Susan Swan’s critically acclaimed fiction has been published in twenty countries and her impact on the Canadian literary and political scene has been far-reaching. Swan’s last novel, What Casanova Told Me, was published in the US, Canada, Spain, Russia, Serbia, and Portugal, and was a finalist for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. Swan’s other novels include The Wives of Bath (which was made into the feature film Lost and Delirious, shown in 34 countries), The Biggest Modern Woman in the World (Finalist for the Books in Canada First Novel Award and the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction), The Last of the Golden Girls, and the short story collection Stupid Boys are Good to Relax With.
About her contribution to the rebellious gang at Dr. Johnson’s Corner, Susan says:
First, here is the old opening of my novel, which I loved dearly but this opening was not in the first person voice of my character, Mouse Bradford. It was a good opening, in other words, if a third person narrator was going to tell the story. I knew for ages that it wasn’t right but nevertheless I held on to it. Finally, my editor, Marc Cote, said, “By the way the opening isn’t right. It has to go. It’s not in the voice of the narrator and it doesn’t really connect with the story as you are telling it.”
He was somewhat surprised when I readily agreed and then he said, “Oh yes, those are the best edits. The ones that the author knows he or she needs to change but needs to hear the editor say, fix it!”
Miles from nowhere, in a chilly limestone lighthouse, a boy is about to be cut open on a kitchen table. From an immense distance, a young doctor will tell the father how to do it. The sun has set so the boy’s mother lights an oil lamp and goes off to find her sewing needles. Outside waves crash against the northern wall of the lighthouse like pails of unset concrete; they freeze solid when they hit the house. Except for the glitter of the coal oil beacon inside the giant Fresnel lens, there is not another light to be seen on the great Bay, which stretches from small towns in the south hundreds of miles to the north, its rocky shores lined with pine islands and inland channels whose plainspoken names describe what you see: One Tree Island, Strawberry Inlet, Pancake Rock, Hole in the Wall, Turnaway Reef, Pine Tree Point, Steamboat Channel, and more ominously, Grave Island. The Bay has taken hundreds of lives since humankind first travelled across its treacherous reaches, and it will take the boy’s life if the father doesn’t act.
And here is the current opening of the just-published novel, The Western Light:
When I was in my third year of double digits, my father cuffed my cheek and said, “People are unpredictable. You never know what they’ll do.” I could tell by his tone that he meant it was true of him too. The year he admitted he was human like the rest of us, my father, Morley Bradford, was referring to John Pilkie who had risen like a dark angel out of my father’s neglect and threatened us with destruction. In those days, my father was a country doctor in Madoc’s Landing, a town on the Georgian Bay, whose rocky shores are lined with thousands of pine islands and inside channels.
People were more stoical in 1959. And more formal, too. Men took their hats off when they entered a house and women wore white gloves for most social occasions and hats with popcorn veils. I was known as Mary (Mouse for short) Bradford and I addressed all adults as Mr. and Mrs. and never by their first names except when I joked about them with my friend Ben Shulman, whose father ran the psychiatric hospital in Madoc’s Landing. Ben and I sometimes called our fathers Old Man So and So and we talked about O.B.’s for Old Bags, and B.O. for Body Odour and N. C. for Nut Cases as well as N. B. for Non-Bleeder and I.T.T.O.N.B. for In the Time of Non-Bleeding, which was a fancy way of describing my pre-pubescent state. Ben and I didn’t say our secret code words in public for fear of being mocked by the older boys whose parents were hospital guards. Out of self-protection, I kept a lot of things private. For instance, I saw myself as belonging to an earlier age of females, much like the Paleolithic Age on the earth, and I had serious doubts about getting a thing called ‘a period’ even if I lived into a later stage in my planet’s evolutionary history. In the end, I grew up like other women and now I have a husband and a family of my own.
Of course, the person I was back in Madoc’s Landing is not the person I am now. For one thing, the world has changed so much that what I’m about to tell you may as well have taken place a couple of centuries ago.
Back then, there were no free health care services and doctors like my father worked around the clock, the wide brim of his fedora shading his big, sad healer’s eyes. The Salk vaccine hadn’t been invented, and the threat of polio sent families to the north, looking for germ-free air, which reminds me I should point out that a polio epidemic in 1953 had left me with a crooked leg that I called Hindrance and a powerful need to deny the obvious. Or is denial just another word for optimism? In any case, it takes me a while to notice trouble stirring. Seeing the glass half-full is one of my characteristics, along with my narrow face and lopsided smile. M.B.