Saturday, September 19, 2015

Out-of-Town-Authors: Camilla Gibb

Winnipeg Free Press—PRINT EDITION

Camilla Gibb is the Toronto-based author of four novels, including the Scotiabank Giller Prize-nominated Sweetness in the Belly (2005).

Five years ago, when the then-41-year-old Gibb was eight weeks pregnant, her partner announced she was no longer in love. Gibb realized she would have to face pregnancy and mothering on her own. She'd also have to come to terms with her childhood and early adulthood—which included both a PhD in social anthropology from Oxford University and stints in a Cambridge psych ward—and reconcile the violent, abusive, and frequently homeless father she avoided when she could with the chosen family she'd painstakingly assembled.

The result of all of this is the memoir This is Happy. Gibb was in Winnipeg on Sept. 17 to talk about her new book.

FP: As a writer (i.e. someone whose artistic practice is predicated on time spent alone) how do you approach readings? What do you get out of them?

CAMILLA GIBB: It's the rare moment when reader and writer meet over the experience of a shared text. I get to understand how things are "heard" and received by others. And we get to laugh, commune, and share our stories in the same space, reminding us of our connections to others through stories.

FP: This is Happy is written out of your own history, out of your family's history. What were the hardest things about this project for you? Was there anything surprising in it?

CG: I had to come to terms with many things throughout the course of writing it —complicated and painful relationships, unresolved issues, people I wanted to understand through a compassionate lens, myself included—none of that was easy.

Until I started writing down what was happening around me, I couldn't see it. I was more in my head than in the world, and writing it down allowed me to become more of a participant. I had no idea where it would end up, where I would end up, whether there would be a happy or happy-enough ending. I was pleasantly surprised.

FP: How was writing a memoir unlike writing fiction? Or is all writing writing?

CG: The approach to writing is largely the same; I think the experience of how we read it is where the biggest difference lies.

The character's personality and point of view have to be rendered wholly enough to take the reader, convincingly, through a story, whether that story lies in truth or the imagination. Fiction and non-fiction use most of the same narrative techniques—plotting and pacing, a structure with a beginning, middle and an end, characters who go through some kind of transformation. We are inherently storytelling animals and we are always biased, whatever the story or its source.

FP: The description for This is Happy includes the phrase "Gibb revisits her stories now in relation to the happy daughter who will inherit them and she finds there new meaning and beauty." I'm curious about this idea. How did turning your life into a story help you find meaning? And what does it mean to have your daughter be your ideal reader?

CG: One has to make sense of the past in order to be able to pass it on to the next generation. I had to find the coherence in my own stories, the narrative thread, the themes that link my past and present, the causes and effects. I read my life differently as a consequence. I see it as a much more hopeful story than I might have otherwise. And this is one thing I can offer to my daughter—hope. It is, as Isak Dinesen said, "All sorrows can be borne if we put them into a story."

FP: What are you reading right now? What are you writing right now?

CG: Reading: two memoirs. Etgar Keret's The Seven Good Years and Jenny Diski's Skating to Antarctica. Writing: essays about what it means to be atheist.

Ariel Gordon is a Winnipeg writer.

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