David Bergen on The Next Chapter

Each Monday leading up to the Canada Reads debates, The Next Chapter will interview one of the authors (or, in the case of Two Solitudes, the author's friend and editor). CBC Books is replaying these interviews here for your enjoyment.

Today, we present Shelagh Rogers' conversation with David Bergen, author of The Age of Hope. Hockey Night in Canada's Ron MacLean is defending The Age of Hope during the Canada Reads debates February 11-14.

This interview originally aired on December 31, 2012.

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David Bergen is one of Canada's best-known writers. His work has been shortlisted for the IMPAC Literary Award and the Governor General's Literary Award for fiction and in 2005, his novel The Time In-Between won the Scotiabank Giller Prize. This year, Bergen adds another accolade to his impressive resumé: Canada Reads panelist Ron MacLean chose the Winnipeg author's latest novel, The Age of Hope to represent the Prairies and North region in Canada Reads 2013.

The Age of Hope shares a number of the hallmarks of Bergen's past work, including a protagonist with a stunningly ordinary life and a quiet sensibility. However, The Age of Hope differs in that the novel is from a female perspective. Hope Koop is a housewife and mother of four living in small-town Manitoba in the 1950s, and the narrative traces her life from her early twenties through to her seventies. When Bergen felt the urge to write Hope's story, he did his best to put aside any uncertainties about writing from a female perspective.

"When I get moved to write a story, I don't question the story. I dive right in and I try to ignore the voices that are chattering away at me. 'You can't do that', you shouldn't do that,'" Bergen told Shelagh Rogers. "I just sort of leap and take a chance and go for it."

Bergen is interested in the tension between the image we present to the world and the person we actually are. This is central to Hope's story. On the surface, she's a happy homemaker and dutiful wife and mother. But inside, she's unfulfilled by her mundane existence and suffers from postpartum depression (although it was never diagnosed as such) after the birth of her fourth child. Bergen believes we all have these layers. "I wouldn't call it a façade, but it's a way of moving through the world," he said. Bergen doesn't believe there's anything wrong with that, but he's not interested in what's on the surface. He's interested in what's underneath. "That's the novelist's job: to peel back the layers and look underneath."

This process allows novels to get at important questions about life, and how we make choices to live the kind of life we want and how we struggle to lead lives that are "good" or "right." In Bergen's view, "if they aren't [about morality], then they failed as a novel."


That said, Bergen doesn't expect -- or want -- every book to tackle "big picture" issues. But he believes that chronicling everyday actions and ordinary lives can shed light on important issues. That's exactly what happens with the character of Hope. She suffers from depression. Her life is touched by the feminist movement of the 1960s. She struggles with the demands of marriage and motherhood. Her inner turmoil is connected to larger social questions, as she moves through an uneventful life spent raising her children and looking after the family home. "She's overwhelmed by the continuity of her life and perhaps the banality of her life," Bergen said, and this causes her to question herself and the choices she's made. "She can't quite figure out if this is Hope Koop. And if this is Hope Koop, is this what I am?"

Bergen believes this is a question we all face, and he hopes that readers will connect with Hope's life. "She's simply one person making that journey, like all of us."

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