Danceland Diary (Radiant Press, 2022) is the new novel from dee Hobsbawn-Smith. It tells the story of Luka Dekker and her sister Connie – heirs to a disturbing family history going back three generations. The story unfolds against a backdrop of the drug-fueled Downtown Eastside of Vancouver and the horrific pig farm murders, the seductive beauty of rural Saskatchewan, and the glittering lights of a famous prairie dance hall. Luka’s quest for her mother, and for peace and love, is a disquieting, moving, and thoroughly engaging examination of intergenerational trauma and forgiveness. In this interview, the author discusses her inspiration for the book, including personal experience, other fantastic books she read along the way, and how time is the best editor any writer can have. A great interview for new and emerging fiction writers who are struggling in the dark with their early drafts. Because writing is a very lonely act, it’s cathartic to read about the possibilities, the struggles and triumphs writers experience on the strange road to publishing.
dee Hobsbawn-Smith’s award-winning poetry, essays, and short fiction has appeared in publications in Canada, the USA, Scotland and elsewhere. She earned her MFA in Writing and her MA in English Literature at the University of Saskatchewan. Her debut poetry collection, Wildness Rushing In, was a finalist for Book of the Year and Best Poetry Collection at the Saskatchewan Book Awards. What Can’t Be Undone: Stories was published in 2015. She’s a local foods advocate, active in Slow Food for more than twenty years, and has written a stack of books about food, including the award-winning Foodshed: An Edible Alberta Alphabet. She served as the 35th Writer in Residence at Saskatoon Public Library in 2015. Bread & Water: Essays, published in 2021, won the Saskatchewan Book Awards’ nonfiction prize. dee lives on the remnants of her family’s farm west of Saskatoon.
Inherited trauma is one of the core themes of your book, and while the essence of that trauma throughout the generations is relatively uniform, each character saw it manifest uniquely. What was your process for figuring out how this trauma both kept its shape and mutated from character to character?
The basic shape of the trauma endured through the novel because it just seemed obvious – loss was at the heart of the matter. And we often cope with loss by withdrawing emotionally. Add that to a culture of repressed emotional life, and the recipe is toxic.
I knew that the traumas had to evolve from the era each character inhabited. So the process was that of following the character’s likely development within their timeframe. That meant research. I spent lots of time in the Local History Room of the Saskatoon Public Library, reading about the city, its people, culture, habits, and its nearby rural environs during the First and Second World Wars. I also read a lot of Hutterite history from history books compiled by Hutterite women in the area. (Several small towns nearby are where the bulk of the Hutterites who moved into the North-West Territories from the US in the early 1990s settled.) Then, because we have mental health issues of varied types in my own family (as in most families), I did a lot of reading about bipolar disorder and its treatment.
Klara’s era was of a 1917 hardscrabble prairie farm life. In those days on the prairies, widows rarely kept farming, but became housekeepers for others – local bachelors or widowers whom they sometimes married, especially if either party had children – or their own families of origin. And the possibility of filicide, a parent (in this case a father-in-law) killing their child added an element of horror that suited the wartime gestalt. The idea of the body being put down a well is so shocking in a dryland community where water is a precious, precious thing that it seemed right. In fact, that fact – the well – was the original impetus for this novel. More on that later. So Klara’s traumatic loss and her dramatic response – virtually abandoning her daughter to her parents’ care and taking refuge in horses – fit the time and place.
The same could be said of Charlotte. She actually suffered three traumas: to all intents and purposes being abandoned twice by her mother, once as a child when Klara attended to her horses first and foremost, and again when Klara sent her to town to live with Marina and attend high school; and then the sexual assault. Sexual tensions run especially high when young people are being sent off to war, where they run high risk of death, and it seemed to me that the Second World War was no different. Charlotte manifests her pain by withdrawing from her child, Lark, ironic but to be expected, given that her mother had inflicted the same thing on her. Charlotte’s redemption came in the form of raising her grand-daughters when Lark deserted them.
Lark suffered from bipolar disorder on top of being an unwanted child. In any era, those two burdens would be challenging to deal with. Her flight from her emotional pain at losing her young husband took her to Vancouver in the 1990s, and straight into the path of a misogynistic monster. Missing and murdered women was and is a dreadful reality.
In her turn, Luka and her sister were abandoned by their mother after AJ’s death. How would a young woman cope with the loss of both parents in the early 21st century? By forming untenable bonds with unavailable men, and by obsessively hunting for her mother. It all makes a grim but inevitable kind of sense, given human nature.
The parallels between AJ and Klara are especially fascinating, both being “horse people,” so to speak, and having some of the most curious relationships with their families in regard to their overall characterization. Could you compare and contrast these two a bit?
In her wonderful poem, “Horses”, Louise Gluck ponders the meaning of lovers and horses. “In the dark you had no shadows./ But I felt them coming toward me.” That “them”, so ambiguous! is it horses or shadows, or both? She concludes, “Look at me. You think I don’t understand?/ What is the animal/ if not passage out of this life?”
Horses seem so earthbound, so of this world, but in my mind, they also occupy the other world, liminal beasts that transit between life and death. They are a powerful but ambiguous symbol, as in Gluck’s poem. In Klara’s life, horses are her passage out of the sterility and emotional dead end of life as a family servant that awaits her after her young husband vanishes. She uses horses to escape, taking her stallion Marko on the road to horse shows and on the provincial breeding train. And not coincidentally she rejects her daughter as well as the female dress code, and takes to wearing men’s clothing in a time when women wore only skirts or dresses, denying her own internal feminine role as well as the prevailing external view of femininity. We do see a brief revitalization of her emotional life as a mother in the pie-making scene with young mother-to-be Charlotte during the threshing. But Klara’s herd ultimately dies, killed off by sleeping sickness. Her horses are her means of shutting down emotionally with humanity by giving her an alternative vessel to receive her emotions. As Charlotte so cuttingly observes, Klara chose horses and all they represent over her.
The cowboy AJ is in some ways the antithesis of Klara even though they have horses as a common interest. When he meets Lark, he insists that they move to Saskatchewan when he learns she has family there. He’d been footloose as a young man, and left his family of origin behind for the rodeo life, and he longs for that grounding bond. As a father, he uses horses as a way to connect with his daughters, putting the girls onto horses’ backs and teaching them to ride. But he too uses horses as an avenue of escape from a difficult home life, heading out to rodeos frequently and leaving Lark behind to raise their daughters alone. His death comes as a direct result of his love of horses, their shadows bearing him off to the other world.
What was your goal, your inspiration for writing Danceland Diary?
My primary goal was to tell a cracking good story, one that would pull the reader in and keep them up all night until they finished reading the book. I wanted to create the primary things that make an engrossing novel: riveting plot, characters the reader cares about – not necessarily likes, but want to know more about – and locations that are integral to the narrative arc.
Beyond that, I wanted to create a historical novel, one that could explore how intergenerational trauma tracks through a family. I wanted to use multiple timelines, including the Second World War, which changed so much for women’s lives, and the late-20th century influence of the Pickton murders upon so many women in the Lower Mainland, and what the murdered and missing women meant and means in the lives of women in Canada.
I wanted to write a novel about women’s lives because I always liked the added textures, pacing, and voices supplied by diary entries and letters in novels. But always with the thought of writing a Bildungsroman, where loss, quest, and changes in a character’s life are mirrored by – or mirror – the cultural changes of her time.
In an interview from 2020 on CBC’s The Next Chapter, Toronto novelist Camilla Gibb said returning to fiction after a break was like learning to walk again. Do you find it a challenge to move from one genre to the next?
When I was a younger writer, I moved easily among the different disciplines. Sometimes my work refused to be categorized – I often write first drafts of poetry by hand, as prose, to remove the tyranny of line breaks and presuppositions, then later I find the musicality in the work when I revise it and break the lines. In some cases, I have submitted a prose poem as prose, and later as a different form of poem, and still later as part of an essay, but it all serves to illuminate the fluidity of our imposed categories as just figments of our desires. Or maybe not.
At this age, I have come to accept and value the role of time. Time is the great editor: I put away a piece to cook, and return to it when the heat has dissipated. I didn’t have that patience when I was younger; I have learned that given time, I can more easily see the form that suits it best, and revise it more effectively.
Being obsessive, I put on blinkers and attend to one form or one piece of work. Then I close the book and turn to something else when I feel I have done all that I can in this draft. Essays and poems are cousins, and transitioning between them is smooth. But fiction is a different kind of horse. If poetry and essays are Arabian horses, full of fire and grace, and the resulting work a form of dressage, then fiction in my studio is a little Shetland pit pony, never quitting, doggedly trying things over and over until it drags the coal bin out of the tunnel. A different stride, different gait, different purpose – different breed. When I am at work on fiction, that’s where I hang my bridle for a month or two or three, although I may write the occasional poem or essay if something arrives.
We caught a small glimpse of who Luka believes is Tessa at Anky’s funeral. How do you think the rest of Tessa’s life played out after the last time we saw her in Anky’s diary? Did she ever interact with Anky again? Did Karma catch up with her? What would present-day Tessa have been like as a character?
I don’t think that Tessa and Charlotte cross paths again. I think that Tessa goes on to open a high-end house of prostitution as a Madam in some large eastern American city, but she mistreats her sex workers, the man who fronted her the funds turns sour on her, and she returns to a tougher life in Saskatoon. I don’t see her having a peaceful old age as a respected elder! But she’d never “off” herself. She was one of my favourite characters to create, and she leapt off the page whenever she opened her mouth. So yes, I believe in karma, and that it caught up with Tessa. In the 1970s she would have been a Johnny Rotten Sex Pistols punk fan in ripped black. Nowadays, she’d be a tough street worker with tats and piercings and loud attitude, but never a drug user. Or in a really bizarre twist, she could become a well-dressed right-wing anti-abortion campaigner tilting toward violence and throwing blood on lawyers and judges at trials and demonstrations. The bottom line is that Tessa doesn’t like herself, or women, and she doesn’t like men either, so in whatever era, she’d work to make people miserable.
Heather O’Neill said that the inspiration for her latest novel, When We Lost Our Heads, was an art book filled with old paintings depicting Montreal in various ways – including a celebration of the French revolution. From there, the author began to imagine a group of women, and she began writing character sketches based on imagining what these silent images from the past might end up saying, feeling and being. What inspired you for Danceland Diary?
My mom and auntie were raised in the old farmhouse where I live with my husband, the writer Dave Margoshes (and where I lived for three years as a cranky teenager when my parents relocated us to Saskatchewan from the West Coast). Mom and my auntie frequently mentioned their grandfather, who vanished at a young age. The family lore is that he beat his wife, and one of two things resulted – he took off down to the Dakotas to enlist in the American Army (unlikely, as the family were all Hutterites, and thus pacifists), or his father-in-law did him in for the violence against his daughter, and hid the body down a well. But then my practical mom, always the farmer, invariably added, “But who would want to ruin a perfectly good well?”
I carried that story around for years, wondering what to do with it, how to make a body in a well a big enough notion to seed into a novel. Then when I returned to university in my fifties to earn my MFA in writing at the U of S in Saskatoon, I wrote the first draft of a novel as my creative thesis. It began with Klara’s 1917 diary entries, shortly before her young husband disappears. The rest of the family simply showed up and demanded to be put on the page in their own timelines, so the multi-generational aspect was an early part of the manuscript.
My original idea – all diary entries and letters – was inspired stylistically by The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields and Richard Wright’s Clara Callan. But I wanted to utilize other forms of narrative as well, so I added a first-person narrator who finds the diaries and letters as part of her own quest. I wanted to write about women – their losses and findings that divide and feed souls, hard times, the difficult bonds of intergenerational trauma. And I wanted to write a love story, but one with a contemporary take on romance.
The bitter pill of writing about missing and murdered women evolved from my life in Vancouver as a young woman in the 1970s, when I felt utterly invincible, dancing at the Commodore Ballroom, walking the city’s streets in the protective colouration of a letter carrier. My job allowed me to walk across the construction site of Granville Island and the pin-cushion-sized yards of the Downtown Eastside with impunity. (My dad had taken me to eat fish and chips at The Only on East Hastings when I was twelve and we’d taken my pony to the PNE to compete in the horse show.) I realized years later that I’d witnessed a side of Vancouver that rarely makes it into books.
When I returned to Saskatchewan in 2010, I saw an early painting by David Thauberger of Danceland, the famous prairie dancehall with the same type of floor as the Commodore’s. Then Dave took me to Manitou Beach to see Danceland up close. Well, that sealed the deal as far as additional locales (and cover art)! Adding a seedy underside to Danceland just made sense.