VIWF: Jane Urquhart, author of "Sanctuary Line"

Jane Urquhart

Winner of a Governor General’s Award, a Banff Distinguished Writer, and an Officer of the Order of Canada, Jane Urquhart is an impressive figure in Canadian Letters. And she’ll be in Vancouver for the Writers Festival (October 19-24).

I’ll own I was nervous meeting her. I was afraid she’d be snooty. 

I was wrong.

Gracious, generous, and witty, Jane Urquhart is a storyteller worthy of her Irish ancestors. In person, every bit as much as she is on the page.

Urquhart’s new novel, Sanctuary Line, is a meditation on war, poetry, the family, betrayal, immigration, and the Monarch butterfly.

“It should be huge, given everything that’s in it,” said Urquhart. “In some insane way I managed to get short stories, poetry and tough, realistic fiction into the same package. I don’t know how that happened. I mean it was certainly not my intention. It just kind of developed that way.”

I spoke to Urquhart at the beginning of her book tour, here in Vancouver last month.

“I haven’t discussed this new book with anyone at all,” she said, “so in a way I myself am discovering what it’s about. On a deeper level. I know what the plot line is. I know the characters. But what is it about? Those are the larger philosophical questions I don’t ask myself when I’m writing because they would interfere completely with what I was doing. I also really love meeting my readers. It’s terrific.”

Our conversation ranged from her first book of poems, to writers’ conferences, the origins of Canadian Literature, small presses, a mutual friend, and the loss of independent booksellers.

“I wouldn’t have a career without them,” she said, referring to the independents. “Away was my so-called ‘breakthrough’ novel. Not a single chain bookstore took that book. Because it was considered—well—it was a book of mine. It was my third novel, and I hadn’t sold any books. Why would they want it? It was hand sold by independent booksellers, and it stayed on the Canadian bestseller list for 138 weeks.

“We really needed to support the independents more than we did. It was tragic. It was absolutely tragic what happened to them. And there would not have been a Canadian literature without them. They kept Canadian literature alive at a time when you just couldn’t buy a Canadian book anywhere else.”

“If you were to teach a course in Canadian literature,” I asked, “where would you begin?”

“This is not an original answer,” she said, “but I think it’s the right one. I’d begin with the female diarists. Susanna Moodie and Catharine Parr Traill. Partly because I think that they were the beginning of a continuum in a way. I think they led us to Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant. That business of having to record the experience and also having to do it in a way that was independent both of their husbands but also of the large umbrella of the Empire. I believe they really were as important as they have been made out to be by scholars.

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