About Anne Simpson
An Interview with Anne Simpson
More About Anne Simpson
Anne Simpson is the author of the poetry
collection, Light Falls through You. Her short stories have been
published in Quarry, The Fiddlehead, The Antigonish Review,
as well as in the Journey Prize Anthology. Her story "Dreaming Snow" shared the Journey Prize in 1996. In 1999, Canterbury Beach was a
finalist for the Chapters/Robertson Davies First Novel Prize. Anne Simpson is
the co-ordinator of the Writing Centre at St. Francis Xavier University. She
lives in Antigonish, Nova Scotia.
Can you tell us a little about your background -- where you grew up, things you've done?
I've been in Nova Scotia for about fourteen years, but I come originally from southern Ontario. I took degrees at Queen's University and studied fine art at the Ontario College of Art, as it was called then. Since then, I've travelled a fair bit, living for a period of time in France and then in Italy. I worked as a teacher in Nigeria for two years with CUSO, and still have a commitment to development work.
How did you get started as a fiction-writer?
I wrote short stories and poems before moving to Nova Scotia, but it was here that I began to really write. One of the things that tipped the balance for me was reading about a short story writer who lived in New Hampshire, who said that she wrote because it was either that or watch television. It was just so close to home, that remark, because I thought I could wind up doing the same thing -- just stay glued to the television -- and it galvanized me into writing. I also had children shortly after coming here, and writing was a way of snatching bits of time for myself and escaping into another world.
Then the writing kept growing and growing, and after I'd written a few short stories I just thought I'd find out what it was like to write a novel. So I began. I didn't say much about it to anyone. I just kept it to myself until I was good and ready. And then I realized, my god, I'm a writer. I am writing a novel. But it took me a long, long time to say that to myself.
How did you come to write Canterbury Beach?
I was teaching a first-year class in English literature at St. Francis Xavier University. It was a night class and I taught the usual things, with the Canterbury Tales by Chaucer being one of them. And I kept thinking that I needed to wake people up with a way of looking at the Tales that would make it relevant. So I got the class to think about pilgrims as ordinary people on a bus, or travellers waiting at the airport, and so on. And I began to have my own thoughts about it -- I began thinking of a family on a summer vacation -- and I realized I had the idea for a novel. I waited for quite a long time, though, before I wrote it.
How did you go about constructing the narrative of Canterbury Beach?
The structure of Canterbury Beach was the thing that made me work the hardest, because I wanted something different than the usual chronology of family: starting at the beginning and working towards the end. I wanted the past to infuse the present, so memory is fundamental not just to the structure of the book, but to family life in general. We carry around snapshots of things that have happened to us. And I wanted to capture this by letting each character have a chapter or two. And by the end of the novel everything falls into place, and it becomes clear why things happen the way they do.
Is your method of writing fiction substantially different from your method of writing poetry?
Fiction and poetry are quite different in the sense that fiction happens in time -- narrative time -- and poetry can happen outside time. Poetry doesn't necessarily dwell in the same time frame. And I think this is really significant when a writer sits down to write one or the other. One thing that is happening as I write more, though, is that I'm allowing lyrical language to come into the fiction a little more. By lyrical language I don't mean flowery language, I mean the play of language that allows sentences to stretch and move in unusual ways.
The writing in Canterbury Beach is often spare and simple, but it always seems that the words are very carefully chosen. Was that kind of concentration difficult to sustain? Was the novel hard to write in that regard?
I guess I choose words carefully because I know the weight they carry. And I think a lot of novels are overwritten, so I prefer to err on the side of spareness, which I find more elegant and evocative. Poets always learn to say more with less.
What are some of the things about the Canterbury Tales that appealed to you -- and perhaps inspired you -- while you were writing Canterbury Beach?
I think that I'm really fond of Chaucer's love of humanity. He allows people to be themselves, no matter what their flaws, and he doesn't come down too hard on them. I also appreciate -- deeply -- Chaucer's ability to speak of what matters to the human heart. For instance, the Wife of Bath's tale is about a woman who, disguised as a hag, teaches a young man a lesson. He's raped a woman, and the hag is there to mete out his punishment. But she is generous with him and she allows him to learn what is important, so he really does learn his lesson. This empathy for women is radical, considering the time in which Chaucer was writing.
Who are some other writers whose work you admire?
Well, that's a bit like asking what my favourite dessert is! It's so hard for me to choose, because I read a lot and I read a great variety of things. I would say that in Canada, Alice Munro and Michael Ondaatje have been important to me. But there are terrific writers around the world that I really like, from Marilynn Robinson to Kate Atkinson to Peter Carey. And there are the ones I haven't read but want to read, like Ian McEwan and J. M. Coetzee and David Malouf. And I haven't even begun to talk about poetry!
Find Books by Anne Simpson
Atlantic Poetry Prize: Winner 2001
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