learned of the concept of telling stories through place—the idea that land itself contains stories and can be mapped through storytelling.
From there, I began graduate research on the qualities of Canadian love stories and how those stories related to land. I decided to explore my developing theories through a creative project—a novel—using my grandmother’s stories of life in the Cariboo as the setting.
Despite your book being set almost 100 years ago, are there any biographical elements in the book that you drew from for any characters or plot points?
My grandmother, a settler of British descent grew up in a beachfront house in West Vancouver and spent the 1930s and 40s teaching and raising children in the Cariboo. A great many of her descriptions of the Cariboo, ranch life, the local culture, food, work, automobiles, and relationships between settler and Indigenous culture derived from my grandmother’s stories of her life in the Cariboo in the 1930s and 40s. In several places in the book, I’ve quoted her almost verbatim.
All my life, she told me tales of washing laundry in -40C degree weather, feeding starving cowboys who talked almost entirely about beef, and many other things that found their way into the book. For example, her mother really did give secondhand clothing in exchange for handwoven baskets to Indigenous women who canoed up to the West Vancouver house a couple times a year.
However, all of the characters and their actions are entirely fictional and my grandmother does not appear in the book. I’m deeply indebted to her rich storytelling and grateful she trusted me with her tales.
In a previous interview, the poet Ann Carson, was quoted Jacques Lacan, the French psychoanalyst and philosopher, who said that we don’t go to poetry for wisdom but for the dismantling of wisdom. How does poetry do that? Care to answer that one?
When you let the poetic mind take over, invisible constraints of culture, education, value, and perception can be shed. So, in essence, the poetic mind can enable us to do the hardest kind of learning: Unlearning. Within this unlearning, whole new ideas and values can be born.
What is the Vancouver lit scene like these days? I think folks would like to hear about what goes on out west – what writers do you admire, what stores do you like to frequent (bookstores) and what magazines or reading series do you like?
I’m lucky to live in a city with a number of amazing bookstores within a short bike ride. My favourites are the Indigenous owned and operated Iron Dog Books and the fabulous secondhand bookstore Canterbury Tales. Prism Magazine is my favourite local creative writing journal. Somehow, year after year, they hire consistently talented editors.
As a writer, I tend to cross-pollinate with other artistic disciplines for inspiration. For example, I’m huge fan of Vancouver’s modern dance scene and have found tremendous inspiration from performances at Edam Dance and The Cultch. I also frequent the Vancouver Fringe Festival and see every performance from the theatre company Fight With A Stick. These dancers and actors continually push the boundaries of artistic creation to new levels. I’m truly humbled watching them.
What advice do you wish you’d received, but didn’t, when you first started to take your writing seriously?
I wish someone told me: The things you are most afraid to write are the things you most need to write.
What is your ambition as a writer—what do you want to accomplish, personally and professionally?
We heal through stories. While my writing has often been a personal healing journey, ultimately, I hope it brings comfort, insight, illumination, and healing to others.
Are there any people in your life who are no longer with you (read: they died) but you really wish they could read this novel?
My mother-in-law, Lillia, was a great source of love, support, and artistic inspiration in my life. She was an avid reader, a potter, and a painter, and introduced me to many of my favourite books. She helped me choose the title for the novel, but she passed away in 2020. I think—I hope!—she would have really liked the novel.
The novel wouldn’t even be possible without my grandmother. I started it while she was still alive, and she knew I was working on it. She passed away several years before publication. I suspect it would have been a very strange experience for her reading her descriptions in my words in a world so very similar yet different from the one where she lived! She was one of my biggest supporters in life, so I suspect she would have been a fan.
How does geography play into your writing process? Do you like to stay in one place to write, can you write anywhere you go, and do you wish you could go somewhere on the earth just so you could write for a few hours?
During the research stages of this book, I sat near cow pens, went down horse trails, studied and listened to the land. I tried to truly hear what the clouds, birds, and mountains wanted to share with me. When I actually sit down to write—I could be anywhere. My imagination is huge and very consuming! Reality becomes remote, pale, and far away. So, as my work took me to different places, I wrote this novel on a ranch in the Cariboo, in cafes in Vancouver, in a cabin in California, in an apartment in China, and a house in Japan.
What do you hope readers will take away from your novel?
Despite the constraints of her culture and upbringing, the protagonist, Annabelle, learns to listen to some impulse inside her that knows how to find the right way in life. All of us in this society have constraints of one kind or another that prevent us from listening to that inner knowing. If we can find a way back to it, learn to listen and trust it, we can find our way back to healing and to love.
Although your characters are from another time, what similarities do your characters share as it relates to romance – have things changed all that much in the land of love?
The landscape of Canadian love has not changed much in the past 100 years. Canadian society still struggles with how to accommodate love in a culture of heightened propriety, politeness, economic-orientation, and inequalities. In some way, the novel poses a question: What do we want of love? and: What are we willing to do for love?
For more information on Finding the Daydreamer, visit Elm Books https://www.elm-books.com/daydreamer_p/n-02.htm