Writer’s Block: Cinda Gault

Tomorrow the world will celebrate International Women’s Day and many will take a #PledgeForParity to take a concrete step to help achieve gender parity. For us here at ALU, we’re handing the mic over to a writer whose work features a strong female character that does not fit the traditional mold. Author Cinda Gault, who has a PhD in Canadian national identity issues in women’s writing of the 1960s and 1970s, shares with us her inspirations and how being a woman has affected her writing.


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Tomorrow the world will celebrate International Women’s Day and many will take a #PledgeForParity to take a concrete step to help achieve gender parity. For us here at ALU, we’re handing the mic over to a writer whose work features a strong female character that does not fit the traditional mold. This Godforsaken Place, published last year by Brindle & Glass, features Abigail Peacock, a young woman living in 1885 in what is now Northern Ontario. When life throws the unexpected at Abigail, and the inevitable life she was drifting through is suddenly upended, she decides to take responsibility for herself and everything changes. Author Cinda Gault, who has a PhD in Canadian national identity issues in women’s writing of the 1960s and 1970s, shares with us her inspirations and how being a woman has affected her writing. * * * What or who inspired you to create Abigail, the protagonist of This Godforsaken Place?For my doctoral dissertation I studied three Canadian women writers who came to publishing prominence in the 1960s and 70s, Margaret Laurence, Marian Engel, and Margaret Atwood. I studied their work as a scholar, but also as a writer fascinated by the characters they created, and the challenges they chose for those characters. Much has changed for women since those novels were published, but I was inspired by the intensity the characters brought to the decisions available to them. I listened for voices that would resonate long after I put the books down. For example, Hagar of Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel is forever lodged in my psyche. She is an infuriating woman, but so committed to being an asshole right to the end of the story that you have to shake your head in grudging admiration. Right or wrong, she’s all in. When she finishes her life, she owns it—the pain, the joys, the failures. I wanted a similarly epic voice for my pioneer who flung herself at life.Abigail has been described as a strong woman because she chooses adventure over expectations and obligation. Why did you make her a hero, and how is she heroic?I’m with Aristotle on looking to fiction for people as they can or ought to be. While everyone has hardship, what I want from storytelling is inspiration on how to live large. I look for fiction that will replenish my soul with what is important. So, heroes are my thing. I want to be one, and I want to create them.Abigail left behind everything she knew to come to Canada. Like Susanna Moodie (Roughing It In the Bush), she was clearly middle-class and British, with the attendant attitudes of privilege one would expect of women brought up in those social and historic circumstances. At the beginning of the story, she is whiny and prone to feeling victimized, but with sufficient hardship to make us feel somewhat sympathetic.She takes her first step on the path to heroism when she buys her gun, a metaphor for taking responsibility for herself and committing to action. The first hoop she jumps through as a heroine is philosophical, in that she eschews altruism by first admitting and then insisting on what is important to her. There was nothing wrong with Lars Larsen [a potential suitor]. He was a decent man who would have worked hard and cherished her. Yet, without a “good” reason to leave him behind, that’s exactly what she did.It is one thing to admit what you want, and quite another to hold your feet to the flames of actually doing it. It would have been easy to stay in Wabigoon and become bitter about everything she could have done or been.Her second step to heroism was eschewing pragmatism for the sake of pursuing principle. She assembled a team of heroes, and used everything she had to ensure justice was done. I don’t want to give away too much, but by the time the story ends, Abigail is a full-fledged woman of action.Annie Oakley does not sound like someone who would be recognized as a feminist in today’s terms. Is Annie Oakley a feminist?Annie Oakley had genius-level talent in her field. I liken her to Wayne Gretzky because she performed so far above what anyone else could do, male or female, and she did it in a man’s game.As I researched Annie Oakley, a few things became apparent to me. One was that she, like many other women of the past who excelled (Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen), did not have children, and she had the protection and support of a man. Woolf had her husband who published her, and Austen had a brother who paid for her keep. Oakley met Frank when she beat him in a shooting competition. Instead of becoming defensive, he married her and became her agent. Clearly, she didn’t need him in order to do what she did, but he helped smooth the way for her to transcend what she likely would have had to cope with had she been single. These stories of men helping women abound when you start looking for them.A second thing that occurred to me was that Oakley had a fairly original sense of power. While it seems old-fashioned now to hear her scoff at the suggestion that women needed the vote, there is some truth to her saying that laws won’t be able to do the entire job of protecting women. Cases of domestic violence and sexual assault into the present day show the need for women to be able to protect themselves. One wonders if she doesn’t have some wisdom to offer women of the future.In the end, Annie Oakley is an individualist feminist, who thinks for herself, can defend herself, and expects the best from herself and those around her. Abigail was inspired by that, and frankly so am I.
How has being a woman affected you as a writer?Early on, while studying psychology as an undergraduate and criminology as a graduate student, I was drawn to the subject matter of being female. I joined a core group of women who founded Women in Crisis in Guelph, and threw myself into issues raised by the second-wave women’s movement. I remember borrowing my boyfriend’s car to drive a victim of domestic violence from the married student residence to a shelter many miles away. I remember sitting with a mother in a rape trial, helping her to understand that her daughter didn’t ask for rape when she hitchhiked with a friend to an out-of-town hockey game; she asked for a ride. We gave out names of sympathetic doctors to desperate women callers who did not want to be pregnant. I worked as a prison guard in a men’s prison, and became the director of an agency that advocated for innovative social programs.Out of these experiences, I wanted to tell stories about what I had learned. I dove into writing an autobiographical novel until my savings were spent, and I finally had to face the fact that I didn’t know what I was doing. I had interesting things to say, but no particular information on the craft of storytelling. So, I went back to school in English, and at the same time figured out how to write a romance, since that was one of the few ways a fiction writer could stand a reasonable chance of making at least a partial income. Much trial and error led to my first novel, Past Convictions. I raced to finish revisions of that manuscript before my first son was born. While he technically won, it was only by a few weeks. By the time I had my second son three years later, I was back in graduate school.I started my second MA when our boys were two and five, and graduated with my PhD when they were thirteen and sixteen. These were the two most difficult projects of my life, and that I did them both at the same time gives a sense of the intensity I apparently crave. My boys witnessed how important education was to me. Reading the formative works of fiction taught me how to be a writer. Bringing up my children taught me how to be a mother. Everything I did during those years struck me as crucially important. While a graduate student, I wrote my short story “Babcza,” which won prizes in two fiction contests and was published in PRISM International (volume 13, page 67).By the time our sons went off to university, I was teaching. Determined to fit fiction writing back into my life, I began researching for what would become This Godforsaken Place, and wrote it in bits and pieces over the years. My motivation for writing now is to get out the stories I have to tell before I start drooling in my soup. Ideas plague me. I know the next three novels I want to write, as well as many short stories. I have never experienced the blank page syndrome. I have come to understand that you can have it all as a woman, but you need to live a long time to do it.
My work spaceMy office used to be my older son’s bedroom. I worked at the dining room table until he and his girlfriend moved into their own apartment, and I was pretty sure he wasn’t coming back. I bought the desk from a second-hand shop in Kingston, where we found furniture for our son’s place while he was at school. The oak book case behind it is a labour of love built by my brother and me. On a family house exchange, I discovered the magnificent New York Library, and this is my mini rendition of it. I intend to write here until I can’t write anymore.What advice do you have for aspiring writers?The traditional advice is as true now as it ever was: keep your day job, read, and write. No one can teach a writer what to say, but there are skills to be learned about how to say it. Studying a wide range of genres and time periods helped me develop a larger context for understanding the developing craft of fiction. I also learned from being edited, and have hired editors for individualized feedback. I am always pressing myself to characterize through action as much as I can, using gestures and objects to show what someone is thinking.What are you currently working on?    It’s another historical, this time earlier (1805-1807) about two historical figures whose stories intertwine with each other. The first protagonist is Isobel Gunn, from the Orkney Islands in Scotland, who cuts her hair and dons men’s clothing to get hired on as a labourer for the Hudson’s Bay Company. She works as a man for eighteen months before the “Orkney lad” delivers a baby on the hearth of a fur trading outpost. The second protagonist is Marie-Ann Gaboury, a girl from Quebec farm country who craves something more exciting than farming. She falls madly in love with a voyageur, who marries her but has to return to the north-west. She insists on returning with him. Although these two women had the first two white babies born in the Canadian wilderness within two weeks of each other and in virtually the same place, there is no record of them ever having met. In my story, they meet and make a surprising pact that shapes their futures. I’m not riding a horse this time, but I’m doing lots of paddling!* * *Thank you to Brindle and Glass, especially Tori Elliott, for connecting us with Cinda. If you’re interested in books with strong female characters and women’s stories, check out our International Women’s Day book list.