Stepping Off the Ride:
B.D. Ferguson In Conversation with Marnie Woodrow
Marnie Woodrow’s second novel, Heyday (Tightrope 2015), follows several weeks in the lives of two women living more than a century apart. In 1909, Bette finds her first love in a free-spirited carnival worker who calls herself Freddy, and in present day, Joss struggles to regain her emotional footing in the aftermath her wife Bianca’s death. Opposite as those experiences may seem to be on the spectrum of life, there are multiple points of connection between Bette and Joss: a certain stubbornness of will, a burdening grief, a passion for art, and a love of roller coasters. With Toronto Island life as a backdrop, the novel slides between timelines, through the giddy highs of first love and the bleak lows of grief.
B.D. FERGUSON: Let’s start with time and place. In both timelines, the book is primarily set on the island(s) of Toronto, either past or present. Why these islands? What drew you there?
MARNIE WOODROW: It was such a long process, writing this book, that some elements have become, maybe, a fiction unto themselves. But there was an obsession on my part with Toronto Islands, just as a destination. I went there as a child, and had a fond memory, but I rediscovered them as an adult and become quite preoccupied with the history of them, because I hadn’t known people lived out there until I visited and saw those incredible cottages. I learned that Gwendolyn MacEwan had lived out there with Milton Acorn at one point, so I was then fully obsessed, was reading her biography, saw pictures of her cottage. I delved into the history aspect, which of course is much deeper and goes further back than this novel. The place at which I dropped down into the story was at the revelation that there had been this terrible fire, and a ticket taker who was actually killed in her wicket – she was trapped in there – during this fire. Being a fiction writer, the brain responds with “Who was she?” and “What if?” and so on. For me, fiction usually happens in a flash like that, and then everything builds onto it, it’s a crystallizing process. So I started to look at Hanlan’s Point Amusement Park, specifically.
BF: And so then, the roller coasters. Bette and Joss are fans; are you a fan yourself?
MW: Roller coasters are a personal passion. So, in terms of process, what happens to me is that one crystal meets another crystal, history and roller coasters. I became very preoccupied with Coney Island as it used to be, because it was an incredible place, which now to visit is a shadow of its former self, continuing to fight – as all historical sites are – the encroachment of what we call ‘progress’. So the book’s title, Heyday, tied in with Coney Island, and also to some extent with Hanlan’s Point, because it was a sort of glorious pilgrimage destination. In my reading, I found that the development of Sunnyside Amusement Park on the mainland, and various challenges, geological and otherwise, just made it easier for people to get to a mainland amusement park… which of course then demolished to make Lakeshore Boulevard, and on and on it goes. So, long story short: it was history, and a passion for rollercoasters, and a fire story about a girl. And also, not to be a spoiler, but thinking ‘What if she wasn’t actually killed?’ like the historic woman was.
I do remember the afternoon where it happened, in the Metro Reference Library in Toronto, and I remember it vividly, that flash in the brain when I discovered her, and knew, “Uh-oh, here comes another novel!” So that was kind of exciting.
BF: And that was a while ago.
MW: It was a while ago – it’s been about thirteen years, since my last publication. Of course, one is never typing for thirteen years straight… life and loss and all kinds of other things got in there, too. But for such a small book, it’s fairly long – you’d think it would be 800 pages by now. Originally, in the conception, there were four different timelines, four sets of characters, there was going to be this elaborate puzzle, and then massive amounts of things got cut. A whole book got cut out. There was a whole other novel sort of hiding inside, which took about five years to accept, mentally, because I was so in love with those storylines. They say ‘kill your darlings’, and sometimes that’s a painful process, to let go.
BF: But you did keep two timelines: one is Bette and Freddy in the early 1900s, and for a few reasons – because the Hanlan’s Point season is short, because Freddy has promised to marry Darius Peakcock, and so on – the relationship seems destined to end, somehow. Were you thinking of that as you wrote, that people might say, ‘Oh, it’s just a summer romance’?
MW: What interested me was the notion that everything has to be of great duration in order to really deeply affect your life. But maybe you’ve taken a trip and had a conversation with a complete stranger on a train or at a landmark, and you’ve never forgotten that. Now, it didn’t necessarily break your heart to the extent that Freddy breaks Bette’s heart, but I’m interested in our obsession with longevity, and duration – and that ties in with heydays and progress. Like, we say of a couple, ‘Oh, they’ve been together fifty years’ but what if they were miserable? Fifty years is what we remember, because we’re used to quantifying everything. In Bette and Freddy’s case, I also knew it would be a bit of a tragedy…
BF: You knew that from the start?
MW: I think I did. I tried to not make it one, but it seemed like that wasn’t really true to what was unfolding. To my mind, Freddy’s real deadline is that she’s getting away at any cost. She’s going to get as far from what hurt her as possible. And Peacock, he’s a stepping stone, as far as I can see. Freddy doesn’t plan on staying trapped in a traditional marriage, but he is a ticket away. So for me, her deadline was actually, ‘I’m leaving, even if I fall in love, even if you enchant me, I must get away’. It was a primal need for her, bigger than love. Because she hadn’t really known love anyway – she’s just wired for survival, whereas Bette is not.
BF: So you’ve got two people coming into this relationship from very different directions.
MW: Yes. There’s a kind of innocence in Bette. Even though she’s in tremendous pain when she encounters Freddy, she’s still been quite sheltered compared to what Freddy’s been through.
BF: That reminds me of the poem that begins the book: Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Sonnet XXVII, “I Know I Am But Summer To Your Heart”. It sets up the story so beautifully. Was it an inspiration for this novel, or a fortunate find later?
MW: The sonnet was such a happy stroke of luck. I’ve always been a fan of her poetry, and I actually had been given a first edition of one of her books, and I was thinking, ‘Oh, I think she has something about summer.’ It turned out she had something incredible about summer, it’s one of the most beautiful poems. And it captured perfectly that fleeting sense. Also, a friend of mine died on June 21, and I was looking for solstice poems while I was grieving, looking for poetry just for my own uses. This worked so perfectly for the book, and is a nice tribute to him, too. Because June 21 is the day they meet, in the book.
BF: It works well, the bittersweetness of it. Because to parallel to that historic timeline, we also have the current timeline with Joss, whom we meet at a very low point in her life...
MW: Yes, she’s just lost her partner.
BF: You say you originally had four timelines, so what made you decide on these two: the early 1900s and present day?
MW: Sometimes, for me anyway, novels take some time to find their true driver – I don’t like to impose themes, I think themes arise out of story. I’ve never a writer who’s been like, ‘I’m going to write on such-and-such’, I just don’t have that brain. But I began to think about a book I read, Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers, by Lillian Faderman, who is a gay and lesbian historian in the States and who taught me the language of Freddy and Bette, about historical terms and social mores and so on, and I began to think about women today, who have all the freedom in the world with language. We can be ‘out’, we can call our relationship something, or not, we can live together, or not, we can have children – it’s a whole other planet from Bette and Freddy. So that’s how they became the final two storylines to survive all the chopping. I just thought, I’m interested in women and language and time, at the end of the day. And so I put Bette and Freddy alongside two modern women who supposedly had all the luxury of acceptance, yet they did not have the love that Bette and Freddy had, even in their short romance. There was more kismet between those two young girls in 1909 than there ever was between the lucky women of the twenty-first century. It wasn’t a popular choice, that Joss had lost a love who wasn’t the love of her life – from a publisher’s perspective, it was like, ‘Oh, I don’t know if people are going to want to read about someone grieving someone they didn’t love’ and I said, ‘But it happens every day!’. It does. And that’s what authors do, we ask uncomfortable questions. I mean there are plenty of authors to soothe you, and keep the fantasy flying, but then there are authors who are asking the tricky questions, I think to help us all put into words what’s tricky to feel.
BF: I think that’s partly why the roller-coasters work so well as a recurring theme and a point of commonality between the two timelines, with Hanlan’s Point for Bette and Freddy, and Joss’ trip to Coney Island to re-think herself, to sort through those uncomfortable emotions.
MW: Joss has a complicated grief, it’s grief on many levels, like, what did I do with my time, what did I do with her time, was I selfish, was I the opposite, what happened there?
BF: You’ve already said you were a fan of roller coasters, but did you know from the start that the physical sensations of them would work on an emotional level as well, for your characters?
MW: I used to joke when I was younger that the only way I ever wanted to die was on a roller coaster, because that exalted sensation, physical and spiritual, that hits when you rush down the first hill – if you like roller coasters –that’s as close to sex and death all rolled into one as you could get. Somehow they appealed to me as a kind of crossover between life and death. We have all kinds of ideas of what happens when you die, for example. Some people think, you die, that’s it, other people think you transcend or whatever, others think it’s a great nap – who knows? So that’s kind of where it tied in. And of course it also tied into the notion of progress: roller coaster technology has progressed to the point where they can throw you all over, but in those sweet old days of the Figure 8 switchback, it was quite a gentle hill compared to what we do now, and a lot rockier. I rode the Coney Island Cyclone multiple times while I was writing the book – in the name of research –
BF: Of course!
MW: Such a hardship! And it is a rough ride compared to some of the sleek smooth ones, but I’ve always maintained a sentimental preference for the old wooden ones. It’s old-school thrills. And you’re not very well strapped in, so bad things could happen, there’s a question of safety… and of course, love is not safe. Love is the most dangerous thing you can do to yourself, I don’t care what anyone says. It’s the biggest risk we take as humans, because you’re going to lose at some point, either through it not working out, or biological death. So it’s a big gamble.
BF: And grief does play a big role in the novel, not just for Joss. When we meet Bette, she’s grieving her grandmother. So even with the joy of Freddy, she is still thinking of Grandie.
MW: Yes, and Freddy’s meant to be what Grandie might’ve become, had she been free to take off. It’s little increments of feminist progress. Like, Grandie had loved her husband but she always told Bette, ‘Don’t get married, whatever you do, don’t get married, don’t have children!’ She’s trying to coach her in new directions. And of course Freddy would have become that woman who makes different choices. People say ‘Why do you have such a problem with marriage?’, but I don’t, it’s just there are other pathways. And I feel for people who take different pathways, because they’re always being told that they’ve stepped off the ride, that proper ride that we’re all supposed to take.
BF: Which is why it’s so interesting that Bette’s mom is this bluestocking feminist pioneer, seems to be all about women’s rights and liberation. And her father with his Spiritualist connections, saying we can still be connected to those who have passed. So you have in her household these ideas of progress and continuity, but their reaction to her and Freddy is far from progressive.
MW: Well, I think it comes down to, when it’s your own child, you have a different response. I’ve met people who are very LGBT-positive until their kid is sitting across from them saying ‘I’m gay’ or ‘I’m trans’, and suddenly it’s very different. So there’s that section for Bette where the language becomes more fragmented, and that was intended to show both the peppering that happens when our true belief system erupts, in our parenting or loving, when some of our prejudices come flying out, and we’re scared. And also, Bette is very subtly shown to have what we would now call a bipolar state, so she can do shell paintings for three days straight, and may not sleep. It’s a light touch, but the fragmented language is also there to show that she’s going to have a bad patch, because she wants what she wants, but she knows she’s not going to get it, so she’s starting to crack.
BF: It does give that sense of Bette starting to disconnect, starting to shut down, but the other thing that struck me about it was how that same passage could have occurred in the modern-day timeline as well, in a modern coming-out scene.
MW: Good, because I wanted it to walk that fine line of, ‘Which time frame could this be?’. I’ve worked quite a bit with gay youth, many of whom have become disowned or homeless because of their coming out, and there’s lots of fragmentary things that get thrown at them. So I was playing with, which voices are her parents’, and which are hers, not getting what she needs? It is quite a different tone, and I was a little concerned about it, but I trust my reader by that point in the book to know where I’m going with it. I give readers a lot of respect. Some writers will try to explain everything, and some will go too far the other way, so the reader feels lost, but I was sure by this point that the reader would get it, they’d come with me. You know, I get asked the question, ‘who do you write for?’, and it’s always smart, emotionally wise women and men, all of whom have huge brains and big hearts that can come along for any story. I think good writing acknowledges that the reader brings his or her own brain and own imagination to the book. We know as readers that we picture the characters for ourselves, we do a lot of work for the writer, but it’s a collaborative process.
BF: Is it possible your ideal readers are also art lovers? Because there’s a lot of art in the book: you mentioned Bette’s shell paintings, Freddy loves cinema, Joss is a photographer. Was that appreciation of art throughout something you had in mind from the beginning, or did it just grow from the story?
MW: I think it just grew there… I don’t always know. I mean, not everything is consciously planted for a pattern or anything. It’s probably more a reflection of who I am. I’m passionate about movies, I love music, I can’t live without it, photography has been a passion of mine since I was a teenager. And I do believe that art is the only thing that gets humans through. Of course we need food and shelter, but without artists this is a very, very boring world. Artists, I think, can help teach emotional wisdom. We all have our own innate wisdom in that regard, but it’s the art – it’s the sitting in the dark in a movie house after a bad day, and getting lost in a story, and going ‘wow, I never thought of that before’. Like a lot of people now are saying that when they see Moonlight, because it’s such a revelation. They’ve never thought of that story, it’s not their experience, but man, they see themselves when they see it. So this book is just all my loves. All my loves are packed in there.
BF: That shows, because there’s so much appreciation in there, and it makes those points about what art can do for us.
MW: And art is a roller-coaster ride, too. Anyone who’s a practicing artist will tell you of the highs and lows and suffering that is experienced, and the fear levels are high. ‘Should I turn around and get on the Ferris Wheel instead, where I can predict what’s going to happen?’
BF: I feel like I could say ‘Speaking of unpredictability…’, but without too many spoilers, can you talk about the end of Joss’ timeline? Because a character appears and gives us a very magical moment, compared to everything else that happens. What would you say to a reader who might ask, ‘What is this doing here?’
MW: Lots of people have said that, actually. I think the book can be read on a few different levels, so you can read it as just a classic love-journey story, a friendship story, but it was always meant to be a metaphysical story about ‘Do we meet again?’, as something to think about. And I suppose I could’ve planted something earlier, to say, ‘Let’s talk about this question of do we meet again’, even knowing that some of us don’t want to meet again. But the end scene’s the metaphysical merging of the two stories, for me. It’s that moment of wondering, why do I feel so satisfied suddenly, in the fleeting company of this stranger’s energy? Why does some energy just speak to us? Again, it comes down to time and connection: does it need to have been a fifty-year relationship, or can it be a dancer on a boardwalk, or a conversation? That last meeting brings a new kind of energy that Joss feels in herself. Because ultimately, one of the things Heyday touches upon is, we are really here by ourselves. We may hope to find a soulmate, as people call it, but really the journey is yours. On the roller coaster, you forget your seatmate completely – it’s all about you and whether you’re going to survive. And it’s not selfish, it’s that old saw of ‘we’re born alone, we die alone’, and I think that’s what it’s trying to touch on: we can whoosh by each other, but the ultimate satisfaction – or the ultimate fear, whatever channel you’re on that day – will come from you. But it is a challenging ending for some. It was a gamble, because again, you don’t want too many people not coming with you at the end, but at the same time you need the ending that’s true to the book. With my first book, I had people emailing me saying, ‘Okay, but what happens next for them?’, and this is a totally different type of ending. It was a tricky choice.
BF: For me, it did work for the story, because when you say a key question is ‘Do we meet again?’, we’d already met those ideas in Bette’s Spiritualist parents and her upbringing, because that movement was all about those questions.
MW: Yes – like when her father talks about reincarnation as if it’s a given.
BF: Right, but this isn’t a character from the historical timeline suddenly appearing in the modern one.
MW: Or is it? It might be. But no, it’s a lighter touch. You can’t just be racing through the ending – it’s a small book. My favourite novels are almost exclusively slim, but they’re powder-keg novels, like Toni Morrison’s Jazz. And Coming Through Slaughter by Michael Ondaatje is the same: a short book, in and out, but there’s so much to think about. You know that saying “Write the book you’d want to read”? I try to do that, so I set out layers, I put in things you have to look up, because I like to look things up. And it’s not about alienating the reader, it’s the opposite: it’s inviting them fully into the experience.
B. D. Ferguson is a Hamilton writer, educator and scholar. Her work has appeared in a number of venues, including The Peterborough Examiner, Queen’s Alumni Review, and Brought to Light: More Stories of Forgotten Women, as well as e-zines such as Dark Recesses and The Lorelei Signal. Her first book, Next Episode, was released by Seraphim Editions in 2016.