Bill Waiser on why historical writing and imagination should be inseparable
It would be tough to find someone more invested in the story of Saskatchewan than Bill Waiser. His latest book, A World We Have Lost, tells the story of the pre-Confederation province through the lens of its environmental landscape and Indigenous peoples. The book has won the 2016 Governor General's Literary Award for nonfiction.
Below, Bill Waiser answers eight questions submitted by eight of his fellow writers in the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A.
1. Shani Mootoo asks, "What was the best surprise you had in the process of writing your latest published book?"
I wasn't sure how I was going to end A World We Have Lost when I stumbled upon a 1906 diary (online at the Glenbow Museum) that recounted a woman's experience on a pioneer homestead in a new settlement area in Saskatchewan. Her experiences and observations served as a great foil to the major themes and issues that had shaped and informed my story. I could not have found a better device (her diary) to contrast the old and new Saskatchewan.
2. Frances Itani asks, "When you have presented your work to an audience in the past, what was the question you were not expecting? The one you thought about for a long time afterward, the one you wish you'd answered differently? How would you reply to it now?"
When I was reading from my book All Hell Can't Stop Us: The 1935 On-to-Ottawa Trek and Regina Riot, a sweet, elderly woman asked me, quite innocently, where I was at the time. I smiled politely and assured her that I wasn't that old. What I should have told her is that I was there in a way — that I try to put myself back into the time that I'm writing about...how it looks, sounds, smells, tastes, etc. And that in escaping to the past — in my head — I believe that I can do a better job in telling the story... that my writing is more intimate and engaging.
3. JJ Lee asks, "Superman or Batman?"
Neither. I prefer Wīsahkēcāhk, the Cree trickster-transformer, and the legends associated with the spirit.
4. Robert Currie asks, "What writers do you read, not only because you admire their writing, but because you think you can learn from them?"
Guy Vanderhaeghe is a long-time friend — we used to play together on the same softball team — and I've always been impressed by his detailed historical research for his books and his ability to use that information creatively without the details getting in the way of a good story.
5. Taras Grescoe asks, "Do you have an ideal reader? (If so, what's his/her name?)"
I met Ken over the internet — he once sent me an email message about something I had written. Since then, he regularly sends me feedback on what I've done well or not, and is not afraid to give me his unvarnished opinion. I can tell from his comments that he reads widely. And he understands what I'm trying to do in my writing. I hope to meet him in person one day. But I always look forward to his assessment.
6. Diane Schoemperlen asks, "I have two as-yet-unattained writerly dreams. The first is to have one of my books issued as a mass market paperback. The second is to find one of my books for sale at Loblaws. Do you have any similar fantasies?"
I'd like to walk into a café in small-town Saskatchewan during "coffee row" and find the customers engaged in a heated discussion of one of my books.
7. Ivan Coyote asks, "What is one story that is rattling ghosts around in your head, but for whatever reason, you haven't tackled it yet?"
I want to write a book about my childhood and the neighbourhood where I was raised. I have some great memories/experiences, but have avoided reaching into myself and putting the story down on paper — in part, because I don't want it to be just another self-indulgent memoir.
8. Rudy Wiebe asks, "Why do you write?"
I write to put my imagination to work. John Grierson called documentaries "the creative treatment of actuality," and I've tried to apply that to my historical writing.