Accidents can happen

Marina Endicott discusses her Giller-nominated novel, Good to a Fault

The story behind Marina Endicott's Giller-nominated novel, Good to a Fault

Edmonton author Marina Endicott, whose novel Good to a Fault has been nominated for the 2008 Scotiabank Giller Prize. ((Freehand Books))

Worlds collide, literally as well as figuratively, in Marina Endicott’s Good to a Fault. Endicott’s charming new novel, a nominee for this year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize, opens with a spectacular smash-up at an intersection in Saskatoon, a scene inspired by a real accident the author witnessed in that city years ago.

"What made my heart race was the language," says Endicott's editor, Melanie Little. "There is not a word out of place in Marina’s writing; every single sentence is a small masterpiece."

"A tidy little K Car collided with an old beater," recalls Endicott, who now lives in Edmonton. "A very nice woman got out of the K-car, quite apologetic and worried, and the doors and windows flew open in the beater and about 15 people poured out, all screaming and yelling. That moment of chaos, of slapstick and disaster mixed, just stuck in my mind for years."

It became the catalyst for Good to a Fault, the tale of Clara (Clary) Purdy, a middle-aged, middle-class single woman whose life is transformed after she crashes into the vehicle of the homeless Gage family. Clary feels so bad about the accident — and the fact that the family’s young mother is suffering from cancer — that she takes them into her home. The act of charity turns Clary’s tidy little world upside down, as she suddenly finds herself playing surrogate parent to two needy youngsters and a baby, while coping with their errant father and shoplifting grandma.

It’s a warm, witty story that touches gently on themes of class, community, faith and mortality, while serving up a lively cast of characters that also includes the kids’ free-spirited, motorcycle-riding uncle and a poetry-spouting Anglican priest. The book has already prompted some impressive critical comparisons. T.F. Rigelhof, reviewing it in the Globe and Mail, called Endicott a "social observer in the Jane Austen-Barbara Pym-Anne Tyler tradition, who can wring love, revulsion and hilarity from readers in a single page."

The Giller jury obviously felt the same way, putting Endicott’s sophomore effort on a short list that includes books by new CanLit star Rawi Hage and the best-selling Joseph Boyden. Endicott, 50, is modest about the honour. "I’m just going to have a good time at the [awards] dinner," she chuckles over the phone from her editor’s home in Calgary. She leaves it to Melanie Little, that editor, to do the boasting.

(Freehand Books)

"The story is so beautiful and so fully realized. It’s just a fantastic read," Little enthuses in a separate interview. "I’m just so pleased that people are responding to it the way they are." The Giller nomination and glowing reviews have given a big leg up to Endicott’s publisher, the new Calgary literary imprint Freehand Books. Since rolling off the presses in September, the novel has already gone into a second printing, with a third one on the horizon. The accolades are also personally satisfying for Little, an author herself. She and Endicott met while teaching writing classes for engineering students at the University of Calgary. As soon as Little was hired to run Freehand last year, she asked Endicott to submit the Good to a Fault manuscript.

Little immediately fell in love with Endicott’s style. "What made my heart race was the language," she says. "There is not a word out of place in Marina’s writing; every single sentence is a small masterpiece. But she doesn’t show off, either. She could be a lot more pyrotechnic than she chooses to be, but she trusts her reader to eventually discover how artful she’s actually being."

Endicott spent a lot of time honing that impeccable prose. She started the novel right after publishing her first one, the Amazon.ca/Books in Canada-shortlisted Open Arms, in 2001. She kept at it, between teaching jobs and raising a family, for seven years. She says her spare style is the result of some "ferocious" paring. "I do that Penelope Fitzgerald thing of writing and then cutting it down," she explains, noting that the book was originally almost twice its final 363-page length. "It’s been shaped and carved and sculpted back. It probably still could use a little more cutting," she adds, laughing, "but we had to go to press."

A latecomer to novel writing, Endicott got her start in the theatre. Raised in Vancouver, Nova Scotia and Toronto, the daughter of an Anglican priest, Endicott initially embarked on an acting career, then switched to playwriting and directing. After a period in London, England, she came to Saskatoon in the 1980s, where she served as dramaturge for the Saskatchewan Playwrights Centre. That experience is evident in Good to a Fault’s page-turning narrative, which builds dramatic tension out of Clary’s emotional tug-of-war over the children of the cancer-stricken Lorraine Gage. "It’s not a plot-heavy book," Endicott says, "but the life-and-death stakes in these minor domestic situations are as important to these people as murders and car chases and wars."

In the 1990s, Endicott moved to Alberta with her husband Peter, an RCMP officer, and started a family. Her life in Saskatoon and the small Alberta towns of Mayerthorpe and Cochrane informed Good to a Fault’s sense of a close-knit community. Her own two children were the inspiration for the kids in the novel.

"The book mostly sprang from my struggles with trying to be a mother at a late age," Endicott says. The childless Clary’s comic efforts to care for the Gage brood are only an expansion of the learning curve every new parent goes through. "I’m sure it must be the same to anybody who suddenly is given a baby to look after," Endicott says. "Their life is transformed, and they don’t really know what they’ve got themselves into at first."

Melanie Little, editor of the new Calgary literary imprint Freehand Books. ((Freehand Books))

Clary also learns something about her middle-class prejudices while helping the impoverished family. "All of her assumptions are shaken up," Endicott says. "Because they’re uneducated, she expects them to be stupid, and they’re not stupid. At one point, there’s a confrontation between Lorraine and Clary, where Lorraine says, ‘You think, because I don’t have the words to say it, that I don’t have the feelings that you have.’ I think we do fall into those errors of assuming the poor are somehow less than us."

Endicott’s writing suggests an underlying affection for almost all her characters — even the greedy, irascible granny, Mrs. Pell, who hoards doughnuts under her bed. In fact, Endicott’s big challenge was to avoid sentimentality, particularly when writing about the children. She says Little was her mush meter: "She had a wonderful eye for that."

Little, for her part, says Endicott represents the kind of fresh voices Freehand is hoping to publish. The tiny imprint, owned by educational publisher Broadview Press, issued its first four titles this fall. Along with Endicott’s novel, they include Mother Superior, a first volume of short stories by Saleema Nawaz; Pathologies, a selection of essays by Susan Oldring; and It’s Hard Being Queen by Jeannette Lynes, a biography in poetry of singer Dusty Springfield. "These are not the kinds of writers that you normally see dominating the prize lists and the CanLit canon," Little says. "We’re keeping ourselves open to a wide variety of writing."

Freehand will published three more books this coming spring: a new short-story collection by Stuart Ross, a book of poetry by Joan Crate and a re-issue of Open Arms, Endicott’s out-of-print debut. Endicott, meanwhile, is at work on her third novel, which promises to be a departure from Good to a Fault’s domestic comedy-drama. Set in 1909, it’s the story of a singing sister act touring the Canadian vaudeville circuit.

"I’m having quite a good time with this one," Endicott says. "It’s a much more melodramatic, black-and-red kind of book."

Good to a Fault is in stores now. Marina Endicott will read at the Vancouver International Writers & Readers Festival on Oct. 25 and at the International Festival of Authors in Toronto on Nov. 1.

Martin Morrow writes about the arts for CBCNews.ca.