A sordid crime in Guy Vanderhaeghe's hometown inspired August into Winter — his first novel in nine years

The Canadian author's new novel August into Winter, a finalist for the Atwood Gibson Writers' Trust Prize for Fiction, follows two war veterans in pursuit of a depraved murderer in 1930s rural Manitoba.
Guy Vanderhaeghe is a Canadian novelist, short story writer and playwright. (Grant McConnell)

A writer's career may start off with a bang, but it isn't always onward and upward according to Guy Vanderhaeghe. The Saskatoon writer stunned in 1982 when he won the Governor General's Literary Award for fiction for his first book, a gritty collection of short stories entitled Man Descending. Though he went on to receive two more Governor General's Literary Awards for Daddy Lenin and Other Stories and The Englishman's BoyVanderhaeghe humbly insists that every writer's career goes through its peaks and valleys.

His latest, August into Winteris another peak. The 70-year-old writer is one of five finalists for the Atwood Gibson Writers' Trust Prize for Fiction, an annual $60,000 award.

August into Winter is Vanderhaeghe's first novel in nine years — and his longest book to date. The story takes place in rural Manitoba in 1939, as the shadow of a Second World War looms ever larger over Canada. At the heart of the novel is Oliver Dill, a wealthy farmer, grieving widower and caretaker to his older brother Jack. The Dill brothers are veterans of the First World War, and Jack, a skilled soldier, frightens people with his religious fervour and descriptions of what he calls "The City of God."

When Ernie Sickert, a twisted young man from a prominent family in town, murders a police officer and skips town with a 12-year-old girl, the Dill brothers are commandeered to help track him down. With assistance from a local school teacher named Vidalia Taggart, the Dills embark on a gun-slinging adventure across the unforgiving Prairie landscape.

Vanderhaeghe spoke to CBC Books about writing August into Winterand reflected back on his long career in Canadian letters.

Where did this novel begin for you?

It may be an odd beginning, but when I was 10 years old, my mother took me to the RCMP Museum in Regina. That was 60 years ago. She pointed out one of the exhibits, which was a rather grisly exhibit that I don't think would happen today. It was an RCMP Stetson hat with a big dent in it. The officer who had been under the hat had been murdered in my hometown by a young man who belonged to one of the more prominent families in town. One of my aunts was very good friends with the wife of the officer who had been killed, and one of my uncles had been a good friend of the murderer when they were young children. 

This stuck in my head and I heard stories about [the murderer] in the years following. This was the impetus for the beginning of the book. Now my character in the novel, Ernie Sickert, departs radically from the [person that inspired him]. One of the things that does match is that my father told me that there was only one RCMP officer in town. When he was murdered, a posse of First World War veterans went after this young man who, when he was cornered, committed suicide. So that was the initial momentum to the narrative. 

Why did that continue to be something that you were really interested in exploring? 

I don't know. When I taught creative writing, I used to say to my students, "If you have a memory that sticks, maybe it wants to speak." But the other thing that did motivate me in writing the book was that I felt that 1939 and the 1930s posed a kind of political crisis that the last 10 years have posed almost all over in the Western world. That, in my mind, was the rise of the radical right and what I took to be a refurbishment of fascism under a different cloak, under radical right-wing politics. It's not exactly like the fascism of the 1930s, but if it's not fascism, it's a popular authoritarianism. That was part of what I wanted to examine in writing the book and how people respond to that.

I used to say to my students, 'If you have a memory that sticks, maybe it wants to speak.'

The other thing was that I wanted to pay homage to my parents, who had grown up under 10 years of the Depression, followed by war. I had felt my generation, the baby boomers, had gotten off lucky, we had never faced anything like that. When I was coming to the end of the book, the pandemic broke. Suddenly there was a big worldwide crisis, like the Second World War or the Depression, that everybody was going to have to deal with. When I was coming to the ending of the book, I wanted to look at questions of how people endure and how people find hope in difficult circumstances.

At the end of my novel, when the female character Vidalia Taggart is teaching school in a very posh girls' school in Vancouver, her hope is preparing these girls and young women for a future that she thinks would be worthy of them and would be worthy of their efforts to build. Those were what I would call the sinews of the book, the questions I wanted to examine in the novel. 

The murderer in your novel, Ernie Sickert, seems to struggle and be self-conscious around expectations of masculinity. Was that on your mind at all when you were writing?

I wouldn't say it was directly in my mind, but it is a question that everybody has to deal with, whether it's a question of masculinity or femininity or being non-binary. How do you define yourself — and define yourself in response to challenges to what you think of yourself? 

I'm a man of a certain age. I was raised with a certain ethos that has changed over time. It's not exactly how it is, but there's a line in my book about everybody carrying the past on their backs — and the past hugging them more tightly with every step.

I think at least in my case, as I've grown older, I felt the presence of the past more closely. But I've also attempted to interrogate the past more closely and to question the ways I was raised, to make choices about accepting some of the things I was taught or rejecting them or modifying them. I think people become themselves over time, or at least they should become themselves over time.

If you look at the character Oliver Dill, he's in a process of trying to figure out how he's going to live the rest of his life — a life that's been marred by war, the tragedy of his wife's death, his hope to find love again and on what terms he's going to live his life with a woman who's very independent and very motivated to do certain things. All of these things raise questions about masculinity. The book raised questions about masculinity for all of the characters, and all of these characters answer those questions in slightly different ways. 

LISTEN | Guy Vanderhaeghe discusses August into Winter:

In his first novel in a decade, celebrated author Guy Vanderhaeghe zooms in on a small town in Saskatchewan in the lead up to the Second World War. August into Winter follows two brothers, veterans racked with their own guilt and trauma, who are enlisted to chase down a murder suspect after the town's only constable is killed. The three-time Governor General's Award winner speaks with Piya Chattopadhyay about how times of crisis can expose the worst in us – but also provide an opportunity for immense kindness and humanity.

All of the characters are outsiders in their own ways, and they all cope with that in very different manners. Do you have a kinship with the outsider as a writer? 

I don't want to make a huge, sweeping statement for all writers, but I think many writers are outsiders. At least they're outsiders in the sense that they look at people and society in a slightly different way than people who are truly embedded in it.

Let me put it this way: really happy, well-adjusted people often don't make the best fictional characters.

Let me put it this way: happy, well-adjusted people often don't make the best fictional characters. When I stop and think about it, there might be a very slender handful of writers who, at least in my opinion, write goodness convincingly. There's E.M. Forster, and maybe Willa Cather. To create characters that hold a reader's attention or that you hope will hold a reader's attention, they have to, in some ways, be remarkable in the way they define themselves. 

The language of the book really is very detailed in terms of embodying that time period. 

One of the things is that, because I've written a number of historical novels and some of the historical novels were set in the 19th century, there aren't even recordings of how people spoke. So part of the language that you write a 19th-century novel in is the language that you absorbed by reading books. But it's also an invented language. It's altered by the writer who's attempting to reproduce that language. All of writing, in my opinion, is smoke and mirrors. The only thing that you do is you convince people that it's right.

All of writing, in my opinion, is smoke and mirrors.

I read a lot of novels written in the 1930s and 1940s. You read newspapers. You look at movies so that you get a sense of both the way people spoke and the cadences. But you also have to differentiate within that. A lawyer speaks differently than a farmer or a soldier. When I talk about smoke and mirrors or sleight of hand, the important thing I think is only to convince the reader.

When Ernie Sickert falls into his jazzman talk, there was a thing Cab Calloway actually created — a dictionary of hep talk as it was known — and it's available. You go through there and you see, "OK, jazzmen in the 1930s called the clarinet the licorice stick or a saxophone a double play, or they'd say, "You play from hunger.'" That's also part of informing a character.

It's a lot easier now with the Internet than it used to be. You can find stuff easily. When I wrote a novel called The Englishman's Boy, I wanted something to happen in front of Grauman's Egyptian Theatre. I couldn't find a picture of Grauman's Egyptian Theatre anywhere. I was down at the libraries paging through books on Hollywood, trying to find an accurate description. It wasn't too many years later when you could go on the Internet and type in Grauman's Egyptian Theatre and 10 images would pop up. I think you need to research deeply enough to make it convincing for a reader. 

LISTEN | Guy Vanderhaeghe on the nature of art and creativity:

Tonight in Calgary the Walrus Talks tackle the questions "What is art anyway?" Eight artists, from various disciplines and backgrounds, are exploring the subject. Guy Vanderhaeghe is among them. He's a three-time Governor General's Award-winning author.

This is your first novel in nine years. Was that a big decision?

I did write a collection of short stories. I had personal things that kept me writing for some time. My wife died nine years ago and we had been together for 40 years. She had always been my first reader. There was a time when I didn't know whether I would actually write anymore because I didn't feel like writing anymore. When I began easing my way back into writing, short stories seemed more manageable than pitching myself into a novel. 

There was a time when I didn't know whether I would actually write anymore because I didn't feel like writing anymore.

Writing a historical novel takes time for research. So that's my excuse for the long separation between books. But I've always been a slow writer. I don't turn out a book every two or three years. That's just the way that I work. There are other distractions, not huge distractions. But I teach a little bit. I stopped teaching this year. Retired, I guess, is the word that you use. When I was teaching creative writing, I found it difficult to concentrate on my own work. So those are my excuses for being slothful. 

How did it feel to write a 500-page historical adventure novel?

I actually like torquing genre a bit. I think a lot of my books do torque genre. I wrote three novels that I would claim put a twist on the Western. This novel is partly a crime story, it's partly a war story, it's partly — I don't want to make too much of this — romance. I don't think it's typical of any or all of those things. All the time I was writing this book, I was trying to cut it back because I thought it was getting too long. Then finally, I just said to myself, "Well, it's going to be as long as it has to be," and when I finished it I thought, "OK, at least in my mind, I've pared most of the fat off it." And so, you know, that terrible phrase, it is what it is. 

You've had a good career. You won the Governor General's Literary Award for fiction for your first book. You won two more. Now you're nominated for an Atwood Gibson Writers' Trust Prize. How did it feel to get all that recognition early in your career and how do you feel about awards now?

OK, this is not me being ungrateful. I won a Governor General's Literary Award with my first book and I shouldn't have won. There's no question that I should've won. But everybody was saying I shouldn't have won. Every career goes through stretches where books are not particularly successful. So between 1982 and 1996, when I won my second Governor General's Literary Award, was a 14 year period of not particularly successful books.

A different jury would pick five different books. I'm not casting aspersions on my fellow nominees when I say this, but juries in their decisions are always questioned or questionable. It's not like the 100-metre dash at the Olympics. Even with a photo finish, you know who won and who deserves to win. This is not the case with literary prizes. I'm enormously grateful. I'm very, very happy. I remember Margaret Atwood at a Giller Prize dinner in which she won, she said, "I thought I was too old to ever win another prize." She went on to win a Booker Prize years and years after that. But I'm in that category now. To get the nod at my age is very nice. I'm very happy about it. But I also know that there are many more deserving books this year and every year that will miss out on the kind of notice that they deserve. With the lack of reviewing in this country, it becomes increasingly difficult for worthy books to get attention.

For me, success is getting better, or attempting to get better.

Prizes are one of the few ways now for worthy books to get attention. But they also shut out many other books that are also equally deserving. So I'm of two minds about prizes. Sure, I'm happy. I'm happy to be on the list. I'm happy to be on a list with writers I admire. That's all good. But I take it with a grain of salt.

What to you is the definition of success as a writer?

For me, it's to get better. It's not necessarily possible to get better with every book, but at least you need to attempt to stretch yourself, to attempt to do something that you haven't done before. That, to me, feels like success. When I first started writing short stories, just getting from A to Z was good enough. It was the same thing when I was starting to write novels. Then I began writing novels that mingled voice and split time, parallel stories going on in a 50-year difference. All of those kinds of structural things. For me, success is getting better, or attempting to get better. 

Do you feel that way about August Into Winter?

You know, it's odd. When people talk about the book to me, I feel like maybe I did get better. When I was writing it, I didn't feel that way. When you talked about the book actually feeling that it had a fair bit of forward momentum, I didn't necessarily feel that when I was writing it.

My wife was a painter and she wasn't a literary person. She was the only person I ever gave my material to read before everything was done and it was as good as I could get it and I sent it to my editor. The one thing she used to say to me was, "Get on with it." So maybe in this book, I'd got on with it. I don't know. But people say to me that it's got lots of forward momentum and lots of pace. It's the longest novel I've ever written in terms of word count. So if it's the longest novel I've ever written and it has forward momentum, then I got better, at least in that way.

This interview has been condensed for length and clarity.

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