Marina Endicott: God Does Give Us Help in Milk and Baseball
Interview by Will Johnson // from issue 3. Vol. 1
Marina Endicott is the daughter of an Anglican priest, a former actor and director, and the award-winning author of such books as Good to a Fault, Open Arms and The Little Shadows. Endicott’s work has emotional and moral complexity, and often explores matters of faith, whether she’s evoking a struggling contemporary family or writing about the vaudeville era. Most recently she published Close to Hugh, which was critically lauded and long-listed for the Giller Prize. Humber Literary Review’s Will Johnson caught up with Endicott via email to chat about God, Sharon Olds, and Twitter.
WJ: A while back we got into a little Twitter spat about Sharon Olds’ poem “When Nick Swisher Crosses Home Plate.” Do you remember that? I said I liked how “mean” it is, and read it as having a patronizing tone towards those of faith. You took issue with that interpretation. I’d love to hear what you think of the poem now that we’re not dealing with a 140-character limit.
ME: Agh, I had to look it up—so often in the flame of sudden understanding I will say something and then later wonder what the heck I was thinking. But I’ll try to reconstruct, to re-tinder my little flame: the point is, the sister’s scornful wisdom is wrong; the baby brother is right, there is milk in there. God does give us milk and help in baseball.
Okay, an argument could be made that possibly there is not milk in Sharon Olds’s mother’s breast, in that particular breast, given the revealed history of their specific family. But in that case the sister is not scorning the brother for expecting the milk of human kindness, but for failing, in his foolish innocence, to realize their family’s milk-poverty, for not recognizing the ungiving breast he huddles at.
Phew. I think that’s what I was thinking.
WJ: When I read your novel Good to a Fault, which won the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize in 2009, I was fascinated by how your characters try to construct a worldview outside the context of religion. Is Clara Purdy doing the right thing by helping this itinerant family, or is there something else going on there? The questions you’re asking, about our personal culpability and responsibility for one another, are both very simple and endlessly complex. I guess my question is, after grappling with these issues whilst writing the book, do you feel like you’ve come up with a reliable way to live a “good life” sans the guiding force of religion? Or do you figure this is something we need to sort out moment by moment, day by day?
ME: I like that, constructing a worldview outside the context of religion, but some of the characters exist inside that worldview: Paul (of course) and Clary have a life-long religious practice in the Anglican Church, although each has an entirely different understanding of what religion is or ought to be. After grappling with those issues…I think it’s perfectly possible to live a good life, even if by that we mean a life devoted to goodness, outside the borders of organized religion.
But is religious practice, even for those who struggle with faith, necessarily a bad thing? Spending time in reflective, ritualized communion can refresh our spirits and revive our energy toward being good; can illuminate the needs of others by hands-on volunteer work; can offer comfort and consolation and help. It’s not for me, but I often wish it was. I grew up in the Church. My father was an Anglican priest before becoming a psychologist and then a lawyer, and we had daily prayers at home if we weren’t attending a specific church. Our devotion was assumed.
The stain of that upbringing stays with me, especially in language—I can still recite the entire Communion Service and most of the order for Morning Prayer. When my children were small, they wanted to go to church, so we did for five or six years, until they decided (firmly) that they wanted not to go to church any more. And neither did I. So I keep on sorting day by day.
It would be good to sit in company with other like-minded people, but weirdly I can’t seem to locate a church that has those exact people: mostly-lapsed, out-of-religious-context High Anglicans trying to be sort-of low Buddhists—but I guess that’s the point of organized religion, finding commonality with people you wouldn’t be friends with in the ordinary way.
I’ll go back, one of these days. It comes in waves.
WJ: When I attended the Elephant Mountain Literary Festival this summer, I was fascinated by your description of researching the vaudeville era while writing The Little Shadows. That World War I soldier’s letter you read killed me! Can you share some of those experiences with us?
ME: I spent months reading terrible accounts of the First World War, mostly diaries and letters. I wanted to understand what women here in Canada could have understood about the war from the letters of soldiers. Alec Grant’s letter helped me to see. His experiences are more useful than mine—let’s read part of his letter to his sister again. I wish you could see his beautiful hand-writing. After a little gossip and some advice about the farm, he’s talking here about high-explosive shells the Germans used against men in the trenches:
Take one of your milk creamer cans, for size, only make it an inch thick of steel. Put about five hundred pounds of gun cotton, cordite or lyddite, then fill it up with bolts, burrs, rivets, anything and everything that will kill—shoot this thru the air at the rate of 2000 feet per minute and when directly overhead, about 10, 20 or 30 yards from you, let it burst! Goodnight! Talk of thunder, nothing to it.
And it is not the explosion of the cursed coal-box that gets one’s nerves, it’s the whining, groaning noise it makes as it speeds thru the air towards its victims. Rifle fire is bad—when you hear a bullet go zip! past your head, or one buries itself in a sandbag an inch from you upper story is not at all healthy, and when bullets are coming thick like hail—it is not nice at all, but give me the rifle fire all day, every day, instead of one of those hellish coal-boxes....
No wonder to hear of men and see them go plumb loony, nutty—you read of such cases in the papers, how men suffer from breakdown. Don’t think they are nervous or weak or anything like that; pity them rather, for the whine and sizzle of the shell in the air, and the awful suspense of waiting for the explosion to come is what does the trick—Enough of this—it is getting on to dusk, so with love to all and to Jessie for the pansies, I’ll close…
WJ: Your sixth novel Close to Hugh is pretty ambitious and experimental, and seems to me distinct from your previous work. Kerry Clare compared it to a game of Snakes andLadders in her Globe and Mail review, writing that “what makes the symbolism especially interesting is that nothing ever means less than six things—to fall can also be to let go, to be released, to fall in love or take flight.” I can see she why she wrote that the “too-muchness” is “to be expected in a novel 500 pages long.” Were you consciously trying to outdo yourself? Or what was going through your head when you set out to write this book?
ME: Ha! Of course we’re all trying to outdo ourselves all the time. I had a lot of fun with language in that book. But I did not consciously set out to—you know, up the ante or anything. Just to write the story to the best of its nature. Having spent so long in the past, I wanted to write about now for a change, to talk about cellphones and Tumblr and the brave new world we walk around in. I was surrounded by teenagers because my son and daughter and their friends were finishing high school, and I liked them all and respected the way they were dealing with wild changes in sexuality, gender, money, art, love, mores—everything changing so fast!
I do try to write short books. I just keep failing. Fail again, fail better with the next one.
WJ: You were once quoted by the Wall Street Journal saying, “Being an actor isn’t an easy life. The work is so ephemeral…I write novels instead of plays because I like the intimate link of the silent writer and the silent reader.” Can you expand on that thought a little bit, and tell us why you transitioned away from the silver screen?
ME: I liked acting, I still miss it, but I hated the constant, essential reliance on others. And I didn’t like auditioning, subjecting myself to the approval of people I didn’t necessarily respect, over and over, every single job. Theatre breaks your heart because although when it works, it really is the best and highest art form, it so seldom works. Maybe twice, three times in your whole working life. Reading, and therefore writing, is more reliable. When you find a book you love you can keep loving it and rereading it, and although you find new facets with each re-reading, it doesn’t melt like the theatre does into air, into thin air.
WJ: You wrote a long poem called “The Policeman’s Wife, Some Letters” about the Mayerthorpe incident, in which a number of RCMP officers were killed. Did you know right away, when it happened, that you wanted to write about it? And where/how can I read it? I imagine it was an emotionally complex, daunting topic to approach.
ME: I tried for several years to write a novel about RCMP wives after living among them, like Jane Fricking Goodall. Stupid idea. I wrote and wrote and tossed and tossed; I wrote a radio play; I wrote a short story. Nothing worked. In the end, all that work boiled down into five or six poems, the only way I could talk honestly about my own experience and my own fear. I hope I’ll be able to write more about Mayerthorpe one day, but it takes me a long time to understand things.
The poems are posted on Douglas Glover’s superb Numéro Cinq web magazine.
WJ: I hear you’re working on a new novel called The Difference. What can you tell me about it?
ME: I can’t tell you much at all. I’ve been thinking and researching for six or seven years, and I’m now writing, and I don’t know. The book springs from a story my old piano teacher in Yarmouth, NS, told about her mother, the wife of a clipper ship captain, who bought a small boy in the south seas for four pounds of tobacco. It’s set in 1910, and has involved a lot of research, some ridiculously enjoyable (like sailing the Bahamas on a clipper ship, and a trip last summer to Tonga and Fiji), and some, on Canada’s residential school history, as hard as reading about the Great War.
But I saw humpback whales off Tonga, so that was worth it. I will keep writing. It’s going to be a very short book.
MARINA ENDICOTT was born in Golden, BC, and grew up in Nova Scotia and Toronto. She began her career as an actor and director in Ontario and went on to England, where she began to write fiction. she now divides her time between Edmonton and Toronto. She is the author of four critically acclaimed novels including Good to a Fault and The Little Shadows, and has been a giller prize and governor general’s award finalist. Her most recent book, Close to Hugh, was longlisted for the giller prize and named a CBC Best book of 2015.