Get to Know Them First: Christine Fischer Guy & The Umbrella Mender

Congratulations, dear readers! We’ve made it to the end of our Get to Know Them First series — if you’ve been following along, you’ve met ten exciting writers-to-watch. Haven’t been following along with the series? Get caught up here.Today, we feature Christine Fischer Guy, whose fiction has appeared in publications across Canada, but whose first novel The Umbrella Mender is still hot off the press. The novel has been called “a gorgeous book, a moving meditation on human frailty, a sensitive portrait of conflicting cultures brought together in an uneasy truce, and a heartbreaking tale of unsanctioned love.

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Congratulations, dear readers! We’ve made it to the end of our Get to Know Them First series — if you’ve been following along, you’ve met ten exciting writers-to-watch. Haven’t been following along with the series? Get caught up here.Today, we feature Christine Fischer Guy, whose fiction has appeared in publications across Canada, but whose first novel The Umbrella Mender is still hot off the press. The novel has been called “a gorgeous book, a moving meditation on human frailty, a sensitive portrait of conflicting cultures brought together in an uneasy truce, and a heartbreaking tale of unsanctioned love.

The Author:

Christine Fischer Guy’s fiction has appeared in journals across Canada and has been nominated for the Journey Prize. She reviews for the Globe and Mail, contributes to Ryeberg.com and themillions.com, and teaches creative writing at the School for Continuing Studies at the University of Toronto. She is also an award-winning journalist. She has lived and worked in London, England, and now lives in Toronto.

The Book:

Though a stroke has left her mute, the story Hazel has to share is unforgettable. As a talented nurse in the early 1950s, she went to Moose Factory to help fight the epidemic of tuberculosis that was ravaging the indigenous peoples of the north. Each week the boat brought new patients from the Nunavik region to the little hospital. It was a desperate undertaking, fraught with cultural and language difficulties that hampered the urgent, sometimes reckless, efforts of the medical staff. Hazel is soon distracted from the tensions of the hospital by an enigmatic drifter named Gideon Judge, an itinerant umbrella mender, who is searching for the Northwest Passage.
       From her own hospital bed, the older Hazel struggles to pass on to her grandniece the harrowing tale of her past in the north, including the fate of Gideon and the heartbreaking secrets she left behind. With arresting characters, a richly drawn setting and impeccable prose, author Christine Fischer Guy weaves a story that lingers long after the book is closed.
Tell us about the first time you realized you wanted to be a writer.
I can’t remember when I didn’t want to be a writer, but I vividly recall the thrill of saving a lion whose teeth were made of diamonds. Thieves had hatched a plan to steal them using explosives and so the lion was in mortal danger. It was all very worrying until I realized that the same pencil that had written that nefarious plan could write the failure of it, too. (The lion was OK. As far as I know, he still has his diamond teeth.)
Tell us a little bit about the experience of writing your first book.
I had embarked on a doctorate after fifteen years in journalism when the idea for The Umbrella Mender appeared. My great uncle, who was a pioneer in tuberculosis treatment in Canada, wrote his memoirs after he retired, and when he discovered that I was the family writer, gave them to me. I just want you to read it, he said. His time doing that work in the north was the great adventure of his life, and he wanted to share it. I read it. I knew it was the idea I’d been waiting for, an idea big enough for a novel. The heavens opened up, choirs of angels sang, time stopped, that sort of thing. Naturally, I made the most prudent decision and abandoned my doctoral studies.
Three years passed until my own story took root from the seed of that memoir. Once I had Hazel, the nurse, and then Gideon, the umbrella mender, I could begin. Instead of having a dissertation at the end of seven years, I have a novel.
What was your first job? Was it anything close to writing?
My very first job was a kind of paper route. Sears catalogues used to be delivered door to door by unsuspecting children for pennies each. (I think I was about ten.) A few times a year someone would drop a huge stack on my porch with an envelope of labels I had to affix before dropping them off, door to door. For this work I was paid the glorious sum of 7-10 cents per catalogue, depending on the heft of the book in question. I would cry a little bit when I’d come home to find the Fall catalogue on the porch, because although it was the most lucrative, each weighed a couple of pounds. The wagon could only hold so many at a time.
My first writing job was as a reporter at my university newspaper, Imprint, at University of Waterloo. It was unpaid labour, of course, but how I loved the production meetings (the room was blue with smoke and littered with discarded candy bar wrappers) and oh, the glory of seeing my name in print!
Was the final title your first title for your book? Share previous options here!
For awhile I thought that my book would be called The River Wandering. It was also known as Moose (for Moose Factory, where it take place) and Mushfaker, which I still like but the second half of which sounds perilously close to a four-letter word we all know. I can’t be trusted not to substitute that four-letter word in stressful situations, as history at an early reading of the novel-in-progress shows. A mushfaker (a word used in between the late 1800s and the 1930s and adopted by my character) was an itinerant repair man, so The Umbrella Mender it was!
 
What is the first book you remember reading?
Little House on the Prairie made a big impression. I remember being fascinated by the quotidian details of Laura’s life–the fetching of water, the braided hair and nightcaps for bed (!), the unbounded meadows to cross on her daily commute to school. I wanted to take my lunch to school in a pail.
What is the first concert you went to? Would you see them again?
I saw Loverboy at the Kitchener Auditorium with a friend when I was 13. Some older kids near us thought it would be funny to watch us get high and offered us a toke. We freaked out (drugs!) and headed for the exit.
As for a stroll down memory lane, I have heard that they still tour, but I worry about Mike Reno’s wardrobe (because it was all about the red leather pants, right?) The Kid can’t possibly still be Hot Tonight, not after all these years.

The Publisher

Wolsak and Wynn is a literary press dedicated to publishing clear, passionate Canadian voices in poetry and non-fiction. We believe that poetry has the power to crystallize and express the diverse life of this country in the most concentrated form, while non-fiction unfurls these experiences for the reader.Paul Vermeersch, Senior Editor at Wolsak & Wynn and head of the Buckrider Books imprint, under which The Umbrella Mender was published
Why do you feel it’s important to publish works by new authors?
There are so many reasons. I never like to be cynical about the importance of art. All of our stories have not been told, and I believe to say otherwise is cynical. The world will change, and the changes will bring new stories, new ideas. So I think it’s important to publish new authors so that we do not enter a new dark age. I see no reason that culture should come to an end, that there should come a day when people will no longer need to wrestle with imagination. Our stories, our ideas, even our language must be continuously subjected to investigation, interrogation, and renewal – without that we will stagnate as a species. Civilization requires reflection. Constant reflection. It is no small matter. I consider the production of new art and new literature, and the publishing of new books, to be our duty, now, for the future. 
Tell us the first cover concept for the book and how it differs from the final look.
This book had at least eight different covers at one time or another. It’s a matter of nuance to arrive at the right one. Some were too abstract, and some were too literal. Some were too bright, and others too dark. I like the final cover because it combines elements of the book’s setting and themes in a way that implies intrigue, and there is certainly plenty of intrigue in this book. It captures the mood of the book quite naturally. Of course, you can’t judge a book by its cover, but you can help draw readers to it. We believe this cover is going to help in that regard.  
When did you first know you were going to publish this book?
With some books you know right away. Within a few pages I was hooked, and when I finished reading it, I started reading it again right away. Before I knew it I was making notes in the margins. I couldn’t deny that I was invested in the story. At that point, I couldn’t say no. It was impossible.