By Ariel Gordon
Alberta writer Fred Stenson recently published his sixth novel, Who by Fire (Doubleday Canada), one of the first novels to inhabit the province’s oil-and-gas-industry.
Tom and Ella Ryder work a farm in southern Alberta that’s been in the family for generations. But when a sour gas plant is erected on the next farm in 1960, the question becomes not only ‘should we leave the farm?’ but also ‘who would buy the farm now?’ given the corroded fencing, the sick and stunted livestock, and the nosebleeds. A second strand of the novel follows Bill, Tom and Ella’s son, who was most affected by the plant’s emissions, but who grows up to become an engineer at a gas plant in Fort McMurray.
As he approaches middle age, Bill staves off his loneliness with work, drink, and gambling. He can’t reconcile the loyalty he feels to his late father, to all the small communities that have become conjoined with industry, with the loyalty his employers tell him, over and over, that he should feel to the company. But, unlike the faulty gas plant in his home town, Bill is worth renovating, as readers of this compelling novel will discover:
He thought of Tom and Ella, and his sisters, and of himself when he’d been Billy—of all the people, animals, and things whose fate it was to be born too close to the fire. The shaking house, the creatures born dying, the rivers running discoloured to the sea.
Stenson’s previous novel, The Great Karoo (2008), was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award for Fiction. Both his two earlier historical fictions, Lightning (2003) and The Trade (2000), won Alberta’s Grant MacEwan Writer’s Award and The Trade was shortlisted for the Scotia Bank Giller Prize. His non-fiction books include Thing Feigned or Imagined, a guide to the craft of fiction, published by Banff Centre Press. This interview was conducted by email.
What do you want readers to know about Who by Fire?
What I hoped to do with this novel was to personalize the experience of industry intruding on the lives of individuals. The Ryder family story is drawn somewhat from my own experience; that is, quite a few of the precise events came from a diary my parents kept of dangerous days and nights. But I did not use myself or my actual family as characters. I wanted to portray a reality that was harder than ours—less acknowledged, I guess I mean. Our community had an air pollution lawsuit back in the ’60s; one of the couples in our suit was interviewed by Peter Gzowski on This Country in the Morning. So we were not totally ignored. But I knew there had to be many people with the same problems who were getting nowhere, who had to suffer these things alone. That’s what I wanted to portray. Also I wanted a story that could see into both solitudes: community’s and industry’s. That the character Bill, the youngest in the Ryder family, goes into the oil industry as an engineer is not at all far fetched because it is an active practice in the oil industry to try and recruit the neighbours. Farm boys make great engineers. At any rate, Bill Ryder has lived in both worlds and his loyalty is torn, always.
You’re known for your historical fiction about the West, with a capital W: you’ve focused on the fur trade, ranching, and farming. This novel, your sixth, is more contemporary, though it is also completely Western. Was writing this story a shifting of literary gears for you? Or was it a progression from your other work—are HBC Factors and army corporals similar to Texas oilmen? Are voyageurs similar to oil sands workers?
When I started writing my first historical novel (The Trade) in 1985, I was dreaming of a big cycle of novels: one for each economic frontier in western Canadian history. The problem with the plan was that The Trade took fifteen years to write and publish. By then, 2000, the plan no longer looked all that realistic. But I did move on in time with the next two novels: Lightning, about the open range ranch era and The Great Karoo, about western Canadian mounted infantrymen in the Boer War. By the time The Great Karoo came out, 2008, my vision of the “cycle” was that it was complete at three: a trio of books about the nineteenth century. But I suppose enough of the idea about the economic frontiers lingered that I felt I needed an oil industry novel too. So in that sense it is part of this historical march forward that the prairie provinces have gone through—and very rapidly. No economic frontier has lasted all that long here.
How did you come to write a novel that smelled of sulfur? (Put another way, how much research did you have to do to write this book? And how much of your own politics around climate change and resource extraction seeped into the book?)
I came to know the “smell of sulphur” altogether too well as a southern Alberta farm boy. As for knowing about the industry, I did work a couple of summers in gas plants. But the majority of my knowledge came from non-fiction writing I’ve done in the last thirty years. I have always supported my fiction with writing documentary films and non-fiction books. In Alberta, that will often take you into the oil and gas industry.
This book may be viewed as an indictment of the oil industry; I think someone has already used those words. If people feel they are being propagandized I will have failed with the novel. It is much more my hope that readers will feel moved by the predicament of people whose bad luck it is to live too close to this fire that is industry. I have lived a certain amount of this (though I’m not an oil industry engineer by any stretch) and I do feel that the kind of team play that goes on in the industry and in government is completely inappropriate when you’re dealing with individual lives and individual ecologies as well. As for my own politics being in this book, it’s natural enough that that would be so, but I hope people will notice that those beliefs include a belief that there are idealistic engineers working in places like Alberta who honestly do their best to build and operate good plants and to treat the people nearby with respect. I also believe that such idealism is no longer the quickest way to prosper in the industry, and that is extremely sad. Treating people’s lives as not important is team play gone insane.
You’ve spent much of your career telling the story of Alberta, where you were born and raised. Did you ever find it difficult to achieve the necessary distance (maybe “perspective” is the right word…) from your home province so you could write about it?
I grew up on James Joyce and the idea that he had to leave Dublin to write about Dublin. That was true of James Joyce, who luckily had an iron genius memory that retained every detail. He also wrote letters home asking for tiny data bits that he needed. But there is also something to be gained from staying in the place you write about. I would not have had the many different views of the oil and gas industry that I have had were I to have gone away at any point. The whole thing goes on changing and you need to be here to see how it plays out.
I’ve also aspired to write from Canada’s west, Alberta most specifically, as a way of being a writer. Not the only way of course, but the way I wanted to. To get to know the place by its history, by its landscape, by its cities and towns, by its changing population. I wanted to drill down, I guess.
You write a humour column for Alberta Views Magazine, but your fiction is more wry than humourous. Tell me about the pleasures of being funny.
Up until The Trade was published, I was known (to the extent that I was known at all) as a humorist. My short stories and novels had relied heavily on humour, and I honestly did not imagine myself at the time ever becoming any different as a writer. What I did from about 1990 onward was write about different things, and what those things called for was a much darker kind of story telling. I have greatly enjoyed writing a Wit column for Alberta Views (over fifteen years worth) because it lets that other side speak. There too I sometimes forget to be funny, when the subject is too dark.
You’ve run the Wired Writing Studio at The Banff Centre for many years. What has encountering young writers every fall changed how and when you write?
At The Banff Centre, I have directed the Wired Writing Studio for fifteen years. It’s a contract job, and most of the studio is on-line, so I actually only spend two weeks at Banff each fall. I have very much enjoyed this connection. I am very fond of TBC and proud to be connected to its long history of developing artists of high quality. One of the things that work stimulated me to do was to write a book about the craft of writing (Thing Feigned or Imagined). But on a more continuous basis it keeps me connected to those moments in an artist’s life when the pursuit of the art of writing is most brightly lit, burning with great heat. People sometimes ask why writing is important, but, at Banff, in the studio, no one needs to ask that. It’s a given. That has had a great deal to do with why I go on.
What are you reading right now? What are you writing right now?
I am lying fallow at present, as far as fiction writing is concerned; trying to make sure that the next project is the right project. But I have been reading like mad. One of my projects for 2014 has been to read and reread classics, so I’ve been soaking up much Dostoevsky, Hardy, Bronte, Eliot, Hamsun, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Borges. Some of the translations of newer Spanish and South American writers are tremendous. There are many Canadian books I’m looking forward to this fall. New books by Caroline Adderson, Margaret Sweatman, Jacqueline Baker, David Adams Richards to name a few.