An Interview with Dianne Harke, author of: Incognito, The Astounding Life of Alexandra David Neel. (Sumeru Books 2016)


BJH   First of all, Dianne, I congratulate you on piecing together the story of the life of this fascinating woman. I appreciated your Author’s Note wherein you provide the rationale for the term “fictional biography” which to me, speaks to the care you’ve taken in recreating the “elusive” Alexandra. I believe that Alexandra David Neel would approve of you as her biographer and have no difficulty at all with your careful handling of “the invisible line between fiction and non-fiction.”

DH    Thank you for your kind comments. Not so sure that Alexandra would approve. I imagine her appearing in one of my dreams to give me a right rollicking about something that does not meet with her approval. So far, so good, though.

BJH   A woman who travelled incognito all over Asia, spent several long periods in Tibet, and lived as a hermit in a cave in the Himalayas—when and how did you first encounter the life of Alexandra David Neel?

DH    Can’t pinpoint an exact year, but know that somewhere in my early 20s, probably, I came across a reference to her book, My Journey to Lhasa. Promptly bought a copy and read about her amazing trek. At that time, I was doing a fair bit of reading about Buddhism and fancied myself to be as intellectually cool as Beat Generation icons like Alan Watts and Allen Ginsberg. When she died in 1969, I also read an article that highlighted her achievements.

BJH    I know that you have spent many years on the research and writing of this book, and I, as many other authors will as well, understand how we become enthralled with a character or story and arrive at a point where interest become obsession. Is it fair to say that it was obsession that drove you to persevere with this story? Did the interest develop over time, or did you know from the earliest research that you would have to write this story?  Were there times when you tried to put it aside?

DH   Obsession is the correct word. My early research was driven mainly by curiosity. Who was this woman? Where did she travel to and why? But, as time went by the hidden Alexandra became my focus. The biographies I read didn’t seem to delve deep enough into her psyche so I started to formulate my plan for a work of historical fiction.

BJH   “Ever since I was five years old…I craved to go beyond the garden gate, to follow the road that passed it by and set out for the unknown,” —My Journey to Lhasa, Alexandra David Neel.

Does the quote speak to you on a personal level?  Do you identify with her wanderlust?

DH   Another excellent question! Well to be honest, I am certainly not as intrepid or brave as Alexandra, nor would I be comfortable packing heat as she did. I do enjoy traveling, but coming back to a home base seems to be almost as important to me (at least now) as going off on trips to unknown parts. People and their stories are my keenest interest so if following the road takes me in that direction that would be my ideal. Walking several sections of the Camino pilgrimage path on two occasions was like that. So many interesting people, so many stories!

BJH   This is the portrait of a woman on a deeply spiritual journey in search of revered teachers of Buddhism and the Tibetan language.  Did it become, vicariously, such a journey for you as well?

DH   Yes, it certainly did become that kind of journey. Over the years, I became more and more interested in knowing more about both Buddhism and Tibet. Did try to learn some Tibetan and to practice it with a Tibetan speaking pen pal, but really haven’t progressed much. In both Edmonton and Nelson, I have done drop in meditation sessions at Buddhist centres and have appreciated the calmness but really don’t profess to know very much. Reading seems to be my number one way to make this journey. The teachings and books of Pema Chodron, an American Buddhist nun and resident teacher at Gampo Abbey, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia top of my spiritual journey booklist.

BJH   The numerous sources you acknowledge with gratitude, speak to impeccable and eclectic research. You have had a long and successful career as a librarian and consultant. How did this experience influence your approach? How did the people you contacted respond to your interest in Alexandra?

DH    My research skills have certainly been honed by my training and work life as a librarian. I took copious notes from books that I had collected over the years and also spent many hours at the University of Alberta library.

Several binders and a bulging brocaded bag of folders soon filled up. I also travelled to France with my husband and spent a few hours at the Alexandra David-Neel Museum in Digne les Bains. Walking in her footsteps into the room in which she wrote and died was truly moving, and eerie. I told the staff there about my project and later my publisher made arrangements to buy the rights to some archival photographs.  They were very cooperative, although there were a few bumps because of our limited French and their limited English.

BJH   What different formats did you eventually amass?  Could you describe the process of sorting, culling, organizing what must have been a formidable mountain of material?

DH   From binders, and handwritten notes, I progressed to a number of computer files. Because Alexandra lived for so many years and had so many distinctive parts to her life, the chronology fell into order quite nicely. The problem was figuring out what to leave out and also how to prevent it from turning into a dry, discursive account. By interweaving the first-person chapters with the third-person accounts, I hoped to achieve some sort of balance.

BJH   The voice in which you’ve written the sections that are headed “From the journals of Alexandra David-Neel”, has the ring of authenticity and intimacy. It feels as though you were inside the skin of your subject and writing her perception of her world and the life she was leading. I thought, at first, that these were the actual journals.  The narrator in the other sections has the same eloquence of voice. This is what writers hope they will accomplish, this sense of being the character. Was it difficult at times to sustain that voice, or did the research provide enough of both the insight and the language to guide you?

DH   It was difficult at times, yes, but when that happened I would just do my best to “channel” Alexandra. My great-grandmother on my mother’s side was a practising Spiritualist who communicated with long-dead people and pets, so perhaps there was an inherited disposition at work. Going back to the stacks of books and the voluminous pages of notes really helped as well.

BJH   The description of the land through which Alexandra travelled has that same authenticity. Have you been to Tibet? Any plans to go there?

DH   No, I haven’t been to Tibet, although I have read many books related to this fascinating country. The current political situation is upsetting. I have a Tibetan Buddhist monk pen pal (who grew up in exile in India) who is currently attempting to do educational and environmental work in Tawang province very close to the Tibetan border. The Chinese government, without consulting with local residents, is planning to go ahead with a number of hydroelectric projects that would destroy sacred cultural sites and habitats for endangered species. Police fired on peaceful protesters last year with two deaths recorded. I am also bothered by the vilification of the current Dalai Lama by the government, so yet another reason that I won’t be travelling to Tibet.

BJH   Authors usually have a particular intent, a vision, for the work they are producing. Can you describe briefly what your intent was?

DH   In brief, my intent was to introduce more English readers to this remarkable woman and to show myself that I could actually finish writing a work that had been started years ago. I also didn’t want to disappoint the very patient publisher who, after reading the first few chapters on Wattpad, had offered to publish the book – the best incentive for any writer!

BJH   What other writing have you done?

DH   I have been a scribbler for a long time. This is my first book, but over the years I have had shorter pieces published in newspapers – a children’s story and several columns in The Edmonton Journal and an essay in The Globe and Mail. One of the pieces previously published in The Edmonton Journal has recently been included in Lotus Petals in the Snow – Voices of Canadian Buddhist Women (The Sumeru Press).  I have also done some contract writing for Alberta Education (related to school libraries) and have written two radio plays for Alberta School Broadcasts (in the way, way back). Some book reviewing for school library magazines and a vitriolic clutch of letters to the editor on topics near and dear to my heart complete my oeuvre, such as it is.

BJH   And the tired old question that must come at the end of any author interview: Do you have another project in progress?

DH   Thank you for asking. Yes, I do, but details will be sparse. For some reason, I harbour very old-fashioned superstitions about talking about projects too much before they are complete. Don’t want to jinx things. A truly silly idea from a deeply flawed person – forgive me, please.

Now for the sparse details. If/when this project is finished, it will be a work of fiction set in contemporary times that features the appearance of a long-dead American literary icon (female). Time is a series of metaphysical spaces rather than a process in this world. No zombies or vampires, just some quirky fun

BJH   And another that seems to be expected these days—What are you currently reading?

DH   I have two daily reading rituals. To ease into the day, I adjourn most mornings to my poetry chair. This time features poems from three collections. Staying Alive – Real Poems for Unreal Times (a truly magnificent anthology edited by Neal Astley) Sailing Alone Around the Room by Billy Collins, and New and Selected Poems by Mary Oliver. I read the poems aloud – the plants seem to thrive on these words – and keep this book stack on shuffle. Which book today? Which random page to begin at? Oh, the excitement never ends!

To ease out of the day, I adjourn to the bedroom no later than nine (having given up the CBC TV news – induces glumness and troubling dreams) to read books taken out of our local public library. Usually have two or three on the bedside table. The one currently in progress is The Wonder by Emma Donoghue, a very fine work of historical fiction inspired by almost fifty cases of so-called Fasting Girls in the British Isles, Western Europe, and North America between the 16th and 20th centuries. Highly recommended! Coming up next is Carol by Patricia Highsmith. An article some time ago in The New York Review of Books has piqued my interest in Highsmith. Read The Talented Mr. Ripley some years ago and was very impressed.

I am, of course, terrifically curious to know the identity of that “long-dead American literary icon. Looking forward to hearing more. Thank you, Dianne. For persevering in your quest to reveal some of the mystery around this amazing woman, and for this chance to talk with you about the book.

For information on the publisher who produced this beautiful book:

Available from Chapters Indigo:

Even better, check with your local indie bookstore to see if they can order for you.

And of course, always a good idea to contact your local public and suggest a title you’d like them to order.

Daniel Griffin drops in to talk about Stopping For Strangers

One of the best writing decisions I made in the last ten years, was to apply to UBC’s optional residency MFA  Creative Writing program.  And one of the benefits of that program, was the company in which I found myself.  I was never in a class with Daniel Griffin whose collection of short stories, Stopping for Strangers, is hot off Vehicule Press.  We may have met briefly during one of the summer programs, but I’ve known his short fiction for quite some time; literary magazines, one of the three featured authors in Coming Attractions (Oberon Books 2008), twice in the Journey Prize anthology and a finalist for that prize in 2009.

A couple of months ago, I had a note from Daniel , saying that some other UBC colleagues had mentioned to him that I did a blog tour when The Boy was published last spring, and he was curious about how that had worked out.  From my perspective, talking books on blogs with great writers can only be a fine experience, and I was delighted when Daniel said he’d like to visit here.  When Stopping for Strangers dropped into my mailbox three weeks ago, I read this beautifully produced collection in about three days, and then sat back and wondered what on earth I could ask about stories so finely wrought.

If I were reviewing Stopping for Strangers, I would talk long about the clean, polished prose, the exquisitely fine brush strokes that paint the characters, the range of voice, the sense of an author moving his characters toward the cliff-edge with tender care.  To engage Daniel Griffin in this conversation, I want to talk about the possibilities of domestic realism, and how the short story form lends itself so well to snapshots that capture both the light and the dark, the positive and the negative.  About diving into the darkness, writing about flawed human beings and the duality of even the most ordinary of people.

Welcome, Daniel Griffin!  What a pleasure to be able to talk with you.

Q.(BJH)  In an interview at Book Club Buddy   you mention one of the things people have remarked about your stories is that is unusual to find domestic fiction, stories about families and relationships written by a man.  In that same interview, you invoke Raymond Carver and Kent Haruf (both favourites of my own) as writers who influenced you.  While I was reading your stories, I found myself also placing you in the American tradition of authors beginning with John Cheevers, then Richard Yates, John Updike and Richard Ford,  who have given us stories about men in crisis in the kind of domestic/suburban territory more common of women writing stories about women.  Do you see a trend in Canadian literature leading in this direction?  Are there Canadian authors who have influenced you in the same way?

A.  (DG)  One of the things about Cheever, Yates, Updike, Ford and Carver is the large number of stories they wrote over their careers.  I think you could say that Cheever and Carver are really best known for their short stories.  There are quite a few American writers of that generation who could be cited as primarily short story writers.  We’ve got Alice Munro and you can’t talk about short stories that touch on domestic life without citing her.  (She’s certainly been an influence on me, but I’d venture to say she’s been an influence on most short story writers.)

Anyway, while it’s true that many of my favourite writers aren’t Canadian and many don’t write short stories, there are a lot of Canadian writers I love and would cite as influences.  To rattle off a few and make a point: David Bergen, Madeleine Thien, Joseph Boyden, Timothy Taylor, Eden Robinson.  Each wrote one great collection of short stories then turned to the novel.

I guess I’m as curious as anyone as to what will come next from some of the short story writers we’ve been seeing on the big prize shortlists recently.  More stories or a novel?

Q. (BJH) In some of the stories in Stopping for Strangers I found myself holding my breath, because I had the sense that you were leading these characters  toward the edge of a cliff.   Or in more than one instance, putting the gun in your character’s hand. But I also get a strong sense of compassion in your portrayal of these people.  These are dark places you’ve explored.  When you begin a story, do you have a strong sense of where it is leading?  Do you ever abandon a story because it is heading into territory you simply do not want to explore?

A.  (DG) That’s an interesting question. I never know where a story is going when I start it, and as I write the first draft, I make a deliberate effort not to think of where it’s heading and what might happen.  I try to keep my mind no more than a couple steps ahead of my pen.  And so where it goes can be a surprise for me as well—a realization more than a surprise I suppose.

So how do so many of these stories skirt darkness or dive right into it?  I suppose some of it I should blame on my subconscious. As I say, the way these stories emerge is often a surprise for me–I don’t think I’m ever consciously directing them down any kind of particular path.

I’m glad you see the compassion in them.  I certainly try and write with no judgement and an open heart.  For me that’s important. More than important. Vital.  Especially when writing about characters who are unsympathetic or unappealing.  I guess for me any character that’s going to be laid out and exposed at the point of crisis deserves a compassionate and caring portrayal!

I have abandoned lots of stories, but most of them were abandoned due to DNA level problems with the story itself–something flayed I couldn’t overcome.  Most stories that I start, I finish and rewrite or polish to some extent.  With that said, I have had stories that veered into territory that disturbed me to the extent I didn’t see the appeal in spending 100 hours or whatever it was going to take to realize a finished product.

Since becoming a parent there certainly are areas I don’t want to think about or explore.  Not many, but a few.  I used to love difficult, dark and challenging films.  Shortly after our first daughter was born, I watched Requiem for a Dream and came out of the theatre telling my wife that I now understood why Disney existed: there are some things a parent just doesn’t want to think about, and some times, soft and rosy entertainment is all we need.

Q. (BJH) The short story seems to be having a resurgence in popularity in the past two or three years with some gorgeous collections appearing on the shortlists for major prizes. And yet, it seems to me that there is still the belief that short fiction is a training ground for novelists.  You have demonstrated such talent and craft in this collection, that I hope there are more short stories to come. But…  is there other work – novel, poetry, non-fiction–  that is equally compelling to you?   What’s next?

A.  (DG) I spent a lot of years writing these stories (and the stories before them that were a training ground for the pieces that appear in this collection).  By the time I was writing the last few stories in this book, I was ready for a change.  I found myself writing on a bigger canvass, the stories stretched further over time etc. And it was like my writing really wanted to do something bigger, something different.  I felt the need to change it up.  At the same time I wanted to tackle a novel. I think I’d always known I wanted to do this. In truth, I’d written a couple of novels that never really got off the ground.  I spent years working on them, but eventually abandoned both.

With all that said, I love short stories. I love writing them, I love reading them and am happy to see an increased level of attention to the short story form and, like you say, seeing some deserving collections getting nominations for the largest prizes.  That’s as it should be.

To answer your question more directly: I’m working on a novel at the moment, and figure I’m maybe a year from having it ready in some form.  I expect that over this coming year I’ll share it with some friends and fellow writers and when that happens I’ll have some decisions to make.  I’m a compulsive writer.  I write every day and really have to or I won’t be a very pleasant person for my family to live with.  And so before I pass this novel off for anyone to look at, I’ll have to figure out what I’m writing next….

Q.  (BJH)  I realize this is somewhat akin to asking if you have a favourite, child, but is there a story in this collection that has been of particular importance to you for whatever reason?

A. (DG) I’ll take the “particular importance” angle rather than favourite.  I think the earliest story in this book is “Mercedes Buyer’s Guide.”  For a while that was even a contender for a title for the book.  This story opened up new doors for me in terms of how to write a story and how to tell a story.  It was the first time I played with point of view, it was the first time I wrote from the perspective of a father (I was about to become a father myself) and I felt like in writing it I’d stumbled upon something compelling in the ordinary lives of ordinary people.  The stories in this book are quite varied and I’m not sure a reader would see any other story in here as following in the footsteps of “Mercedes”, but as a writer, I felt like it was the start of something.  For that it holds a special place in my heart.

Q. (BJH) I know you have three daughters, Daniel, and I’m always curious about what families read.  What books are your daughters’ favourites?

A. (DG) I love reading aloud to the family.  Unfortunately the kids often prefer to read alone.  Our two eldest kids have both had phases where they seem to constantly have a book glued to their hands.

Before we had kids and a TV, my wife and I read aloud to each other every night.  We  don’t do it as often now.  I think Cormac McCarthy’s The Road was the last one we read aloud to each other—talk about dark!

Anyway, I have managed to create a bit of a read aloud tradition with the kids, and we just finished reading the Harry Potter series.  I’m now reading them The Incredibly Ordinary Danny Chandelier which is a wonderful novel for young adults written by a fellow UBC MFA Grad Laura Trunkey.

More about Stopping for Strangers and Daniel Griffin at:

The Boy goes south, way South, to Jenny Badman’s page

Like many writers, I have a secret dream that I will get on a bus or train or plane one day and find myself seated next to someone who pulls one of my books out of his bag (and yes, I do dream that my books have male readers too) and begins to read. After I few minutes, I clear my throat ever so quietly and ask, “Good book?”

I love that my friends and family turn up for book launches in enthusiastic number, and that they buy my books, but it’s a different kind of pleasure to know that strangers read them as well.  I’ve never met Jenny Badman.  She is a good friend of my UBC classmate, Mary Woods, who I’ve also never met in person.  We took an online poetry course together, and have enjoyed occasional visits through email and a Facebook friendship since then.  Mary and Jenny both live in Charleston, South Carolina.  When I posted a note on Facebook about the virtual tour I was putting together for The Boy Mary responded with an invitation to her blog and told me that her friend, Jenny, might be interesting in meeting the boy as well. I took a quick peek at Jenny’s blog, read her bio which reads “I’m a writer, storyteller, strategist, blogger, creative, rabble-rouser” and sent her a message begging a visit.

Jenny picked up on a thread in The Boy that no one else had asked about, so here we are, talking about the part motherhood played in the writing of this book.

South To Visit Jenny Badman
And here’s a bit of audio to take along to South Carolina:  The Stepmother

Taking The Boy home: Stettler Public Library June 14

On Tuesday, June 14, I will be at the Stettler Public Library talking about and reading from The Boy, and I am thrilled to have this opportunity. Throughout the writing of The Boy I have been keenly aware that the real story, that of the Cook murders, and the Cook family themselves, belong to the community of Stettler. The library, the museum, various members and former residents of the community have generously shared information and memories. What an honour it will be to take the story home and take along my gratitude for the support I was shown in the writing.
Tuesday, June 14 at the library, from 6:00 – 8:00 PM.

The Boy visits Lee Kvern in Okotoks

I’ve been looking forward to talking with Lee Kvern about The Boy. Lee’s dad was one of the RCMP officers in Stettler at the time of the Cook murders, and she heard a lot about this case when she was growing up.

Lee’s beautiful novel, the Matter of Sylvie, takes real life and turns it into art with an eloquence that leaves me in awe.  (The novel is nominated for the George Bugnet Fiction Prize in the Alberta Book awards.) We’ve talked a number of times about the minefield of writing about people and places close to our hearts.  Lee will be joining me here to talk about her own work sometime very soon.

Meanwhile, here we are at her blog:    The Boy goes to Okotoks

And here’s a quick reading to set things up: Louise contemplates the photo of the shoes

Talking about novels with Lori Hahnel

It was a pleasure to be invited to visit the blog of my Calgary friend and writing colleague, Lori Hahnel.

You can read our conversation here:  when the novel becomes a novelty

Lori is the author of a collection of short fiction, Nothing Sacred,  and a novel, Love Minus Zero, and has recently finished a new novel.  In the years I’ve been working on The Boy, I’ve talked with Lori about what pulls us into a book length project and keeps us there no matter how much we resist.

Here’s a brief audio clip from The Boy about the added challenge of working with material from someone else’s life

other people’s lives