Each month we shine our spotlight on a writer in our community to learn more about their writing journey, achievements, and inspirations. This month we spoke to Vicki Laveau-Harvie, a former academic and translator whose memoir The Erratics won the Finch Memoir Prize for 2018.
Vicki lives in Sydney where she is working on a collection of love poetry and beginning a novel about betrayal of trust and vineyards. Our Membership Intern, Alexander Wells, spoke to Vicki about the opportunities and challenges of memoir writing, the power of language, and the harsh and rocky landscape of Southern Alberta.
1) First of all, congratulations on the success of The Erratics! How did you celebrate receiving the Finch Memoir Prize for 2018?
Thank you very much.
Sam Miles of Finch Publishing phoned to tell me I had won the prize. She added that, until the prize was announced, I could tell only one person of my win, and we would both be sworn to secrecy.
I told my daughter, who had read the manuscript of The Erratics. There was some jumping up and down and a little shrieking on both ends of that phone call.
2) Please tell us a little about the book and its pathway to publication.
The Erratics is a memoir covering a period of about seven years, beginning in 2006. My mother was hospitalised with a broken hip that year, and my sister and I found ourselves travelling to see my father in Western Canada, trying to help him, and endeavouring to sort out our parents’ lives after decades of having no contact with them at all.
I had often thought of writing something about my extremely dysfunctional family, but had found that idea unwieldy and difficult to shape. From 2006 until my mother’s death in 2013, however, I had a contained time period and a manageable story, which allowed me to weave the past into it. I decided it was worth doing.
I finished the book in 2014 and put it in a drawer. In 2016, on a whim, and thinking I needed either to do something with my manuscript or to put it away for good, I applied for a place in the Memoir Focus Week at Varuna. There, I met the writer Carol Major, who consults for Varuna and who encouraged me to submit the manuscript somewhere.
I entered it into the Finch Memoir Prize competition in 2017, and here we are!
3) How did you navigate the difficulties of writing a first-person story that involves living actors, including your family, in a style that spares little detail? Did you ever hesitate or doubt your decision to publish?
I’ve always believed that a writer should cultivate a little detachment and not settle scores on the page. I wanted to write my story as honestly as I could, but I did my best to put my ghosts to rest before I wrote.
I did worry about how my sister might read the book, if ever the book came into being, since a big part of the story is how different she and I are. But I really didn’t worry much – I thought it most unlikely that it would be published.
I offered her the chance to read the manuscript once I had entered it into the Finch competition. She was gracious enough to laugh in some of the right places and to wish me luck, but I don’t think she’s a fan.
4) The events of The Erratics are set in the dramatic landscape of Alberta in western Canada. How important is that place to your book, and to you as a writer and person?
When the publisher was designing a cover for The Erratics, I insisted on the Rockies being visible somewhere. The Southern Alberta landscape of foothills and mountains is where my heart lives, and it is a character in the book.
In a blog I wrote recently, I said that the Southern Alberta landscape raised me in a way my parents never did, that its beauty and its very harshness teach those who live there about resilience and endurance, transcendence and courage.
5) How did your time at the Varuna Writers’ House influence your writing in general, and The Erratics in particular?
The Erratics would not exist as a book without Varuna, the support of Varuna consultant Carol Major, and the warmth and encouragement of the other writers present there for the Memoir Focus Week I attended in November 2016.
That week also afforded me the pleasure of seeing Patti Miller again, as she did the Memoir Week workshops for us. I had attended her Memoir courses in Sydney in the late 1990s and have been interested in the form since.
Varuna is a magic place for writers, and occasionally a confronting one. You have no excuses. You must just get on with it. And you do, one way or another.
6) You’ve worked as a teacher, a translator, and an academic in the past, and you have also written poetry. How do those experiences inform your approach to writing memoir?
Language has always been the tool I choose to work with.
I believe in striving to communicate as clearly as I can, in working hard to make my writing the best it can be, in using every resource language affords me to create beauty and meaning. These are my preoccupations whether I am writing an essay, a poem, or a memoir, or translating someone else’s work.
I think that there is no end to what we can do with language and no end to what we can learn about it, and from it.
7) You are a member of the Seize the Day writing group, which meets here at Writing NSW and can trace its origins back to 2000. How has participating in this group helped you to develop as a writer?
Every writer needs a writing group. I have the luck of being part of one that started after a weekend workshop at the Centre in 2000. Some of those who attended decided to meet again and we have continued to get together once a month.
It’s a small group now – people have moved away – but it is cohesive and supportive, an indispensable sounding board, with perceptive criticism.
8) Do you have a regular writing routine? What does it include?
I am a sort of accidental writer. I only write when something has been marinating in my soul for sufficient time, and demands space on the page.
I’ve often wished I were one of the writers who plan and organise, but I’m not. Something lodges itself in my consciousness – a combination of sounds, an image, a scrap of dialogue – and after a while, it develops into a more coherent idea. Then I write it down and work on it.
9) What are you reading at the moment?
I’m also an accidental reader – I walk around libraries and bookshops and read whatever steps forward and grabs me. I also regularly seek out books by people I have heard interviewed on book programs on the ABC.
I am presently reading The Financial Lives of the Poets, by Jess Walter; The Art of Memoir, by Mary Karr; and Outside of a Dog, by Rick Gekoski.
10) In your opinion, who/what is the most inspiring…
a) Writer/Poet: Grace Paley, Gerald Murnane, George Saunders, Mary Oliver.
b) Weather: a windy night.
c) Time of day: dusk.
d) Music: I like silence, wind, birdsong.
e) Location: The Rocky Mountains and their foothills in Canada.
To find out more about Vicki and read excerpts of her work, visit http://theerraticsbook.com.