Published September 2012
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Beyond her distinguished writing career,Susan Swan has built a reputation as one of CanLit’s most devoted activists and mentors
In an uncharacteristic bout of poor planning, I frantically arrange to meet Susan Swan in the few days before I travel to the Banff Centre. I’ll be gone for a month-long writing retreat, and am consumed by the anxiety of last-minute errands and deadlines.
After exchanging a few emails, Swan calls me. Her tone is one of accommodating concern: I am to come to her home and drink gin and tonics at 4 p.m. the day before I leave.
When I arrive at her pretty pale-blue house – complete with welcoming white picket fence – in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood, the gin is generously poured, as promised. Watching her in her kitchen, I confirm the legend of Swan’s height – what she describes as being a “big” woman – well over six feet with room-filling charm to match. I linger in the front hallway while she arranges a cheese plate, and her grey cat, Cosmo, rubs against my ankles and meows aggressively. Perhaps because of my exhaustion, I get the distinct impression I am being taken care of, a compulsion on Swan’s part that seems more than mere hospitality. As if she has temporarily taken responsibility for my well-being.
That, of course, is Swan’s reputation. An informal poll of industry colleagues reveals that she is, to quote one former publicist, “quite beloved.” Swan has long taken an active role in the well-being of many writers, and is part of an established literary family. Her long-time partner is Patrick Crean, the former publisher at Thomas Allen Publishers, and her daughter is the Transatlantic Literary Agency’s Samantha Haywood.
“I think of my mother as many things besides ‘Mom’: writer first, but also activist, feminist, journalist, and professor, who has mentored and championed lots of writers over the years,” says Haywood. “Her generosity and strength are great inspirations to me, and I’d like to think that many of my interests and skills as a literary agent found their example in her.”
Swan’s role as mentor and teacher, both professionally (she retired from teaching creative writing at York University in 2007) and casually, comes quite naturally to her. “Fame and glory – I guess you’re supposed to want that,” Swan says. “I’d like lots of readers, but the idea of coming in and feeling like I am famous, and you are lesser than me, I find that very boring. And empty.”
Swan is, in a word, egoless. At 67 she’s published seven books and countless essays and short stories (her CV is an intimidating 44 pages long), and she writes and lives with a humble hunger for learning. Swan reveals that she was writing stories very young, one of which she was accused of plagiarizing by her Grade 7 teacher, who failed to believe a girl her age could have authored it.
In 1961, when she was only 15, Swan talked her way into a job as a reporter with the Midland Free Press, something she says was a deliberate choice to improve her fiction.
“I think I believed Hemingway’s thing: he said that writers could learn a lot from journalism’s cablese,” she says. “You could report the world and do it in a way that made the world pay attention. So that inspired me, and I thought I could be like him.”
Swan has spent her life devoted to her craft and to finding the best ways to fund that devotion. “I soon understood with journalism that it’s very hard if that’s the way you’re making your living,” she says. “I went from being a reporter to being a magazine writer, and then I realized that teaching would be the way to write fiction. That took me until 43 to figure that all out.”
In the tradition of Joan Didion, who says she writes to figure out “what I want and what I fear,” Swan is forthright about fiction as a tool to unpack her struggle with certain emotions. Her latest novel, The Western Light, is her most autobiographical book to date. It is also a return to the heroine of her much-loved 1993 novel, The Wives of Bath, a book heavily influenced by Swan’s own experience at an all-girls private school. “I’m trying to understand something that I’ve never been able to understand until I write about it in a novel form,” she says. “Storytelling is a way of thinking for me.”
The Western Light is the coming-of-age tale of Mouse, a 12-year-old girl crippled by polio who, feeling spurned by her father, befriends and eventually develops romantic feelings for the mysterious and charming “Gentleman” John Pilkie. Committed to a psychiatric hospital for murdering his wife and daughter in a fire, Pilkie, an ex-hockey player, claims innocence due to the concussions he endured while in the NHL. Mouse’s father comes to the man’s defence, giving her tacit permission to explore her own fraught feelings.
In many ways, Mouse’s experiences mirror Swan’s childhood during the 1950s. There was an expectation within her family that the young girl would do well, but that the world outside expected little. Like Mouse’s, Swan’s father was a town doctor and an influential figure in the community. He was also “strong but absent.”
“[It’s] exactly the dilemma I’ve had most of my life, because I did admire my father’s values, and he also had a great sense of community,” Swan says. “There was nothing wrong with his values – they were very inspiring. Except for the family. He just assumed that my mother would be enough.”
The flawed and possibly dangerous Pilkie represents an opportunity to assuage Mouse’s yearning for male approval and attention. Those around Mouse don’t believe in her or think she can achieve anything, largely because of her disability – a crooked leg she names Hindrance – and her femaleness. When Pilkie takes a sudden interest in her, strives to mould her into something stronger, Mouse grapples with the unfamiliar emotions he inspires.
“I think any kind of person you idealize will have flaws. We need to idealize people to take from them what we need and get over fool’s hill and go into adulthood,” Swan says. “They don’t have to be full heroes. They have to be an example of some qualities we need in order to grow.”
As we sit in Swan’s front room, Cosmo curls up next to her on the couch. It is a rare pleasure to be in the presence of a writer so at ease with herself and her ideas. In a volatile literary climate that often feels governed by ego, bravado, and website hits, Swan’s relaxed, confident, but not overbearing demeanour is refreshing.
This is not to say she’s “polite,” something she confides she was, in a very Canadian way, raised to be. “My family didn’t want me to be outspoken,” Swan says. “I had a lot of pressure put on me to be polite. Which I generally am. Yes, go and be a ‘world-beater,’ as they called it, but don’t ruffle any feathers. In Canada, the squeaky wheel is usually wrong.”
She adds, “You’re sometimes called a loose cannon. It just generally makes people feel a little nervous. It takes away from the credibility. If you go on about something for a long time it’s seen as bad manners. You’re supposed to not be offensive in your deportment.”
Throughout her career, Swan’s had a habit of confronting critics for what she believed to be their flawed thinking. Once, on television, she asked the late Globe and Mail literary editor William French to resign for suggesting that the ending of her 1989 novel, The Last of the Golden Girls, was “unrealistic.” As a juror for the 1998 Governor General’s Literary Awards, she famously called literary critic David Staines “a tweedy pooh-bah” for his denouncement of the award shortlist.
“I can’t stand bullies. And I can’t stand injustice. And so I’m going to speak out,” she says. “You’re not supposed to attack the critic. But at that time I thought that the critic needed to be attacked, because everybody was criticizing writers but no one was looking at the critics and some of the criteria they used.… I know that some writers thought that was very bad form. I don’t like to hurt people’s feelings, but the part of me that doesn’t like to see knee-jerk reactions or bullying makes me compelled to step forward. I’ve always been that way.”
How do these notions of bullying and injustice tie into Swan’s lifelong conversation with readers about the nuances of female power, sexuality, and identity? Perhaps surprisingly, Swan is warily optimistic about the status of women and female writers in this country.
“It’s still a man’s world, because masculinity is still the norm. I think women have a lot more rights than they did before, and probably more respect. But femininity is kind of a deviation from the norm of masculinity,” she says. “Western culture has been trying to incorporate femininity into societal norms but it’s not there yet. Masculinity – that sets the standard. The way we work, the way we raise families; that’s the standard, with a little bit of window dressing around it.”
When I arrive in Banff, I am assigned a studio, a cabin on a secluded path in the woods. On its desk is a guest book with 15 years of entries from writers, some describing their feelings and others outlining the projects that brought them to the mountains.
Inside the book I find an entry from Susan Swan dated March 2009, and am stunned to realize it was in the quiet of these woods that she crafted The Western Light.
“I worked especially hard on John Pilkie there,” she confirms in an email. “Dreamt, ate, and wrote about his tragic plight in the mountains and trees.”
In my own seclusion, working through my own writing and the feelings that brought me to Banff, Swan still mentors. I am inspired by something she said over those generous gin and tonics the afternoon before I left.
“Writers transcend their experience by writing a story about it,” she says. “By making meaning.”