Anne Michaels is thinking. She is the very picture of pensive – elbows on the table, fingers to her temples, eyes lowered, brow furrowed.
Anne Michaels is also hiding. Her long hair tumbles forward, half obscuring a face rather lovely in its assertive plainness. She seems almost to shrink into the comforting confines of her bulky winter clothing, though we’re sitting over tea in the clattering warmth of a winter afternoon at a Toronto restaurant.
Thinking and hiding might be described as the impulses driving Michaels’ two novels, 1996’s Fugitive Pieces and the new, long-awaited The Winter Vault. (Both are published by McClelland & Stewart.) Thinking and its raptures radiate from almost every page she writes. And hiding? She sees it as a well of integrity in her work.
So we play a little hide-and-seek; I seek, she hides. Michaels tells me she was born and grew up in Toronto, living all over the city at one time or another, and currently resides in midtown, not far from where we’re having tea. Her mother was born in Toronto, and her father came from Poland. When I ask what her father did, she replies, “Do we have to go into this kind of detail?”
What can she tell me about growing up? “Ask me something else. I don’t know what to tell you.”
I ask if she was a shy child. “I’m still a shy child.”
I have always found something perversely self-important in an insistence on personal privacy, as if the minor details of our lives are too precious to reveal. It seems akin to the primitive fear that a photographer might steal one’s soul. Michaels, though, says she simply disdains “being read through the screen of my life. It’s not coyness. It’s respect for my own labour. After my first book, there was a great desire to know more about me personally, but I adamantly resisted it.”
The tension between private and public life can also be seen in her novels, which set personal crises against the grand sweep of history. Fugitive Pieces, an international bestseller that won a slew of awards and was made into a film two years ago, tracks the impact of the Holocaust as her protagonists move through a devastated Europe and finally settle in Toronto. The Winter Vault concerns itself, at one level, with the impact that massive engineering projects can have on the environment, on individuals, on communities. Michaels says these stories are her way of exploring dispossession, what it might mean if a place you called home no longer exists, if one of your most intense and intimate moments is shared with hundreds or thousands of other people. She is fascinated by how we adapt to such momentous events because “adaptation is a certain kind of complicity.” Yet she offers hope, too; after all, change is possible, and “my writing is a way to remind us of that.”
Which makes me wonder if she sees a pedagogical aspect to her work, but Michaels is quick to say no. “I don’t stand above as a teacher,” she says. “I am in complete solidarity with the reader. If anything, there is a pedagogy of the heart.”
That doesn’t mean that she’s not, in some way, setting out on a moral mission. She wants her readers to be “thinking as well as feeling, feeling as well as thinking. I don’t think political ideas, philosophical ideas really enter you until they enter you with feeling…. Fiction and poetry give us a way to think deeply and feel deeply about certain things that, if we met them in real life, would be chaotic. They allow us the space and time to contemplate right actions.”
Finding time to write has also been a practical issue for Michaels. Thirteen years separate Fugitive Pieces from The Winter Vault, and the demands of raising two children as a single parent help explain that unusually long gestation. (Michaels is the mother of a girl, 10, and a boy, 5. Not surprisingly, further discussion of her personal life is off limits.) In fact, parenthood has her writing only at night, mostly between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. She did bring out a book of poetry, Skin Divers, during that 13-year period, following two collections published prior to Fugitive Pieces. In 2005, she collaborated with friend and writer John Berger on Vanishing Points, a theatre project in London, England, and over the years she’s travelled a great deal promoting Fugitive Pieces. She’s currently working on a third novel.
The Winter Vault was a demanding project. The protagonists, Avery and Jean, find themselves involved both physically and emotionally in two of the great engineering projects of the last century: the moving of the great temple at Abu Simbel in Egypt and the creation of the St. Lawrence Seaway in Canada, both of which drown villages and towns and erase personal and collective histories. Michaels clearly did a vast amount of research – her re-creations of those astonishing feats are intimate and vivid without ever seeming pedantic or merely journalistic – and it’s clear she has a healthy obsession with fact, with getting it right. “I feel a real duty to the characters, their stories, and their historical context,” she says.
And that means many, many revisions. “I am of the school that believes there is no room for an excess word,” Michaels says. She writes until she is satisfied, and only then does she deliver the text – first to John Berger and another close friend, Janis Freedman Bellow, who’ve been “wanting to see what I have been thinking about for so long.” Then the manuscript goes to Ellen Seligman, her editor at McClelland & Stewart. “For a writer, the first reading is important, like the experience of a composer hearing his piece played by full orchestra for the first time,” says Michaels.
That’s not an accidental simile. As a child, Michaels played the piano and violin in a youth orchestra, and she says her mother claims she could read music before she learned to read words. Involved with theatre in high school, she was asked in her early teens to compose scores for works by Sam Shepard, Brecht, and Shakespeare. One must read the playwright’s text with deep attention, she says, to discover “every nuance in terms of how a character is developed, so that the music can support the playwright’s vision. It’s not what the composer wants; it’s what the play demands, and that means an excruciatingly close reading of the text.”
Michaels says that “composing music for the theatre is a fantastic education in terms of writing,” and I think she means that, in both art forms, the author is, or should be, hiding in plain view. Her definition of a successful score: “If the audience left the theatre unaware there was any music at all, to have it so unified with the experience of watching the play that they weren’t even aware of it.”
She believes as well that music and novels have pacing issues in common. In prose, writer and reader are travelling through hundreds of pages together, and Michaels says it’s important to slow the momentum occasionally. “Music does that naturally, especially in a long symphonic work. It’s the same thing with the novel, [there must be] moments built into the text to allow the reader to pause, to think, and to feel. From beginning to end, a book has to make space for the reader. I’m very conscious of that, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that were my music education at work.”
Michaels is admirably serious of purpose in her writing, and a little grave as an interview subject. Ellen Seligman, though, says her author “loves wordplay, has an incredibly sharp and developed sense of humour, and a dry, sophisticated wit.” If hiding her own persona is critical to Michaels’ writing, wit is the one thing she shouldn’t hide. It robs her characters of their full humanity – Jean and Avery in The Winter Vault come across as solemn, self-important, and sententious. They lost this reader’s sympathy, for all their obvious intelligence and sensitivity.
I ask Michaels about what I see as the dearth of humour in her fiction, but she goodnaturedly disagrees. “Readers are always telling me how much they appreciate the way humour works in the books,” she says. “I prefer the sly and the wry, though I am not above the plain silly if that’s what the character calls for.”
If you get hooked on Anne Michaels (and many readers do), you get hooked on a kind of incandescent precision of language, obvious on virtually every page she writes (just one example, chosen by opening the new book at random: “their sail cutting the sky like the blade of a sundial”). John Berger, her friend, collaborator, and admirer, praises “the great care and attention she gives to words, which corresponds to the care and attention she gives to the lives she’s describing. There is a great physicality in her writing, which usually goes with the personal and the intimate, but she has distance. And that combination of very precise physicality and distance is what you get in ancient song.”