Anne Michaels has a new novel out this weekend, her first since Fugitive Pieces, and she's miserable.
Oh, she's happy enough with the book, which she began work on more than 13 years ago, before the publication, in 1996, of Fugitive Pieces. Michaels is famously finicky, and the new work, The Winter Vault , wouldn't be coming out here and in six other countries over the next 10 weeks if she weren't "at peace with the depths one has been able to go to, [confident]that there isn't anything missing, that you've honoured the experiences of your characters."
No, what's causing Michaels to use words like "nerve-racking" and "stressful" in conversation these days is the job of being the big human wheel in the star-making machinery behind the popular literary novel.
Fugitive Pieces, still in print pretty much everywhere, still the wellspring of fan mail from locales as varied as a scientific research station in Antarctica and a homestead in the Australian outback, made the Toronto-born Michaels an international star. It was shortlisted for the Giller Prize and won the Orange Prize, all the while providing the author with the sort of income cushion most writers, published or otherwise, only dream of.
A lot has happened since "fame's feathery crowbar" raised Michaels on high. There's been home ownership, the births of a daughter, now 10, and a son, 5, by separate fathers. There's been travel. There's been a published book of poetry (her third) and five books of children's literature, all unpublished so far, plus an oratorio composed with Omar Daniel. There was a site-specific collaboration in London in 2005 with John Berger and Simon McBurney called Vanishing Points. The movie version of Fu gitive Pieces opened the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival.
She also joined Martin Amis, Philip Roth, the Vladimir Nabokov estate, Salman Rushdie and Tipper Gore in being represented by the world's most famous literary agent, Andrew Wylie, nicknamed "the Jackal."
But, in a sense, all this has just been so much marking time for The Winter Vault, which after its publication in Canada, England, Germany, Norway, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands and the United States this spring will make its way into bookstores in Greece and Finland, Japan, Italy, Brazil and elsewhere.
Michaels, 50, doesn't mind reading from her work in public or "meeting people who've read the books, and talking to them. It's a direct communication and it's incredibly moving most of the time," she says.
What she doesn't like is what makes these moments happen - the interviews on TV and radio and with newspaper and magazine writers, the subtle and sometimes blatant attempts to winkle out Anne Michaels mother/lover from Anne Michaels novelist/poet, the deluge of reviews (some of which are bound to be negative to the point of harsh), the scrutiny, "the standing around in airports, going through security, rushing to and fro."
One result of this is that one Anne Michaels interview is pretty much like every other Anne Michaels interview. Long pauses preceding oblique answers that trail into sighs, murmurs, shrugs? Check. Fingers running through impressive bulk of dark hair or splayed at temples as head declines toward table in deep concentration? Check. Circumspection and avoidance of any pretense of "ironic accommodation" à la Margaret Atwood? Check.
Defensiveness, in short, seems Michaels's natural posture, at least as far as the media is concerned. It's partly because "I'm, y'know, shy," she says, and because "the ideas discussed in the books are so important to me, I really would like them to be thought about by the reader, without the facts of my life, no matter how banal, intruding on that. One doesn't work so hard to create a fictional world that has some resonance with readers in order then to fill up space with one's self . . . Do I myself have to add myself to the discussion?"
Of course, being shy in public can't help but be a kind of performance, intentional or otherwise. It's akin to what McMaster University professor Lorraine York detects in the occasional outings of Michaels's fellow Toronto poet/novelist, Michael Ondaatje. Writing in her book Literary Celebrity in Canada, York notes: "What Ondaatje has performed in public has been, in fact, his intense desire for privacy."
Like Fugitive Pieces, The Winter Vault is a novel of memory and loss, fierce possession and traumatic dispossession, roots and uprootedness, actions of consolation in the face of the inconsolable. Also like its predecessor, it's about what Michaels calls the "fascinating, complicated relationship between intense personal lives and larger historical events."
This time it's the story of Avery Escher, an Anglo-Canadian structural engineer who, in the wake of the construction of Egypt's Aswan Dam, is helping to disassemble and relocate Ramses II's famous temple at Abu Simbel. He's living on a houseboat on the Nile with his wife, Jean, a botanist whom he met in Quebec several years earlier during the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway and who is pregnant with their first child.
However, the baby is stillborn. Returning to Canada, the distressed couple separate, Avery entering architecture school in Toronto, Jean falling into the arms of Lucjan, a "guerrilla artist" and musician. Lucjan's living in pre-yuppified Cabbagetown, part of a group of artistic, emotionally wounded Polish émigrés who survived the Nazi and Soviet occupations and witnessed both Hitler's deconstruction of Warsaw in late 1944 and the methodical reconstruction of the Old Town in the years after the Second World War.
F ugitive Pieces was distinguished, in large part, by the depth (and quirkiness) of Michaels's historical research, and the tradition continues here. Interestingly, Michaels chose to visit neither Egypt nor Warsaw as part of that research. Even when she went to Greece for Fugitive Pieces, she confesses, it was only after she'd written a complete draft of the novel. ("And I must say, not that much changed in the manuscript after I went there.") With Abu Simbel and Warsaw, the decision not to go arose "because everything I'm writing about does not exist there any more. Some, of course, would say all the more reason to go, to see what is not there. But it seemed to me I was trying to recreate a world from what had been left behind - in this case, memoirs, photographs, stories, texts. I like to think it's not less accurate for not having [travelled there]" She chuckles. "The irony is, having written the book, I'd now like to go to Egypt."
While Michaels vividly, almost reverentially, evokes the often-blasted milieus her main characters inhabit (or try to inhabit), the characters themselves seem more wraithlike, as much vessels of fine feelings and spiritual outreach as flesh-and-blood actors, like the sensitive souls in Paul Simon's The Dangling Conversation ("And we note our place with bookmarkers/That measure what we've lost … We are verses out of rhythm/Couplets out of rhyme/In syncopated time.")
The author freely admits she doesn't attend what she calls "the toothache and hangnail school" of writing. "I think there are all kinds of aspects to reality, to domestic reality, and why don't we just talk about them all? There should be a democracy of voices in literature. There are people who live with a kind of striving and with a certain kind of tenderness - it's not an unusual thing - and maybe that's not written about enough. We've got a lot of the other stuff out there …" In fact, she believes "there's a danger in brutal language or a language that has the pretense of recreating a certain kind of ugliness or horror in the case of historical events. That language is a little bit of a lie … Certain things can't be approximated, so I'm always interested in getting in another way, one which makes the reader bend in closer to the scene even if that scene, especially if that scene, is painful … Brutal language isn't necessarily the most truthful way of describing a brutal moment."
Michaels is one of those writers who doesn't begin her next creation until she's "absolutely done" with her immediate project. Ideas, characters, notions of beginnings and endings may surface before new writing starts - "I truly think if you've done a book properly, it always takes you to the next thing," she said - but they have to wait. Michaels, in fact, gave public readings from what is now the beginning of The Winter Vault a year after Fugitive Pieces ' publication.
But she's not going to do the same with her current work-in-progress, at least not yet. The third novel is well under way, perhaps one-third completed, and Michaels claims it's "quite different" from its predecessors. "I think the interest in how we make sense of our lives, make sense of our past, is a concern of most writers. I think I'll always work on big questions and the relationship between events. But the first two books are very bound to historic events and that's not quite the case with the new one."
Details are scarce at this point, naturally. But Wylie, M&S and even Michaels, who smilingly describes herself as "absurdly patient," have to be hoping it won't be another 13-year odyssey. Then again, Fugitive Pieces reportedly took 16 years from inkling to bookstore. If the third novel takes that long - and if bookstores as we currently know them still exist - well, its earnings should be a nice top-up to her Old Age Security Pension.
In the meantime, Michaels, in her fashion, is holding out the possibility that the next book won't be the exhumation and exploration of the "factual events … [the]tremendous grief, the historic grief" one finds in Fugitive Pieces and The Winter Vault. If so, future interviews might prove a little less fraught - and, perhaps, a little more personal. "Right now, though, it doesn't feel right to put my own life forward on the back of that," she says. "It's inappropriate."
Anne Michaels appears at McNally Robinson's Grant Park store in Winnipeg Sunday, April 5, at 2 p.m. and onstage with CTV broadcaster Seamus O'Regan at the Isabel Bader Theatre, University of Toronto, on Tuesday, April 7. She visits Ottawa April 17 and Montreal on the 18th. A review of The Winter Vault appears in Saturday's Globe Books and Focus.