I was introduced to Margaret Laurence by way of The Stone Angel, in high school English class. I don’t remember much of the related schoolwork, but I do remember my teacher telling us that she had died, recently.
He seemed uncomfortable when he spoke about it (mentioning her cancer but suggesting there was more to it than that). I couldn’t tell for sure if she had mattered to him particularly, because he often seemed uneasy, arms and legs too long for his body, his shoulders bent forward as though the rest of him could never keep up, but I don’t remember another teacher talking about an author having died, certainly not an author of our time.
I do remember a teacher telling our class how sad she was that Elvis had died (I was in grade three) but this wasn’t the kind of thing that teachers talked about up close and the authors of the books we read in English were usually so long gone that they didn’t feel real.
I knew that writers were just “normal people” (Jean Little had been to our school and gave a talk, and my mom took me to talks by Lyn Cook and Claire McKay), but this was the first time that I realized I had been studying a book in school by a writer who was living and now was not any longer, whose books were still being read.
A few years later I came across A Jest of God at the library and read it in one fierce session, and then I sought out The Diviners. I finished it on the bus to work on a summer morning, passed my stop to finish reading, which I was glad of for the chance to catch hold of my weeping on the walk back.
I wanted to tell someone about the book at work, but there wasn’t anybody to tell, although I continued to carry the book with me on my lunch and breaks anyway. I never did talk to anyone about finishing the book on the bus, but I felt that something snapped into place that day; I’m not entirely sure what it was, but it’s still there, as fresh as it was on that summer morning.
On childhood reading:
I didn’t entirely spurn girls’ books – I loved L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables and Emily of New Moon – but a lot of girls’ books of that and an earlier era, my mother’s and aunts’ old books, were just plain awful. In fact, I read quite indiscriminately, including the romances of Ethel M. Dell and a syrupy tale called Cecelia of the Pink Roses. I read anything I could get my hands on: Dickens, Gene Stratton-Porter’s A Girl of the Limberlost and Laddie, over which I wept, while Mum gently suggested that some people considered it rather sentimental. My favourites were adventure stories. I don’t think it ever occurred to me that such adventures could never happen to me, a girl.
Dance on the Earth 64
I often find it easier to say Holy Spirit rather than God, because this means to me not only God the Father and the Mother, but a kind of holiness in life itself, in trees and rivers and the earth and all creatures.
Dance on the Earth 14
In one sense, for me, Dieppe perpetually has happened only yesterday. It runs as a leitmotif through all my so-called Manawaka fiction and, in a way, it runs through my whole life, in my hatred of war so profound I can’t find words to express my outrage at these recurring assaults upon the human flesh, mind, and spirit. How dare we call our species Homo sapiens?
Dance on the Earth 84
How much of the other side – the anxious, worried, sometimes deeply depressed side – I owe to the Black Celt in me, and to the terrifying world we live in, and how much that may have begun to grow within my spirit at my mother’s death, I can never know.
Dance on the Earth 26
On motherhood and writing:
If I hadn’t had my children, I wouldn’t have written more and better, I would have written less and worse.
Dance on the Earth 166
My main trouble is, as always, impatience – I want to do everything all at once, in five minutes before dinner. But alas, impossible.
Letter to Adele Wiseman, 6 May 1960
Adele [Wiseman] had begun work on her amazing novel Crackpot, and I read a few chapters. Our work methods are very different. She writes and rewrites a chapter before moving on to the next. The whole intricate structure, although it can change, moved by the characters themselves, is held firmly in her mind throughout this long creative process. I tend to start at the beginning and work through to the end of the first draft, hardly daring to look back, ‘lest’, as I always say, ‘like Lot’s wife, I am turned into a pillar of salt’.
Dance on the Earth 186
Some reviewers slashed me for writing a book that had, in their opinion, a gimmicky structure; some praised me for the innovative format of the novel. Some flailed me for having characters who had appeared in previous novels; some praised me for creating a town in which there was a perceptible continuity / through three generations.
Dance on the Earth 212-213
Publication is one thrill that never diminishes. After the long period of struggling to write a book, and rewrite and rewrite and revise it, after the editorial consultations and the horrible task of proofreading, finally one holds the finished book in one’s hands. Let the reviews fall where they may. Some will be damning, often for the wrong reasons, while others will be highly praising, sometimes also for the wrong reasons. But no one can unpublish a published book.
Dance on the Earth 196
“A strange place it was, that place where the world began. A place of incredible happenings, splendours and revelations, despairs like multitudinous pits of isolated hells. A place of shadow-spookiness, inhabited by the unknowable dead. A place of jubilation and of mourning, horrible and beautiful. It was, in fact, a small prairie town.
“Where the World Began” in Heart of a Stranger
Margaret Laurence Home (Museum) in Neepawa
“I remember – I must have been in my late teens, I suppose – when I read Sinclair Ross’ novel, As for Me and My House, which was about a minister in a small prairie town; it hit me with tremendous force, because I realized for the first time that people could really write about my background.”
“Conversation with Robert Kroetsch, 1970”
‘This is my heartland,’ my friend said, simply and without embarrassment. She did not visualize herself as a wordsmith, yet when she talked about the country around Bancroft, she enabled me to see beyond the trees to the roots which exist always within the minds of humans.
“Down East” in Heart of a Stranger
“The land still draws me more than other lands. I have lived in Africa and in England, but splendid as both can be, they do not have the power to move me in the same way as, for example, that part of southern Ontario where I spent four months last summer in a cedar cabin beside a river.”
“Where the World Began” in Heart of a Stranger
[Oops, I can't find this image file: maybe it's time to make another pilgrimage! or else spending more time hunting through .jpgs]
Photo of the Laurence Home in Lakefield, Ontario, snapped on summer pilgrimage to the town some years ago.
When one thinks of the influence of a place on one’s writing, two aspects come to mind. First, the physical presence of the place itself – its geography, its appearance. Second, the people. For me, the second aspect of environment is the most important, although in everything I have written which is set in Canada, whether or not actually set in Manitoba, somewhere some of my memories of the physical appearance of the prairies come in.
“A Place to Stand On” in Heart of a Stranger
You will find a bibliography here and below are some selected quotes from letters and her books:
Of course, this novel meant a lot more than it should have done, to me, as in a way it was (or became) a whole test of my own judgement – and luckily – I had got to the point where I knew that although it might not say anything to anyone else, it did say a lot to me, so perhaps really that was the true restoration of faith – I think so.
Letter to Adele Wiseman, 14 February 1963
Above the town, on the hill brow, the stone angel used to stand. I wonder if she stands there yet, in memory of her who relinquished her feeble ghost as I gained my stubborn one, my mother’s angel that my father bought in pride to mark her bones and proclaim his dynasty, as he fancied, forever and a day.
The Stone Angel 3
Interesting creatures, very young girls, often so anxious to please that they will tell lies without really knowing they’re doing it.
A Jest of God 11
…Jane Austen, the more I read her and think about her, was such a subtle and strong feminist. In them days! But those days, apparently so far back, are not so very different from our own. Is this not always the way?
Letter to Marian Engel, 12 January 1985
Well, really, all I want to tell you is just about my own personal experience. I mean, that’s all we can say for sure, isn’t it, our own personal experience.
The Fire-Dwellers 137
I drove out to the town one day, when I was visiting in Winnipeg. I went alone. It would have no meaning for anyone else. I was not even sure it would have any meaning for me. But I went.
A Bird in the House 190
… because I myself have to try to cope with Good and Evil in my own life and in my writing. These things are not simple, as you know. But to try to grapple with the most important issues, plus trying to create human individuals on the printed page – this is the real role of a novelist. You have seen this terrible and awfully responsible role and have taken it upon yourself, as few have. Do we really succeed? I guess not. But we keep on trying. You are among the few who see what we have to try for.
Letter to Timothy Findley, 8 January 1982
I mean to say – well – maybe this doesn’t sound too profound, but it seems to me there’s good and bad in all tribes. It’s your friends who count.
Jason’s Quest 185
The river flowed both ways. The current moved from north to south, but the wind usually came from the south, rippling the bronze-green water in the opposite direction.
The Diviners 3
I’ve never been able to force a novel. I have always had the sense of something being given to me. You can’t sit around and wait until inspiration strikes, but neither can you force into being something that isn’t there. Amazingly, the gift was given to me once again. One morning, in the spring of 1971, I woke up with a thought in my mind. I took a notebook out to the lawn and began to write a novel that I knew even then would be called The Diviners. It felt as though I had been waiting for it, and it had been waiting for me. I couldn’t write it fast enough.
Dance on the Earth 199