Julie Wilson Interview, 49th Shelf: August, 2013

Q: Hearkening back to your 30 years in book production and design, what makes a book well-designed to your hand and eye? What makes for good architecture?

 

Well, yes, I guess I am still a bit of a book-nut, in love (or at least potential love) with the book as a physical object – a three dimensional physical object, not simply the flat surface of each page. Yes, I care very much about the typeface, its size, spacing, placement on the page, but I care just as much about the quality of the paper, the kind of binding, the general heft and feel of the book.

Q: Is it the same architecture that makes for a well-designed pack of smokes? I'm thinking about your past preference for Marlboros. Hard or soft pack?

 

It must have been hard pack, but it was the clean red colour that I liked, and, of course, the absence of bad drawings of animals like camels. Even better than Marlboros (did I really say that?) were Dunhill, in an elegant square red hard-edged box. Again, the physical object.

 

Q: You published your first memoir, Little Comrades, at the age of 80-years-old. Before that, you'd described yourself as "frozen," surrounded by a family of writers against which you could compare your own efforts and a home life that required your present attention. While it's sad to think that time opened up for you with the death of your mother and husband, it's remarkable that you knew precisely what you'd do with that time. Had you known as easily that it would be memoir? 

 

I don’t think I ever compared my (virtually non-existent) efforts with theirs, but I was afraid they would if I ever wrote anything. I really didn’t have the sense of waiting for them to be out of my life so that I could emerge like a scribbling Cinderella and trot myself off to the ball…. I don’t think I had any sense of the passage of time that way, although I did have occasional “escape fantasies”. 

 

I began writing “stories”, yes, but I had no idea what to do with them, or if they were “worth anything”. I do remember showing my mother one of those early pieces, oh, about my father, my brother, and so on. She said, “It wasn’t like that.” She said nothing at all about the quality of the writing, which I took, insecurely, to mean that she was kindly refraining from comment.

 

Occasionally I’d send something around to a journal. Nothing was ever accepted. But then I had a story accepted by Contemporary Verse 2. That was a big day for me. I think it was 1998, something like that… But nothing else for years… perhaps because I wasn’t writing and wasn’t submitting. That’ll do it! But I did begin again, and the publication that finally read what I wrote and liked it was Queen’s Feminist Review, here in Kingston. It was a blind jury, and the first year I sent anything to them they accepted eight pieces. Not really “poetry”, but little story-poems. That was in 2007, I was 77 years old. That was the event that gave me a little confidence, and, incidentally, that introduced me to some of the wonderful women in the Kingston writing community. 

 

But it was Mark Abley, at a nonfiction workshop at Banff, who gave me the sense that I did have something worth saying and that I knew how to say it. 

 

Q: Did you ever consider a biography? I'm thinking a bit about the photographer you introduce who watches you and an old friend visiting in the park for the first time in 40 years. She's watching a different moment in time play out, under a different bias. Is that part of the attraction for you as a writer, that you pick the moments you want to play out, and then to what degree each is unpacked further?

 

What seems to interest me is story. That was how I began to write – just isolated bits that I saw in memory. So it’s not at all “biography”. That is, although both of my current books are officially considered memoir, what I wrote – primarily, initially – for each of them was a collection of individual stories about events. And yes, definitely there is the sense of “unpacking” them. Of opening them up. I am fascinated by the way memory seems to work. The relationship of memoir to biography is interesting, I think. Memoir is much more personal, more flexible, and I do seem to like the form. 

 

Q: Early in your first marriage, you met Gary, a musician, writer and ad exec. Your connection was instantaneous. There is an effortlessness to how you describe the steps you took to be together, a certainty that's at once romantic and unsentimental; yet, you don't describe it as "love". What was it?

 

I don’t know. 

I have no idea what it was. Perhaps it’s just that the word “love” is altogether too simple for it. Perhaps it was a sense of coming home, although I didn’t think about that at the time. (Perhaps because the “home” in my childhood was not a safe place, and certainly was not a place I would have wanted to be.) But to be in a psychic space where you are completely accepted as is … that was what I felt with Gary, and probably what he felt with me – until I had him “busted”, of course. And that’s probably why he felt so betrayed by my actions.

 

Q: As your life with Gary began—the "lovely, artsy New York in the mid-fifties," rooftop gatherings with writers, photographers, actors, and musicians, the likes of Miles Davis and Lenny Bruce—you also started to recognize signs of drug and alcohol abuse in Gary. Hip was a mindset. From the sidelines, did you tie hip (or jazz) to drug culture and the "feel good" injections of the time? Could you be straight and hip?

 

Well, the times were different then. The words were different. But – yes – hipness, at that time, didn’t necessarily place you in the druggy mindset, but implied, I believe, a broad ethical base without artifice. That was a kind of key, the lack of artificiality, and a way of looking at the world. 

 

But the entire concept of “hip” is rather polluted now, I think. In a recent Globe & Mail column Sarah Hampson referred to a hotel with its “hipper-than-thou” attitude, and the weekend paper has three or four references to versions of hip, uber-hip, hipsters. Perhaps we need a new word.  … It’s quite possible that there is one – a word that only the truly hip know. And if I knew it, I couldn’t say it here…. 

 

Q: After Gary was incarcerated, you rebuilt your life in Canada with your daughter. In Part Two of the book, we learn more about your return to publishing and your career at UTP. Resiliency is a word that springs to mind when I think about your ability to stay in some moments and bounce back from others. There's something jazz-like about it, isn't there? It's complex, improvisational, at times, quite violent and virtuosic. So, sticking with a motif of musicality, was that period in your life just noise or was there a throughline?

 

What an interesting notion! Yes, there was certainly an element of creativity about it, of resilience, and response to stimulus that could be called jazz-like. I thought of it more as a dance, in a way. I remember saying, in one particular period of financial uncertainly, that I would need to “do a sprightly dance.” I’m not a musician. But yes, there was certainly a lot of improvising. I think it is a particular skill that single parents develop – a real need to pay attention to the other “players” in one’s life, and to respond creatively.

 

Q: From the opening of Love, and All That Jazz:

 

"The bench where we sat then, hunched into our coats against a cold San Francisco wind, had been moved. About ten feet east. It seemed an omen. You can’t get back that moment. I thought about moving the bench back to its proper place, about sitting at the left side of it and conjuring Ira to take his place at the other end."

 

Could this pertain to the craft of writing memoir, not being able to get back to a moment? How does memory function for you? Is it elastic or a brutal editor? 

 

Oh, I love this! Part of memory is perhaps trying to “get back to the moment”, and I love the way the human brain functions. There’s no little door that opens to reveal the cupboard in which our memories are kept. I ask my memory to look at something – usually at something quite specific, some little bit of a memory. Sometimes there’s not much there, but I look around at what there is. And then I ask it again later, and in the meantime my darling brain has scrounged around its neurons and assembled a bit more of that particular stew… I have never thought of memory as a “brutal editor”, but more like a helpful librarian, perhaps… And definitely a conjuror. 

 

That has worked for me fairly well. The first story I wrote deliberately is the one in Little Comrades called “Pink”… I was five or six years old and a doll carriage wounded me, and blood came out of my leg. A traumatic event for a young child. As I began to write about it, more of the situation unraveled for me, opened up for me, along with the implications that I, as an adult, could now see in that situation.  

 

The other thing that I am now finding – now, at 83 – is that once I have fully written something I have no further interest in looking at that particular memory, so it becomes a door I can close. I think this is a useful tool of “writing as therapy” endeavors, although that was never my intent when I wrote either of these two books. 


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