Interview with Sara Tilley

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A conversation with the author of the recently published novel Skin Room, out on Pedlar press.

Andreae Prozesky: Hi, Sara. What are you doing in Vancouver?

Sara Tilley: I am actually here on a Canada Council grant to mentor with my Clown through Mask teacher, Ian Wallace, for 6 months, to learn to teach other people how to do this work. We’re going to be working with all kinds of people – high school kids, a theatre troupe for people with disabilities, a group of people with terminal illnesses – and I’ll be absorbing as much as possible so I can pass it on. I’m the first person to be trained by Ian in ten years and I will probably be the last, so I feel very honoured. It’s an amazing opportunity and I can’t really believe it yet.

AP On to the literary questions! I always find it interesting when fiction writers create characters and scenarios and then put them in non-fictional settings. Your representation of St. John’s is perfectly accurate, down to the street names, the bars and cafes, the graffiti, the brands of beer. Why was is important to you to set Skin Room in “real-life” St. John’s? What considerations went into that decision?

ST Both the Newfoundland and Nunavut sections of the book are set in real places, and no, I didn’t rename bars with fictional titles or otherwise change anything much about the reality of the settings of either location. I wanted Teresa to be as real as possible to the reader, and that included setting her in a real place, in a real time, with real opinions about the world around her that the reader would be able to sense as authentic, even if they had never been where she was describing. I didn’t feel a compulsion to fictionalize the locations in St. John’s because I wanted readers who know the city to feel like they’ve sat next to this character before, or seen her walking down the street, and for readers who had never been here to feel as though they had been. Ditto for the Sanikiluaq sections. Because the St. John’s portions are set in ‘real’ places, hopefully the reader is also able to read the Sanikiluaq sections and get the same sense of being grounded in an actual place in the world. The book was first inspired by place and by sensory experiences rather than plot, and in a way it was written as a love letter to these two geographies which have affected me. Teresa is a character looking for somewhere to belong, and she is fiercely connected to the physical world around her and her sensations while travelling through it, making the writing about place as important as anything else in her story, I think.

AP There are times when Skin Room veers into magical realist territory. Not just the spiritualism and sorcery of Sanikiluaq, but also the Catholic imagery writ large, the painted house, certain moments of larger-than-life-ness. You make reference in the book to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s work – do you feel a connection to that sort of writing? What is it that draws you to it?

ST I think my favorite writers have all, at least from time to time, ventured into magic realist territory. As a reader I am drawn again and again to the work of Latin American writers like Marquez, and Clarice Lispector, Louis de Bernieres, Reinaldo Arenas…they are my peeps, so to speak. Likewise non-Latin Americans Angela Carter, Salman Rushdie, Jean Genet. What these writers have in common is an ability to create worlds that are at once of our own reality and of something truer and more than that. They write into the dark, unspoken, impossible places we all go when we dream, the reality that is hovering above our daily lives and waiting for us to see it. I find the writing of these authors swoon-worthy, it affects me emotionally because they are writing into the real meat of the mystery of being alive: our subconscious, our dreams, our internal, distorted reality versus the outside world. Magic realism is fascinating because it only works when the reader really believes in the characters and the world of the story. Then the author is able to lift away from the ground and let everything soar before grounding you again. I want a reading experience to move me in ways I don’t even really understand. I want to know the unknowable or at least to sense that is there, just out of reach. Literature has this capacity, and those magic realists will get me every time.

AP The magical realism thing interests me because, in a review of Catherine Safer’s novel, Bishop’s Road, someone suggested that there should be a new movement called Magical Realism from the Rock. As much as I object to anything being called “Whatever… from the Rock,” I can see a tradition emerging in the urban Newfoundland fiction writers that might suggest that such a school could exist. What’s your reaction?

ST I think that’s pretty interesting. It’s funny, but I didn’t think of my book as having any magic realist elements to it, really, ’til you brought it up. To me, it was as close as I could get to the inside of my character’s thoughts and emotions. I was trying to write in an immediate, sensory way from the inside out, and to Teresa, everything is real. However, now that you’ve brought it up I see what you mean. As for belonging to a school of writers, that’s a first. I thought I was in total isolation! I think magic realism is something that indicates a desire to go further than surface reality, to know something as deeply as possible in all the ways that it is knowable. It is also a way of trying to understand the harshness of the real world we live in. Why this recent outcropping of magic realists in Newfoundland? Perhaps as a culture we are struggling with our place in the world and our writers are likewise searching for deeper ways to express that struggle. Certainly the dominance of Catholicism in Newfoundland has helped steer literature in that direction, as has our tradition of oral storytelling: fairies, fetches, the Old Hag. It’s embedded in our collective subconscious. We have more in common with Latin America than we think!

AP Teresa has a way, I think, of giving objects great meaning while, at the same time, objectifying humans. As a narrator, she will go into great, beautiful detail about something non-human, but when it comes to the people around her, her friends, she reveals very little. We know how Gay Stevie or Delith look, and we know a few things about their behaviour, but we never really get to find out who they are. Where do you think that comes from?

ST Again, I think this goes back to internal versus external realities. If I had chosen to write this book in third person, it would probably have been a lot more even-handed in terms of insight into the other characters in the story. However, since we’re sitting inside Teresa’s brain, we’re seeing the world the way she does, and it’s a huge key to her character that she is better able to connect to objects or places than to other people, even those whom she loves. She is a damaged person who has been habitually guarding herself from intimacy with others for most of her life, even while she craves it. This is the heart of the whole novel – that she is at once outside of herself and craving the connection with others that she cannot seem to actualize, and that she is terrified of making that connection. She thinks that she’s perceptive about the people she knows and about herself, but she is quite naïve, and I think afraid to look too deeply at anyone – human beings are more complicated and dangerous subjects of thought than objects are, after all. Her preoccupation with the physical landscape is also due to her sensualist nature – she is not an analytical thinker but rather experiences things in terms of the senses, making rocks and sunlight and cliffsides as important to her psyche as the nuances of her friend’s personalities.

AP Teresa’s attitude toward the Inuit in Sanikiluaq is really complex. There’s the insider/outsider aspect, there’s a cultural/racial divide, but there’s also a desire to out-tough them. They really are awful to her, quite brutal, but Teresa’s refrain is that kids are horrible everywhere. She sees gas-huffing as being the same as any other kind of adolescent oneupmanship. Her attraction to Willassie has a definite aspect of Othering to it – she admires his carving, his knowledge of tradition, his “Inuit philosophy”, while overlooking their considerable differences and his horrid treatment of her in public. Teresa’s tone when she talks about the North is often journalistic, and at times overtly political. Did you struggle with your representation of Sanikiluaq and the Inuit? Were you worried about ensuring that the Inuit come across in a particular way? What do you think Northern readers will make of your treatment?

ST It took me a really long time to start writing about the Inuit, and once I started I immediately stopped, thinking that I did not have the authority to go there, being a white person, after all. However, after a lot of thought I went back to it, and gave myself permission to write about the North because the voice I was writing in was one that I could own. I think it would be different if I were writing a story from an Inuit point of view – that I see as cultural appropriation. Since the character is a young girl experiencing the culture for the first time, it gave me license to write about the North in an authentic way that didn’t try to ‘get inside’ the Inuit way of life, but to see it with the fresh eyes of an Alice who has just tumbled down the Rabbit Hole. This is a naïve treatment of a complex culture by a character who has read Wuthering Heights fourteen times. Her attraction to the ‘otherness’ of Willassie is definitely a large part of the story – she wants to be like him, to know him, to be on the inside of his life, to understand things the way he does. She is a romantic and an idealist who is able to sublimate pain into love by willing it so. Again, Catholicism has a role to play here. I have no idea what a Northern reader will think. Certainly Teresa’s view of Sanikiluaq is not the same as an Inuit person’s or even a white adult’s, and as such might seem naïve, simplified and distorted to someone inside that world. What I hope I have accomplished is to give readers a sense of the wonder and mystery that Teresa sees in the Inuit culture, as well as the harshness of that world and of surviving in it. I wanted to treat the culture respectfully but to write from an honest, innocent perspective that is unbiased about what it sees, and hopefully I have come somewhat close to that.

AP One thing I find compelling about Teresa’s character is that she is at once completely self-obsessed weirdly naïve. She is a voracious reader, an intelligent girl, and yet she sees nothing inappropriate about Willassie’s advances. She can catalogue her every feeling, but she can’t decode Mark’s feelings for her. She asks Delith out and ultimately takes her home with complete nonchalance, as though she doesn’t really know social norm from social deviance. What was it like to write someone like that? Did you give her those blind spots intentionally, or did they just emerge? How have readers reacted to that?

ST She emerged as she is, herself. The dichotomy between her intelligence and her emotional naivety is central to her character and was so from the beginning. She has an extensive vocabulary but little sense of other people, and this made her really fun to write. Her intelligence doesn’t help her at all in terms of social interaction, and in fact hinders her. Because her social teachers were essentially books, she has a skewed sense of interpersonal relationships that doesn’t quite match up to reality. No, she doesn’t think that Willassie’s advances are inappropriate, because she simply doesn’t think about things that way. The gut connection is there between them from the first violent encounter, so to her it’s meant to be, whether he’s seven years older and Inuit, or not. Violence and love are blurred together in her world, so Willassie’s cruelty to her in the beginning is really the seed of their relationship, and that initial angry encounter is as important to her in the end as the tender moments they have together. Her ignorance of Mark’s feelings for her is most likely a willed ignorance. He isn’t offering her the extreme, painful, forbidden love that Willassie did, so she can’t see that what is there might be equally as valid.

She’s at once incredibly sophisticated and one of the dumbest people you’d meet, and that is her humanity. I think that’s what makes her so believable, so funny, and at times so frustrating to be with. You want her to get what’s going on around her but sometimes she just doesn’t and instead wades through conversations denying or misunderstanding what the other person is putting forward. It’s what makes her fully dimensional and also challenging to stick with at times. I think some readers feel put off by such a flawed narrator, and some are really drawn to that – to reading not about an ideal or a hero but a damaged, solipsist and self-involved person who therefore might cut a little closer to home.

AP And now: the quotidian. How does it feel to have the actual book in your actual hands? Are you sleeping with it under your pillow, or does the very sight of it totally make you want to puke? After so many years in the works, what’s your relationship to it?

ST It feels very surreal. That’s the only proper word for it. After seven years of living almost entirely inside my head, Teresa now has a solid home inside several hundred sheets of paper bound together between beautiful covers that literally anyone can pick up and take home with them. I have always been a voracious reader and a real lover of books and so to have my own work finding a home on a shelf with other books in an anonymous reader’s house – that thought is very seductive and also terrifying. As a playwright I’m usually performing in my own work, so my connection to the audience is immediate. Publishing a book is different because the reader then has their own personal experience with the work that the author no longer has any connection to. In a way it’s freeing, but if I stop to think about it for too long I do feel like puking. Just a little.

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