Read the Provinces: Lauren Carter

January 10, 2020

Our next Manitoba-based author is the delightful Lauren Carter whose second compulsively readable novel This Has Nothing To Do With You (Freehand Books) is about a brother and sister who are struggling to come to terms with the murder of their father and his mistress by their mother. Below we chat with Lauren about how her book morphed from a short story into a novel, how her impression of Manitoba has changed and informed her writing since moving there in 2013, and which writers she admires. Read on for that and an excerpt from her novel.

Photo credit: Heather Ruth

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Get This Has Nothing to Do With You for 15% OFF until January 31!

 

 

 

 

All Lit Up: Tell us about your novel This Has Nothing to Do With You and how it came to be.

Lauren Carter: This Has Nothing To Do With You started as a fourth short story in a series of linked stories that I was writing (or so I thought).

The characters Mel, Lara, and Josie all appear in earlier stories (including Rhubarb, which one the Prairie Fire fiction contest, judged by Mike Barnes, and was subsequently selected for 2015: Best Canadian Stories). These three young women have sometimes shifting biographical details but their fundamental identity does not change (if you know and love fiction, that will hopefully make sense to you).

I’d been wanting for years to write something that explored a sibling relationship between a brother and sister, as my own was so complex, close, and also fraught, and then I read both Miriam Toews’s All My Puny Sorrows and Karen Joy Fowler's We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, both complicated sibling stories which had a great impact on me.

The day that I finished the latter novel, I picked up a pen and started writing THNTDWY, beginning with the morning after Mel’s high school grad party when Mel and her brother and her best friends head home on the highway only to be stopped by a police blockade which turns out to forever alter their lives. This beginning is based on an actual happening and was tweaked and edited and condensed over the years of working on the book but remained mostly conceptually the same throughout the four years I spent working on this book.

During these four years, my brother experienced a mental health crisis and died by suicide, a tragedy that impacted the story in several ways. Working on the novel after that became a way to walk through grief and, in some sense, stay close to him. In those early days, I remember talking to him a lot and asking his opinion on the work.

Still, Matt, Mel’s brother, is intentionally very different from Tim, my late brother. They are not the same but they do share some traits, and I also embroidered the story with some of my best memories of life with Tim.

I found great pleasure—and a kind of deep healing—in the process of helping these two damaged fictional siblings navigate towards some sort of a better life.  

 

ALU: It's been argued that physical geography shapes our identity, that there's a connection between our physical place in the world and who we are. As a writer, in what ways does your natural environment inform your writing? 

LC: No matter where I go, or where I live, it seems that I can’t stop writing about the landscape where I grew up: northern Ontario, we call it (although that label became complicated once I moved an entire seven latitude degrees further north to The Pas, Manitoba and got to know people in Kenora, Ontario, the “real” northern Ontario).

But all of my books thus far—two poetry collections and two novels—are set in significant parts on the north shore of Lake Huron on a fictionalized Manitoulin Island (Swarm) and the cities Norbury (a fictionalized Sudbury) as well as Hixon River (a fictionalized Blind River, Ontario), not to mention the real life terrain as explored through my poetry.

Now, I’m a Manitoban. This happened quite quickly, and unexpectedly, when my husband got a teaching job in northern Manitoba during a financially challenging time in our lives. We moved from Orillia, Ontario in January 2013, during one of the coldest winters in fifty years, so we were told, got a puppy, and haven’t looked back.

Living as an Ontarian, I didn’t really think about Manitoba. It just sat there in the centre of the country, like an overlooked middle child. Like many people who haven’t visited this place or neighbouring Saskatchewan, when I thought "prairie provinces," I thought flat and boring (once, in 1993, I drove through on my way to B.C. and from the TransCanada Highway, yes, both provinces appear to be pretty flat and boring).

Turns out, there is so much more to this part of the country, and I love it: the widely varying landscapes and wilderness, the culture, the people, the creative wealth, the beauty that is so easy for us to access.

(And, of course, Go, Jets, Go!)

Now, we live near Winnipeg, between the Red River and the wide prairies, and this landscape has started to seep into my work. I’ve written a couple of short stories set in The Pas, and while I’m right now into an advanced draft of a novel set in the Great Lakes region (which feels like a fusion of several places), I’m turning another novel idea around in my head that takes place in a house on the wide, brown river in this place that I love, that’s now home.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t problems here though. The legacy of colonialism is alive and well in this province (one case in point: Winnipeg sources its drinking water from Shoal Lake where the lakeside Shoal Lake First Nation has been on a boil-water advisory for 23 years).

 

ALU: Who are some of your favourite Manitoba-based writers?

LC: There are so many!

Joan Thomas, a writer of such careful depth and complexity (Five Wives) and Katherena Vermette (The Break and North End Love Songs), both GG winners.

Poet and essayist Ariel Gordon, whose 2019 essay collection Treedbegins with Winnipeg’s elms and moves into the deep impact trees have on our lives no matter where we live.

David A. Robertson, whose graphic novel Betty: The Helen Betty Osborne Story pays homage to this woman and details her murder in The Pas and the ensuing silence—it was one of the first things I read when I moved there.

Also, to name some others: Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize-winner Jenny Heijun Wills (Older Sister, Not Necessarily Related), writer and publisher M.C. Joudrey ( Fanonymous), Rogers Writers Trust and Relit Award-winner Margaret Sweatman ( Mr. Jones), Seyward Goodhand ( Even That Wildest Hope), children’s book author Anita Daher (Forgetting How to Breathe), fiction and creative non-fiction writer Donna Besel (Lessons from a Nude Man), Méira Cook (Once More With Feeling), Sally Ito (The Emperor’s Orphans), Erna Buffie ( Let Us Be True), Sharanpal Ruprai (Pressure Cooker Love Bomb), Jason Stefanik ( Night Became Years), Angeline Schellenberg ( Tell Them It Was Mozart), Di Brandt (Glitter & Fall), Giller-prize winning novelist David Bergen, and, seriously, I could go on…

 

 

 

 

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FROM THIS HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH YOU

 

I don’t know what to do. All I can think is to keep trying, keep my head down, push forward, hoping sooner or later things will click into place. Grommet will get used to being home alone. He’ll sleep instead of destroying my stuff. We’ll settle in together, a happy family.

            This is, after all, what I learned growing up: don’t admit there’s a problem, pretend everything’s fine, lie if you have to, don’t rock the boat.

            So I hold to the bucking hull, and the next day, Thursday, I come home to find Mrs. Slater, the old lady who lives in the apartment next to mine, standing in her open doorway.

            “You’ve got a beast in there,” she says, jerking her head towards my apartment. Her coiffed white hair does not move. I clamp down on the frisson of panic that surges inside me and pull out my key, playing dumb, sliding my eyes from her face to the wall like I’m looking for whatever creature she’s talking about.

            “I’ve got a goldfish,” I lie, “and I might have the left the TV on, for him.”

            She crosses her arms. Dark arrows of rouge colour each of her cheeks, and I wonder if she applied it just to talk to me. Her lips gleam with a fresh coat of lipstick. We stare at each other until, thankfully, her phone starts ringing, and she pulls back, shuts the door. But she’s still there, I know it, know that the phone coil can stretch far enough that she could be standing on her tip-toes, watching me through the peep hole. I move slowly, pretend to be sorting through my mail, mostly flyers, the telephone bill, until a few minutes have passed and she’s hopefully moved on. When I shove my key in the lock, I hear Grommet gallop towards the door, and my heart sinks. Every day I try to enter quietly, hoping he’ll be sleeping. When I hear him race away, I turn the key, bracing for whatever destruction I’ll find.

            When I flick on the light, my mouth drops open.

            My couch has exploded. The upholstery ripped apart, torn bits of foam erupting out of holes dug deep into the cushions. A powdery yellow drift spreads across the living room carpet, the kitchen linoleum, and the air smells pungent, like dirty feet.

            Grommet stands in the corner beside the bookshelf, his fur spotted with flakes, his eyes tipped up nervously to meet mine. He’s trembling, I see, and I realize that he’s becoming used to this moment: me coming home, getting upset and angry. He’s growing afraid of my reaction, of me. So far, this is the only training we’ve done.

            Consciously, I uncross my arms, then lick my lips, imitating the body language that dogs use to diffuse tension, that I’ve recently read about. He yawns fiercely, his face quaking, and I yawn back. Slowly, he plods over, pushes his big body against my leg.

            “What happened here?” I whisper, touching the velvet softness of his ear.

            Shoved between the couch arm and what remains of one of the cushions, I find the scrap of a plastic baggie holding a scattering of parmesan cheese. Grommet found it on the counter, I deduce, dragged it to the couch, ripped it open, and dug in, soon unable to determine what was parmesan and what was yellow foam from the couch cushions, coated in a delicious cheese scent.   

 

BONUS: Check out Mixtape where Lauren pairs the ultimate '90s playlist with This Has Nothing to Do With You!

 

 

 

 

 

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Lauren Carter is the author of four books including the novels This Has Nothing To Do With You and Swarm and the poetry collections Following Sea and Lichen Bright. Her first novel, Swarm, was on CBC’s list of 40 novels that could change Canada. In 2014, her short story “Rhubarb” won top place in the Prairie Fire fiction prize and appeared in the annual Best Canadian Stories (edited by John Metcalf). Her work has also been nominated for the Journey Prize and longlisted multiple times for the CBC Literary Prizes in both poetry and fiction while also earning multiple grants, including the Manitoba Arts Council Major Arts Award, given to Manitoba artists whose creative work shows “exceptional quality and accomplishment.” She grew up in Blind River, ON, and has lived in the Greater Toronto Area and The Pas, MB. She currently resides in St. Andrews, MB.

 

 

 

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Purchase a copy of This Has Nothing to Do With You for 15% OFF until January 31, and stay tuned for more  Read the Provinces featured authors all month long here on All Lit Up. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram with the hashtag #ALUreadtheprovinces.

 

 


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