David Bergen on the origins of The Age of Hope

We asked each of the Canada Reads authors to share a "story behind the story" with us. Today, David Bergen, author of The Age of Hope, reveals the "criminal" history of Hope Koop.

Hockey Night in Canada co-host Ron MacLean will defend The Age of Hope during the Canada Reads debates February 11-14.

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I heard Richard Ford say in a recent interview that he knows he's found a story worth writing when he feels a commotion within himself. I like that description. This is comparable to Nabokov, who felt a tingling at his scalp. For me, when I 'discover' a story there is a feeling of buoyancy and clarity, perhaps similar to early morning out on a prairie highway, when darkness lifts and reveals the outline of farmhouses and copses of trees in the distance. I love that moment. In my brief writing life it means I am still lucky, that I have at least one more novel to complete. I do not expect that a story will arrive just because it is time to write another novel. It doesn't happen that way.

Before I found the story for my latest book, The Age of Hope, I had written four hundred pages of a crime novel (I'm not sure why, as I don't even read crime novels) in which the main character, a female killer with an extreme personality disorder, was the opposite of my character Hope. Perhaps I needed to write four hundred pages of insouciant mayhem before I could find Hope's story. My agent was so-so about the crime novel, but showed it to my editor, who politely declined (which I expected -- it was never meant for her) and so I went back to sorting out what I should do next. One day, at my office, I wrote down some names and dates and notes and I wrote a title 'The Age of Despair' and then some other 'Ages' -- Innocence, God, Reason, Hope -- and I wrote this as well: "woman, born in 1930, lives till the age of 80 or so, suffers depression, marries a car dealer, has children who grow up to confuse her." There were other notes as well. (I stumbled across my notebook recently and was surprised to find that the novel had had a clear structure way back then. The copse of trees was becoming clearer.) I even had certain names of minor characters in those early notes that would remain in the finished novel. A week after I jotted down those notes, I was riding up to Gimli, Manitoba with my wife and our son of twenty-three and my wife's mother, Doris. It was Mother's Day. We planned to eat some fried pickerel at a small restaurant that gave onto the lake. At some point, perhaps to warn Doris, or perhaps to feel out the possibilities of my next book, I said that I was thinking of writing a story about a woman born in 1930.

Doris said, "Oh, why would you do that?"

My son said, "Grandma, you will be immortalized." This amused and perhaps flattered her.

I said, "It's a novel, Doris."

"Of course it is." And she rummaged through her purse for a mint, or her comb.

I realized then that I had my story. And I realized as well that the voice in the story would be very different from anything I had used before. It would be more generous. There would be no sneering. The tone would be understated and self-effacing. There would be more telling rather than showing. This is considered a crime in the literary world, but I'd seen it done beautifully by other writers (I had recently read Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell). I was aware that the tone of the story had to reflect the nature of a woman who stands slightly bemused by her own actions and the actions of those around her. She would be a woman of contradictions. She would elicit both tremendous dislike and love in the reader. She would be passive. She would be strong and angry. Ultimately, she would be a woman of her age and time whose battle cry, when pushed to fierceness, would be, "I can keep this home safe from tigers."

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