‘A Real Nonfiction Issue’: An Interview with Eve Joseph
Eve Joseph grew up in North Vancouver and now lives in Brentwood Bay. She has previously published two books of poetry, The Startled Heart (Oolichan, 2004) and The Secret Signature of Things (Brick, 2010). Her new memoir, In the Slender Margin (HarperCollins Canada) begins with the death of her older brother in 1965, when she was twelve. The book opens with one of those riveting moments that tell you that you won’t stop reading anytime soon. Here’s part of that opening:
The phone, ringing, at the wrong time, sounded loud, as if ringing in an empty house. My mother’s face changed that night. One minute she was reading on the couch, the right side of her face bathed in lamplight, the left in shadow; the next, the phone was in her hand only she wasn’t talking into it, she was holding it away from her face and her words were not making sense. I sat sideways on a chair across from her, dangling my legs. My feet didn’t quite reach the floor and when she screamed I swung my legs faster as if I were on a swing. That night my mother rocked in a chair and I slept on the floor, curled at her feet.
In the Slender Margin constantly circles back to that experience, and also to Joseph’s adult experience as a hospice worker with palliative care patients in BC. But really this is an extended and compelling meditation on death: she’s filigreed the memoir with dozens of short anecdotes, quotations, bits of life experience and trivia that record a life of quietly observing death. Some of her examples are funny, like the presence of the self-styled Thanatos in Eastside Vancouver, or connecting Barry Manilow with John Berger (surely a first). Others are serious, like mentioning D.H. Lawrence in the “Odour of Chrysanthemums” describing the laying out the body of a miner on a house floor, or Joseph reading a George Bowering poem and discovering that her brother’s body was shipped across Canada in a blue casket.
How did you go about gathering the material for this book, and being one of those people James told us to be? How long did it take to write?
The book started as a short essay that was published in The Malahat about four years ago. I think of that essay as an initial foray into thinking about death. In a strange way, all the elements of the book are contained in that early piece. The process of writing the book then became one of having to go back into the essay and expand it – blow it up – over and over again. I gathered material from a wide range of sources; essentially, I cast a really wide net. I didn’t limit my research to books about death; rather, I drew from as wide a pool as I could. I reread basic texts on grief by Kübler-Ross, Therese Rando, Ernest Becker and William Worden to refresh myself on theoretical approaches to death and dying.
At the same time, I went to the poets I love: Lorca, Tranströmer, Neruda, Homer, Kenyon, Zagajewski, Rilke amongst others. It was the poets who came closest to naming the ineffable and who helped me reach toward the mystery at the heart of death. James Green’s Beyond the Good Death: The Anthropology of Dying was very helpful, as was Robert Pogue Harrison’s The Dominion of the Dead. Reading Wade Davis’s The Wayfinders helped me to understand how the dying might chart their path into the unknown and the Oxford Book of Death edited by D.J. Enright was a good all-around resource. I was not looking for hard facts as much as I was trying to engage with thinking about death and dying.
I kept Annie Dillard’s For the Time Being close by and I reread Joan Didion’s and Carolyn Forché’s essays many times.
I also talked to people I’d worked closely with at hospice and got their perspective on things. An email correspondence I had going with a friend who still works at hospice was invaluable. It brought back many of my own memories about the work.
And, I have to say, that serendipity played a big role in my research. One thing led to another and there were many instances where things just seemed to fall into my lap. People who knew my brother came forward with stories I had never heard. That, I think, was the real gift of the book for me.
You write about the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski and his belief that we have two kinds of memory, one this is grand and synthetic, and the other a “’humbler sister,’ the memory of little snapshots, quick associations and fleeting glimpses.” Do you see this as a kind of method for the book, and if so, how would you describe it, since there really is a narrative pull in this book?
Zagajewski’s idea of little snapshots and quick associations was definitely at the heart of what I was writing. Early on, I knew I would not be telling a chronological narrative. If there is a narrative pull, it comes from echoes and associations and not from a more traditional narrative arc. Like you, I found David Shields’ book Reality Hunger: A Manifesto to be invaluable in terms of alternative ways to tell a story. I love the idea of a mosaic and how momentum can be derived from a progressive build up of thematic resonances just by the way things are placed beside each other. Shields writes that the absence of plot leaves the reader to think about other things. I would add that it also leaves the writer more room to roam and be surprised. I love the quote by Robert Frost in which he says “No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.”
I was quite anxious whenever I thought about structure. I wasn’t sure if a collection of thoughts, odd facts, questions, memories about death would be enough to create movement within the book. A few summers ago, I was pacing back and forth in the garden talking to a friend on the phone about all the things I was finding out about my brother. My friend, who is a filmmaker, was fascinated with Ian’s pieces and it occurred to me that my brother could be the main thread upon which other things could be strung. He could serve as the backbone of the book and, in this way, provide a kind of continuity. Once I saw the form the book could take it became much easier to work with content and to “see” my way toward the book as a whole.
When I first started writng poetry I was drawn to John Thompson’s ghazals and the idea of associative thinking. I am not a linear thinker; my mind moves from one thing to another. Flits around like a bird. I wasn’t sure how the pieces I was writing would fit together. I just kept placing things beside one another and tried to let them speak to each other…if that makes sense.
Again in relation to how you wrote a book which is so compelling, but does not have a simple through line the way bestselling fiction typically does, you write at one point that “There is such a fine line between imposing meaning and allowing it to surface naturally.” Can you talk about the surfacing of meaning as a kind of method in what you’ve done here?
That’s a really interesting question. One that has to do, I think, with the balance between imposing one’s will and surrendering to the unknown. Whatever “meaning” there is to the book had to surface directly out of the material. I had to let the stories speak for themselves and hope that readers would take away what they needed. In relation to the topic of death, it is so easy to look for meaning as a way of trying to understand why something happens. When I drove to a West Coast beach with my daughters, shortly after my mother’s death, I was determined to find some kind of sign from her. Some sign that she existed as spirit and was still with me. I found nothing. It was the depth of absence that was so stunning. There are times when I have felt the presence of what we call “spirit” but it is nothing we can wish into existence. It’s there or it isn’t. It has nothing to do with our desires.
It was also very important to me, in the writing of this book, to avoid sentimentality and the question of meaning is often a question that can be fraught with sentiment.
I think the question of imposing meaning versus allowing it to surface naturally is one of the dilemmas a writer faces. If I’m telling you too much or leading you in a certain direction then there is no room for the reader’s imagination to roam.
I loved all the connections you make, particularly the mini-essays on etymology, like the one on parlour, funeral parlour, and living room, or the many on Greek mythology, like Mentor who “happened to have the insignia of a winged death’s head skull on the back of her jacket,” a junkie and a biker who had previously stolen money from you. Again, I’m curious how you sifted through these and decided what to use, what to discard, and how to juxtapose these nuggets of essay.
Language itself led me to these little obsessive explorations. I am curious about the origins of language and I was often intrigued by what I found out when I looked up the etymology of various things. Quite often, the etymology of a word surprised me and led me down new paths. When my brother died, I knew there had been a great deal of tension amongst the adults over the funeral plans. At one point, writing about funeral arrangements, I looked up “arrange” and found it to be derived from the Old French arengier meaning “to draw up a line of battle.” That was exactly what was happening upstairs while I played in the basement. The adults had drawn battle lines… an image I never would have come up with were it not for searching out the root of a word.
It was a bit like fishing. I would look up the etymology of certain words and, more often than not, nothing came of it. I included words that I thought added to whatever idea I was working with. I loved finding out that “morphine” comes from “Morpheus,” the god of dreams. How perfect is that.
In the memoir you write: “In the same way that poetry calls upon all that one knows and all that one has forgotten, so too does being in the presence of death.” Of course you are a poet yourself. Can you talk some more about how the act of writing poetry can push someone out of the basement?
Poetry, to me, is a way of seeing. A way of being alive. It calls me to pay attention and for that I am grateful. It’s also much smarter than I am. By this, I mean that poetry leads me places I might not otherwise have gone. In her essay, “Some Notes on Organic Form,” the late American poet, Denise Levertov, writes that the poet is “brought to speech.” I love this idea. It runs counter to the idea of sitting in a class and doing poetry exercises and, instead, points to the idea of the poet being used in the service of something bigger than himself or herself. The act of writing poetry, at its best, is an act of discovery. In this way, I believe it can help us understand or see things we may not have seen before.
The question of how the act of writing poetry can “push someone out of the basement,” raises the idea of poetry as therapy. I’m sure there are many people for whom writing poetry is therapeutic and – while I can see how that is possible – I don’t believe it is the reason why we write poetry. The therapeutic benefit of a poem is secondary to the impulse to see and name the world in the truest way we can.
One of the book’s themes is the discomfort of contemporary North Americans with death, and how this represents a historical change. What do you hope that readers will take away from your reflections on a society that wants to celebrate death rather than mourn it, as you put it at one point?
A friend, who had just read the book, emailed to tell me that her sister-in-law’s mother was imminently dying and asked if I had any suggestions on how she could be of help. I wrote back with some very general suggestions… like bringing food, listening, spelling her off if she needed time, running errands. Essentially, I just told her to trust herself and not to be afraid to be present. Not particularly wise or insightful advice. A couple of days later, she wrote to thank me and told me the woman had died peacefully with her family at her bedside. My friend dropped off food and flowers and brought a lovely mobile into the hospital to hang above the bed. On the last night, she brought in new pyjamas for the woman’s daughters. In her email she wrote: “You gave me the courage to go in there and to ‘put my feet up on death’s coffee table.‘” A phrase I had used in the book. The point is I did very little. Sometimes all we need is permission. We often don’t know what to do. We’re not just afraid to be around death; I think sometimes we’re actually shy. If it provokes some conversations along the way, and the telling of stories, that would be good, too. If anything, I hope the book gives people permission to be with the dying and with death in whatever way they choose.
Spoiler alert for those who care about the revelation of fact, which matters to many readers of memoir.
You reveal at the end of the book that your brother actually died when you were eleven. All the historical and cultural connections you made with 1965 and your own twelfth year were suddenly irrelevant. This makes you an unreliable narrator, as all memoir narrators are, and it provides you with quite a brilliant piece of bookend (“memory is often deceptive,” you say in the opening). When did you discover the true year of your brother’s death, and when did you decide to more or less end the book with that revelation?
It wasn’t until I was well into the book that I discovered Ian had died in ’64 and not ’65. By the time I discovered this, the initial essay had been published and subsequently anthologized. I felt like I had a real nonfiction issue on my hands. If I revised the first lines of the book, then the essay would stand in error. If I did nothing, it could appear, to anyone who knew my brother, that I didn’t know when he died. One night, when I was cooking dinner, it occurred to me that I could own up to being a liar. It felt great to write that page because, as you say, there is an element of unreliability in the narrator of nonfiction. At least, I agree with you that this is the case. Memory is unreliable… how then can we not be unreliable as well? I rather like being a liar.