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.