Brandon Fick: With your first novel in a decade, August Into Winter, you’ve returned to historical fiction. What sparked your interest in learning and writing about history? Growing up, were you aware of major historical events as they were happening, or interested in your own family’s personal history?
Guy Vanderhaeghe: From a very early age, I was interested in the past. It began with the stories my grandparents told me about their lives, which I drank in. The things they had lived through: prairie fires, the Spanish influenza pandemic, the First World War, the Depression, The Second World War, always seemed richer, more momentous than my own stale existence. These anecdotes prompted me to read history in an attempt to learn more about the world as it existed then.
And yes, even as a child, I was aware of major historical events. Not to make myself sound too precocious, but I was a news nerd at quite a young age. I can recall the world teetering on the verge of nuclear war, sitting at my desk with my classmates listening to the radio as the Russian ships carrying missiles to Cuba approached the United States Navy’s blockade, which was determined to prevent the weapons from landing. Kennedy’s assassination made a huge impression on me. I watched and listened to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream speech” on television. And so much more, the Hungarian uprising, the Berlin Wall going up, Gary Powers’s spy plane shot down over the U.S.S.R. and the embarrassment that debacle caused the United States. The Cold War and the dread of nuclear annihilation was very much part of my childhood psychology.
BF: What was the impetus to write August Into Winter and what did the research process look like? Having written multiple historical novels over many years, has your research process changed in any way?
GV: The initial impetus was one of those stories I mentioned earlier, which was told to me by my father. Immediately before the outbreak of the Second World War, my hometown experienced a string of house break-ins that turned out to have been committed by the son of one of the most prominent families. He killed the RCMP officer who arrested him and fled. A posse was formed by veterans of the First World War, and they went off in pursuit of him. Unlike the character in my novel, Ernie Sickert, the murderer killed himself when he was tracked down, brought to bay, and surrounded. But the actual incident was nothing more than a nudge that got the narrative moving forward, unfurling. The characters in my novel bear virtually no relation to the real-life murderer or to much else that has to do with what I know of the incident. They are pure invention.
I did a lot of research on the Spanish Civil War since one of my characters served there. Aside from conventional histories, I read a lot of first-hand accounts written by veterans of the International Brigade. I used the Winnipeg Tribune as a source for news about the early months of the Second World War because I wanted a sense of what people were thinking when the course of the war was still so uncertain. Unlike us, they didn’t know how it was going to end and capturing that mood of uncertainty was important for the book.
My research process has changed very little over the years, aside from the fact that the internet now supplies a wealth of easily accessed information, which wasn’t true when I wrote The Englishman’s Boy, my first historical novel. I always sift through far more material than ever makes its way into a novel. A fairly comprehensive knowledge gives me a measure of confidence as I write, because I feel I have a solid grip on the times and events that are part of the novel.
BF: Having reread The Englishman’s Boy earlier this year, I was struck by its themes – violence against Indigenous people, reckoning with the past, the dangers of fascism and propaganda – and how they’re even more relevant in 2021. And in an introduction to Timothy Findley’s The Wars, you said “serious historical novels are always as much about the present as about the past they claim to place before our eyes.” Keeping that in mind, what do you think August Into Winter says about today?
GV: For a long time, I’ve been concerned about the rise of the radical right in the United States and in Europe. Those men and women who went to fight for the Spanish Republic, to defend it against the military uprising of General Franco, believed by taking a stand there they could stop the worldwide spread of fascism. They failed, largely because democratic governments refused to aid the Republic, and Italian Fascists and German Nazis were only too eager to help Franco and the fascist Falange. The Second World War was a bloodier reprise of the struggle against totalitarian, anti-democratic movements. What both wars remind us is that human rights and human freedom are never completely assured.
In part, the book was written because I believe that the radical, populist right, as exemplified by men like Trump, Bolsonaro, Duterte, Modi, Erdogan, Putin, Orban, Duda – the list goes on and on – are slowly eroding the hope for a world of international law and individual liberty. August Into Winter asks the question: What is the proper response to a crisis such as this? The storming of the United States Capitol by militiamen was a page out of a book written nearly ninety years ago by Nazi SA storm-troopers. Nevertheless, so-called “respectable” politicians attempt to minimize how dangerous such actions are and they are not being called to account for it by the electorate.
BF: One of the key characters in August Into Winter is Ernie Sickert, described as a “spoiled, narcissistic man-child.” Is he comparable to Addington Gaunt from The Last Crossing, or Michael Dunne from A Good Man, characters who do “bad” things for compelling reasons? Is it a challenge to get inside these deeply flawed characters?
GV: I’ve always been interested in what motivates people to do what they do. The presence of evil in the world reminds us that it has a source, and that source is human beings. Ernie Sickert is probably the character who has given me the greatest challenge to write. At one point, my editor remarked that she felt that he bore many similarities to Donald Trump. When I think about it, she might be right. Sickert is self-pitying, vain, arrogant, childish, dangerously impulsive – and above all, forever the “hero of his own story.” I think to write awful human beings, you need to turn off your self-censor, and not be afraid to go to places that are dark, disgusting, or even terrifying.
BF: Speaking of characters, August Into Winter has a huge cast, each with layered backstories. How do writers not only manage, but do justice to so many characters?
GV: That’s a very hard question to answer and the best advice I can offer is that when you write characters be those characters. Write them from the inside, not the outside. If you do that, they have a habit of occupying the spaces in a novel that belong to them.
BF: How has Canadian literature changed since you began writing? Is there less focus on “writing Canada into being” as there was in the 1970s and 1980s?
GV: I think that the cultural nationalism of those decades is largely a spent force. As far as I can see, younger writers have different preoccupations than writers of my generation. When I was a student, we were seldom taught Canadian books; in literature departments, there was a general assumption that Canadian was another adjective for “second rate.” Writers like Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood, along with many others, put fiction, poetry, and plays written by Canadians firmly on the world stage.
BF: Do you think your writing style has changed over the years, or can you identify certain “phases” in your writing career?
GV: Looking back, I suppose my preoccupations as a writer have changed. My early work was much more “personal,” more “intimate,” and less concerned with presenting characters in a “social” or “political” context. Structurally, the novels have grown increasingly complex, and the prose is likely simpler than when I was beginning as a writer. When I was young, I was much more enamoured with fancy flourishes and rhetorical fireworks. I hope I’ve moderated and restrained some of that now.
BF: Is there a certain book or short story you’ve written that you’re particularly proud of? Or on the other hand, a work that you wish had turned out differently?
GV: I’m a harsh critic of my own work so I’m not particularly proud of anything I’ve written. I do wish that all my fiction had turned out differently. That is to say, better.
BF: Going back to history, is there a certain historical event or figure that you think is deserving of a new or updated fictional treatment?
GV: As far as I know, nobody has ever written a novel about Leon Trotsky. He is a fascinating character, multi-dimensional, a subject worthy of Shakespearean tragedy.
BF: And finally, if you could sit down with one or two writers in history, who would they be and what would you ask them?
GV: I would ask Chekhov whether he thought he was a better playwright than short story writer. I would ask Philip Roth how it was possible for him to write so well, for so long.
Guy Vanderhaeghe was born in Esterhazy, Saskatchewan, in 1951. His previous fiction includes A Good Man, The Last Crossing, The Englishman’s Boy, Things as They Are (stories), Homesick, My Present Age, Man Descending (stories), and Daddy Lenin and Other Stories. Among the many awards he has received are the Governor General’s Awards (three times); and, for his body of work, the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Fellowship, the Writers’ Trust Timothy Findley Award, and the Harbourfront Literary Prize. He has received many honours including the Order of Canada.
Brandon Fick grew up in Lanigan, Saskatchewan. He primarily writes fiction and has been published in Polar Expressions, in medias res, and The Society. He received a Writing Diploma from St. Peter’s College and a B.A. Honours in English from the University of Saskatchewan. Brandon is currently in the MFA in Writing program at the U of S, working on a short story collection exploring masculinity and small town life.