First aired on North by Northwest (10/03/13)
Susan Musgrave is the author of 27 books, of poetry, fiction, nonfiction and children's literature. She recently won the B.C. Civil Liberties Association Liberty Award for art and the Spirit Bear Award, which honours writers who make a significant contribution to the poetry of the Pacific Northwest.
Musgrave dropped by North by Northwest to talk about her latest novel, Given, which is a sequel to her earlier novel Cargo of Orchids. The book is full of ghosts and dreams, and characters who live on the margins in various ways. Its themes include motherhood and loss. The narrative opens dramatically with an accident on a California highway, in which a prisoner facing a death sentence escapes and heads up the coast to British Columbia, where she reunites with her husband. That's just the beginning of an action-packed story.
Musgrave told host Sheryl MacKay that before Cargo of Orchids even hit bookshelves, she was plotting a sequel. Given does stand alone, but it picks up the characters and the scenario from the earlier book, which Musgrave described as "three women on death row for the murders of their children, but it's a comedy." She went on to add that it's black comedy, and "there are of course extenuating circumstances, none of them are really guilty." Her protagonist accepts what's happening to her to save her child's life, "because she knows if she informs on the people who have kidnapped him that the worst will happen to him, back in Colombia."
Musgrave created a futuristic death row in which the condemned can choose a method of execution that suits their personality. "That's where the black humour comes in," she said.
Because the status of the child is uncertain at the end of the first novel, Musgrave decided to resolve it in a second book, but that didn't happen in the course of writing it. "I think there must be a third novel, God forbid, it's somewhere down the road," she said. "I suspect it won't be resolved [there] either, but maybe it will get a little step closer."
According to Musgrave, she can never predict what her characters will do or what will happen as a story unfolds. "Characters turn a corner and you never see them again. Or they get shot in the head and you think, I didn't plan for that, how did that happen?" Musgrave says that she's controlled by her characters to a great extent. "They seem to have an upper hand." She noted, though, that the characters are based on research she did about women on death row. Rainy and Frenchy , who were executed in the first book, appear in Given as ghosts. They were both raised in "terrible situations," Musgrave said, and that contributes to how they treat their own children. "It's tragic and it's awful but you can kind of understand," she said. "It's hard to be a mother even when everything's going right in your life."
There's plenty of humour in Given, despite the often dark subject matter. Musgrave says that when she's in the process of writing, she isn't intent on making the reader laugh -- what she's concerned about is getting the sentences right. "The language is what interests me in writing," she said. "You can have the most dull life you can imagine, but if you can tell your story, everybody will wants to read it. I think that's why people want to write. Because they want to transform what can seem mundane."
Musgrave periodically goes for three-day family visits in prison (her husband is incarcerated). When she comes out and asks people what's happened in her absence, they tell her "nothing." But Musgrave believes lots has happened, "but people don't think of telling it, because they don't think it's interesting."
In Given, what defines freedom for her unnamed protagonist, living on the B.C. island, is making small choices that someone who's in prison can't make. Musgrave quotes another character in the book, named Consuelo. "Freedom is nothing, it's what you do with your freedom that counts."