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Douglas Glover Q&A

Our Avid Reader Book Club enjoyed Douglas Glover's Governor General Literary Award-winning book Elle. We had a chance to interview Mr. Glover recently and he answered some of the questions posed by members of the Avid Reader Book Club.

We know you buy a lot of books from AbeBooks – are these usually for research or pleasure?
I no longer make a distinction between reading for research and pleasure. It's all fun and it all feeds the hungry god. I'm a footnote researcher. I love reading footnotes and bibliographies looking for the odd or curious. AbeBooks is terrific for satisfying those impulses. I am sure I have created several internet millionaires with my impulse buys.

Have you purchased any rare finds from our booksellers?
Not really. I'm not particularly interested in collecting books. I want is a good reader's copy. But there are sometimes items that are normally too expensive for me to buy that can show up relatively cheaply on AbeBooks. A case in point--an American scholar who lives in Sweden (I like to give details of circuitous message loops) told me about an early Wallace Stegner novel set in Saskatchewan during the 1918 flu epidemic. Even on AbeBooks all the copies were in the hundreds of dollars. But I kept going back and searching again and eventually I found a copy of On a Darkling Plain for $50. Which I bought.

What are you reading right now?
Elizabeth Bowen's novel To the North, which, yes, I bought on AbeBooks for $1.50, thank you very much. I'm on an Elizabeth Bowen kick right now. This is my third Bowen book in a row. And on the side I've been collecting essays and interviews she did on the writing process. I don't know why I am suddenly interested in her. It started when I watched the movie version of her novel The Last September. I watched it once, then a year or two later I watched it again. That's when I found myself devouring her books.

What were your favorite books as a child?
Good question. The first book I can remember wanting, owning and reading was a children's historical novel about Scotland and Bonnie Prince Charlie. It was called Highland Lassie and the protagonist was a plucky girl. Maybe she was the ancestor of Elle. I don't know. I also loved the Narnia Chronicles and the G. A. Henty historical boys' adventure novels and P. C. Wren's Beau Geste (remember that Gary Cooper movie?) and H. Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines and She (She was in my mind when I called the novel Elle).

Do you have Canadian favorites, or books you'd recommend for interesting Canadian history?
My main influences are Canadian: Leonard Cohen's Beautiful Losers, all Hubert Aquin's novels Blackout, The Antiphonary, Hamlet's Twin, and Prochain Episode, Alice Munro's stories and, earlier on, Robert Kroetsch's novels The Studhorse Man, Words of My Roaring, and Badlands. E. K. Brown's Rhythm in the Novel is a helpful non-fiction book I reread as well as Philip Marchand's biography of McLuhan. For Canadian history I keep returning to Arthur Lower's From Colony to Nation and Canadians in the Making and Stanley Ryerson's Marxist histories Unequal Union and The Founding of Canada. Also Tony Wilden's The Imaginary Canadian, Frank Underhill's In Search of Canadian Liberalism, and Harold Innis, especially, The Fur Trade in Canada. These are my touchstones. Then there is a rather large number of contemporary writers I admire and whose stories I've selected for Best Canadian Stories over the years. I cannot mention all their names, but you can read the anthologies.

What draws you to writing historical fiction, particularly with Elle?
I never thought of it before this interview, but given what I read as a kid, it seems obvious. Steeped in historical romance and and fantasy, that's me. Seriously though, there's been a steady deepening of the historical aspect of my fiction since way back. At first, I was interested in letting the reader know the historical roots of the characters. Then in The South Will Rise at Noon I had an historical re-enactment and movie-making thing going on. And then came the historical novels. At the same time, we have to be measured about this. My two earlier novels were contemporary, and most of my stories are set in the present.

What kind of research do you do when writing historical fiction?
I do what I think of as splashing around. I read a few general books, then, as I said earlier, start spooking around footnotes and bibliographies (also antiquarian bookstores) looking for curious facts, first hand contemporary documents, diaries, journals, reports. For Elle, of course, there wasn't much. A couple of writers in 16th century France claimed have met her, but their accounts are dubious (one was illustrated with a picture of Marguerite on an island with a polar bear and a palm tree). But I also discovered some good anthropological/archeaological papers and monographs as well as one wonderful journal of a winter spent with the native hunters. I look for texts that tell me what people thought about and what it felt like to live in the period. And then I select what to me are the most striking, dramatic and representative details to put in the novel.

Our Avid Reader Book Club enjoyed Elle, and the words used to describe it varied from "unique" to "eerie" to "beautifully crafted." Why do you think it won the Governor General's Award?
Well, I was on the Governor-General's Award jury the year before, which gives me an insight into the process, and, given that insight, I can only say that the three judges all liked my book better than any other book that year. That's how it works. Outside of asking the judges, who aren't supposed to talk about it, there really isn't any way of arriving at a reason that isn't pure and pointless speculation.

If you couldn't write, what do you think your profession would be instead?
Another good question. I'm always thinking about alternate careers. Lately, I've been thinking about going over to the Macdonald's franchise near here and asking for work. We still have the family farm in southern Ontario. I suppose I would have ended up there. But I was also a newspaper journalist and editor for years. I was just in Peterborough giving a reading at Trent University and people there still remember some of the, apparently, deathless prose I wrote for The Examiner in the early 1970s. (One of my former colleagues is now managing editor.) I also had a radio interview show for a couple of years. I could have done lots of things. But, you know, I relate to the world through writing. I am most myself when I am writing. I can't really imagine another mode of existence any longer.