This week I’m featuring an interview with novelist Dave Margoshes, whose earlier novel Drowning Man I reviewed favourably in this blog on November 17, 2014 as The Lost Kootenay Novel. (See Book Reviews thread.) This year the prolific Margoshes released both a collection of short stories, God Telling a Joke (Oolichan Books) and a new novel, Wiseman’s Wager (Coteau Books). Compared to Drowning Man, which I devoured in virtually a single gulp, I found Wiseman’s Wager a challenging novel to read. Of course, I’m always up for an intellectual challenge. But it took me a long time to finish it—leaving it and then returning to it in fits and starts. Yet I find the characters in Wiseman’s Wager beautifully rendered, so real I can practically see Zan and Abe standing next to me. And their dialogues are brilliant—scintillating exchanges of Jewish humour and wit, and a textbook example of how to capture naturalistic dialogue inflected by the characters’ culture of origin. I often laughed out loud while reading these conversations. It’s hard to fault a novel that makes you laugh, and it relieved my occasional exasperation at the convoluted storyline. Margoshes chooses a looping, elliptical narrative that will challenge many readers who prefer more linear storylines. In many ways Wiseman’s Wager is more of a quasi-memoir than a novel, but with more depth and complexity of human experience than one often finds in actual memoirs.
JOYCE: Your characters are so alive they practically leap off the page and stand beside me as I read. I note in the Acknowledgements that you list several histories or memoirs of Jewish life on the prairies, but how much of Zan and Abe are based on members of your family? Did you do much family history research to write the novel?
MARGOSHES: Actually, none. Zan and Abe are both based loosely on several real people, but none of them are members of my immediate family. (But see the answer to the next question.) There’s nothing autobiographical about this novel. But I appreciate your comment in the introduction that the novel reads more like “a quasi-memoir…but with more depth and complexity of human experience than one often finds in actual memoirs.” That’s exactly the effect I hoped the novel would have.
JOYCE: Were some of the characters based on actual historical persons unrelated to you? You’re indirectly charting some of the history of the Canadian Communist and labour union movements in the novel, so was that a major part of your research? Why was this of interest to you in this story?
MARGOSHES: The character of Zan Wiseman is based – again, I emphasize “loosely” – on the American novelist Henry Roth, author of the classic Depression-era immigrant novel Call It Sleep. Like Zan, Roth suffered from a massive writer’s block after the failure of that novel, not publishing again for 50 years – even though Call It Sleep, like Zan’s failed novel, was rediscovered in the ’60s and became a bestseller. I loved Call It Sleep when I read it many years ago and became fascinated with Roth, the idea of the paralyzing writer’s block talking shape in my mind as a wonderful metaphor for emotional paralysis of all sorts. Many of the ‘facts’ of Zan’s life are borrowed from Roth, but his personality owes a lot to my former father-in-law, Ira Silbar, who, like Roth, was a lifetime leftist.
JOYCE: I wanted a little more elucidation about your interest in the history of the Communist and Labour movements in Canada, which features in Zan’s biography. What about this aspect of Canadian social and political history interests you? Why did you feel it was appropriate to your character’s history? Is it meant to counterpoint our current political situation?
MARGOSHES: Good question, Art. Actually, it goes back to Henry Roth, the inspiration for this novel. He was a diehard Communist – in fact, that scene in the novel where Zan is devastated by a review in a Communist paper accusing his novel of being “too bourgeois” is exactly what happened to Roth and contributed to his long debilitating writer’s block. Of course, I had to change this to a Canadian context, which required a bit of research. Pretty interesting stuff. At least to me, given my own political leanings.
JOYCE: Did it have anything to do with you being a prairie writer and wanting to make the story fit the sociopolitical history of Winnipeg and the prairies generally? I just wondered if you were tapping into the long history of democratic socialist movements on the prairies. After all, it is the birthplace of universal medicare in Canada as well as the NDP party!
MARGOSHES: Well, I’d argue that the trajectory of the CPC (Communist Party of Canada) and that of the democratic socialist movements on the prairies that led to the CCF (Cooperative Commonwealth Federation) and NDP are quite different, more like feuding cousins than kissin’ ones. Zan is barely even aware of the CCF activities going on in Winnipeg while he’s there. But, that said, I’ve always hoped that the ‘political’ aspects of that novel would resonate, especially for lefty readers of all stripes, as well as readers with no interest in that side of Canadian history.
JOYCE: The story structure leaves me somewhat baffled. The stop/start, jump-cut narrative style, the story-within-a-story-within-a-story can leave one confused at times, or at least lost in narrative time. Can you explain why you chose this structure? How did it suit the story you wanted to tell?
MARGOSHES: This is essentially a bildungsroman, a life story, but not told chronologically. The narrative device is Zan’s visit to a psychologist, their conversations, and the memories those conversations spark. Zelda, the psychologist, gradually teases the story out of Zan, who at first is uncooperative and only gradually opens up. But he is the classic unreliable narrator: his memory is faulty, and he exaggerates, prevaricates, deflects. I appreciate your comment at the top that “some readers may find the narrative structure challenging,” but my ideal readers – and I hope there are some, maybe plenty, of them out there – will find some fun in the getting there.
JOYCE: I understand that a major theme here is the fallibility of memory, so I assume that has at least something to do with your choice of structure. Is there a conscious element of postmodernism in the story structure? Or was it just something you found yourself doing naturally in the writing of the novel? For example, why have two layers of the therapist role, past and present?
MARGOSHES: Ha-ha – sorry, this question makes me laugh. I can’t speak for all writers, and I’m sure there are some determined postmodernists out there, but I’m one writer who doesn’t think about labels or trends. Still, in the sense that ‘postmodernism’ implies a certain self-consciousness, I guess it is squarely rooted in that school, inasmuch as this is a novel about a novelist, a story told in the form of many stories. As for the two therapists, they’re separated by 20 years or more, so they provide a handy way of exploring the lapses in Zan’s memory and the changes in his attitude. He was more honest with Jack than he is with Zelda, but his talks with Zelda remind him of the similar conversation he had with Jack; it produces a kind of stereo effect, two versions of the same story.
JOYCE: In many ways Wiseman’s Wager is a writer’s book. The central character is a writer – though in his own estimation a failed one – and writers will recognize many of the grisly hallmarks of the writer’s struggle to survive and carry on the craft. Not least of which is the frequent bouts of despair or depression when one’s work falls on deaf ears, sometimes leading to defeatism and career (or actual) suicide. One of my all-time favourite novelists, Kurt Vonnegut, wrote about this in Palm Sunday: “I have spoken elsewhere of the mentor I had at the University of Chicago, who was so brilliant, who could not find anyone to publish his most audacious work, and who committed suicide. …It has been my experience with literary critics and academics in this country that clarity looks a lot like laziness and ignorance and childishness and cheapness to them. Any idea which can be grasped immediately is for them – by definition – something they knew all the time. So it is with literary experimentation, too. If a literary experiment works like a dream, is easy to read and enjoy, the experimenter is a hack. The only way to get full credit as a fearless experimenter is to fail and fail.” (Vonnegut, Palm Sunday, Granada Publishing, 1982, paperback ed., p. 293) How much of Zan’s discouraging history as a writer is based on your own experience? Tell me a little of your own history as a writer in this regard.
MARGOSHES: Ha-ha. Again, I have to laugh, but this time a bit ruefully. As I’ve said above, this novel isn’t autobiographical at all, but inasmuch as it’s about a writer and I’m a writer it can’t help but be informed by my own experiences. I haven’t had the success that Zan enjoys, or the depth of failure, but writers who don’t experience what you characterize as “the grisly hallmarks of the…struggle” are few and far between. But beyond that, it is a “writer’s book” because it’s about writing, about storytelling, about creativity. Again, that postmodern motif.
JOYCE: And finally, what about Wiseman’s Wager do you find most satisfying to have accomplished?
MARGOSHES: Hmmm. I have to think about that one a bit. You know, in some way, I think of this novel as an extension of my first novel, I’m Frankie Sterne (NeWest, 2000), which did have many autobiographical elements to it – Frankie was my age, he lived in places I lived, he had some experiences similar to one I’d had – but he was a musician, not a writer. Well, a singer/songwriter, whose career arc begins with rock and roll, develops into a sort of Dylanesque troubadour’s life and eventually morphs into jazz. What I found most satisfying about that novel was that many readers I’ve spoken to are shocked when they learn I’m not a musician myself – to me, that means the musician’s life I depicted feels authentic. I think Wiseman’s Wager has a feeling of authenticity to it too – its characters, particularly Zan and his brother Abe, and their experiences growing up, as young men, as middle-aged men, as old men, their successes and failures. You mentioned at the beginning of this conversation that my “characters are so alive they practically leap off the page and stand beside (you) as (you) read.” That’s the highest compliment any writer can get, and I’ve heard much the same from other readers I respect. That’s very satisfying.
NOTE: It’s worth reading a little about the inspiration for Margoshes’ lead character, Henry Roth, in this NY Times article: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/24/books/24type.html?_r=0