David Bergen explains the forces behind his gripping new novel, The Retreat
October 29, 2008
By Martin Morrow, CBC News
David Bergen's novel The Retreat is set in northwestern Ontario in
the summer of 1974, but it's hardly an exercise in nostalgia. The
Winnipeg author places his new novel in a half-baked commune outside
Kenora, where self-absorbed adults try to work out their issues while
their unwatched children flounder. In the meantime, not far away,
militant Ojibwa protesters are preparing to reclaim Anicinabe Park.
Against that backdrop of white solipsism and aboriginal anger, Bergen
paints a tragic interracial love story involving a teenage girl from
the commune and an Ojibwa youth targeted by the local police.
Bergen, whose last book was the 2005 Scotiabank Giller Prize winner
The Time in Between, has once again written a dark, understated tale
about an encounter between two different cultures, shot through with
sexuality and a sense of foreboding. Just as the legacy of the
Vietnam War haunted the pages of The Time in Between, Bergen's latest
work uses the Anicinabe occupation and the '70s mania for alternative
lifestyles as a way of exploring his characters' inner turmoil.
Bergen is especially eloquent in describing the feelings of his young
people. Much of the story is seen through the eyes of the two lovers:
17-year-old Lizzy Byrd, who is staying at the commune with her
parents and three younger brothers; and Raymond, a 19-year-old Ojibwa
scarred by his encounters with the white world.
Bergen, 51, drew on his own memories of the 1970s for The Retreat;
like Lizzy, he was 17 in 1974. As he revealed in a recent interview,
his four children were also a source of inspiration. Speaking by
phone from his home office in Winnipeg, the amiable Bergen discussed
how the book came about, his famously pared-down prose and what
happens when a white author presumes to write from a First Nations
Q: The Time in Between grew out of a visit to Vietnam in the 1990s.
What was the starting point for The Retreat?
A: I had the image of a family – which would turn out to be the Byrd
family – travelling across the country towards Kenora. They're a
white family and they're heading to this place, the Retreat, where
the mother, Norma, feels she is in some way going to find herself,
and the father goes along with it. And of course the children are
dragged along. And then I realized they were heading towards Kenora
and, being very aware that there are a good number of reservations in
that area – over 40 – it would be inevitable that Lizzy might have
some contact with a boy like Raymond.
Q: It also happens to be the summer that the Ojibwa Warriors Society
occupied Anicinabe Park, although in the novel the occupation mostly
occurs offstage, so to speak.
A: I only discovered it as I was writing the novel and researching
Kenora during the time of '74. That's when I realized that, Oh! This
is an event that takes place when my fictional characters are
existing in that place and time. So it made sense that Raymond would
have an interest in what was going on there. And it made sense to
make it a part of the texture of the novel.
Q:In the experiences of Raymond and his older brother Nelson, you
suggest the kind of poor treatment of First Nations people that led
to the occupation. Raymond is harassed by the police, while Nelson
was taken away at the age of 10 to live with a Mennonite foster
family in Manitoba. You grew up in a Mennonite community yourself.
Was Nelson based on kids you knew?
A: Mennonites seem to have a penchant for either fostering kids or
adopting them, and aboriginals were a big part of that. I saw that
back then and it still happens today. So it just made sense to me to
put Nelson in a Mennonite home and give him that conflict of coming
from one place and into another, highly religious place, and to ask
what happens to a boy like that when he arrives at the age of 10 and
then is [in that community] for 10 years.
Q: Have you known a lot of First Nations people?
A: You know, [interviewers] have skirted around that question, 'What
right do you have to do this?' Nobody ever asked me that about the
North Vietnamese soldier [in The Time in Between], and I'm curious
about that. Writing about Raymond and Nelson is not something that I
chose lightly or naively. I have some aboriginal friends who read the
novel – I wanted their response. That didn't necessarily mean I was
going to change it, but I wanted it to be as authentic as possible.
I didn't have an agenda when I was writing the novel, but I grew up
in Winnipeg, I know the city, and I'm very aware of the sense that
there are two solitudes here [between the aboriginal and white
communities]. You can't ignore it as a novelist and at some point,
it's something that you might want to just tackle.
Q: Aside from the rise of the American Indian Movement, the novel
also draws on other phenomena of the 1970s: the self-help boom and
the renewed interest in the commune. Was the Retreat in the book
based on any real communes?
A: Yes, there were actual communes that existed in the Kenora area at
that time and I was aware of them. And I was aware of friends who
participated in them. I myself didn't, but it was inevitable that
they would spill over into my life, given that my friends were there.
Q: Your portrayal of Norma and Lewis Byrd, the self-involved parents
who neglect their children, reminded me of another novel set in the
1970s, Rick Moody's The Ice Storm.
A: Which is a great novel. Yes, it's a fair comparison, although that
[novel] was much more urban. In some ways, [The Retreat] is a novel
that looks at children who are facing adult folly. Adults make
certain decisions and children are dragged into it. That happens to
Raymond and Nelson as well as Lizzy and her brothers. There's sort of
a divide between the adult world and the younger world, you might
say. It wasn't a theme I was aware of – it only became obvious to me
as I was writing the novel.
Q: Much of the novel is told from the perspective of the young people
– Raymond, Lizzy, her 15-year-old brother Everett. You even have a
chapter where Lizzy's four-year-old brother Fish is lost in the woods
and you describe it from his point of view. Does being a father of
four help you write sections like that?
A: Yes. I don't have a Fish in my life at this point, but I did, so I
was very aware of how four-year-olds see the world. And I did want to
get into his head. Those are fun things to do as a novelist, it's
more playful, where you try to explore: How would a four-year-old
think and how would he experience being lost?
Q: Have you spent a lot of time observing your children as they grow up?
A: Inevitably. I don't use my children. At least I don't think so – I
don't want to exploit them. But it's inevitable that what they have
said in the past, how they have behaved, how I've behaved with them –
and seeing the freedom that children bring to the world and the
closedness that adults bring to the world, myself included – that
definitely played a role in the writing of this novel. Even though my
children are older now, the youngest is 15, it's easy to hark back to
those times, when every question was 'Why?' [Laughs.]
Q: At one point you have one of the residents at the Retreat, the
dried-up novelist Harris, give Lizzy some advice on her writing. He
tells her not to be too romantic and ephemeral, and to describe the
details of the material world. That sounds to me like David Bergen
offering his own writing credo.
A: I suppose I'm laying my own voice overtop of Harris's words in
that case. Again, that's part of the playful aspect of writing.
You've got to have some fun with it.
Q: Your writing style is frequently described as "taut," "spare" and
every other adjective for "pared down."
A: [Laughs.] I read this great quote by Terry Eagleton in the London
Review of Books. He said something about "the Protestant animus
against the ornamental" or "a monkish distaste for swollen rhetoric."
I think in some ways I come by that honestly, because, you know,
being raised Mennonite you have that pushing against the ornamental
and I think at some point, subconsciously, perhaps that's what
influences my writing style. I perhaps lean more towards that, moving
away from the swollen rhetoric, and keeping things simple and clear.
People like to label it as 'spare' or 'hardscrabble' and whatever,
but it is what it is.
Q: I know Faulkner was an early influence on you. Any other writers?
A: For a long time, when I was starting out as a short story writer,
I tried to imitate John Updike. And then Raymond Carver, who leans
more toward what I'm trying to do. And Cormac McCarthy also is a big
influence, and Flannery O'Connor as well. In the case of McCarthy and
O'Connor, it's the religious base that they're using to take off
from. Not that I'm a religious writer, but there's something behind
it that I'm trying to explore or discover.
Q: Is it too early to ask what your next novel will be about?
A: I have a stock answer for this one: It's a novel about an
ex-missionary who becomes a CIA agent. These things are completely
open to change, so it's always difficult to say exactly what it will
end up being about. In some ways, at this point it's true. But who knows?
The Retreat is in stores now. David Bergen is appearing at Toronto's
International Festival of Authors on Oct. 31 and Nov. 1.
Martin Morrow writes about the arts for CBCNews.ca.