Spirit of '74

An interview with David Bergen, author of The Retreat

David Bergen explains the forces behind his gripping new novel, The Retreat

Award-winning author David Bergen's new novel, The Retreat, is an interracial love story set in 1970s Kenora, Ont. ((Thomas Fricke/McClelland & Stewart))

David Bergen's novel The Retreat is set in northwestern Ontario in the summer of 1974, but it's hardly an exercise in nostalgia. The Winnipeg author places his new novel in a half-baked commune outside Kenora, where self-absorbed adults try to work out their issues while their unwatched children flounder. In the meantime, not far away, militant Ojibwa protesters are preparing to reclaim Anicinabe Park. Against that backdrop of white solipsism and aboriginal anger, Bergen paints a tragic interracial love story involving a teenage girl from the commune and an Ojibwa youth targeted by the local police.

Bergen, the winner of the 2005 Scotiabank Giller Prize, has once again written a dark tale about an encounter between two different cultures, shot through with sexuality and a sense of foreboding.

Bergen, whose last book was the 2005 Scotiabank Giller Prize winner The Time in Between, has once again written a dark, understated tale about an encounter between two different cultures, shot through with sexuality and a sense of foreboding. Just as the legacy of the Vietnam War haunted the pages of The Time in Between, Bergen's latest work uses the Anicinabe occupation and the '70s mania for alternative lifestyles as a way of exploring his characters' inner turmoil.

Bergen is especially eloquent in describing the feelings of his young people. Much of the story is seen through the eyes of the two lovers: 17-year-old Lizzy Byrd, who is staying at the commune with her parents and three younger brothers; and Raymond, a 19-year-old Ojibwa scarred by his encounters with the white world.

Bergen, 51, drew on his own memories of the 1970s for The Retreat; like Lizzy, he was 17 in 1974. As he revealed in a recent interview, his four children were also a source of inspiration. Speaking by phone from his home office in Winnipeg, the amiable Bergen discussed how the book came about, his famously pared-down prose and what happens when a white author presumes to write from a First Nations perspective. 

Q: The Time in Between grew out of a visit to Vietnam in the 1990s. What was the starting point for The Retreat?

A: I had the image of a family – which would turn out to be the Byrd family – travelling across the country towards Kenora. They're a white family and they're heading to this place, the Retreat, where the mother, Norma, feels she is in some way going to find herself, and the father goes along with it. And of course the children are dragged along. And then I realized they were heading towards Kenora and, being very aware that there are a good number of reservations in that area – over 40 – it would be inevitable that Lizzy might have some contact with a boy like Raymond.

Q: It also happens to be the summer that the Ojibwa Warriors Society occupied Anicinabe Park, although in the novel the occupation mostly occurs offstage, so to speak.

A: I only discovered it as I was writing the novel and researching Kenora during the time of '74. That's when I realized that, Oh! This is an event that takes place when my fictional characters are existing in that place and time. So it made sense that Raymond would have an interest in what was going on there. And it made sense to make it a part of the texture of the novel.

(McClelland & Stewart)

Q:In the experiences of Raymond and his older brother Nelson, you suggest the kind of poor treatment of First Nations people that led to the occupation. Raymond is harassed by the police, while Nelson was taken away at the age of 10 to live with a Mennonite foster family in Manitoba. You grew up in a Mennonite community yourself. Was Nelson based on kids you knew?

A: Mennonites seem to have a penchant for either fostering kids or adopting them, and aboriginals were a big part of that. I saw that back then and it still happens today. So it just made sense to me to put Nelson in a Mennonite home and give him that conflict of coming from one place and into another, highly religious place, and to ask what happens to a boy like that when he arrives at the age of 10 and then is [in that community] for 10 years.

Q: Have you known a lot of First Nations people?

A: You know, [interviewers] have skirted around that question, 'What right do you have to do this?' Nobody ever asked me that about the North Vietnamese soldier [in The Time in Between], and I'm curious about that. Writing about Raymond and Nelson is not something that I chose lightly or naively. I have some aboriginal friends who read the novel – I wanted their response. That didn't necessarily mean I was going to change it, but I wanted it to be as authentic as possible.

I didn't have an agenda when I was writing the novel, but I grew up in Winnipeg, I know the city, and I'm very aware of the sense that there are two solitudes here [between the aboriginal and white communities]. You can't ignore it as a novelist and at some point, it's something that you might want to just tackle.

Q: Aside from the rise of the American Indian Movement, the novel also draws on other phenomena of the 1970s: the self-help boom and the renewed interest in the commune. Was the Retreat in the book based on any real communes?

A: Yes, there were actual communes that existed in the Kenora area at that time and I was aware of them. And I was aware of friends who participated in them. I myself didn't, but it was inevitable that they would spill over into my life, given that my friends were there.

Q: Your portrayal of Norma and Lewis Byrd, the self-involved parents who neglect their children, reminded me of another novel set in the 1970s, Rick Moody's The Ice Storm.

A: Which is a great novel. Yes, it's a fair comparison, although that [novel] was much more urban. In some ways, [The Retreat] is a novel that looks at children who are facing adult folly. Adults make certain decisions and children are dragged into it. That happens to Raymond and Nelson as well as Lizzy and her brothers. There's sort of a divide between the adult world and the younger world, you might say. It wasn't a theme I was aware of – it only became obvious to me as I was writing the novel.

(Random House Canada)

Q: Much of the novel is told from the perspective of the young people – Raymond, Lizzy, her 15-year-old brother Everett. You even have a chapter where Lizzy's four-year-old brother Fish is lost in the woods and you describe it from his point of view. Does being a father of four help you write sections like that?

A: Yes. I don't have a Fish in my life at this point, but I did, so I was very aware of how four-year-olds see the world. And I did want to get into his head. Those are fun things to do as a novelist, it's more playful, where you try to explore: How would a four-year-old think and how would he experience being lost?

Q: Have you spent a lot of time observing your children as they grow up?

A: Inevitably. I don't use my children. At least I don't think so – I don't want to exploit them. But it's inevitable that what they have said in the past, how they have behaved, how I've behaved with them – and seeing the freedom that children bring to the world and the closedness that adults bring to the world, myself included – that definitely played a role in the writing of this novel. Even though my children are older now, the youngest is 15,  it's easy to hark back to those times, when every question was 'Why?' [Laughs.]

Q: At one point you have one of the residents at the Retreat, the dried-up novelist Harris, give Lizzy some advice on her writing. He tells her not to be too romantic and ephemeral, and to describe the details of the material world. That sounds to me like David Bergen offering his own writing credo.

A: I suppose I'm laying my own voice overtop of Harris's words in that case. Again, that's part of the playful aspect of writing. You've got to have some fun with it.

Q: Your writing style is frequently described as "taut," "spare" and every other adjective for "pared down."

A: [Laughs.] I read this great quote by Terry Eagleton in the London Review of Books. He said something about "the Protestant animus against the ornamental" or "a monkish distaste for swollen rhetoric." I think in some ways I come by that honestly, because, you know, being raised Mennonite you have that pushing against the ornamental and I think at some point, subconsciously, perhaps that's what influences my writing style. I perhaps lean more towards that, moving away from the swollen rhetoric, and keeping things simple and clear. People like to label it as 'spare' or 'hardscrabble' and whatever, but it is what it is.

Q: I know Faulkner was an early influence on you. Any other writers?

A: For a long time, when I was starting out as a short story writer, I tried to imitate John Updike. And then Raymond Carver, who leans more toward what I'm trying to do. And Cormac McCarthy also is a big influence, and Flannery O'Connor as well. In the case of McCarthy and O'Connor, it's the religious base that they're using to take off from. Not that I'm a religious writer, but there's something behind it that I'm trying to explore or discover.

Q: Is it too early to ask what your next novel will be about?

A: I have a stock answer for this one: It's a novel about an ex-missionary who becomes a CIA agent. These things are completely open to change, so it's always difficult to say exactly what it will end up being about. In some ways, at this point it's true. But who knows?

The Retreat is in stores now. David Bergen is appearing at Toronto's International Festival of Authors on Oct. 31 and Nov. 1.

Martin Morrow writes about the arts for CBCNews.ca.