Rudy Wiebe was born in 1934 in Speedwell, a small Mennonite community in northern Saskatchewan. His parents had fled Russia in 1930 and became part of the last generation of homesteaders to settle the Canadian West. In 1947 Wiebe’s family moved to southern Alberta. Wiebe studied literature at the University of Alberta and the University of Tübingen, Germany. He taught at Goshen College in Indiana in the sixties, then returned to Canada to teach creative writing and literature at the University of Alberta until retirement in 1992. His latest book, Come Back (Knopf Canada, 2014), is his tenth novel and twenty-fifth book. Wiebe’s Mennonite ancestry is a prominent subject in his fiction, as are western and northern Aboriginal peoples. Wiebe’s books and stories have been published in thirteen languages and received numerous awards. He has twice won Canada’s Governor General’s Award, for The Temptations of Big Bear (McClelland and Stewart, 1973) and A Discovery of Strangers (Knopf, 1994). He received the Writer’s Trust Non-Fiction Prize for Stolen Life: The Journey of a Cree Woman (Knopf Canada, 1998), which he wrote with Yvonne Johnson, and the Charles Taylor Prize for his memoir Of This Earth: A Mennonite Boyhood in the Boreal Forest (Knopf Canada, 2007). In 2000 Wiebe was named an officer in the Order of Canada. He has received five honorary doctorates, and in 2007 he won the Leslie K. Tarr Award for contribution to Christian literature. He lives in Edmonton with his wife, Tena. He was interviewed by Hugh Cook.
Image: You’ve said that early in your writing career you discovered that it was as legitimate to write about a kid growing up in the Canadian bush as on the streets of New York. From the beginning, western Canada has been the locus of all your fiction; what is it about this region that resonates with you and drives your writing?
Rudy Wiebe: All writers face this question, “Where are your stories?” My family came to Canada as refugees from the USSR in 1930. They were homesteading, clearing land never before used for agriculture, in an isolated northern Saskatchewan community of immigrant Mennonites like themselves when I, their last child, was born. I read everything our one-room school had to offer—not much for an omnivorous reader—but even in my teens when I got to the Lethbridge Public Library (paradise!) I realized I was never finding any stories about my world, the particular place and people among whom I was living. Even in our grade-school readers, the Canadian stories were all about eastern Canada, never the West or the North—and by North I don’t mean Sudbury, I mean Arctic-Polar North. So, while reading and then trying to write, I gradually began to understand more and more clearly: here is where my stories are, the places and the people of my particular life in western and northern Canada.
Image: I grew up in a Dutch Reformed community in Canada, and my father read from the children’s Bible every evening at supper, so I was raised with the Old Testament, powerful stories which contain the same enchantment and bloodthirstiness and undercurrent of sexuality as fairy tales. Was this your experience as well? How did you first experience the power of narrative, of story?
RW: Yes, what mountain ranges of story, the Bible! It was read a great deal in our home, and sometimes aloud, but not at the table as a regular practice; nor can I remember it regularly at bedtime. We worked hard on our homestead, and in bed one fell instantly asleep. I never read in bed; I was too tired, and coal-oil lamps don’t work well beside a bed, especially when you share that bed with a much older, very large brother, as I did.
Did your father read the Bible stories to you in Dutch? That was a key matter for me as a child, because my father and mother could read the Bible only in German and that bound all its stories to the faith and the “absolute truth” that was taught at church. I have a battered copy of the book my mother read to us (though oddly, I have no concrete memory of hearing it): Biblische Geschichten für Schulen und Familien (Bible Stories for Schools and Families) published by D.W. Friesen & Sons of Altona, Manitoba, in 1937. That book is evocative enough for a whole essay at least, so I’ll just mention two Genesis details that have never left me: First, the Fall and the Flood in German are Sündenfall and Sündflut—both named “sin” before anything else. Second, the engraving of the Sündflut: the rain streaks down, darkening a tiny ark on the far horizon, but the clear foreground is a writhing mound of desperate children, birds, women, men, and animals clawing at trees and at each other to stay on a cliff above the heaving water thick with corpses all around them. As I explain in various incidents in Of This Earth, Sünde was for me the heaviest, most powerful word—but true!
The readings I felt differently about were the stories I found in the readers at school. They were in English (I don’t remember learning to understand or speak it) and simply fascinating: in Highroads to Reading, Book Two there was everything from Aesop’s “The Lion and the Mouse” to the Grimm Brothers’ “The Fisherman and His Wife”; Book Three ranged from “The Ugly Duckling” to Brother Fox and Brother Rabbit in “The Tar Baby,” not to mention “The Owl and the Pussycat.” Then I found a small blue book of Greek myths in the Speedwell School three-shelf library: the marvels of Procrustes’s deadly bed, the eagle and Prometheus, Theseus with his thread and labyrinth and Minotaur. I wouldn’t have understood what Zeus was doing, raping Europa and Leda, so I have no memory of those bestialities, but Athena springing fully armed from the head of Zeus and Aphrodite born in the sea foam were perfectly delightful. And then there was The Adventures of Ulysses by Charles Lamb, in the Highways and Byways of English Literature series published by Blackie & Son of London and Glasgow. Incredibly, I have here on my desk the Speedwell #4860 Reference Library copy of this green-cloth book, the school seal impressed into the first page. I remember finding it in the rubble of the school cellar in August, 1971. I was researching places where Big Bear had lived in the nineteenth century and made a detour to see what, if anything, was left of the place where I was born, and inside the log ruins of my school I found a torn, muddy book I had read in grade five. To its last word of overwhelming vengeance, I read it again.
What I’m saying: my childhood memory of reading has two parallels: German Bible stories read aloud in church and at home devotions, and English stories I read silently to myself. There’s a complex interaction here of the sinful (mostly Old Testament, with its often violent God) and the beautiful (mostly New Testament, until the crucifixion); the casual revenge brutality of folk tales and Greek myths and the delightful fun, the obvious right-and-wrong, of fairy tales and fables. By age eleven I was racing through violent Zane Grey; my mother was very concerned about my endless reading, and she would have been horrified if she had known, for example, how similar I found the judges of ancient Israel and Lew Wetzel in The Spirit of the Border. When years later I bought and read the Grimms’ tales in their original language, read, among so much else (the book contains 210 tales) the song the fisherman sings to the great fish, “My wife, Ilsebill, / she wills not what I will,” my experience of reading became even clearer: I was silently speaking in my head, my heart, my spirit, the signs of Homo sapiens’ greatest achievement—language—and in so doing was experiencing everything a human being possibly could. So: read.
Image: Your memoir Of This Earth: A Mennonite Boyhood in the Boreal Forest is a beautiful account of your early years in the remote community of Speedwell, Saskatchewan. Since the book was published almost seventy years after the experience, it must have been a challenge to write. Of This Earth uses an epigraph from a Robert Kroetsch poem: “What do you do for a living? I asked. / I remember, she replied.” Do you happen to be blessed with a good memory? In the book’s acknowledgements you mention other means you used to meet the challenge of recounting such long-ago events. Could you elaborate?
RW: When I told my writer friends that I was writing a memoir about the first twelve years of my life, they laughed with me. “How the heck will you get a whole book out of that?” We laughed some more, and I said, “But just think about it, all you learned about being a person, and how you learned it, loving your mom and dad—or not—and squabbling, playing with your siblings and doing chores and what is death and sex and walking to school in the winter and reading and getting strong enough to fight your buddies and other families’ funny habits and church and words, words, all the words there are in English—and for me Low German and High German, too!—and who can run the fastest or piss the farthest and girls and stories and muskeg swamps and girls and…” and we were all laughing even harder and they said, “Okay, lots, more than enough!”
Some of the work was like the historical research I did for novels. First, places: Speedwell, where I was born and lived my childhood. Not one person lives there now in the entire township. It’s the Fairholme Community Pasture with every homestead burned and bulldozed into grass, and the only clearly identifiable spots are the tiny fenced Mennonite Brethren church cemetery with its thirty-two graves in a clump of bush, and two miles north of that the jack pine walls of the one-room Speedwell School where I almost finished grade seven (we left for Alberta in May, 1947). Also Vancouver, where Dad, Mom, Liz, and I briefly lived with my sister Tina’s family at 4160 Brant Street.
Second, the calendar: when did something happen? Luckily our family lived at four different homesteads in Speedwell, so most memories could be fixed within a timeline since they hang on a specific place: a barn stall, yard layout, pattern of poplar trees. Also, for five years two of my sisters kept a diary (when Helen died, Liz continued it), and it dated specific events exactly.
Third, documents and conversations: the bits of official records documenting church and school were sparse, and therefore all the more stimulating. There were a few short memoirs, including my brother’s wonderful twenty-nine-page, handwritten ramble from Orenburg, Russia, where he was born, to the farm in Alberta, and also Northern Reflections: History of Glaslyn and the Rural Municipality of Parkdale (2005), a huge, two-volume assemblage of community information published for the Saskatchewan centennial. More: letters, newspapers, scraps of paper that nudged a memory. Better yet, a few conversations with my brother and my one surviving sister about what we mutually remembered, and how. How and why so much difference could be enfolded in eight decades of the unforgotten.
Last, and best of all, were the hundreds of family and community pictures. Several dozen are included in Of This Earth, and a close study of any one will reveal how evocative in detail and unexpected image one little black-and-white Brownie snapshot can be to the probing imagination.
Beyond the usual research, memoir is character, and here its difference with fiction becomes most clear. Characters in a novel are my creation: I control them completely. On the other hand, since one of the principles of my life is that our Creator has given us free will, when I write memoir I have no license to control my characters’ behavior: under God they have made their choices, they have acted in time as they did, and it is my responsibility to reveal that and that action only. To remain true to my convictions and the form in which I am writing, I must dare to discover and reveal what I or they literally did; only out of that can I shape an honest, genuine memoir.
For this understanding I must in particular thank Yvonne Johnson. I could not have written Of This Earth without having worked with her on her story, Stolen Life: The Journey of a Cree Woman. In the five years we struggled together to shape that book, she taught me the essentials of memoir as nothing else ever could.
Readers have asked whether I’m going to write about the next twelve years—adolescence to beginning fatherhood and publication of the first novel. As a book it makes sense, but let me tell you: from where I sit, writing childhood is complicated, but it’s very easy compared to young manhood. And middle age…I don’t think I’ve lived long enough yet to dare a memoir about that. For now, fiction will have to do.
Image: In your childhood, your Mennonite community in Saskatchewan lived beside a First Nations community. These two cultures are recurring subjects in your writing. Do you see significant similarities between them?
RW: This is, of course, a book-length question, but I’ll just underline one profound similarity. In the Saskatchewan boreal forest, hunting or farming, you are always aware of your total dependence on nature. Therefore, the belief in a loving Creator, as Jesus taught and as First Nations people also believe, who cares for his children by providing all they need, both physical nourishment and spiritual guidance accessible to all through prayer and honorable actions towards your fellow humans—this is fundamental to both. And the longer I live, the more firmly I believe in this profound similarity.
Image: For centuries Mennonites held the ideal of living in communities separate from the world. Today, however, Mennonites live in modern urban societies and occupy positions at the center of government, business, and academia. What does it mean for you to live as a Mennonite today?
RW: I would use the name Anabaptist rather than Mennonite, since there is such an incredible range of groups that call themselves Mennonite, with an extraordinary and often incompatible range of practices.
Historically, there never was a unified Anabaptist or Mennonite movement, as you imply in your question. Anabaptism began among young intellectuals in the city of Zurich and was driven out of that city (often into rural hiding) by both Roman Catholic and Protestant persecution. The movement toward separate Mennonite communities grew out of such persecution. Certain rulers granted religious groups the privilege of settling in their domains if they developed good agriculture and did not proselytize, for example in sixteenth and seventeenth-century Poland and eighteenth and nineteenth-century Russia. Other Dutch Mennonite believers remained in like cities Amsterdam and Haarlem and developed their Golden Age as they call it, especially in the seventeenth century. Every area of business except government was permitted them. They remain in the Dutch cities to this day, active in business, culture, and education.
Today, after five centuries, to be Mennonite is to sometimes be both religious and ethnic, or either, or neither, take your pick. What does it mean to be Mennonite today in Canada? I couldn’t say, though I’ve tried to write novels about bits of that complex question, for example in Sweeter Than All the World. We do have the oldest Mennonite communities in Switzerland and France and the Netherlands and Germany and Pennsylvania and Ontario to give us some ideas about what we might do, and what we doubtless should avoid.
Image: Do any of the characters in your novels particularly embody a genuine Mennonite way?
RW: I prefer the word Christian to Mennonite. Every Mennonite novel of mine has characters trying to find genuine Christian ways to live. For example, Thom Wiens and Joseph Dueck in Peace Shall Destroy Many; Frieda Friesen and the various Epps and Reimers in The Blue Mountains of China; the two Adam Wiebes and others in Sweeter Than All the World. All are trying, with certain moments of achieving. Never completely, of course.
Image: When you started publishing in the early 1960s, did you feel somewhat alone as a Canadian Mennonite writing fiction? Today, there’s a robust body of Mennonite writing in Canada. What, in your opinion, accounts for this rich output?
RW: In 1955, I wrote a short story (never published) which contained the first strands of character and conflict that grew into Peace Shall Destroy Many. At that time I knew of no Canadian who was writing fiction on Mennonite subjects in English. As far as I know, there was no one else until David Waltner-Toews published some poems and stories in the late sixties. The true blossoming began with Patrick Friesen’s first poetry collection, The Lands I Am (1976), and within a few years Turnstone Press in Winnipeg was publishing Friesen and Di Brandt, Sarah Klassen, Audrey Poetker, Sandra Birdsell, Armin Wiebe, David Bergen, Miriam Toews, and others.
There are many reasons for this extraordinary literary achievement: for Mennonites the shift to higher education, from German to the English language, to supporting the arts in general, especially music; and then for Canada as a whole the 1967 Centennial, which evolved into a celebration of multiculturalism and the promotion of the arts by the Canada Council; and, in particular, Turnstone Press itself. With no direct connection to anything Mennonite, its editors found fine Manitoba writers who happened to be Mennonite and who sold very well, so they published them. It seemed centuries of verbal creativity had been bottled up in the Mennonite psyche, and Canadian freedom released it to the world.
Image: Peace Shall Destroy Many, your first novel, created some controversy within the Mennonite community after it appeared in 1962. You’ve published a good number of novels since. What has been the reaction by Mennonite readers to your novels over the years?
RW: I’ve written and talked about the reaction to Peace Shall Destroy Many numerous times, most recently in an hour-long talk, “Hold your Peace,” given at the Mennonite Historical Society of British Columbia. The fact is, in more than half a century of writing fiction, I have had very strong and continuous Mennonite reader support, and this is especially true for such “Mennonite” novels as Sweeter Than All the World and Come Back. Only one novel since Peace Shall Destroy Many has been controversial with Mennonite readers, and that was My Lovely Enemy. The novel includes a discussion of the fact that Jesus, as an historical human male, must have had a penis, so, what did he do with it? A number of Mennonite Brethren churches felt such a subject was anathema and that I should be excommunicated. But this did not happen; the Mennonite Brethren have a congregational church structure, and my home church supported me, and with time the matter sank out of collective awareness.
Image: Can you describe your association with Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder in the sixties, and to what extent his political ideal of pacifism was an influence on your novel The Blue Mountains of China?
RW: Yoder was teaching theology at Goshen Seminary when I taught creative writing at Goshen College in Indiana. We were intrigued by each other’s writing on how to better live our Christian faith, and the assassination of President Kennedy and the growing intensity of the Cold War as the Vietnam conflict developed during those years drew us deeper into debate about the seemingly endless human need for violence. We became part of a small discussion group that met regularly, and also exchanged notes on problems we struggled with in our ongoing writing, both theology and fiction. During the sixties Yoder was working on the ideas which grew into The Original Revolution (1971) and The Politics of Jesus (1972), and I read early versions of some of the concepts those brilliant books discussed. Particularly important to me as a novelist was this question: What is the relationship between a Christian’s spiritual faith and his political actions as a “free” citizen of a contemporary nation? Did Jesus offer any guidelines on how to live in our century? Yoder sharply focused some new ideas for me; a reader of my first three novels will see how the problems faced by Thom Wiens in Peace Shall Destroy Many and Abe Ross in First and Vital Candle develop into John Reimer of The Blue Mountains of China dragging a cross north along Alberta Highway 2 and offering his “Sermon in the Ditch” to anyone who will listen. He does not offer his teachings from a mountain; what he has to say can only be uttered walking in the mud of everyday roadside existence. But he is on the way.
Image: The word “community” has come up often in this conversation. However one defines it—by religion, ethnicity, geography—how important is it for a writer to be a member of a community? Do you think writers outside of an identifiable community are at a disadvantage?
RW: Writing fiction—I can’t speak for poets—is largely a solitary activity. For me, stories are always about human beings doing something in some particular place, and though I might not go quite as far as Thomas King in saying, “The truth about stories is that that’s all we are,” my imagination can only begin to build on what I have experienced. For that experience, I need to know the lives and places of others. My small life can never be enough. I need others. Those others are my community; that’s where I find the bits and pieces, the boulders and plains and rivers and mountains out of which fiction can grow.
As my fiction shows, I have found my community in the past worlds of my ancestors, in the past and present of the Aboriginal people of the place where I live to this day, in the faith community where every week I meet friends I have known for decades, both old and young. For someone who has worked largely alone throughout his life, the loneliness and limited stimulation that come with aging can be especially difficult. I would find it impossible to be a writer without the love of my small, close family, but, above all, impossible without the larger continuing community of interaction, stimulation, visiting, food, and talk which is my church. As a writer, I have many acquaintances and friends throughout Canada and the world, but the ones I meet most regularly and have the most personal contact with are those who gather with me in Edmonton on Sunday morning.
Image: Years ago you said that the role of a Christian novelist is to be “a critic and a witness.” Can you say more about what that means, and how you’ve attempted to embody that in your fiction?
RW: The world has changed so much since I was a child: from the end of World War II to the restricted wars and disasters of this present time, and the emergence of a kind of rationalism which holds that it’s impossible to hang onto the old rigidities of faith—unless, like religious fundamentalists, you lock yourself into an immoveable dogma and then lash out at everything.
Given that, one of the guiding thoughts for me as a writer is: Jesus, I believe; help my unbelief.
And the second is like unto the first: Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.
The longer I write, the more I see how little of these great truths I have captured in what I’ve written. I must trust story; I must trust imagination to bear my writing witness; and it seems to me now that being a witness is more significant than being a critic.
One of the joys of my life is that I was given to write a few of the first published stories of the Aboriginal people of my part of Canada. I no longer need to do that; they have many brilliant storytellers now gaining attention, and will have more. But I did help give some push to starting that witness, and for that I’m grateful.
Image: Some critics raise the question of appropriation of voice, of whether a white person should write about Aboriginal life. Could you speak to that?
RW: Oh, “appropriation of voice,” that fancy postcolonial phrase for what is to me a mostly nonsensical way of looking at literature. It emerged in Canada during the late 1980s to early ’90s, and I may have contributed to it with my early short story “Where is the Voice Coming From?” about a deadly confrontation between the Cree and the North-West Mounted Police in the 1890s. It’s my most popular story, reprinted and translated over sixty times, often in university textbooks. In the late eighties, people asked, how dare a white Canadian write stories about Aboriginal Canadian characters?
Talk about irony. My first novel was set in a Russian Mennonite homestead community similar to the one where I grew up; when it was published, many Mennonite readers were deeply disturbed that I would tell stories about my own people! So, whom can I write about? Whose stories dare I tell?
The answer is obvious: no writer worth her or his salt asks anyone’s permission to write on any subject. I know many Aboriginal Canadian writers personally; we read each other’s books, we talk, we correspond; not one them has told me what I should not write about. Of course we have talked about voice appropriation, and we have discussed at length how to show proper respect and how to discover and explore the Aboriginal story you’re trying to write.
One final point: my Aboriginal stories all come from history; my only major contemporary subject is Stolen Life: The Journey of a Cree Woman, a book Yvonne Johnson and I wrote together because she invited me to do so. The largest part of it is given in her own words.
Image: A number of your Mennonite novels are based on historic events as well—as you once put it, they unearth the past. In a conversation with novelist Robert Kroetsch you said that you have a distrust of inherited history, because there is often another side to the official version. Is that part of the role of the novelist for you, to provide that other side?
RW: I wouldn’t so much say “the other side” as “the lived, personal experience.” In both my major areas of historical interest, western Canadian Aboriginal history and Mennonite history, there has been a huge explosion of research in the last forty or fifty years. More facts, stories, and persons are known about now in areas where, when I began to write, almost nothing imaginative had been done—that is, the work of trying to recreate what daily life was like for individuals, families, and communities. So much was not known, or known only in bits and pieces. To stimulate my imagination, I had to do a lot of what you might call “primary digging.” I did not want to write fantasy formula like Fenimore Cooper’s Indian tales; I wanted to write fiction that creates, in the reader’s mind, a reality that a human being could actually have lived in. I have published essays about that digging, for example, “On the Trail of Big Bear” and “Bear Spirit in a Strange Land” (now collected in River of Stone and Where the Truth Lies).
Image: Your historical novel A Discovery of Strangers, for which you won a second Governor-General’s Award, describes the first encounter of the Dene people with members of the first Franklin expedition in what is now the Northwest Territories. It was a disastrous occasion for both the British and the natives. Was it an example of the inevitable tragedy of nineteenth-century British imperialism?
RW: Discovery began as a novel of place, but not even tracking the route of the first Franklin expedition over the Arctic tundra by canoe—as my son and I did with four friends in 1988—gave me enough stimulus to write that novel. It came from the Dene people who still live north of Yellowknife, and their ancestral stories, which I discerned in faint strands, almost unnoticeable whiffs, in the laborious Narrative of a Journey to the Shores of the Polar Sea Franklin published in 1824. The British courage and suffering is obvious: eleven of the twenty-one expedition members died. It was not as catastrophic as the third expedition twenty-five years later, when all 129 crew members, with Franklin himself, vanished forever, but it was enough. As the Narrative makes plain, everyone on the expedition would have died if the Dene had not saved them. That was what shaped the story for me: not the overweening English sense of pride and high purpose brought to nothing by the relentless land, but the beauty of the Dene people who had never seen a white person before. As Dr. John Richardson, the scientist on the expedition, later wrote to his wife:
[We six] survivors were found by the Indians on Nov. 7 , and these savages (as they have been termed) wept on beholding the deplorable conditions to which we were reduced. They nursed and fed us with the same tenderness they would have bestowed on their own infants, and finally, on December 11, conveyed us to Fort Providence, the nearest post.
Out of such interactive humanity, novels can grow.
Image: In your novel Sweeter Than All the World, a history of the Mennonite people from the early days of persecution to eventual settlement in Paraguay and Canada, you describe a number of cruel events: Anabaptist women burned at the stake, the mechanics of the tongue screw, and other acts of violence. These events occurred in the sixteenth century. Has Christianity essentially changed in regard to its use of violence?
RW: Christianity has always and forever been changing. Is any Christian church today like the Jerusalem church of the first century? Like the Gentile Greek church that grew so quickly out of that beginning? Like the churches that developed after the Council of Nicaea declared the charismatic Jewish healer Jesus Christ to be “of the substance of [God] the Father…consubstantial with the Father”? I see the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century as one of many attempts to revitalize and purify our understanding of what living like a follower of Jesus can mean. With all we now understand of human behavior, we cannot be surprised that some of us will always try to stop change with violence, and some try to resist that violence.
The attempts at change on the part of my own Anabaptist-Reformation heritage have always fascinated me. Though Mennonites denounced war, their communal use of the ban could be brutal at times.
In any case, in all my fiction, even where not a single ostensible Christian appears, there lingers the aroma of Thom Wiens’s longing at the end of Peace Shall Destroy Many: “Christ’s teachings…could he but scrape them bare of all their acquired meanings and see them as those first disciples had done, their feet in the dust of Galilee.”
That longing remains for me as well.
Image: Your novels are often characterized by dislocations in time and place, shifts in point of view, by the inclusion of historical documents and artifacts, and by what some consider a dense or difficult prose style—all of which might challenge readers. As you’re writing a novel are you conscious of the reader at all, or are you wholly focused on telling the story the best way you can?
RW: When I look back over my writing, I think that over the years the personal experience of the characters has become more and more the focus. I seem to have outgrown the omniscient narrator and found the individual central intelligence a more useful point of view (but still in third person). An example of the former would be the short story “The Angel of the Tar Sands”; of the latter, “Finally, the Frozen Ocean.” The clearest example of this point-of-view difference is between my first and last novels, Peace Shall Destroy Many (1962) and Come Back (2014).
Focusing on what is happening in the consciousness of a particular character allows me to shift quickly, as the character’s mind does, from one subject to another. I want readers to think about what’s going on with those shifts—and in so doing to create the story in their own consciousness. I believe every reader reads a slightly different story, and I want to push that difference as far as I imaginatively can. So, my stories are never a fast trail of connected action to be raced through—not even the manhunt in The Mad Trapper, though it comes closest. I want the reader to slow down, to be puzzled, to understand that several complex things are happening at the same time, and to be intrigued enough to want to recognize every one of them. That’s really reading.
As far as my so-called difficult prose style, to be a bit flippant, my love of the German language may have something to do with that. In German, sentences can be pulled out to almost any length (as the classic German stylists do) because the reader keeps waiting for the dominant verb which must finally, once and for all, appear and nail down the action and meaning and end the sentence. Unfortunately, an English sentence is not structured that way; in English the main verb needs to be close to the main noun, and so the writer must make do with long addendums of phrases and subordinate clauses and commas and semicolons and dashes and brackets. Do I make myself clear?
To sum up, in writing I concentrate on telling the story, but always telling it to a reader. Story and reader should always be I-You, the basic form of all human relationships. (Thank you, Martin Buber).
Image: You spoke earlier of the three languages spoken in a Mennonite community: Low German for everyday life, High German for church, and English in school. What advantages do you feel are given you—or any writer—by familiarity with a number of languages?
RW: Low German was my first language, what I first babbled as the last baby in our seven-child family. It is what I spoke to my parents all my life. One beauty of Low German was that it was totally oral (I never read it until decades later) and perhaps that is part of why voice is so important to me: the particular voice of a person first impressed me as a child, a voice speaking in words I could never write down, as I could later in English or High German if I wanted to remember them exactly. Low German was sound only, remembered in all the delights of hearing, never visible as written words. This was a strange and profoundly evocative restriction for a writer dealing with his first and most warmly intimate language.
As for knowing several languages, being able to shift from one to the other without a conscious thought, that is a supreme gift for a writer. It teaches you the aural meanings of language, how something can be said in one that is never quite possible in another, how implications, puns, hints are untranslatable. In my English writing, I could try and push the Germanicism of the language, as I did, for example, in The Blue Mountains of China; some readers were annoyed, others enlightened. I like intelligent readers.
Image: Your latest novel, Come Back, describes the experience of Hal Wiens, an elderly Mennonite man who is painfully brought back to the death of his son by suicide twenty-five years earlier. He struggles with the question every parent in such a situation asks, “Why?” Your novel gives no easy answers.
RW: Homo sapiens are self-aware creatures, and in that sense death is a very simple matter for us: we know death is inevitable. Not one person, no matter how brilliant or disabled, poor or rich, will escape it. But when a person deliberately seizes that inevitability and makes it happen, those who knew and loved that person grieve, grieve deeply, sometimes for the remainder of their own lives. For a beloved to deliberately leave, to choose to be gone forever from what was our mutual life on earth, opens a wound that will not heal. There may come a time when it can be ignored, sometimes for months or years; it may grow less painful, and one feels, well, I can live with this, time heals, I’ve almost forgotten. But then one day a date will appear on the calendar and before you can skip past it your memory catches: Today was her birthday, she would be forty-seven, and…and…. All the impossible possible “ands” of a lifetime never lived again pour over you.
Image: One epigraph in Come Back quotes Jesus’s words in Mark 9, “For everyone will be salted with fire.” That’s a paradoxical image, one that suggests both preservation and purification. Is that how you read Jesus’s words? The second epigraph quotes the familiar passage from First Corinthians 13: “For now we look through a mirror into an enigma, but then face to face.” Can you comment on how these epigraphs apply to the novel?
RW: The saying of Jesus is found only in Mark, and it has multifaceted, contradictory meanings, as his statements often do. Not only does it imply, as you say, the paradox of preservation and purification: fire can be seen as life-giving—as in cooking food, or providing warmth—but it can also be violently destructive. Which does Jesus mean? In addition, he often used salt as an image for the “good savor” of a Christian life, the grace of God demonstrated by a committed Jesus-follower. So it’s a fitting evocation for a novel where, on the final page, the afflicted memories of the protagonist are at last run to ground and he sits motionless, staring into a fire.
The second epigraph builds on the first. What we know of life now, to translate Paul’s Greek more literally, is not like looking into a mirror at an enigma, but like looking through a mirror into an enigma. Now, that’s an image of life to ponder.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.