Interview with Caterina Edwards
Caterina Edwards got the 2008 Edmonton Litfest Cabaret off to a hilarious start with an expertly paced excerpt from her memoir, Finding Rosa: A Mother with Alzheimer’s, a Daughter in Search of the Past. I knew right away that I’d want to read the whole book. It didn’t disappoint. Finding Rosa is not only funny, but also searching, honest, and deeply compassionate, so it’s no surprise that it’s been shortlisted for the Wilfred Eggleston Award for Nonfiction. My review will appear in a few weeks at Prairie Fire. Among the compelling aspects of this book for me is its expert blending of genres and its careful exhumation of public – as well as private – memory. Here is Caterina in conversation.
Q: When did you start writing? Tell us a bit about your writing history.
A: I began telling myself stories before I could write. For many years, I was an only child, and my family moved often. I was often alone. So I told myself stories and peopled imaginary worlds.
My first conscious writing – that is, my first attempt at producing a real book – was in grade five. For a few years, I wrote all the time. But creative writing was not encouraged in schools then the way it is now.
Especially in high school and the early years of university, I absorbed the lesson that you had to be a genius to be a writer. And I obviously was not. During that time, I stopped writing, but not spinning fantasies. I began again when I studied creative writing with Rudy Wiebe. I did a Master of Arts in English literature, but wrote a creative thesis under Rudy and Sheila Watson. I published my first book when I was 34.
Q: What inspired you to write this book?
A: I wanted to make sense of my relationship with my mother. This required discovering her past. That led me to search for the history of the place where she was born. I felt the connection between the personal and the public, between memory and history, before I understood it.
Q: What kind of work routine did you use?
A: I didn’t have enough of a routine. I was still teaching writing online and doing other writing assignments. I tried to write about 4 days a week. I wish I was one of those writers who gets up and goes straight to the computer. I’m fairly useless for the first couple of hours. Every now and then, when I could afford it, I’d go to a writer’s retreat. Then I would work long hours and make good progress.
Q: What was the biggest challenge you encountered completing this book?
A: Finding the proper structure. It is much more difficult in a work of creative nonfiction. I’d written over a hundred pages when a writer-friend told me that I had no narrative through line. I threw everything out and started again. It took me a couple of years to figure out how to interweave the story of my caring for my mother with her life story and the history of the Istrian-Italians in the twentieth-century. Partly, it is finding the right rhythm. Also, the imagery and ideas are consistent throughout. I hope they gather resonance and meaning as the book progresses.
Q: What was the greatest reward?
A: Writing the book was cathartic. I grew to understand my mother and to forgive her.
Q: What do you like most about your chosen genre?
A: I love the scope and the flexibility of creative nonfiction. Memoir can easily contain history, biography, travel writing, reflection, exposition, and literary theory. There is no formula to this genre.
Still, I don’t have a chosen genre, per se. I’m drawn to new challenges. I’ve published a novel, a collection of short stories, a book of novellas, and a play. I’m not interested in repeating myself.
Q: Why did you choose this particular title for your work?
A: I didn’t. My title was “What Country is This?” taken from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.
Q: What advice would you give to writers trying to get published?
A: Persevere. Don’t give up. But first of all, write for yourself. Your motivation can’t be publication or monetary success.
Q: What book would you tell them is a must to read and why?
A: I like The Writing Life by Annie Dillard because she makes you understand the full import of being a writer. There are lots of good “how to” books. I found Carol Bly’s Beyond the Writers’ Workshop: New Ways to Write Creative Nonfiction useful when I was teaching writing.
Q: Who is your favourite author and why?
A: I don’t have one favourite. I love different writers for different reasons: Alice Munro, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Marcel Proust, W.G. Sebald, Italo Calvino, Leonardo Sciascia, and Claudio Magris. Certainly, my favourites when I was 25 are not my favourites now.
Q: What book are you reading right now?
A: I recently finished Netherland by Joseph O’Neill and Pathologies by Susan Olding. Both impressed me. Susan’s book touched me. [Editor’s note: I promise I didn’t pay her for this!] I’m just starting Elizabeth Hay’s Late Nights On Air.
Caterina says: I was born in Earls Barton, an English village famous for its Saxon tower and shoe factories. My father was a Barton lad, my mother an Italian war bride. I’m told that as soon as I could talk, I became my mother’s translator. I suspect that learning both languages simultaneously encouraged my later distrust of a singular approach or point of view. We immigrated to Alberta just before my eighth birthday. I grew up in Calgary, but most summers I visited my mother’s family in Venice. The contrast in cultures led me to understand at a young age that identity is not fragmentary but multiple. I’m also impatient with the traditional categories of genre, crossing boundaries whenever I can.
University brought me to Edmonton and – to my surprise – I still live here. After obtaining a Master of Arts in English, I began to publish short stories in literary magazines and, now and then, an anthology. I wrote when I could snatch an hour or two. I was teaching full time at MacEwan College on three campuses – I was in the English department from its beginning – and was busy at home with my two daughters. Soon after the birth of the second, I published my first novel, The Lion’s Mouth with NeWest Press. Next came a play, Homeground, which was professionally produced, a collection of short stories, Island of the Nightingales, two novellas, Whiter Shade of Pale/Becoming Emma and more stories and essays. I also wrote a docudrama, The Great Antonio, for CBC Radio. Despite a taste for nonfiction, I used to define myself as a fiction writer until I co-edited with Kay Stewart two collections of life writing by women. I became fascinated with how to express the complexity of lived experience, the jumble of the individual and the universal.
I eventually left the college, and over the years, taught literature and writing at almost every post-secondary institution in Edmonton. I worked as a freelance editor and also as a grants officer for the Alberta Foundation for the Arts. I was a writer-in-residence at both the University of Alberta and MacEwan College.
When I was eighteen, Robert Kroetsch told me:“It doesn’t matter what you’re writing now. What matters is if you are still writing thirty years from now.” When I was little, I told myself stories for reassurance and companionship. My motivation now is different: it is my way of exploring and understanding the world. But I continue to write because I’m compelled to.
I am looking forward to taking on the projects I had to put off when I was juggling my writing with teaching, child-rearing, and looking after either ailing in-laws or parents. I have been in the same house for 26 years and with the same husband even longer. And I’m still obsessed with multiple selves and cultures, with private memory and public history, with here and there.
You can find Caterina at her website, here.