Aritha van Herk – Interview

LP: Your book Mavericks, An Incorrigible History of Alberta published in 2001, was transformed into a Glenbow Museum online exhibit in
2007. How did that come about?

When I wrote Mavericks, I was almost ambushed by my own interest in Alberta´s history.  Like most Albertans, I don´t think of it as a place with a fascinating back story, but when Penguin asked me to write the popular history, I was utterly intrigued by the stories that I found.  So I immersed myself in the province´s past with much more enthusiasm than I expected.  When the Glenbow came to me and asked if they could use the book to frame their new western history exhibition, I readily agreed, since history is in the public domain–it doesn´t “belong” to anyone.  I expected that they would just go ahead, but then they came back and asked me to get involved with the exhibition, which was both fun and
challenging.  I wrote the text panels, which were excellent challenge for distilled narrative; I had to compress each life (of the 48 mavericks) into 88 words and the sectional descriptions into 111 words.
Once the material exhibition was up, the online exhibit, which is based on the real one, followed.  I didn´t do the online exhibit, but I was completely involved with the real exhibit.  I learned an enormous amount, I loved the writing challenge that was presented by making this information available to the public, and I was more and more immersed in Alberta´s history, which has now become a serious obsession for me. LP: How much input did you have in the transformation process?

I didn´t work on the online exhibit.  I worked on the Glenbow´s concrete exhibit.  While the Glenbow Mavericks used my history of Alberta (entitled Mavericks:  an Incorrigible History of Alberta) as a model, the book, the Glenbow exhibit, and the online exhibit are separate and entirely different entities.  First of all, the exhibit deals with southern Alberta, second of all it chooses a number of characters to tell the story of Alberta; third, the exhibition uses characters that I didn´t even mention in my book.  So it is entirely different, and yet uses some of the tonality of the original book, which was tongue in cheek, humorous, and irreverent.

LP: What do you think the online exhibit has added to your original work?

The online exhibit takes the initiative and the tone of the exhibition, which takes the initiative and the tone of the irreverent history that I wrote.  I wanted to ask questions about Alberta, to show that the whole province is a kind of leap of imagination, a  place that refuses to be what people expect and in the process turns out to be interesting, unusual and very difficult to quantify.
LP: What feedback have you received on this project?

I’ve received endless comments, letters, messages and questions–and I enjoy all of their different perspectives, both positive and negative.  Various people complain that their grandfather was not included; many want to add names to the mavericks that we chose.  Overall, though, people have been generous in their responses; they love my version of Alberta (unorthodox as it is), and they only wish that the rest of Canada would acquaint itself with this crazy province, instead of accepting the cliches that are ascribed to us.  That is an ongoing friction between Alberta and the rest of Canada, and it likely won’t change too soon.

LP: If you were updating the book, are there any new ‘mavericks, you would add?

There are dozens so I don’t want to list just one or two.  I would add the women who did essential work but who got little recognition like the schoolteachers who came out to teach in the one room schools all across the province.  I would add the landladies and the laundresses.  And I would add more members of the settler community, who are overshadowed by the ranching tradition here in the west.

LP: Has this book to internet site metamorphosis made you think about how you might create online representations of any of your other work.

Yes, but I would have to work with people of the same calibre and level who mounted the Glenbow website–and for all that we are so technologically savvy, they aren’t easy to find!

LP: You’re a long time professor at the University of Calgary but are currently on a research leave. Can you talk about what you’re working on during the leave?

I am working on some projects related to history–a happy outcome of all of this background research.  I am horribly superstitious, though, and won’t talk about their content.

LP: You’ve written fiction, non-fiction and criticism, any favourites among your books?

I am fond of Mavericks because it is a book that enabled me to make mistakes and to enjoy mistakes.  Because I am not an historian, I knew that I was in a fraught position trying to write a history of Alberta, but despite that, I found it a challenging way to engage facts with my story-telling ability.
LP:  As a teacher and department head you’ve taught and mentored a great number of young writers. What do you think of your role as a writing influence?

I have never been a department head; that’s a weird myth and incorrect.  Mostly, I’ve stayed away from administration, aside from serving as the Coordinator for the Creative Writing area of English, which is mostly just making sure that those courses and those students at the University of Calgary continue to do well.
What is satisfying is the hundreds of writers I have mentored as a teacher of writing.  Those who have gone on to publish books include Thomas Wharton, Anita Badami, Andrew Wedderburn, Joan Crate, and Jessica Grant–watch for her new novel out soon, entitled “Come, Thou Tortoise.”  I’ve been fortunate to have gifted, talented, and engaged and engaging students, all of whom keep me interested in writing and in words.

LP: Calgary, your home, has experienced tremendous growth and change the past few decades. Your 1998 novel Restlessness incorporated a lot of the city into the narrative. Would a reader today, just a relatively short time after the book was published, have trouble finding some of the places in the book?

Actually, Restlessness is more apropos and germane right now than it was even before the boom–and most of the places that are mentioned in the novel are still there, or findable–I chose landmarks that don’t just vanish.  Calgary changes quickly, but in a strange way, does not change at all, just grows (some would say like a cancer).  But like the grasslands that surround the city, despite the sprawl of suburbs and the fingers of high rise buildings, Calgary is always and eternally itself.  That is almost contradictory as an idea, but there is an element of Calgary’s character that is remarkably resilient and stable.  But that element is the secret Calgary that only Calgarians know, and it is not evident to newcomers or outsiders.  It is an aspect of the city’s character that is hard to quantify but present as a spirit, a breath, and borne only on the back of the chinook.

LP: How has Calgary’s growth affected the literary community?

There are more writers choosing to call this place home, but in a commodity-based town, culture is always crouched under the back porch.  The literary community, the theatre community, the art community in Calgary are hardy and combative.  They have to be.  Calgary’s growth seduced a great number of people to move here, but only the ones who really fall in love with the city stay, although once people move to Calgary, they are intrigued and often do choose to stay.  It’s a seductive place, although no one again can quite quantify why.  The energy is good, and the community spirit strong; that makes all the difference.

LP: You won a lucrative prize for your first novel Judith and, quite famously, used the money to buy yourself a Porsche. If you received an unexpected financial bonus today, what would you buy yourself?

I am not likely to receive any financial windfalls, since I write what I am interested in and without regard for the market.  If I made a pile, I’d think about buying another Porsche–and probably decide not to.  But whatever happens, I work by the creed that artists always give back, and I try to do that, by supporting other artists’ work when I have any spare money.

LP:  What is your next writing project and when can we expect to read it?

I am working on another book that involves history, but that is all I am willing to say.  It could change overnight.

Aritha van Herk

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