Fieldnotes – The Canterbury Trail

I met Angie Abdou in Cranbrook, British Columbia, where she teaches one day a week at The College of the Rockies. I had a good interview with her in an empty classroom, but when I listened to the interview later that night, I realized the sound quality wasn’t terrific (the insistent humming of heating fans and fluorescent lights was inescapable). I called and asked her if we could redo the interview at her house when I passed through Fernie the next day. She kindly consented, even though she’s has to field a lot of interview requests lately. I knew that she had studied mediaeval English literature (The Canterbury Trail actually evolved out of a Ph.D. dissertation), but I was still curious why she chose Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales as a template for her book (which came out in February of this year.) Partly, she said, because she sees literature as one long conversation in which every writer takes part, and so to create a variation on a theme established by someone else is every writer’s prerogative. But in particular, she said, she found the Canterbury Tales well suited to her purposes because of the literary device of the pilgrimage, which brought together so many elements of society that might not otherwise have reason to interact. In the case of her latest novel, that device allows her to air (through her characters) a variety of themes, arguments and perspectives without judgment, on issues that – in Canada as in the U.S. – are often polarizing.

As for specific references in her book for which a knowledge of Chaucer is necessary, she said: “Sure, there are things people will miss because they don’t have the Chaucer context, but at the same time I realize that when you write a book, once you put it out there, you really have no control how people receive it. Everyone will bring to it their own experience, and people might get things out of it that I never thought of because they bring a certain experience. So being a writer is partly about relinquishing control. You spend so much time crafting this thing, and having a particular way you hope people receive it, and then letting it go. People receive it however they do receive it, and that’s a good thing.”

We also talked about what she sees as an atrophying of literary culture in Canada and the U.S. Here’s a snatch of that conversation. (SCOTT) Chaucer wrote in almost a sort of pre-literate time, where most people were not literate. And yet he was writing innovative literature. And you were hinting in our last conversation that we were losing – if not literacy, then literary culture. What’s it like for you being a writer in a culture that you feel is losing its sense of literature?

(ABDOU) You know, a lot of people talk about E-books, and how real books are going to disappear. And you hear people say, “Oh, but I love the feel of a real book, I’m just going to miss opening up a real book.” And then someone wrote jokingly – on Twitter, of course – “Oh, I don’t want to give up the scroll. I’m just going to miss the feel of real velum.” So things progress, and things change. You don’t want to cling desperately to the past. That’s kind of pathetic and sad, too. Things are going to change, and people aren’t going to be familiar with Shakespeare, and Chaucer, or a lot of the literary tradition, but at the same time, there are other forms of writing that are coming out, and Twitter…you hate to say Twitter, and Facebook, and blogging…so these are the new way of writing. So as a writer you also have to look forward to the future and try to be optimistic about other ways literacy is going.

(SCOTT) Are you just putting a brave face on that?

(ABDOU, LAUGHING) Yes – yes I am. Can you tell? I’m trying very hard to put a brave face on this. Yes. What else can you do? What else can you do?

SCOTT: You do need to adapt, if not embrace. But what is being lost, do you feel?

ABDOU: I would say this: that literature is an ongoing conversation, and people have been talking about these things for generations, and ideas have been building, and literary texts are rich because they can draw on these threads of our predecessors. And so what’s at stake is that there’s a certain richness, and intellectual depth and complexity that is being lost. And that is sad.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 61 62 63 64 65 66 67 68 69 70 71 72 73 74 75 76 77 78 79 80 81 82 83 84 85 86 87 88 89 90 91 92 93 94 95 96 97 98 99 100 101 102 103 104 105 106 107 108 109 110 111 112 113 114 115 116 117 118 119 120 121 122 123 124 125 126 127 128 129 130 131 132 133 134 135 136 137 138 139 140 141 142 143 144 145 146 147 148 149 150 151 152 153 154 155 156 157 158 159 160 161 162 163 164 165 166 167 168 169 170 171 172 173 174 175 176 177 178 179 180 181 182 183 184 185 186 187 188 189 190 191 192 193 194 195 196 197 198 199 200 201 202 203 204 205 206 207 208 209 210 211 212 213 214 215 216 217 218 219 220 221 222 223 224 225 226 227 228 229 230 231 232 233 234 235 236 237 238 239 240 241 242 243 244 245 246 247 248 249 250 251 252 253 254 255 256 257 258 259 260 261 262 263 264 265 266 267 268 269 270 271 272 273 274 275 276 277 278 279 280 281 282 283 284 285 286 287 288 289 290 291 292 293 294 295 296 297 298 299 300 301 302 303 304 305 306 307 308 309 310 311 312 313 314 315 316 317 318 319 320 321 322 323 324 325 326 327 328 329 330 331 332 333 334 335 336 337 338 339 340 341 342 343 344 345 346 347 348 349 350 351 352 353 354 355 356 357 358 359 360 361 362 363 364 365 366 367 368 369 370 371 372 373 374 375 376 377 378 379 380 381 382 383 384 385 386 387 388 389 390 391 392 393 394 395 396 397 398 399 400 401 402 403 404