In Conversation: Leesa Dean & Catherine Bush

1062Accusation, Catherine Bush. Goose Lane, 2013.

The first time I heard Catherine Bush read from her forthcoming novel, Accusation, was three years ago. We were staying at a monastery near Lumsden, SK, as part of the Sage Hill Writing Experience. At night, the writers and workshop participants took turns reading on a makeshift stage in a space that was saturated with the strangely compatible energy of monks and writers. Magical, to say the least. Catherine, in her typically confident yet unassuming manner, stood at the microphone and unleashed upon us the charismatic Raymond Renaud, founder of Cirkus Mirak, juggling for a mesmerized audience in the middle of the night at a gas station along the 401. The prose was fluid, ephemeral, bewitching− it has haunted me since. I fell in love with Raymond Renaud that day, unaware that he was a man accused of child abuse. Even at the end of the novel, through the haze of unsettling possibilities, he remains a deeply humane, deeply sympathetic presence. As a whole, the novel forces us to think critically about what we believe to be true and how our own judgements shape meaning.

Leesa Dean (LD): Accusation has such a fascinating combination of plots: an Ethiopian circus with connections to Canada and Australia scaffolded with numerous subplots, complex relationship webs and a central question that is never answered. What was your initial entry point into this story?

Catherine Bush (CB): In 1996, I and my then partner, Nigel Hunt, went to Addis Ababa to visit my sister. Nigel happened upon a children’s circus that was founded by a Canadian. We spent some time with the circus and he made a low budget documentary about it. As in the novel, the founder was later accused by some of the older performers of sexual and physical abuse.

I was very interested in the subject of accusation− what it feels like to be accused, what it feels like on the inside to be falsely accused. We all know what it’s like to some degree. We’ve all had that experience. It’s very private and primal, and it reduces us to feeling like small children, helpless, voiceless. I’m also interested in situations where we confront someone who’s been accused and don’t have a way of resolving whether or not they’re guilty. How do we judge someone in those situations? We never know what’s going on in other people’s heads, or necessarily why people do what they do. We constantly have to figure out who to trust and when to believe. That was the kind of material I wanted to pursue.

LD: The way you structure the novel around Raymond’s accusation is a perfect mirror of ambivalence. It feels so carefully measured, like if I were to take every suggestion of Raymond’s guilt, there would be an equally convincing, equally weighted suggestion of innocence. Was there a time in writing the novel where you veered toward one side or another, or was the intention always to preserve this balance?

CB: The balanced structure was much more intuitive than constructed. I wanted there to be contradiction and ambiguity. Sara definitely knows more by the end than she does at the beginning. Her view of Raymond has substantially altered from her first idealistic sense of him to the complicated view she has at the end. In the face of ambiguity, she has to figure out what to do. It’s also a situation in which someone may be guilty of something that’s not exactly what they’re accused of.

There’s some kind of guilt or transgression in the room, but how do we talk about the things that aren’t obviously transgressive? Someone may be guilty of a desire but not an action. Something has happened, but you don’t know exactly what. It would be much easier to resolve the situation simply, but fiction is an art which gives you an opportunity to explore these kinds of emotional and psychological complexities. I wanted the journey itself to be satisfying.

LD: The expected journey would be to discover whether or not Raymond Renaud is guilty, but that question is never answered. Still, the novel feels conclusive. It feels very true to life− there are not clear answers to everything. Alternatively, the novel’s refusal of a singular truth forces the reader to participate in shaping the story’s meaning. It forces the reader to really be inside the novel.

CB: That’s a lovely way of putting it. That is absolutely what I would want. I love to think of the novel as being collaborative. I certainly invite readers to participate morally and emotionally. It’s a risky strategy−some people will want an easy resolution−and yet I resisted it precisely because there’s another truth I wanted to honour and embody. It’s the truth that felt “truest” to me. I think we all ultimately write out of our deepest psychic material, and mine, my traumas, have to do with absence and what can’t be resolved. Stories that won’t be neatly told. How do you live with those absences, silences, and vanishings? How do you construct a story out of that?

LD: You also wanted to tell a story about a circus. The circus scenes in the novel are particularly striking. On a visual level, the energy surrounding the circus is kinetic, all-encompassing− it possesses the page and the reader’s attention. I was also interested in the circus’ symbolic role.

CB: The circus movement in Ethiopia is very physical, rooted in the physicality of the human body. It’s a wonderful thing to have a movement that celebrates the wonders of the body and what healthy bodies can do, especially in a country like Ethiopia. So much of the developed world’s focus on Africa is on AIDS and poverty and bodies that are in distress through hunger and illness. I wanted to make those bodies come alive on the page and to represent them kinetically, athletically. I also wanted to make sure all the children in the novel were seen as something other than victims.

LD: Did you return to Ethiopia while researching the novel?

CB: No. In a sense, the world I wanted to inhabit in the novel was unreachable− it was in the past, and I was writing about a world where AIDS was not a huge presence in the landscape as it became very soon thereafter. That world was also pre-cell phone. So much in Addis Ababa has physically changed since then. I was frightened that if I went back, I would lose my grip on the past. It’s easy to lose connection with the recent past because the present constantly washes over it. I wanted to be able to hold on to that time, to remember the way things were in the mid-nineties. I have a lot of documentation, though, and I did return to East Africa, to Kenya, and was in contact with people in Addis. And I watched a lot of YouTube videos of the actual Ethiopian circuses.

LD: That movement of the past and present washing over each other is very present in the novel. In certain instances, the prose flickers between past and present through blended verb tenses and quick switches. There are also moments where the past and present glide through each other within the confines of a single sentence, which to me seems more typical of poetry. What are your thoughts on time structure in novels as opposed to poetry?

CB: As a novelist, you have to grapple with greater spans of time than poets do. There are always going to be exceptions, but as a poet you can bring one moment up against another and have bursts or concatenations of moments in time.

As a prose writer, you have to figure out how you’re going to move through time and how you’re going to move the reader through time. As beings that live in time, we are propelled through a series of forward-moving events, yet we are constantly plunged into the past. One of the things I love about fiction is how it offers those vertical drops in time. Even though you’re moving forward, there’s a plunge through layered moments. The long form of the novel makes this particularly possible.

I like novels in which we don’t always get neat flashbacks; we get moments from the past that erupt. Something from the present pushes us up against something from the past.

LD: Another pattern in the novel is triangulation. David and Sara’s sexual relationship is triangulated, as is Sara and Juliet’s relationship. This structure has been present in your past work as well−most notably in The Rules of Engagement. In a way, these triangulated relationships offer a three-way tension and a less conventional geometric balancing.

CB: I don’t think of triangles as being balanced at all. There’s always the potential for two and one. I suppose that’s what interests me about the triangle−it’s inherently full of tension and shifting allegiances. Within a triangle, something has to happen. The tension cannot hold. As a novelist, that’s incredibly interesting.

In Accusation, the relationship between Sara and her old friend Juliet, who in the past was Sara’s character witness when the charges against her go to trial, is triangulated by the accusation against Sara. In the present, Raymond, and the accusations against him, come between them. I wanted it to be a relationship not obviously triangulated by sex. There may be sexual tension in it, but I wanted to do something different. Juliet and Sara have an ambiguous relationship because Sara feels very indebted to Juliet who helped her, but Juliet’s help was ambiguous. I wanted that complexity to be slowly unpeeled, to have its own consequences in the present. In the now, Sara tells Juliet about Raymond and the circus, thinking it’s a good story for Juliet to make a film about, but her offering in turn becomes deeply ambiguous.

LD: The movement of the novel as a whole is very shifting and unstable. There are such interesting reflections on what it means for something to be true within these instabilities.

CB: Yes−a novel is in itself one big lie, yet we ask our readers to believe in it. What does it mean to believe in fiction? I want the reader to come up against the question of what they believe and why. The characters themselves are grappling with the same question throughout the novel. Our business as writers is to make something convincing. Fiction can present a kind of truth that leaves room for paradoxes and contradictions−the lived truth. That’s how fiction becomes convincing to me. It’s not just a statement of fact but how statements come to us through people’s particular voices and bodies.

LD: Are there any particular writers who sparked this desire in you?

CB: One writer who was very important to me while writing this novel was the Spanish novelist Javier Marias. His trilogy, Your Face Tomorrow, asks a lot of questions about how we judge others. What’s involved in that moment of judgement−the intuition, our reading of others. Marias also explores how, if you’ve been accused, it’s difficult to prove anything in the negative. You’re always being forced to say “I did not do that.” It’s like pushing against a boulder, and anyone who hears you is going to have to imagine the thing you are accused of. It’s strange, because that’s the imaginative space fiction inhabits−the reader must imagine things that didn’t happen. It’s a weird terrain, where the fiction and the accusation coexist. I find it very powerful.

LD: Your novel, in a way, also inhabits a zone between fiction and non-fiction. While writing Accusation, did you feel any responsibility toward the original story, or did you want to push yourself as far as possible from that departure point?

CB: I acknowledge the documentary and the personal origins of this story, but I really want to emphasize the separation between the fiction and the documentary. What interested me was not so much what happened in life but the emotional and moral questions that arise in situations like this.

One of Sara’s quandaries as a journalist is that journalism often wants the simpler story. It wants a clear narrative line. Sara feels very restricted because there’s not a lot of room for ambiguity when she’s writing journalistically. I felt what I could do as a novelist that she couldn’t do as a journalist was give voice to complexity and uncertainty. Sara-through-me, or I-through-Sara, could do what the other could not.

At the same time, the novel is all about theft. Every character steals something from someone; everyone is engaged in that act. As the author, I am a thief par excellence. I have stolen things from life, all sorts of people’s stories for my own uses. I’ve altered them and recreated them.

LD: The ending of the novel is very powerful− a sparse yet charged dispatch from the circus in Ethiopia, stating “You must know it, we are here.” The conclusion presents us with an open, porous space that encourages us to continue thinking about the novel’s larger moral questions. It’s also a return to the importance of the circus and the people involved. The circus is still here− there is something loaded about that message. It means that whatever happened, the people involved have been resilient. They have made sacrifices in the name of forward movement. The statement is also a testament to the enduring quality of art.

CB: As I wrote, I felt more and more strongly that the book had to end with the circus. I needed to give the circus and the circus participants a voice in the novel. I am writing as an outsider to this world. As a white writer, I didn’t want to tell a story about Africa through the lens of victimhood. The circus survives, the circus movement survives in the novel as in life. I wanted to give my circus performers agency−and acknowledge that they are also creating art. I had to hand over the voice at the end.

LD: The conclusion also forces the reader to let go of their need for an absolute truth. As readers, we’re often looking for a certain type of closure without realizing that some stories inherently defy that kind of closure.

CB: Some readers will resist the ending. But I believe there’s a truth in that particular kind of engagement. Ultimately, my interest is not either-or, guilty or not guilty, but in the zones around that.

Once innocence is lost−even using the word “innocence” implies a recognition of something that is not innocent. To say “innocent” means we are already in the realm of suspicion and possible guilt. We’ve already fallen.

Accusation is a post-lapsarian novel that was profoundly affected by 9/11 and the climate of suspicion we all entered afterwards. The most interesting questions that arose from that time were not so much whether or not someone was guilty, but rather how collectively we respond in that climate of suspicion. How do we trust or judge others? I want that to be an active, lived process for the reader as it was for myself. This other truth needs to be spoken. It needs to go on being spoken. We need stories that tell the more complex, harder truths.

Leesa Dean is a graduate of the University of Guelph’s Creative Writing MFA program and a teacher at Humber College in Toronto. Her fiction, non-fiction, and poetry have been published in The New Quarterly, Matrix Magazine, Canadian Issues, The Headlight Anthology, and Minority Reports: New English Writing from Québec. She is very close to finishing the final draft of Waiting for the Cyclone, her first collection of short stories.

Catherine Bush is the author of four novels, including the newly released Accusation.  Her fiction, praised for its intelligence and daring, often plumbs moral quandaries in which the public and private lives of its characters collide. Her second novel, The Rules of Engagement, was a national bestseller and chosen as a New York Times Notable Book and one of The Globe and Mail’s Best Books of the Year. Her third novel, Claire’s Head, was shortlisted for Ontario’s Trillium Award. Her nonfiction has been published in publications including The Globe & Mail, The New York Times Magazine, the literary magazine Brick, and the anthology The Heart Does Break.  She lives in Toronto and is Coordinator of the University of Guelph Creative Writing MFA.