Alumna's life among the characters
By Adela Talbot
June 07, 2012
As a journalist, Joan Barfoot was used to jumping into stories in medias res – in the middle of things.
Exposing her to diverse situations and subjects, good preparation this might have been for the now acclaimed author of 11 novels, but it wasn’t enough.
“In journalism, you find the frustration of never getting to see the end of stories. You never get to see the beginnings, either, and you never get to see where people’s lives or where things went. I wanted to see where the stories might actually go,” Barfoot said of motivations that propelled her into a world of fiction after working at a handful of newspapers as a reporter and editor, among them the Toronto Sun, The Windsor Star and The London Free Press.
“I was pretty late getting off the ground in fiction writing, I think. I was working at the Toronto Sun and thought ‘if you’re going to be a writer, you have to just do that.’ So, I quit my job,” she said with a laugh.
“I wrote a book that completely sucks; I call it my learner’s permit.”
For Barfoot, who graduated from Western with an English degree in 1969, the reward lies in being able to make a living by living vicariously through her characters.
“The people you make up become very real. You get to know them so well, in ways you don’t know your nearest and dearest. They have no secrets or privacies. I like just seeing where stories go and how people bump against each other in a way that doesn’t cause any harm,” she said, admitting it took some time for her to find her place in Canada’s literary landscape.
“For a long time, I thought writers were dead and male – for the most part – and not Canadian. I grew up in Owen Sound and haunted the library. I was a pretentious young teenager and worked my way through the Russians. I had the impression of literature as having only storms, snow, tundra, death and unhappy love affairs,” Barfoot noted.
“That was until I read Margaret Laurence and thought, ‘You can be alive, you can be a woman and you can be Canadian.’ CanLit has a mostly undeserved reputation for being grim.”
Barfoot’s stories come out of curiosities, observing relationships and following themes that recur in everyday life, she said.
“The ideas that can be behind stories are becoming more interesting to me, like luck, for instance. I’ve sat on (my) porch with friends for years, sharing wine or a pizza and eventually, somebody’s said, ‘Oh, aren’t we all lucky?’ We really are lucky, when you think, and most of the world is not, and hasn’t been in other periods.”
Among Barfoot’s recent works, Luck was nominated for the 2005 Scotiabank Giller Prize and named one of Globe and Mail’s top 100 books of the year.
“With its note-perfect narration, mordant wit, and wonderfully neurotic cast of characters, Luck shows how death can reveal life in all its absurdity and complexity. This scintillating comedy of manners is also a profound meditation on fate, love, and artifice,” said the Giller Prize jury.
“The point is to have the kind of life that lets you write,” Barfoot said.
“I’m very pleased to have spent my life pretty much the way I wanted to. To have that kind of choice and to be able to survive is pretty cool.”
Barfoot’s work has been compared to works by Anne Tyler, Carol Shields, Margaret Drabble and Margaret Atwood. Among her 11 novels are Abra, which won the Books in Canada first novels award and Dancing in the Dark, which became an award-winning Canadian entry in the Cannes and Toronto Film Festivals. Her 2001 novel, Critical Injuries, was longlisted for the 2002 Man Booker Prize and shortlisted for the 2001 Trillium Book Award. In 1992, she was given the Marian Engel Award.
Western will honour Barfoot with a Doctor of Literature, honoris causa, Tuesday, June 19 at the morning convocation ceremony.
8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.
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