North by Northwest, March 10, 2013
Susan Musgrave is the author of 27 books, of poetry, fiction, nonfiction and children's literature. She recently won the B.C. Civil Liberties Association Liberty Award for art and the Spirit Bear Award, which honours writers who make a significant contribution to the poetry of the Pacific Northwest.
Musgrave dropped by North by Northwest to talk about her latest novel, Given, which is a sequel to her earlier novel Cargo of Orchids. The book is full of ghosts and dreams, and characters who live on the margins in various ways. Its themes include motherhood and loss. The narrative opens dramatically with an accident on a California highway, in which a prisoner facing a death sentence escapes and heads up the coast to British Columbia, where she reunites with her husband. That's just the beginning of an action-packed story.
Musgrave told host Sheryl MacKay that before Cargo of Orchids even hit bookshelves, she was plotting a sequel. Given does stand alone, but it picks up the characters and the scenario from the earlier book, which Musgrave described as "three women on death row for the murders of their children, but it's a comedy." She went on to add that it's black comedy, and "there are of course extenuating circumstances, none of them are really guilty." Her protagonist accepts what's happening to her to save her child's life, "because she knows if she informs on the people who have kidnapped him that the worst will happen to him, back in Colombia."
Musgrave created a futuristic death row in which the condemned can choose a method of execution that suits their personality. "That's where the black humour comes in," she said.
Because the status of the child is uncertain at the end of the first novel, Musgrave decided to resolve it in a second book, but that didn't happen in the course of writing it. "I think there must be a third novel, God forbid, it's somewhere down the road," she said. "I suspect it won't be resolved [there] either, but maybe it will get a little step closer."
According to Musgrave, she can never predict what her characters will do or what will happen as a story unfolds. "Characters turn a corner and you never see them again. Or they get shot in the head and you think, I didn't plan for that, how did that happen?" Musgrave says that she's controlled by her characters to a great extent. "They seem to have an upper hand." She noted, though, that the characters are based on research she did about women on death row. Rainy and Frenchy , who were executed in the first book, appear in Given as ghosts. They were both raised in "terrible situations," Musgrave said, and that contributes to how they treat their own children. "It's tragic and it's awful but you can kind of understand," she said. "It's hard to be a mother even when everything's going right in your life."
There's plenty of humour in Given, despite the often dark subject matter. Musgrave says that when she's in the process of writing, she isn't intent on making the reader laugh -- what she's concerned about is getting the sentences right. "The language is what interests me in writing," she said. "You can have the most dull life you can imagine, but if you can tell your story, everybody will wants to read it. I think that's why people want to write. Because they want to transform what can seem mundane."
Musgrave periodically goes for three-day family visits in prison (her husband is incarcerated). When she comes out and asks people what's happened in her absence, they tell her "nothing." But Musgrave believes lots has happened, "but people don't think of telling it, because they don't think it's interesting."
In Given, what defines freedom for her unnamed protagonist, living on the B.C. island, is making small choices that someone who's in prison can't make. Musgrave quotes another character in the book, named Consuelo. "Freedom is nothing, it's what you do with your freedom that counts."
FOCUS online, February 2013
I started reading Susan Musgrave’s new novel Given on the day newspapers announced the elementary school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. The book’s opening epigraph of “We lose our children not once, but over and over again” (Neil Gordon, The Company We Keep) was, on that day, particular indication that I was in for a heart-squeeze of a read.
Centred around a trio of women, one living and two dead, who met in prison after being convicted of killing their children, Musgrave’s book would be a punch in the gut no matter what was in the news. But the book’s dealing with so much love, loss and grief means it’s open, and benefits from being open, to the importation of each reader’s own emotional experience—threads we pull through the fiction like guide ropes in a dark forest.
Published by Thistledown Press (November 2012), Given is the sequel to Musgrave’s novel Cargo of Orchids (Knopf, 2000) but is easily read on its own. It begins with the car-crash escape of Musgrave’s unnamed narrator, a 12-year prisoner on death row in the US, during transfer to another facility. She makes her way to the fictionalized BC island of Kliminawhit (which in Chinook jargon means “the lie”) for a kind of homecoming where she reunites with her husband Vernal, the spring-monikered lawyer who drives an old hearse, as well as former prison-mates Rainy and Frenchy, now unshakeable ghosts accompanied by the manifestations of their dead children.
An emotional first-person narrative, it’s a story of crazy characters and adventures in which getting around Kliminawhit means going quite literally around the Bend, where the narrator helps care for the pregnant addict sister of love-interest Hooker Moon (a man who feeds ravens with a rooftop roadkill feeder). There are also road trips to Vancouver, ghosts in tow, to clean out her dead mother’s empty apartment in a gated community as scary in its soullessness as the urban areas it tries to shut out. Throughout, while not visibly visited by the ghost of her own son, the narrator’s experience of the seen dead underlines her emotional haunting by the absence of her child.
“There’s nothing you can invent that isn’t happening in the world in terms of aberration,” the red-spectacled Musgrave tells me over honeyed coffee at Murchie’s, “and I know it’s a risk to write this.” But despite that risk—and the long delay wrangling with Knopf, whose editors insisted she edit out the “yuck factor,” before turning to Thistledown—Musgrave felt the need to write the book she wanted. Therefore, she stares dead on, so to speak, at what most of us would prefer to pretend doesn’t exist: addiction, rape, murder, the almost infinite variety of man’s inhumanity to man and the equally various ways people try to cope—often unsuccessfully. For example, the narrator notes that “Rainy’s definition of a good mother was one who left her baby in a dumpster but then had a change of heart.” We also learn that “Normal people, when they burn, they burn with a blue flame. When a heroin addict burns…the flames are green.”
But while the book is filled with dense, dark matter, including graphic brutal imagery, it is, like life, a bizarre blend of the unexpected, including humour amidst the horror. A multi-award-winning poet, essayist, editor, UBC lecturer, novelist and children’s writer (Musgrave’s board book Kiss, Tickle, Cuddle, Hug, Orca, October 2012 was named to the Toronto Public Library’s 2012 First & Best Booklist), Musgrave is deft at shifting emotional gears and provides moments of light, light that both highlights and counters the gruesome realities of her characters’ lives. For example, the dead friends provide a Tim Burton Beetlejuice-esque absurdity: Frenchy’s ghost explores the 12-step program AfterLife Anonymous on the Internet and Rainy’s slang-talking spirit sweeps moonlight from the walls and styles her hair into shapes, like a helicopter with moving rotors that Edward Scissorhands would love. Small details, too, elicit smiles, like Aged Orange, the narrator’s old marmalade cat, and Vernal’s moustache experiment which “looked like a caterpillar paralyzed by stage fright halfway across a melon.”
No stranger to difficulty and controversy in her writing and her own life, Musgrave tackles tortuous subjects with a combination of strength, honesty, compassion, humour and beauty. “I don’t want to preach to people, to say: ‘Open your eyes,’” she tells me. “I don’t write planting [messages]. I just write what is.”
And what is, in terms of human existence, is the good, the bad and the ugly, and grisly scenes share time with tenderness. Of Hooker Moon, the narrator says, “he looked at me with an expression of such stony sadness I half expected a tear to drop from his eye and bounce across the hood of the hearse like a marble dancing on a drum.” And of a child who reminds her of her dead son, she observes his “eyes that at first looked warm, but which, like little windows in furnace doors, only gave a glimpse of the heat inside.” I couldn’t help but think of Musgrave’s own hard life experiences when the narrator asks, “Was it possible you had to be hurt to see anything at all?”
“It’s hard to remember where things came from—what’s personal, what’s made up, what comes from things I’ve read,” she admits. “I’ve never had a baby die. I do have a child who is addicted and on the street, but that’s just recent, so maybe it’s a fear thing,” she muses. Now living most of the time on Haida Gwaii, Musgrave says the brutalities of life have left her without much faith, “but I believe in a kind of spirituality that says you try to do good and do no harm.”
Whether in cities or more rural Gulf Islands, in this fiction or in real life, people share the common experience of suffering—and also the potential for endurance. “People should suffer less than they do,” Musgrave says solemnly. “But we survive things—it’s amazing what we survive.” — Amy Reiswig
Having taught college trauma literature courses for several years in Montreal, writer and editor Amy Reiswig applauds those who attempt to represent what cannot otherwise hope to be explained.
Vancouver Sun, January 4, 2013
Sex, sorrow, and death are Susan Musgrave’s perennial beat and I can’t think of another Canadian writer who could deliver a novel about these subjects with such warmth, grief, and outrageous humour as she does in her new book, Given.
Written as a sequel to her 2002 novel, Cargo of Orchids, and revisiting many of the same characters, her book inhabits the land of gallows humour, both literally and metaphorically.
What Musgrave has written this time around, though, is less of an adventure story, and more of an allegory, one in which her usual themes are focused on motherhood. “Who among us is good enough to be anybody’s mother?” she asks, and throughout the novel this heartbreaking question is examined at length.
Her book has the same sealed-in journey feel of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Her characters are as raw and alive and each has their own quirky story to tell. Musgrave’s characters, though, do not always experience either redemption or transformation, something we have come to expect of our fictional characters. Instead, in Musgrave’s fictional universe, a nightmare reality prevails; the roads are littered with human roadkill; and many people experience lives that simply do not go anywhere.
Another work, similar in tone to Musgrave’s, is the 1932 nihilistic novel by Louis-Ferdinand Celine — Journey to the End of the Night, a book which has the same “dreamlike sense of events flowing together.” But while Celine writes of hopelessness without relief, Musgrave enlivens her dark vision with aching humour and an almost unbearable, narrative beauty. Take, for example, this description of a blue heron: “ ... his slender lines a haiku inside feathers.” Or this, “ ... the rain falling solidly, like cold, wet lead.”
Given concerns the death sentence (and the prison) that the unnamed narrator has just escaped from. On death row for 12 years for murdering her young son, she gains her freedom as the result of an accident on a California highway while being escorted from one facility to another. The driver and her guard are both killed leaving the unhurt narrator — we’ll call her X — to walk away with the guard’s identification and credit cards. X is soon on a flight to Vancouver. There, her ex-husband Vernal, meets her in his own special form of transportation and they catch a long ferry ride to his farm on the remote Gulf Island called Kliminawhit. “We drove onto the ferry like any ordinary couple riding towards their future in a hearse.”
Before her incarceration, we’re told that their marriage had “become a life sentence without parole.” Now Vernal, a lawyer struggling with alcoholism, will simply sequester X on his Island farm while she undergoes the excruciating (and hidden) process of returning, both physically and emotionally, to the “free” world.
Accompanying X on her in-place journey are several ghosts, in particular Frenchy and Rainy, X’s death row companions who have since been executed for murdering their children, and who provide a steady supply of droll chatter. Their murdered children are also along: the swirls of red mist that represent Frenchy’s dead prankster twins; Rainy’s gruesomely blinded son, “The HE,” who can “manifest himself in a thousand different ways”, sometimes as a scrap of charred flesh; and X’s own dead son, Angel.
Lost children “jokes,” if you can call them that, occur frequently and they catch in your throat. Here’s an example, something X says of Rainy: “Rainy’s definition of a good mother was one who left her baby in a dumpster and then had a change of heart.”
Besides Vernal and the interfering ghosts, several Island people befriend X, some adding relieving comic counterpoint to Musgrave’s otherwise dark tale. The alcoholic Marg who owns the local café is one of these. Described as “a woman who knew how to make stretch pants work for a living” she asks of X and Vernal at 10 a.m. over vodka at the café counter, “What’s the difference between erotic sex and kinky sex?” Her answer: “Erotic sex you use a feather, kinky sex you use the whole chicken.”
First Nations culture is at the forefront of Given — rituals around burial, the spirit world, the handling of dead children, with Musgrave referring to these practices as “our shared history of sorrow.” Indeed, it is young Grace Moon’s baby — Given — who provides X with a shard of hope at the novel’s end.
Ultimately, the experience of reading Given is a little like slicing a vein in your own arm. What oozes out is Musgrave’s sadly beautiful and terrifying vision of humanity. It’s one that’s filled with the displaced people of a mean and trivializing culture and yet, somehow, miraculously, love in this world survives and even triumphs.— M.A.C. Farrant